Between two and four times a week, I come home from whatever it is I was doing before, I change into gym-appropriate clothes, I stuff a four-year-old Gap Kids baby bag repurposed as a gym bag with a pair of Kyrie 5s, a knee brace, extra socks, and a T-shirt, and I make the drive to one of the places I hoop. Some days it’s the LA Fitness in Bakery Square, the tiny sweatbox with no baselines or sidelines, just a wall behind each hoop where each sideline should be. Other days it’s one of the invite-only open gyms I frequent. And sometimes, when I don’t have much time, I just go down the street to the Y and shoot.
My game has changed as my body and age have; slight adjustments to allow me to still be productive when playing against people sometimes literally half my age. I’ve altered my shooting form in a way that extends the range on my jump shot. Which means I have to be guarded out to 30 feet now, leaving me more space and opportunity to guile and muscle my way past people since blow-bys just don’t happen anymore. Also, since I don’t have the stamina—or will— to move much off the ball, I position myself 30-plus feet from the hoop when I don’t have it, which takes the man guarding me completely out the play since they don’t want to help off me. I use screens more, I very rarely shoot jump shots unless they’re threes, and I’m pretty much ambidextrous inside of 5 feet—a skill that helps me find angles on the backboard since I can’t/won’t/don’t jump over and/or through people anymore.
Between my beard, my game, and my usual on-court demeanor—which I’d describe as performative bemusement—people have asked if I’ve modeled my game after James Harden when the truth is that James Harden has modeled his game after a 40-year-old at the Y. He is a loathsome genius, after all.
Still, despite knowing that certain feats are behind me, sometimes I still feel 21 when out there. And sometimes when that happens—when my legs are fresh and my joints are loose—I’ll think that maybe I can still dunk a basketball. Like last night, when I was feeling warm and bouncy between games, and I tried. And I missed.
To just say “I missed” is a misnomer, since that implies that maybe I back rimmed it or had it go halfway down and back out. Nah, bruh. It’s a struggle to just grab the rim. So getting high enough to fail impressively ain’t even happening anymore. Now I just wish I would have known that my last dunk would be my last dunk. I would have invited family and friends and several nemeses and at least one ex to witness it. I would’ve put it on YouTube, and a still from it would be my profile pic on each social media platform. But no one tells you when you’re on the other side of the hill. Even if you mostly look and feel the same as you did 10 years ago. You just wake up one day and feel the sun hitting you in a different place.
After playing last night, I came home and watched the last 40 minutes of the Democratic debate. The people on stage said and did the things they usually say and do. Bernie Sanders was frazzled and passionate. Elizabeth Warren was sincere and preternaturally likable. Kamala Harris was Peak AKA. Cory Booker told a funny. The other people also did the things they do, but I just don’t feel like typing their names out. I don’t have time.
My focus, however, was on Joe Biden. And how, of the candidates on stage last night, he looks most like an American president. He looks like the people on our money and our textbooks; the (white) men with libraries and schools and streets named after them. He looks so much like them that when a different type of person is cast as the president in a show or movie about politics, it sometimes feels like the casting director is being conspicuously—and performatively—transgressive. (“Oh, Lucy Liu is president? That’s cool!”)
This aesthetic dynamic is Biden’s biggest advantage over the rest of the field. Despite our better judgment, white men of a certain age and look are assumed to be hyper-competent. Maybe you won’t like how he does the job, but he gets the job done. His entire schtick is that he’s the CEO-looking man in a Jos. A. Bank ad. The one in the smart navy suit and starched white shirt who grins and nods his head approvingly when his tactfully attired assistant hands him a manila folder. Or a coffee. Or a baby. He’s a man you envision doing man things. Shaking hands, eating burgers, mowing lawns, ordering drinks, sleeping with secretaries, revising portfolios, running for president—shit like that.
Unfortunately, for him, he has not yet realized that his last dunk already happened. If he is the nominee, he will not beat Donald Trump. He has too much baggage, commits too many gaffes, and inspires too little excitement. As terrible as Trump is at being a person, he’s great at being a bully. And a bully’s best attribute is the ability to pinpoint weaknesses and blind spots. Biden has so many of both that his only effective counter would be to physically threaten him—which he has already done.
And it’s not that the other serious contenders (Warren and Sanders) are baggage-less. They’re just better. Tighter. Hungrier. More competent than the man whose value is based on the representation of it. Just because he’d look good on a quarter doesn’t mean we need to place him on one.
Perhaps he realizes this, which would echo some of the suspicions of him. That his heart isn’t completely in it but he’s only running because he believes he’s the only one who can beat Trump. If that’s his true intent—and I’m not convinced it is, but I’ll play along—he should do what me and the other 40-year-old ballplayers still trying to keep up with 22-year-olds do after playing a few pick-up games. Sit down and let someone fresher take his place.