This was the situation he had once lived for. The ball in his hands, the fate of his team on his shoulders, and the clock his opponent.
Now, however, he was feeling his age. His body was breaking down. His breath was coming in ragged gasps, his knees, back and ankles hurt from the pounding up and down, and he was just looking forward to getting home and icing the most extreme aches.
Worse yet, he was not confident he could hit the shot. Sure, he had gotten to where the little jump stop sliding left heave from just inside the free throw circle was his money move, but it had not been falling all night. He was maybe 3 for 8 on them tonight, hardly a number designed to inspire confidence.
Somehow he had lost much of his game in the years he had stopped playing regularly. He always had an excuse for why he was not playing…taking the kids to baseball practice, going to dinner with the wife, working too many hours…and instead of being a highly toned athlete primed to win, he now had the completely untoned, borderline obese, exhausted, winded body.
But there was still that touch of what had carried him to the bit of success he had experienced. Somewhere deep inside was still the spark of the competitive fire which had led him to work on his game until he was able to beat the older, taller, stronger Martin, to make him a starter on a high school team that competed for regional championships, that allowed him to lead a small college past the first round of the NCAA tournament.
That spark lit, bringing out his will to win. Yes, he might still miss the shot, but he was at least going to take it. He was going to create the moment, take the shot, and win or lose.
Memories of the thrill of competition started firing in his synapses. He could picture those golden moments when the ball dropped through the net with that satisfying swishing sound…and picture those gut-wrenching moments when the ball clanged off the iron, ricocheting away from the basket and away from victory.
Maybe that was why he had really stopped playing. At some point his competitive drive and declining skills combined to remove the joy from playing and left behind only repeated disappointment as he lost with more and more frequency.
That meant lots of losing and losing was not fun.
Losing had never been easy for him, so perhaps that was the secret motivation behind finding other things to do. When he no longer could impose his will on the other team to the point where he won far more than he lost maybe he just metaphorically took his ball and went home.
Being in this situation again, though, was like seeing an old friend after drifting apart for a few years…the flood of great memories suddenly brought back that love of the game, that thrill of competition, that moment to decide if he was a winner on this particular night or a loser.
In the great scheme of things this game was pretty irrelevant. Neither team was talented enough to win their division, much less any trophy that anybody outside the metro area would have heard of.
But that did not matter. It was a game, which meant it was worth winning. After 49 minutes and 59 seconds of grueling, sometimes painful, exhausting, sub-par play between two pedestrian teams, everything hinged on his actions in the next miniscule portion of his life.
Joe smiled as he cut past his defender and pulled up to elevate for the jumper before the defender at the rim could rotate out. He reached the apex of his jump, flicked his wrist to send the ball towards the basket.
This…this, he decided, this is still fun.
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