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Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Chris Ballard on the perils of aging

By Kevin Arnovitz

Last weekend, I bought a Manduka mat and drove over to a yoga studio in Los Feliz. I've always considered it a badge of pride that I'd held out in Los Angeles for longer than a decade before I took my first yoga class. And I've capitulated only because I was told the studio in question was more likely to play The xx, DJ Shadow or Erykah Badu than some sitar instrumental or Carnatic music.

Why did I cave?

It's pretty simple. I can't so much as play two sets of tennis or a game of ultimate frisbee in the park without feeling like I've been thrown from a six-story building over the next week. Yeah, I stretch a bit before each activity, but now closer to 40 than 30, I am just not equipped to absorb high-impact exercise the way I could a decade ago.

If I'm not going to feel like a geriatric all the time, I basically need to force myself to spend 3-4 hours a week stretching. Where I live, yoga class is the most efficient way to do that.

Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated is one of the basketball press corps' max-level talents. He played in college and is an automatic double-team anywhere on the floor in a game of sportswriters. But at 37 years old, Ballard says he's now confronting the brutal mortality of age, and it's become apparent at his rec league games:
The opposing team's 20-year-old point guard advances upon me. He is quicker than I am, can jump higher and, based on how fresh he looks, isn't feeling the heat. Once upon a time, back when I played in college, I would have owned this kid. Not now. Now I cannot guard both the shot and the drive. Instead, I pick one and hope. That is what I rely on now: hope.

Ballard runs through a catalog of late-thirtysomething athletes who still display flashes of brilliance, moments when their games seem every bit as potent as it did in their prime years. Derek Jeter's 5-for-5 performance last weekend when he notched hit number 3,000 (a home run) was one of those exhibitions. For an aging athlete, it's tantalizing. You hope that maybe, just maybe, the mojo is back. But you quickly learn that the moment is fleeting, more of an outlier than a resurgence:
That is the most frustrating thing: Wedged between bad days and sore days and frustrating days, there comes that afternoon when it all comes back, when the legs feel springy, the shoulder is loose, and you really can do what you once could. Perhaps, as with Jeter and his desire to reach the milestone before the home crowd, you ride a welcome wave of adrenaline. You feel invincible again. And yet, inevitably, the feeling slips away, like a dream lost in the early morning hours.

Oh, what we will do to hold on to that dream. I have become the guy I used to mock. Like an old quarterback who arrives late to training camp or an aging center who skips shootarounds, I ration my exercise. I eat healthier, engage in long and goofy stretching routines, religiously ingest a preemptive cocktail of Tylenol and Advil two hours before rec league games. My wife thinks it's ridiculous; my 39-year-old brother, who also played college basketball, does not. He recommends yoga.

The takeaway for Ballard, though, is that you can't surrender. Like Jason Kidd, you might have to reinvent your game and accept new limitations.  But under no circumstances can you give in, because the punishment isn't getting beat -- it's letting yourself get beat:
5 for 5. How can one concede after that?

So, like Jeter, I refuse to listen. The 20-year-old point guard drives left, zipping by me. I turn and give chase, though really it is not him I pursue, but a younger version of myself. I know it could be futile, but I do it anyway. For what scares me is not the day when I cannot catch him. It is the day when I don't try.

In the meantime, you follow your brother's advice: Head to the yoga studio and master Warrior One.