When you’re as old as God, skill and prayer are needed

basketball on court

When I turned 33 several months ago, my colleagues greeted me with, “Congratulations. You are the age of God.” I was a bit surprised by this statement, but I’ve lived in Central Asia long enough to expect the unexpected.

One male colleague explained to me that Muslims believe that men will be age 33 in heaven. I’m still not sure how 33 translates to being the “age of God” but it didn’t seem like something worth arguing about.

Be that as it may, I’ve found 33 to be a nice age. I now find myself between two generations at work: the Soviet-trained “old guard” and the newer contingent still in their twenties.

Our university had their annual faculty and staff sports competition this week, and I was called upon to participate again. I participated last year when I was a young 32, and it was a rude awakening. The main event was basketball. By American standards, I’m a decent but not outstanding player. But among my colleagues, I found that my skills outmatched pretty much everyone. The only problem was that I hadn’t exercised in, oh, a long time. What our opponents lacked in skill, they more than amply made up for in speed and stamina. The twenty-somethings ran circles around me. Our department ended up taking a solid third place…out of three teams.

This year I knew more what I was getting in for, so I did a little more preparation. I tried to finish up the Christmas candy a little bit earlier than usual so I was back to a normal diet. And I did one Jillian Michaels “Killer Abs” video two days before the competition. Say no more. I was ready.

Day 1: volleyball. Our department was solidly trounced. Two quick losses and we were out. During the first couple minutes of play, I twisted to reach for the ball and felt a sharp pain in my right knee. My thoughts immediately jumped to all the older-than-me men who go into great detail about their knee injuries, then get a starry look in their eyes as they reminisce about their pre-injury glory days. “You know, back before I tore my ACL, I was scoring thirty points a game, running ten miles a day, and I could bench 350.”

“Oh, God,” I thought, “Don’t let me join those ranks. I’m still young.” I hobbled through our volleyball games, but by the afternoon I was able to play some pick-up basketball without much noticeable pain.

Of course, all this exercise took its toll. By the evening, I was sore from head to toe. Plus, as I carried our baby upstairs to put him to bed, I began to feel my knee again. As nimbly and gently as possible, wincing a bit, I took one stair at a time until I finally made it all the way back downstairs. The big day is tomorrow–basketball, and I’m playing injured, I thought.

Despite the soreness and occasional pain, I felt happy. The day had been a pleasant reminder that I actually like sports.

Day 2: basketball. As I surveyed the people warming up, I could quickly tell who had basketball training. There were a couple guys who obviously knew what they were doing. The rest were going to have to rely on zeal and luck. During our first game I surprised myself by keeping up quite well, and my years of elementary and high school basketball practice paid off. What I lacked in speed, I more than made up for in skill. Plus, our team held together pretty well. In fact, our fifty-something-year-old Kazakh language teacher turned out to be one of our higher scorers. In the end, we won, giving us a chance to play for first place.

Unfortunately, I started to run out of steam in the championship game. I could just hear my freshmen basketball coach: “Jake, you’re suckin’ eggs,” which is redneck-speak for “You’re out of shape and you’re moving too slowly out there to make a meaningful impact on the game.” We ended up taking second place, an improvement over last year.

I hobbled home, took some ibuprofen, and winced up and down the stairs putting the baby to bed. Sweet victory.

Day 3: soccer. I felt like the pressure was off because I hadn’t played soccer since I was seven and I had very low expectations for myself. Plus, I don’t really care about the sport. But as I entered the gym, I realized that this was their game. While every American kid is playing basketball in the neighbor’s driveway, these guys are playing soccer in the old field behind their apartment building. I had neither skill nor zeal, but I figured that it beat working and I couldn’t let my team down by backing out.

As we fell further and further behind in our first game, I prayed, “God, let me score at least one goal.” I knew that one goal wasn’t going to change the ultimate outcome, but, nevertheless, I wanted to score. I felt like saying, “Lord, if a lady nearing retirement can score in basketball, can’t you let me score in a sport I’m hopeless at?” I took a couple of long-distance potshots to see if the Holy Spirit would answer my prayer by guiding my errant ball through the defenders and into the net like a heat-seeking missile. It didn’t happen and we lost. As I “sucked eggs” I remembered why I don’t like soccer–more running than basketball and less scoring.

However, we got to play a consolation game for third place and, miracle of miracles, I scored not once but twice. The second turned out to be the winning goal. Not only did God answer my prayer but he doubled it. I heard muttering in the locker room about “accidental goals don’t count” but there are no accidents when God is involved.

I finally went back to work for the first time after three days of sports. I shuffled my aching body through the turnstile and opted for the elevator. The thought of going up 198 stairs to our tenth floor office was out of the question.

Our team was greeted with cheers. “We’re all going ice-skating tomorrow,” they said. Our city boasts a giant outdoor skating rink up in the mountains. Unfortunately, I’m actually even worse at skating than soccer.

“I don’t really skate,” I said.

“That’s okay,” they said. “You can go with the people who don’t want to skate. They are walking up the mountain on an outdoor staircase.” 842 stairs to be exact.

Pass the ibuprofen and count me out.

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