Sometimes it's the simplest stories that provoke the best reactions. A few months ago, I wrote a column for Sports Illustrated about my dad, Phil, and how he's still playing hoops at 71 despite double knee replacement and a bum shoulder. I wrote about how basketball was the "language of our family" and Phil's "idea of a heart-to-heart was preaching the prudence of bounce passes." (You can read the whole story below)
It was a personal piece but it seemed to touch a nerve. After it ran, we began to receive a stream of letters and emails at SI, and what most readers wanted to talk about was their dads: how they used sports as a bond, the power of their relationships.
We heard from fathers who were inspired to get back out on the court with their sons, and sons moved to drag their dads out for one more game. Sixty-one year-old David Petreman told us about playing with his kids and said to forget being like Mike, that now, "when I'm 71 I want to be like Phil." Pete from Suffolk, Va., drew a comparison to his own father, who's still teaching high school math at 81. Brian Paff of Pennsylvania wrote in to tell us about his dad, Richard, who had just finished an eight-day, 48-state tour of the contiguous U.S. with the sole objective of making a hoop in all 48 as fast as he could while driving by car.
There were invitations, too. A man in Alaska wrote to try to recruit Phil for the World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, while a woman in Maine thought he should be playing in the State Senior Games. Phil was asked to play in all manner of pickup games, and the Texas Education Agency even wrote in to see about making the column part of its English III high school exam, meaning countless teenagers would, strangely enough, be tested on the particulars of my father's passion for hoops. As for Dad, he heard from Indiana high school opponents from 55 years ago and old classmates, not to mention his favorite weekend hoops crew from back in Philly.
But perhaps my favorite letter came from Jeff Jarosz of Mount Vernon, Ohio. "This Saturday morning I sat at the breakfast table, trying to read the Point After story to my wife. She had to piece it together because I was crying, mumbling, and sobbing through most of the article. I can relate because I can remember my father hitting me "flyballs" with a tennis racket for hours, sneaking me onto the 11th hole as it was just getting dark, or getting out of work early so he would not miss my opening pitch of an inconsequential game. He passed away three years ago."
Which brings me to Father's Day on Sunday. I don't know how you're celebrating it, but it probably comes as no surprise that while some people will take their dad out to lunch, or buy him a new putter or the latest Grisham tome, my brother and I will be taking our dad to a dusty schoolyard hoops court in San Anselmo, Calif.
We'll probably meet a little early so we can all get adequately taped and ankle-braced and dosed on Advil. Then we'll try to convince the rest of the crew to let the three of us play on the same team, because, you know, it is Father's Day. And knowing the guys -- a regular group of hoops lifers as affable off the court as they are competitive on it -- they'll be happy to allow us to do so. And then, as always, we'll fall back into our old rhythm. I'll probably bring the ball up and feed it to my dad on the wing. He'll probably fake a dribble and then whip his beloved behind-the-back pass to my brother cutting across the key. We'll take turns shooting but, as always, the assist will be valued more than the bucket. Afterward, we'll sit around on park benches with the rest of the crew, the sun low in the sky, and crack open a cold beer and re-live everything that just happened, or at least the good moments.
Sure, it's not everyone's idea of a perfect Father's day but it is for us. And maybe for you too.
So here, in honor of this weekend and other like-minded sons and dads, we're re-running the column here. Happy Father's Day, pops. May all your jumpers fall this Sunday.
Click on the next page to read the original column.
Next month my father turns 71, and by all measures medical and practical he shouldn't be playing basketball. Six years ago he had both knees replaced, the eroded cartilage switched out for titanium joints. Doctors told him never to run again. Then last year his right shoulder -- his shooting shoulder -- started to go. Inflammation, the doc said. It's therapy or surgery.
For many people Phil's age that would have been that. Time to retire the rec specs, hone the putting stroke, buy some Rockports. But of course giving up a game isn't merely giving up a game. My dad grew up in Indiana, where a jump shot is required as proof of citizenship. His father played semipro ball, teaching Phil how to start his shot low and release it high, launching J's as if out of a shower stall. Dad continued to play through school, then through the long days and short nights of parenthood and medical residency, sneaking out for lunchtime games of pickup.
For my older brother and me, hoops was the language of family. We never "talked it out" with Dad, a laconic, humble Midwesterner who can make a 45-minute drive in near silence feel comfortable. His idea of a heart-to-heart was preaching the prudence of bounce passes; our dialogue came in games of three-on-three on our makeshift backyard court, Phil taking it to the other dads. We spent countless twilight hours playing H-O-R-S-E at the park, and often the only sound was the hiss of the ball and the shiiing! of its arrival into the metal net. Who needed words -- wasn't the meaning clear?
As my brother and I got older, the connection held fast. There was the time, 15 years ago, when the two of us had a playoff game in a high-level Philly rec league and only three guys showed up. With no other options, we called home, where my parents were in the middle of a nice lamb dinner.
"Dad, any chance you can play tonight?"
"Um, right now?"
Dad put down his fork and 10 minutes later he was at the gym, hightops in hand. Some people ask their fathers for a car loan; we ask ours to play the top of a makeshift four-man zone on a full stomach, a 55-year-old in sweatpants trying to stop dribble penetration from 23-year-old former college players. We almost won, too.
So it struck me like a thunderclap last year when I heard the teenager at the gym say, "Who's the old guy?" The kid was standing at midcourt and pointing at Phil, but he couldn't be talking about my dad, right? He wasn't old. Sure, my brother and I usually rigged the teams so we could play with Phil, and yes, he had become mainly a half-court spot-up shooter, and granted, his hair was gray and his knee braces thick. But the old guy? I wanted to tell the kid he could learn a thing or seven about ball movement and court presence from watching this old guy, tell him how Phil used to be able to jump out of the gym, but I knew how stupid it would sound. Dad spent all those years fighting the impulse to protect me out on the court; I owed it to him to do the same.
Then again, if the kid wondered why Phil was out there, well, it was a fair question. Why choose to endure an afternoon of searing shoulder pain to get banged around by men half your age when you could be sitting in a golf cart like most self-respecting 70-year-old doctors, talking about mutual funds? Many days at the Y, Phil's the oldest player by 30 years. And since pickup basketball is survival of the fittest -- win or get off the court -- every twentysomething he guards sizes him up as an easy mark.
So why keep playing? Dad doesn't talk about it, but I have an idea. Jack Kirk, who ran marathons well into his 90s, once said, "You don't stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running," and surely this is part of the reason. There's the joy of competition, too, but there's something else. When I asked my mom what playing basketball means to Phil, she didn't hesitate: "With his boys? How about everything."
Two months ago Dad and I were on the same team at the Y. As usual, the defense sagged off the old guy, daring Phil to shoot and, as usual, he hesitated. But he hit the first shot, and then a three. Emboldened, Dad went in the post and unfurled a little jump hook. Money! Then an up-and-under, spinning away from the defense like a creaky ballerina and bringing a whoop from the sideline. After winning two games, we faced a stacked team. Soon, the score was tied at 19, next basket wins.
By my count Dad had hit seven of his eight attempts. Yet the defense again left him open in the corner. As he caught the ball, he ignored his shoulder and the two men racing at him and his balky knees, and pushed his shot up and out, just like his dad taught him, just like he taught us.
And then, the moment we all play for, no matter our age. As the ball dropped through the net clean, I roared in triumph and the opposing players argued about who left the old guy open. And Phil -- well, as usual, he didn't say anything.
But he did smile.