Has-beens have no idea when to just walk away

By Dee Lieber

A frightening fact that every young athlete must learn to cope with is that he will some day be a ?has-been.? The typical has-been is a retired athlete of sorts, someone who at one time played a particular sport competitively and most likely had a successful career. Has-beens are most commonly unaware that their shelf life has expired and that their glory days have long passed. They follow all the college teams and tear-up when one of their teams wins a championship game. Has-beens aren?t your typical sports fanatics?they are junkies. They feast on memories of the days when they were once young, talented, and athletic. They fight off each new age-related injury?arthritis and tendonitis being the favorites?and deny that any ailment could ever prevent them from playing just as well as they did 20 years earlier. Has-beens come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, ranging from track stars and football gods to tennis aces and golf masters. Closest to home for me, however, is the washed-up basketball player.

Most young athletes have either played with or spotted a has-been playing in a pickup game. We?ve all joked harmlessly about the retired college basketball star who, after 35 years, still believes himself to be the best player on the court. We snicker at his Chuck Taylors and short shorts, but deep down we know that someday we will be just like that?and we dread it.

Usually has-beens can be spotted a mile away, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, allow me to paint a small picture.

A man (or woman for that matter) walks into the gym. By the look of his thinning gray hair, one might assume that he is in his early 50s. As he steps onto the basketball court?ankles taped, knees padded, and laces double-knotted?it is not difficult to see that this man has come to compete, at least until the premature arthritis in his lower back starts acting up.

To warm up, he stretches and jogs in place a while hoping to avoid the muscle and joint pain that will render him temporarily immobile the following morning. He takes a few close jump shots to clear the ?cobwebs? from his creaky joints. He winces in secret as a sharp pain shoots down his right shoulder (remnants of an old high school injury).

His team has first possession. The 20-something-year-old guarding him calls out ?ball in!? and then with a grin on his peach-fuzz covered face, jokes, ?Go easy on me old man.? Poor kid. He just made the biggest mistake one could possibly make when defending a has-been in denial. Old man. All washed-up. The saying goes, ?you?re only as old as you feel,? but perhaps this would be more appropriate: ?You?re only young in so far as you can deny growing old.? Regardless, the unwitting child has just committed himself to a game called Pain.

What most players do not understand is that in growing old, has-beens have learned how to compensate for their lost speed, agility, and general athletic ability. The has-been in question comes from a generation where, if blood is not shed, there is no proof of foul play. As such, he enjoys tugging on jerseys, arms, and just about anything else that will prevent his opponent from getting by him, and lay-ups are simply not tolerated.

Our has-been plays the ?pass-and-cut? game and makes left-handed hook shots, convinced that ball players of today are fundamentally inferior. He prefers the half-court game, claiming that the full-court game of today is all ?one-on-one? and full-court baseball passes. He plays with his back to the basket and uses his trunk strength to back his defender in, muscling his way to the goal. Elbows are a must.

One can tell just by looking in this man?s eyes that basketball courses through his veins. He mutters profanities under his breath when one of his younger, less experienced teammates loses the ball or gets scored on. Pausing briefly after making a basket, one will notice pride sparkling in his eyes. Not to be misconstrued as arrogance or an inflated ego (for his years of quavering confidence are long gone), his is a look of confirmation, a look that says, ?yep, still got it.? And, because he is old, whether he knows this or not, he can get away with bending the rules or making up new ones. He?s known the game longer: who?s going to argue with him about a no three-pointer rule? Who wouldn?t want to be a has-been?

Truthfully, an athlete?s life is a full of both physical and emotional wins and losses. The challenge of the game keeps us on our toes, and each victory keeps us coming back for more. It?s in the blood. Sport is a passion that fuels an athlete?s existence. No injury or ailment can dampen that passion. Thus there is no use wasting one?s energy by dreading the inevitable. If you are an athlete, rest assured that you will someday become a has-been.