Illustration: Moya Garrison-Msingwana
I’m 33 years old. It’s a weird age, teetering between being in touch and stuck in my ways. And I know I’m not the only one standing at the intersection of Young Buck and Old Head. Every time something comes along, whether it’s slang or pop culture or a new tech platform, you confront the same question: Am I too old for this? That’s why I’m here — to work through these conundrums on your behalf, on a weekly basis. Together, hopefully, we can face some harsh truths about our own washed-ness.
And to begin, there’s no better dilemma than running ball.
Pickup basketball has been omnipresent throughout most of my life. I was never good enough to play organized ball for school teams, so pickup was my lifeline, my connection to the sport. It gave me confidence in high school, helped me recharge in college, and allowed me a chance at self-care in my twenties.
Up until about two years ago, I was playing basketball at an LA Fitness down the street from my job during my lunch break. Forty-five minutes was just enough time for exactly three full-court games. The people I’d play with during that lunch time were all around my age, working men and women who were all committed to the same end goal: getting to that three-game mark before we all had to clock back in.
Each gym has its own identity and personality, a communal flow and pace of play. And this new gym’s personality was I’m Still in My Teens.
Basketball is like music taste in that way: You don’t deviate much from what you were into when you were a teenager. I grew up as the big kid — taller than most people I played with and about 50 pounds heavier — so I always played in the paint no matter how much weight fluctuated as I got older. I grabbed rebounds, blocked, and had enough athleticism to push the ball every once in a while. On offense, I’d set up in the post, try to bully someone down the paint, hit a hook shot, and go about my way. This was my role. I was good at it. I had fun. I even made friends.
Then it all ended.
My job moved and I had to find a new gym. I made sure I found one with a basketball court, and eventually settled on one near my house. But here’s the thing about basketball courts: They’re hardwood snowflakes. Each has its own identity and personality; each court is home to players who have developed a communal style, flow, and pace of play. And this new gym’s personality was I’m Still in My Teens.
I’m talking early college students, even high school kids. Light work, I figured; I’d be able to do my usual damage, especially in the paint. But once I walked on the court for the first time and watched a game in progress, I realized that I’d entered a new dimension — one in which I was not welcomed.
The NBA is a vastly different place than it was when I grew up playing. Hell, it’s a different place than it was a few years ago when I was playing every day. In the time since I was a kid, two things have changed the face of basketball: Analytics and Stephen Curry happened. Analytics, the Moneyball-style advanced stats movement focused on maximizing player efficiency, has determined that the best shot is a three-pointer or a layup. No more midrange jumpers. Curry and his ridiculous highlight-reel range fed into that by making threes the new slam dunk — and making kids want to be just like him.
Those kids who watched Curry win his second MVP in 2016, for instance, are now four years older. And these little a-holes are now old enough to try out their best Steph impressions at gyms across America. But the crucial part of any good impression is believability, and these kids are nowhere close to being the three-time NBA champ.
That first game I watched at my new gym was like the world’s longest looping GIF. Contested three-pointer; miss; rebound; run back to the other side of the court as fast as humanly possible; someone else dribbles; stepback three; clank. Miss, rinse, repeat. I got short of breath just watching them play. The game wasn’t basketball as much as it was a tag-dodgeball biathlon sponsored by Four Loko.
I got out on the court anyway, but all it took was a single run to realize that I’m a dinosaur to these kids. Not because I’m the only one old enough to have seen the inside of a Blockbuster Video, but because I play a style of basketball that is a relic. I play pre-HDTV ball. I got in the post to set up for some solid footwork and a hook shot, and you would have thought I did the Macarena…which is a reference none of them would even get. They looked at me like I was just in the way.
There’s no point whatsoever for a post player to exist in these games. Not only are post players as a concept mostly obsolete, but the analytics don’t work out. If there’s barely a utility for a two-pointer when people are shooting threes, then in the pickup world — where regular shots are one point and ones from behind the arc are two — there’s absolutely zero value in shot attempts only get you half the possible points.
I got short of breath just watching them play. The game wasn’t basketball as much as it was a tag-dodgeball biathlon sponsored by Four Loko.
So when I play with these younger players, I end up just running. Running to one end of the court, watching a ball bounce off the rim far out of my reach, running back to the other end of the court and watching another bad shot turn into another long rebound. Eventually I just end up running really fast for an hour. Actually, that’s not quite right: I just run really fast for five minutes, jog for maybe 20, and do some slow trot for the rest of the time. I didn’t sign up for this!
I can still play basketball. I think. But I need to be around people my age. People who clap and go “whoo” when they’re too tired to contest a jumper. People who set screens. People who box out and shoot jumpers. People who have to stretch and put their hands on their hips with their elbows out when the game is over. People who own Epsom Salt.
So are you too old to play pickup ball? Hell, no. You can play until you’re 80. Just make sure you’re playing with people your age. Because anyone who can hit the woah will have your ass questioning the meaning of life quicker than you can say “what the hell is a Rae Sremmurd.”