Even before I get the ball I can see my man means business. He is playing me close now, an effect of my earlier success. Not only is he close, he wears a determined look. I get the ball in the corner, fake right and dribble left across the key. I stop, go up with my soft touch jumper. En route to my left hand, the ball disappears. He steals it without a touch to my body. Racing to the other end, he scores.

I silently curse him, now myself for allowing this theft. Nobody ever steals the ball from me, especially if I'm in the air. I return to my corner. I yell for the ball, for another chance. Hands on ball, I fake left this time and drive right, beating him to the baseline, scoring, punishing him for stealing the ball from me. His turn now. As he dribbles up to me the shake in his belly brings me back to reality. "You're acting like you're 15," I say to myself.

In fact I am thrice 15 with a middle-aged shape matching my opponents', plus jumping varicose veins in one leg. But in the heat of this weekly game I become a trimmed teen. The willing spirit dominates the changed flesh. The thrill of competing, the striving, getting even, the running, sweating, body contact, appeal of team play, the swell of male compliment -- "nice shot," "good move" -- the rush to rage; all feed my ageless need to be at play with other men.

My changeless spirit of play contrasts with my body. Fleshy torso, three-inch gut, bifocaled eyes, slower reflexes, springless legs, brownish spots on slower hands ask my reluctant decaying athlete the Porcelana question: What's a man to do? The answer is as simple as it is reliable: Use the soothing balm of play. Play eases the burden, recreates the body and spirit.

I order my daily life with a routine, nurtured by a caution and indecisiveness that often rob me of excitement. But on this court I stand ready in the world, excited by possibility and power. I shake the slimy slush of doubt at the gym door. "Give me the ball, I know what to do." I feel the power now as I did when I was 15. It is pure confidence. Shorn of the swagger of cockiness, it nurtures my whole person.

Each Sunday morning, I bring my 45-year- old body to the pleasures of the court. Here, with the help of men from my neighborhood, I play basketball with the abandonment of a spawning spring salmon, leaping against the current for certain pleasure in the middle- aged world of complacency and ennui.

This is not the first time that my ball has nurtured my spirit. During a lonely freshman week in a new city, far from home, in the strangeness of off-campus living, my basketball helped me forget how much I missed home. Three-on-three took my energy, made me feel at home and provided me contact with others. During that first alienated week, I played every day.

Another time, in a prison treatment community, I was desperately trying to win approval from some hardened prisoners. My insights, my loving confrontations, my brilliant interpretations of group process and hidden motivations were ho-hummed. My jump shot got attention.

Our starting five consisted of a burglar, two armed robbers, an arsonist and myself. Our matching aggressions helped me overcome my fear of criminals as well as improve my credibility in their eyes. "He's got a tough jump shot; maybe he knows what he's talking about."

"Whose man?" -- the most asked question in all of basketball, from pee wee to pro -- is asked often in our hour. Many of us relax on defense, sometimes come to a complete stop. "Whose man?" The question communicates the present feeling: curiosity, judgement, contempt, anger, despair and, though rarely, respect. Yelled at our Sunday morning play, this question takes on a literal fuller meaning.

Like others here, I am a fully grown man, overly so in places, hairy, growing weak, on the down side of life's crescendo. Each athletic career on this court is over, but the last game dies hard in every boy. I am blind to the effects of my layoff; I deny the slow-motion quality of my play. How did it happen? Turn around and the play in life is swallowed by duty, that omnipresent robber. Duty, "stern daughter of the voice of God," according to Wordsworth, does not show on Sunday.

We come to play, as boys do. The play is everything here; so unlike the world, where duty dominates and a man's measure lay in his success. We lay aside the customary, complicated measuring sticks, even our self-critical timber. Play and age make egalitarians of us all. If 80 percent of life is merely showing up, showing up to play is a 95 percent guarantee of success in our game. The MVP is the guy with the best ball. Being last chosen merits no concern. Last week's high scorer is this week's first ankle twister.

Half through life, I have witnessed the tampering of dreams by reality. What I wanted to become is giving way to what I am. I miss being cared for, looked at, driven to my games, playing for extended hours. Once I started caring, looking after others, driving them to games, I did not know how difficult it would be to go back to the court of play without violations. I forgot that the atavistic need to play lasts as long as the man does. Here we bucks paw around, sniff the air and one another, rub aged racks of antlers, run at will, test strength without the aid of doe or fawn, maturity or duty. The competition refreshes. It is clean, simple: me against you, us against them. No one is lessened by the score.

The male animal longs for a setting where the competition is direct and obvious, marked with a beginning and end. The rules are simple, the talk straightforward, the banter affirming, the experience reassuring. We are not distracted by women, children, success or failure. Here we males nurture one another, not through a contrived men's group, an agenda or group process but by simple play. It was always fun; it is sheer delight now.