Sporting spirit is willing, but aging flesh weak


On Tuesday mornings I visit my chiropractor, Dr. Richard Loebman, who tells me things I do not wish to hear. He explains that, according to his exacting calculations, I am no longer 18. He notes that, despite the fantasies inside my head, my body has reached a point of no return, and it is no longer conceivable that I will one day be like Michael Jordan.

Except that now, of course, Michael Jordan will no longer be like Michael Jordan, who says he's quit playing basketball for a living. At 30, he says he no longer has the heart for it. At 48, I find I still have the heart for it, but not precisely the body.

Eight months ago, my chiropractor told me to stop playing basketball. In fact, he had been telling me for some years to stop playing, owing to his expertise both as my chiropractor and as my actual uncle. He is my mother's brother. He knows my body as my own, and as a variation of his own, owing to our common genetics of aching backs and knees.

Michael Jordan said nothing about an aching body, or even much about an aching heart. His father was killed in July, but Jordan said other factors forced him to retire. He said he's run out of worlds to conquer. He said he wanted to sit around and watch the grass grow, and then go out and cut it.

I know about cutting grass, and I can tell Jordan the following news: It isn't much of a world to conquer. Cutting the grass is now about the most athletic thing I do. Eight months ago, I decided to listen to my uncle. I stopped going to the gymnasium at Children's Hospital where I played ball several times a week. No more basketball, and no more pretending I could still be Michael Jordan if only I could quit my job and practice my jump shot long enough.

Almost immediately upon my retirement -- which you may have missed, because there were no calls for press conferences, no public pleading for me not to hang up my sneakers, no talk that the Children's Hospital pickup games would never be the same without me -- some nice things happened.

I stopped walking like Walter Brennan, and my knees no longer sounded like Rice Krispies when called upon to move. For another, my back, easily thrown out of kilter for most of my life, began minding its manners.

But something else has happened as well, which I wasn't expecting, and Michael Jordan isn't, either: I find myself drifting into sleep each night with visions of my formerly athletic self.

There I am, soaring above the basket the way I never did in real life but always imagined I might. There I am on a football field, heaving a long pass upfield, which is caught in the most balletic leap imaginable by -- how do you like this? -- me. And here I am racing across a center-field expanse to make some wondrous, ** leaping catch at the fence.

The scenarios have become a kind of scrapbook of things never to happen. I've become a one-man repertory company of athletic grace, in my dreams. And I go to my uncle the chiropractor every week, and he tells me the dreams will have to suffice.

Take up walking, he says: Very healthy. Excuse me, but I can't picture Michael Jordan spending his free time walking. Take up swimming, he says: No stress on the back or knees. Excuse me, but my fantasies never included the possibility of sinking without a trace.

The other day, I got a phone call from an old high school buddy, a star on the school football team whom I haven't seen in years. He moved out of town a while back. Lately, he says, some old football injuries have been acting up, and he needed knee and hip surgery.

"I'm not walking anymore," he said.

"What do you mean?" I said. "You're on crutches?"

"No," he said softly. "I'll need a lot of physical therapy before I can even get on crutches."

I wonder if he goes to sleep at night with images of himself on a ball field in his youth. Even in my fully awake hours, I find changes inside my head, a narrowing of long-held visions. All possibilities of athletic immortality have now been canceled.

It's been explained to me that I'm in a period of mourning. Previous athletic skills have now been declared dead, and graveside services are being conducted inside my head. Such reaction, I am assured, is considered perfectly normal.

So there was Michael Jordan last week, 30 years old and looking quite pleased with himself. The rest of us dream of being Michael Jordan, and he has the nerve to walk away from our dreams. He's had enough, he said, and seemed to believe it.

I believe he's wrong. I think he'll be back, when he begins mourning the death of his formerly athletic body. In the meantime, I wonder what images will fill his head when he drifts off to sleep at night.

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