For the second straight week of pickup basketball at a neighborhood school, I jammed a finger.
It's a fun league so far. A good group of guys, easygoing. No known psychotics who fly off the handle if a body foul isn't called. The league goes through May, by which time I should be able to run up and down the court more than five times in a row without struggling to breathe.
I do wonder if the jammed fingers are a harbinger for something bigger, something more painful. In 25 years of playing basketball, I can't remember ever hurting my finger to the point where it ached for more than a minute. I've been lucky in that way, as it's an easy thing to happen. I've also never suffered a sprained ankle, so I've been a bit blessed by the injury gods. And the bruised fingers - caused once by catching a pass and another time by deflecting a pass while on defense (that should teach me to be careful on that end) - don't seem like classic "old man injuries." Jammed fingers can happen to any player of any level, at any time. Unless my instincts are dulling to a point where I'm unable to get my hands up in time, which would be too depressing to contemplate.
But what if they are the first signs that my body is no longer immune from the injuries that always afflict players, especially ones who have slid by 30 and have 40 on the horizon?
Here are the most common over-the-hill ailments I'm hoping to avoid over the next seven months:
* Ruptured Achilles. One of the most dreaded injuries in all of sports. It's happened to world-class athletes like Dominique Wilkins and Dan Marino, but I usually hear about it when it's a 40ish guy playing in a Monday night YMCA league. His wife told him to take it easy. He ignored the warnings. What does she know? She was always holding him back, anyway.
The bald head facing him in the mirror told him he had aged, but the ability to still knock down a 15-foot jumper told him he could still compete. Then, while on a fastbreak - while filling the lane like a short, small, pale, slow, nongoggled, unathletic James Worthy - there's a snap and a scream. His buddies might even call an ambulance, or just load him into the back of a minivan, his carcass sharing space with a child's car seat. The injury is bad enough for a pro athlete with time on his side, along with access to world-class medical facilities and team doctors. They can focus on the rehab. What about the factory worker or the banker? Surgery's probable. Rehab...maybe. Probably not. More likely, he'll just limp along for the rest of his life.
A good friend of mine literally nearly died after an Achilles injury. He developed life-threatening blood clots while recovering from the injury. Emergency surgery saved his life. Where'd he hurt it? Church league. Not even God has mercy on old basketball players tempting fate.
* Torn hamstring. When an athlete on TV suffers this injury, the somber announcer will often say "he went down as if he got shot." For the adult pickup basketball league player who suffers this tragedy, they'll wish they had been shot. Or that someone will put them out of their misery. Oldies try to prevent this injury by stretching in the moments before their games. Half-hearted leg lifts and touching the toes will not erase the effects of years of inactivity. When this one happens, the sweat-drenched cager will leave the floor immediately and signal for a new player to step in. The grimace tells the story, as does the hand on the back of the leg, as if that's the only thing holding the muscle in place.
His fellow players know his night is done. They also realize they're one wrong step away from a similar fate. Fortunately, you can return from this injury. Unfortunately, the return will be marked by a giant wrap around the hamstring, something a medic puts on a wound on the battlefield. The guy will never run the same. Each time he feels a twinge back there, he'll let up, waiting for the snap.
* Bad knees. Not necessarily a torn ACL, which happens to countless players each year. For the adult pickup player, this is more about the years of wear. Maybe it's an old college injury that always hurts when it rains. Or when it's too sunny. Maybe it's a clicking in the knee, undiagnosed for fear that the doctor might tell the gunner to sit out the season. To enable his career to continue, the guy sports the type of knee brace last seen in the mid-80s. It's black. Starting at the hip and running to the shin, the brace appears to weigh 25 pounds and probably takes him 25 minutes to strap on. The only place to find it is in a medical supply store that specializes in throwback equipment. Advances in technology have led to the creation of lighter, sleeker braces that do just as good a job as the bulky old ones. No matter. The older player doesn't trust something that can't be seen on a knee from 100 yards away. If the player can withstand the pain, this shouldn't hurt the pickup career too much, as quickness has already been lost over the years.
* Sore back/disc injury. Could happen at anytime, though I'm picturing a slightly overweight forward "jumping" for a rebound and landing with a shout and a "god damn it." In between games, the player sprawls out on his stomach or on his back, not knowing if that's actually helping or not. But that's how Larry Bird spent the final years of his career, and if it's good enough for the Legend, it's good enough for a legend-in-his-own-mind. Once home, he'll collapse on the couch or recliner, vowing to never do that again. A few days later, when the back's loosened up and the guy mowed the lawn without any pain, he'll forget about the previous week's nightmare. But he'll remember the first time he tries to set a screen the following week.
* Deflated ego. Common. Happens when the 3-pointers don't fall with any regularity and the four-foot bank shots bound off the backboard as if they were thrown by an Olympic shot putter. Also occurs when a younger, in-shape opponent blows past the guy on the defensive end. The ol' guy is forced to stick out his foot and trip the youngster. He'll say "My bad," but he doesn't really mean it and he doesn't even really know what the phrase means. His teammates cringe while the young guy shakes it off as he chalks it up to senility and desperation. There's no cure for this one; it's as devastating as an Achilles tear.
The only way to prevent all of these is retirement. But that's not realistic for those who love the game. Really, there's only one injury that will force a true basketball player to hang it up for good:
* Heart attack, fatal.