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Rabbit grabs the rebound but then can’t move with it, his body weighs a ton, his feet have lost their connection to his head. Tiger knifes in between him and the basket, leans right in his face with a violet snarl, then eases back a little so Rabbit feels a gap, a moment’s slackness in the other in which to turn the corner; he takes one slam of a dribble, carrying his foe on his side like a bumping sack of coal, and leaps up for the peeper. The hoop fills his circle of vision, it descends to kiss his lips, he can’t miss.”    

I was reminded last night of that scene in Updike’s novel Rabbit at Rest  where the sixtysomething Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, former high school basketball star, goes one-on-one with a young buck on a dirt court in Florida. He sinks the winner just as a massive heart attack levels him.

My return to the hardwood last night after a long, self-imposed exile was not quite that dramatic (no myocardial infarction), but it did remind me how much I love the game — and what a great workout it is. To review: For more than 15 years, I played once a week with a bunch of guys at a local school gym. The two-hour session was, along with my bicycle commute, the only real exercise I did. Then, in 1998, I blew out my right knee. I came back several months later and played (tentatively) until 2002, when I figured I’d pretty much outlived my usefulness as a teammate.

Recently, though, my knees have been feeling pretty OK, and in an effort to add some variety to my workout regimen I started thinking about getting back on the court again — just some casual shooting, maybe a game of HORSE, or something. And when my son, Martin, 18, who spends way too much time indoors, indicated an interest in the climbing wall at a suburban Life Time club, I figured it was a good time to take the leap (so to speak).

So, last night after dinner, we climbed into the Crapmobile and headed to the Eagan club, where the basketball courts and climbing wall share a high ceiling. We grabbed a ball and started clanging shots off the backboard and rim when we weren’t throwing up airballs. (I’m stronger in the upper body than I was a couple of years ago, when I last did this, and my range was all off.) Eventually, though, we started to get the hang of it — Martin started to drain 3-pointers and I managed to rattle in a few short-range jumpers. It felt good.

Martin went off to scale the Eagan version of el Capitan. I demurred, content to continue the search for my old shooting form, until three fresh-faced twentysomethings approached, looking for a game. “You wanna play?” they inquired.

I looked around to locate whoever they might be talking to, but there was nobody but me in the vicinity. It’s really what any serious player wants to have happen — a little friendly competition to get the juices flowing — and though I haven’t played in years, I couldn’t resist.

“You’ll take it easy on the old guy, right?” I asked, jokingly, but not really joking. “No posting up, right?”

They thought that was pretty funny.

Two other guys joined us and we shot for teams — first three to sink a shot from behind the arc would be on one team. The three twentysomethings each calmly buried a three. Hmmm, I thought.

That put me on a team with a large, muscular fellow who I’ll call Shaq and a younger, more angular dude who seemed to model his game after Kobe. Our opponents were quick, but not tall, so I figured maybe Shaq would give us an edge inside, until I discovered he didn’t jump much, and every time I lobbed him the ball he kicked it back outside to Kobe, who would do a little shaking and baking but didn’t really know how to pass the ball.

The young guys did know how to pass and set picks and drive and spot up for threes, plus they could rebound — especially when Shaq and Kobe neglected to block them off the boards. So we soon found ourselves on the short end of a 9-5 score.

They were not great defenders, though, so Kobe eventually found his way into the lane for easy layups and even I was able to pick up a couple of easy assists on drive-and-dishes around the basket. Shaq hit a couple of threes and a layup, I turned a couple of steals into easy baskets, and we closed the gap.

I wasn’t exactly channeling Magic Johnson out on the point, but I was distributing the ball and forcing some turnovers. Then, with us down by two, I lobbed it into Shaq on the left block. He kicked it back out to me. I gave my guy a little ball fake to get him up in the air, drove the lane, and shoveled it up off the glass and in. No big deal.

Down 14-13, I inbounded to Shaq behind the arc, but his shot rattled out. They rebounded and hit an open jumper to win 15-13. I was sucking fumes, but my knees held out. I looked over at Martin, who had conquered the walls and had been watching the game for the past few minutes. He smiled in a way that might have been construed as a momentary sign of respect for his old man’s game, but I know him better than that.

This morning, I awoke with a blister on my left big toe and some excellent stiffness in an impressive variety of muscle groups and joints. In other words, I’ve never felt better.


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