Male Bonding: Losing the Game That Counts

There's a gash under my left eye. My right thumb throbs like a sonofabitch. I keep seeing stars. My whole body hurts. I have a red beard, if you can even call it that after a week of uneven growth. On the plane home from Florida people look at me like some kind of pirate, wondering where the patch is for my battered eye.

I'm too old for this shit. At 46 there's only one person who could suck me into all out war. Wedged into my seat on my way back to snowy Boston, I have flashbacks to the battle.

Half way through I felt sure I was going to have a heart attack. I had peeled my sweat soaked shirt off. My strategy was to pick my spots -- look for a momentary lull in the defense and go Kamikaze through that opening before returning to my slumped-over-hands-on-knees defensive posture. The court was slick after a Tropical shower making the ball heavy and footing tricky.

Over time we had agreed to complex rules of engagement: two-out-of-three games to 15 by one, loser's outs; use of profanity is a one point deduct (which unfortunately had cost me more points than I like to think about); shots made from behind the arc are worth three if you are down by six, otherwise they are worth two; I get one time-out per game, which I generally spend laying on my back with a shirt over my eyes.

I still have 4 inches and 50 pounds on my opponent so my strategy is always to go inside as hard as I can. I am way too right-handed so over time I have developed a behind-the-back move to my left. I still can't shoot lefty but if I get good enough position going left I can get the ball to the rack. I've been working on a pull-up jumper and reverse lay-up to the left as well. I have him worried enough about it that once in a while I can glance left and burst right for an easy bucket.

But let's face it, I don't have the legs to win in a three game match. I have to win in two or its lights out for the old man. So I always work hard to win the first game and then settle in for a slugfest in game two. Our game two scores have typically been 21-19, 18-16, 24-22. If the score is tied late I launch balls from behind the arc. More often than not pure desperation provides the motivation to deliver the dagger shot.

The end came after I had won the first game 15-13 on a couple of hard drives right. I was actually ahead in the second game, moving to the hoop with relative ease. Seamus pushed me in the back once and then a second time as I tried to make lay-ups.

"Don't do that again," I warned my 13 year-old son with sweat running down the small of my back in a torrent.

The next time I got the ball, I set up sideways with my left shoulder forward, dribbling the ball low to the ground in a posture faintly reminiscent of Magic at his peak. I glanced left and went right finding a clear path ahead. Another push in the back.

I waited until Seamus had the ball. He has a better shot than I do and ten times the energy. But he still seemed afraid of his old man. He doesn't quite know what it means to play hard. Really hard. When it counts.

I let him go past. As he approached the basket and jumped for his lay-up, I pushed him. Hard. Maybe a little too hard. He landed on his back. I heard the ugly sound of shorts and sneakers and flesh scraping against pavement.

He bounced up with rage in his eye. Indignant. If it was anyone else he would have punched me in the nose. But he didn't. He looked down and muttered to himself. He called the foul and took the ball.

From there it was like skiing down hill, over quickly. I was unable to score another basket in game two despite working hard. Game three was closer. I got a little run going. But he put me away with a bomb that I didn't have the legs to get out and contest.

His defensive was smothering. He had found a different gear. I couldn't keep up.

On the walk home we didn't talk. Finally, he noted that I should expect to get older and fatter every day for the rest of my life while he was expecting to get taller and stronger.

That night, I did hear him tell people that he had not only beat his dad but he had beat him up, which made me smile because the game had been one of the highlights of my life.