dribbling for sam (on love, fatherhood, and basketball)

Disclaimer: What follows is neither urgent social commentary nor music criticism. Instead, in honor of Father's Day, I'm sharing a short essay with you. I guess it's one of those "daddy pieces"--something I never thought I'd find myself writing but, then again, I'm doing a lot of things these days that I never thought I'd be doing. It's on love of son and sport, and about growing older.

Happy Father's Day.


Dribbling for Sam

By Larry Blumenfeld

"Don't make the mistake daddy did," I hear myself saying. "Don't limit yourself."

It's a lesson for my boy, Sam--about choices, about life. About basketball. It's simple enough: If you're right-handed, learn to dribble and shoot with your left (if you're a lefty, practice going right). I didn't. Sure, in compensation I worked out a half-hook layup from the right side and a righty up-and-under move from the left. But I'm not fooling anyone about what's coming.

There's plenty of time yet to impart court philosophy. What's got me worried is sharing the game itself, physically. I can do the math. He's 1. I'm 48. His first real jump shots and dribble drives? I'm mid-to-late-50s. Game taking shape? Wrong side of 60. Ready to compete with grown men? Thinking about having my hip checked out. That's why I'm achy from a couple hundred jumpers in an empty gym. The clock is ticking; as his muscles learn their jobs, mine are forgetting theirs.

Sam was never going to blessed with advantages of height, brute strength, or flat-out talent. But I believe there to be some helpfully refined fast-twitch muscles, perhaps even an innate scrappiness and stamina, in those genes I've passed on. These days I focus mostly on just not passing out. I'm training hard for the first time, less for the integrity of my game than the promise of Sam's

I'm not alone. The majority of children are still being born to men who are 20 to 34, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, but birthrates for fathers aged 45 to 49 are up some 21 percent during the past decade. Not that I need numbers. I can walk out my door in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and stumble over plenty of high-end strollers wheeled by guys my age . The coverage on us older dads ranges from inspiring to worrisome. Senator Chris Dodd, who, at 66, has two grade-school-aged children, told the Associated Press that his kids inspired him to write the Family and Medical Leave Act, start the Children's Caucus, and get involved with Head Start. Wow. Then again, he's retiring. But an Australian medical team reported that kids born to older men underperformed on intelligence and cognitive tests from infancy to seven years of age. Ouch.

"Becoming a dad later in life presents advantages and challenges," wrote Dr. Ken Canfield, author of The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers, at the Fathers.com website. "The advantages: fathers who are older typically have more leisure time, more financial resources, and seem to be more thoughtful and proactive in their family commitment simply because they are settled in their careers."

Really, Ken? Um, Sam's dad is a freelance writer.

"On the challenging side," he explained, "older fathers are faced with declining energy and a sense that their mortality is much nearer. They are cognizant of the limited amount of time they have, and are conscious of how they could be mistaken as their child's grandfather."

Here Ken nailed my darkest fear, which goes something like this: In the schoolyard with Sam. I hoist up a jumper; it hits. Some 20-year-old in too-long shorts shouts, "Nice one, grandpa."

Physical condition aside, I'll explain to Sam the shared values I've absorbed as both hoops student and jazz critic: the marriage of form and improvisation; the blend of personal creativity with collective achievement; and the primacy of rhythm (watch how players dribble before taking foul shots). And I've got oddball inside information, like how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likens the '85 Lakers to Miles Davis's mid-Sixties quintet, with himself as bassist Ron Carter--"only taking more solos."

Mostly I can offer him basketball as the near-perfect metaphor for pretty much anything life throws at you-except aging. And there's a selfish impulse too: While there was still courtship in the air, Sam's mom could be coaxed into chasing down rebounds and passing the ball out for catch-and-shoot drills. That went out with dirty diapers. Sam's my man now--if I can still leave the ground, that is. But it's not about me. It's about Sam, and my desire to share with him the pure joy that is hoops. I want him to know me as I am on the court and to discover who he can be there too. I'm willing to sweat for it. I've got no choice. He's 1; I'm 48.

This much I owe the boy, and the game, I love. 

June 20, 2010 11:30 AM |


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