Where did 'swish' of youth go? Natural pruning of brain cells explains why old dogs can't learn new tricks

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

So there I was the other night, driving into the paint around a slow-footed center and launching, gracefully ballistic, toward the hoop, the rock balanced ever-so-delicately on my finger tips ready to roll over the rim and in for the score -- just like it did when I was 18.


"BONK?" I think, as my high-tops touch down on the baseline and I extend my arms to avoid kissing the wall headfirst.

Not "swish?" I question.

Then, the all-too-familiar painful impulses from the nerves in my knees and ankles reach my brain and short-circuit the experiential analysis. I put away the instant replay and reel about in time to record the ongoing rumble for the rebound.

OK, I admit I never could dunk, even as a 6-foot, 2-inch-tall teen-ager. But back in the day when I actually had some skills, I could at least hit a layup consistently, including the kiss off the backboard, the over-the-lip finger roll, even the under-the-basket reverse.

So why has "bonk" replaced "swish?" And why is it my teammates often think before passing the ball my way?

Could it be I'm getting, er ... old?

Getting? Let's face it, I am old -- three times the age I was at graduation from a small upstate New York high school, which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent. I play hoops now with no illusions. I do it for the aerobic workout. Rational, right?

The catch is that once a game begins rationality is soon replaced with a framework of fancy, a paradigm of imprudence that manipulates my motor cortex and persuades my ego I'm 18 again. Only my muscles aren't. Their functions require they react, not think. They don't succumb to illusions of youth. Indeed, they act specifically in accordance with reality.

Young muscle tissues fire faster, react quicker, produce more force. Youthful legs laugh at gravity. Old ones lack spark, often sputter, flinch even at stairs. Get airborne? You must be kidding.

When the vertical element of the parabolic motion decays, the fingertips fail to reach the rim. Leave the shot short and the sound is unmistakable. Bonk!

Well, anyway that's what science says is happening. I have another theory, or better, a parallel explanation. Natural pruning -- of brain cells, that is.

Age has jellied the axons responsible for that last fraction of second of a layup. Now, the brain may be able to hold an infinite number of thoughts, but total number of software programs for managing physical actions is limited. I'm sure this must be true, because they tell me brains can adapt. Therefore, shouldn't I have been able to alter my shot to account for the lack of lift? Is this dog too old for new tricks? The answer is yes, according to my theory.

Somewhere around the mid-30s, most of us reach a crossover point, after which it seems that learning new motions that is, writing new software -- requires pruning old ones. Personally, I didn't wait that long. I began losing my layup shot when I got my driver's license. Coach warned us about that, but we all ignored him.

I can live with a poor shot percentage. Remember, that isn't why I play. But why do I have to hurt, too? That's really annoying.

Aching muscles are a fact of life, one you can ignore when you're young because you rarely wake up sore. The older you get, however, the slower the recovery. Before long, you're dealing with painful reminders of Monday's city league game on Thursday morning. What's up with that?

Oh, I try to stretch these aging leg muscles before playing and counsel myself to "take it easy," but the pain comes regardless.

If you follow sports, say like the recent Winter Olympics, you know athletes are forever being relieved of their medals for using "performance-enhancing" drugs. What I want to know is where do I get them? Do they make the soreness disappear? Will they give me a double reverse slam-dunk at 55? Shouldn't they be over-the-counter for anyone my age? Heck, they've invented Viagra and returned scoring to the bedroom. All I want is a successful trip to the hoop, which would seem a somewhat easier pharmacological task.

Still, I've learned to deal with discomfort. When it gets too bad, I just stop playing for a while. Believe me, I'm not missed.

And lately I've taken some solace from NBA news. It seems Michael Jordan, at a youthful 39, is feeling his age, too. He had arthroscopic surgery on a torn up knee last week and will be out of the Wizard's lineup for several weeks.

Thus, I can safely say that on any given day, I can be just as sore as Mike. And you know, that feels pretty good.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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