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For Love/Hate of the Game
I love sports, so long as nobody expects me to play.
Occasionally, someone comes along and asks me to join a softball team,
adding that it’s all in fun, just a bunch of old duffers who don’t take
it seriously. This is about as attractive to me as an invitation to pick
up a rifle and join in a war (all in fun, of course, just a bunch of old
duffers who don’t take it seriously).
You see, as a spectator, I am informed, enlightened and occasionally
impassioned, but the mere thought of being a participant (except in my
occasional Walter Mitty daydreams) fills me with dread. To explain, I
have to go back to where it all started—where sports always start:
These memories aren’t easy to access. They’re kept these days in what
businesspeople refer to as “off-site storage.” When I want to look at
them, I have to put in a call and wait for somebody down in the basement
of my subconscious to turn on the lights down there, riffle through the
files and send up a few yellowed prints. To make matters worse, I’ve got
a feeling that some of those files have been doctored. But here’s what I
I remember the day my father attached a homemade backboard to the big
oak in a corner of our front yard, and I remember my feckless attempts,
at age five or six, to heave a basketball high enough to bump that
I remember hating fly balls, which I could never judge. I remember one
hitting me on the head—honest—and a few others dropping at my feet.
I remember, on my junior high school basketball team, excelling in
dribbling, free throws and shooting drills. If basketball were judged
the same way gymnastics and diving are, I would have gotten all 10s.
I remember my coach, who looked like a child’s drawing of a lumberjack,
standing under the basket during layup drills, belt in hand. One miss,
one lick. Second miss, two licks. He never touched me, though. I was all
Gametime, however, was different. I remember sitting on the bench during
a game, hoping the coach couldn’t see me. I also remember being thrust
into a game, getting the ball, and being afflicted with a strange
paralysis that lasted until someone from the opposing team came over and
took the ball away.
Mostly, what I recall from my short-lived sports career are the little
humiliations. My childhood triumphs were elsewhere. Which is probably
why the thought of joining in any kind of public sport today makes me
There are many things sports are supposed to teach you. Some of them are
things I learned in other contexts. Some of them, I suppose, are things
I never really learned—like overcoming self-consciousness or taking a
competitive approach to life or—as this essay so amply
demonstrates—putting my failures behind me and moving on.
But the truth is that I did learn a lot from sports—just not the kind of
things you’re supposed to learn. I learned that I truly am not very
competitive at heart. I learned that I have to work at being a
team-player. I learned that my greatest talents aren’t physical. And
maybe most importantly, I learned that sometimes its OK just to sit back
and applaud the accomplishments of others.