Hoop Dreams – 12 Years Later

It was a crisp and beautiful Sunday in Tokyo as my family and I were walking to the nearby basketball courts. Our only plan this January morning was to casually shoot some baskets together. Not long after arriving at the two action-packed courts, a much younger man asked me to play on his team. I was in my running shoes, which wasn't ideal for basketball, although I've played in non-traditional footwear plenty of times.

Having purposely avoided 5 on 5 basketball in the past 12 years, I was hesitant, but for the last six months, I've been shooting baskets often, as well as teaching my son to play. I also participated in a friendly 1 on 1 competition a few years ago.....and what I remember most from back then was how painful my left knee was for weeks after.

Despite being in good shape during our neighborhood 1 on 1, along with the knee not hurting before or during the games, I didn't anticipate having any post-game issues with pain - a rarity in my basketball life. Momentarily forgetting that I was approaching 50 and not 30, I shouldn't have been surprised at how my knee felt.   

With the aforementioned thoughts swirling in my head, and before the rational part of my brain could deter me, my attention was diverted by my wife and daughter - both encouraging me to play. I quickly said yes.

Most of the players were 19-34 years in age, although I could instantly see that I (52) was in as good or better shape than most of them, which provided a warm sense of comfort. My real concern was whether they could play the game, both fundamentally and skill-wise. As long as I’m fit, I will always feel comfortable on any non-professional court.

I was the second oldest player – the elder being a 68 year old Japanese man who looked fantastic, was spry and had a good shot. I had 4 Phillipino men on my team. To my pleasant surprise, this foursome of friends had strong fundamentals, could shoot well and were aggressive. After the long layoff, I was a bit rusty at the start, yet found a solid rhythm mid-way through the first game. Their chemistry was magnificent and I simply blended in, as they knew how to utilize me effectively and when needed. We easily won 3 consecutive games.

Last year, I read about the desire of a high-level basketball official wanting to improve the skill and coaching in Japan in order to get closer to the level of the Philippines. At least on this day, it was easy to see why, as my Phillipino teammates were clearly superior to any Japanese players on the court

I could have played another three games, although I knew that the almost 1 hour of running, jumping, stopping, reaching, passing and shooting would take its toll on my body in one form or another. That same knee was hurting once again, although not remotely close to the previous pain, which I was happy about. My left shoulder was also aching from all the reaching for rebounds. Being the tallest on either team meant I got lots of inside shot attempts, thus more shoulder and arm movement than I’ve had in a long time.

The pain was only temporary though and went away within a week. The joy was immense and made my soul shine. I never expected to play 5 on 5 that day and couldn’t have imagined playing with such a cohesive group. Therein lies the magic of what life can provide when we step out of our comfort zone.

I was adamant in not playing 5 on 5 basketball ever again due primarily to the risk of injury. I had seen far too many young and middle-aged men with serious injuries due to their overly aggressive and weekend warrior basketball mentality. 

What made me change my mind and throw caution to the wind?

I believe it was a conversation my doctor and I had in New York City in the late 1990’s when I temporarily stopped playing because I didn’t want to strain an ACL or tear an Achilles; basically fearful of my quality of life being disrupted. I told her about injuries I had seen or heard of, hoping she might tell me that playing at 34 isn’t worth the risk of getting hurt.  She knew I played Division 1 basketball in college and hadn’t been seriously injured since my sophomore year of High School. We had this short interaction.

Doctor: “Did any of those people who got injured play basketball at your level?

George: Smiling, I said “no”.

What my doctor knew then and what I wasn’t thinking about is that my years of intense competition without injury, gave me an advantage in knowing how to play wisely and safely, particularly as I got older.  In addition, I knew my body well as it pertained to what to do and what not to do on the basketball court. As I thought about those friends who played basketball at or near my level, there was rarely a serious injury after college. 

She was a compassionate and caring doctor, yet the one thing I appreciated about her the most is that she never failed to tell me what I needed to hear. After giving me the motivation to start playing almost two decades ago, I could hear her words echoing when I decided to get back onto the court that Sunday; a court which played a crucial role in my development, confidence and ability to flourish.

That hour was sheer delight. My only focus was being a good teammate, enjoying the moment and battling to win. Each back pick, high five, 3 point shot, layup, block, fast break and victory was a thing of beauty. It was ‘flow’ at its finest.

I love this game.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

A Beautiful Sunday for Basketball in Tokyo