Whose side are you playing on?
The badminton match was under way, but his son Anton seemed oddly uncompetitive despite the impressive warm-up.
I consider myself a modest man and ordinarily do not extol my talents, experiences, or accomplishments. Be that as it may, when I saw a recent flier at the University of Maine for a badminton tournament, a memory erupted: I was the 1976 class badminton champion at my alma mater in New Jersey. And here, flung before me, was my chance to recapture past glory.
Badminton. The great understated – and seldom thought of – sport. It looks easy: Knocking the birdie over the net is akin to swatting a fly. In college I took the requisite one credit in physical education, and badminton seemed like an easy A.
I was mistaken. As in any sport, there exist questions of skill and finesse. I possessed neither, but I was a fast learner. This, combined with a drive to win (I am from New Jersey, after all), garnered me the championship in a single-elimination event that lasted a week. Not bad for a kid who couldn't even make the bowling team in high school.
All of this was a long time ago. In the interim I have rarely thought of badminton, much less had opportunities to play. But the prospect of a tournament ignited something in me, a sense that maybe I still had the old pizazz, that fighting badminton spirit, the eye for the birdie that had brought Mr. Boucacas, my college badminton instructor, to pat me on the head after my winning turn and say, "Good boy."
Yes, even though I am now past the half-century mark, perhaps I could still be that good boy. When I divulged my ambition to my 14-year-old son Anton, he took a step back and examined me with a skeptical eye.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked. "Those other players are in their teens and 20s."
"No problem," I said. "They may have speed and endurance, but I have heart."
Anton shrugged. "Sure, Dad," he sniffed before turning to his affairs.
Perhaps in a bid to shore up what he thought were my deficiencies, Anton agreed to be my doubles partner. When we arrived at the gym we commenced some practice rounds against the college students. Anton, fit and savvy, immediately got with the program. Watching him go airborne to return the birdie, and dive to the floor to keep it alive, I knew that I had a secret weapon on my side and could already see myself hefting the victory trophy. "That's it, Anton," I growled. "Let 'em have it. Jersey rules!"
Then the play began. The other team served. The birdie flew over the net to me, and I rose up like a leviathan – (well, I stretched out my racket) – to smash it back over, landing it neatly between our two opponents. "Yeah!" I roared to Anton. "We're on our way!"
That one, glorious shot turned out to be our high point, because something very curious happened next. Our opponents returned a shot to Anton in a swift, flat arc, and he ... he ... well, he nothinged. I watched as Anton swatted the birdie in an almost casual manner, sending it flush into the net. "No problem!" I encouraged him, bouncing on my toes to keep the blood flowing.
But it was a problem. Almost every time the birdie came at Anton, he treated it with kindness and affection, either netting it or handing it to our opponents on a silver platter, whereupon they rocketed it back to us for the point.
To make a long story short, we lost. Big time. My dreams of victory, gone in one fell swoop. I ambled over to Anton. "What happened?" I asked. "You were so aggressive in practice. Why did you poop out?"
"I didn't poop out," he said. "When I saw how bad the other team was I didn't want to hurt their feelings by beating them."
What does one say to that? I had a lover, not a fighter, for a son. We went home, licking our wounds, accepting our loss. But I'm already looking ahead to next year, when I'll play again – in the singles competition.
The spirit of '76 lives on.