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Time's Up

Time's Up

Do you feel old and out-of-touch? Be thankful you’re not a professional athlete.

Illustration by Gérard DuBois.

When I was twelve and falling in love with NBA basketball, its most exciting players were ten to fifteen years older than me. Then five. Then they were my peers. Now players my age are described as either “seasoned” or “washed up.” During a Phoenix Suns game I attended in 2008, as former all-star and “wily veteran” Grant Hill came off the court, a fan heckled, “Sit down, Grant, you’re too old.” Laughing, the then-thirty-six-year-old collapsed onto the bench and replied, “I know.”

I’m only thirty-three, not a professional athlete and, despite some brief adolescent delusions, I never had a shot at being one. But if I share anything with NBA players my age, it’s an increasing awareness of my own obsolescence. That sounds maudlin, but for the past five years or so, I’ve felt myself steadily drifting from the centre of culture. Each year I get a little more obscure, a little farther away.

Of course, speaking of “culture” as some all-encompassing monolith is dumb. What I’m really talking about is youth culture, and my estrangement from and envy of it. Maybe turning thirty-three means passing some unofficial signpost into adulthood—or at least it’s the age at which affiliating oneself with young people starts to feel a little creepy.

Once that transition begins, each symptom feels poignant, drastic and sometimes—though the stories are often funny—humiliating. Getting back to basketball: a couple of years ago, at a pickup game in Brooklyn, some friends and I were shamed off the court. “These niggas ain’t got next,” sneered a teenager, turning his back on us. “They too old.” Ever since, I’ve only played hoops with folks my own age or older, behind closed gym doors.

There are few forums that showcase aging more acutely, or brutally, than sport. Unlike, say, an actor, an athlete’s career rarely enters its twilight with dignity, and there’s little hope of a comeback—even Michael Jordan’s 2001 return was a disappointment (and cut short due to injury). Athletes don’t just get older, they degenerate; each year, they’re a little slower, a little creakier in the knees and, eventually, they’re forced to retire at an age when the rest of us are hitting our professional strides. Meanwhile, every season a new crop of rookies arrives with all of youth’s attendant bravado, itching to usurp the older generation and claim supremacy—until, that is, the next batch of kids comes along.

While the athlete’s decline is common to all sports, in basketball—as opposed to hockey or football—the players’ faces are visible; they fail as people, not just human-shaped machines. Baseball, with its rigid, isolated positioning, lacks the communalism of hoops, and a full-sized soccer field is almost ten thousand square feet—twice the size of an NBA court. Professional basketball, which provides a stage for the personalities of its stars as much as it does for the game itself, engenders a type of engagement unique to sports: intimacy.

This brings me to two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady, who, with his woe-is-me eyes and weight-of-the-world slouch, has always been one of the saddest athletes I can think of. By “saddest” I don’t mean tragic, like Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe or even Nancy Kerrigan, but that T-Mac exudes a brand of melancholy that borders on pathos. Sure, that’s my own projection—like all celebrities, athletes are screens onto which we shine fantasies of understanding—but the guy really does look sad. He’s just got one of those faces. While that draws me to him now, it isn’t what I liked about him when he came into the league, straight out of high school, in 1997. Back then he was only a teenager, and he was electrifying.

I won’t detail T-Mac’s achievements in the sport, which are multiple and various and often astounding. Instead I’ll focus on his most indelible moment: on December 12, 2004, with his Houston Rockets down ten and under a minute remaining, T-Mac single-handedly defeated the San Antonio Spurs with thirteen points in the final thirty-three seconds of the fourth quarter. (I defy you, reader, to match that feat even on an empty court, without a metric tonne of defenders trying to stop you.) It was a rate of almost twenty-five points per minute, or—imagining he could maintain this pace for the full forty-eight—1,200 points over the entire game. Fanciful math aside, it was a performance as astonishing as any, by any individual athlete, in any sport, ever.

While cultural critic Dave Hickey has written that basketball is “pure allegory,” the only possible comparison to McGrady’s one-man comeback—the instantaneous, stunning magic of it—might be religious exaltation. That, though, treads perilously into the realm of miracles, which suggests that T-Mac’s achievement was beyond will or ability. Instead of limiting sports to parable, I prefer to think that they capture the essence of things—and to me, what those thirty-three seconds articulate is the urgency, fearlessness and bewildered joy of youth. (“I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” McGrady gushed in a post-game interview, as though he’d existed only as a participant in the victory, rather than its protagonist.)

With over five million YouTube views and counting, those thirty-three seconds will likely be remembered long after T-Mac hangs up his Adidas. But it’s also telling that seven years later, midway through his thirteenth season in the NBA, McGrady’s genius remains mostly a memory. At thirty-two, after multiple surgeries on his knees and shoulders, he logs limited minutes with the woeful Detroit Pistons and, despite a few decent games, largely struggles on the court. That saggy-eyed expression, which commentators used to mock as “sleepy,” “lazy” and “stoned,” now seems only downtrodden. As McGrady himself recently blogged, “It’s hard to love the game of basketball and hard to get up in the morning to play the game because you can’t be yourself.”

This “yourself,” of course, is T-Mac’s younger self: the one who had that magical night in December of ’04. The instinct to cling to an idealized, past version of oneself rings true to me. Unwilling to attach myself to any national, cultural or ethnic community, for most of my life the only category I comfortably fit into was “young person.” Like Herman Hesse’s great hedonist Goldmund, I once included myself in the generation that could shout: “Let the old folks finish their dying! We’re sound and young, and want a good life while we can get it.”

Identifying with that sort of thinking at thirty-three, of course, feels pathetic and desperate. Yet I can’t call myself one of the “old folks,” either. All I feel—and I think I share this with Tracy McGrady—is “not young anymore.” When a one-time athletic phenomenon can only speak wistfully of former glory, it brings into striking relief what we lose as we age. In youth, our experience of time is narcissistic, imperative and anxious; everything happens right now, with each moment starring us as its central hero, villain or victim. As we mature, time slows down, and that immediacy becomes compromised by the weight of the past or worries about the future. That’s why we watch sports, in which we can be spectators rather than protagonists, and thirty-three seconds is long enough for a young man to create a legacy.

Originally published in March 2011. See the rest of Issue 39 (Spring 2011).

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