There comes a time in every man's life when he can no longer go to the hoop.

For some lucky ones, the moment occurs on the polished pine of an NBA court, when an old star finally burns out before thousands of cheering fans.

For most of us reared on the urban experience of basketball as escape it's more likely to happen on a bed of black asphalt in some dusty schoolyard.

Something goes pop. The legs go dead. Breath comes in fevered gasps. It is no longer feasible to blast through that sea of skinny, flailing, youthful arms to chase a rebound.

"Go up strong," a teammate cries.

But there's no strong left.

When I came to Washington nine years ago, one of the first things I did was go to the nearest playground to show off my New York moves.

It took about ten seconds to get warmed up.

I hit my first jump shot from the top of the key. Then another went in by remote control on a fallaway jumper from the left side.

"Watch out," said an opponent. "This dude's got some smoke."

The smoke kept rising and one day it blew right away.

The final indignity came one day when I had to buy my way onto a team in the D.C. Summer recreation league by promising the coach I'd do a free tuneup on his motorcycle.

I was going to play my way back into shape, but they never put me in the game.

A light went out in the valley.

Now, after five years of empty-hearted anguish, that beacon is starting to shine again.

A guy at the office, Denis, has been pestering me for months to join him in his Wednesday-night basketball games. He has a gym reserved over in Northwest Washington. I fought it. I don't like being a fool anymore.

But one night there was nothing else to do.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I got there. There was Denis and a couple of other guys from work. They were surrounded by women. And these women could play.

When I was a kid they had two kinds of basketball. The girls got three dribbles and had to leave two players in the backcourt on defense. It was a silly game, completely incompatible with boys' basketball.

Times have changed.

Nowadays they call it women's basketball, but it's the same as men's. Only the players aren't quite as tall or fast or half as mean and aggressive. At least not so far.

All of which makes them ideal colleagues for the fading years of a one-time playground phenom.

These women are great. If they bump into you on a pick they say "sorry," which really isn't necessary. They never give you an elbow in the ear or slam dunk in your face or carp and complain about fouls.

I get my exercise chasing them up and down the court. Once in a while I can still drift into that fantasyland every basketball player knows, where I'm driving one-on-one against Paul Silas in the seventh game of the championship series.

I stop. I fire.


Only this time Paul Silas has a pony tail.

It's been nine years since that guy said watch out for my smoke. Nine years on a downhill slide.

Last week after a game one of the women came by and stopped for a second.

"Hey," she said, "where'd you learn to play like that?"

"New York," I said.

"On yeah," she said. "All you New York guys can play ball."

Case closed.