To get to Panther Creek, Texas, you head west out of Brownwood, Texas, on 67, through Bangs and Santa Anna, down to Valera, where you turn left on State Road 503. Nine miles later you look to your right out in a field and see Panther Creek Schools Complex.
You wonder why. Why is this tidy, modern appearing complex set nine miles from nowhere out in a field?
You don't have time to find out, not tonite, because you have to call basketball tonite. You have time to check in with the onsite administrator, shake hands with the coaches and find your dressing area. You have time to get into your gear, which now includes various kinds of liniments and a knee sleeve on your left leg, a final concession to the 55 years you have to drag up and down the court with you each night.
You have time to hit the weight room for a little while. It's just next to your dressing area here and you now know upper body aerobic just prior to major cardio helps take pressure off your knees. You have time to stretch, with the knowledge that your stretch and upper body weight resistance would amount to a workout for many people. You do it just to get ready for your workout.
What is 90 feet times 150 trips? This is how far you are going to run tonite; in sprints, in a gym, in the company of people 40 years younger than you.
The gym is cold tonite but you step on it already warm from your thirty minutes of pregame prep. Your muscles are ready but there is nothing that will help your lungs. You will suck in cold air for three hours, two games, girls first and then the boys later, when your knees have stopped their aching. The ache starts in the third quarter of the girls game, as regular as clock-work. By the third quarter of the boys game, the ache is gone, replaced by a hot, sharp knife's stab every time your foot hits the hard wood court. The court remembers, in November, that day in July you got busy and did not workout, or the leg reps you cheated on in August, and the court always extracts its vengeance.
The stopping, the starting, the constant movement, makes your feet look like hamburger meat. Your toes, fourteen games into the year, take the brunt force. You can feel the blood running from the open sores on your toes down into your socks. You know the blood will congeal by the time you peel off the socks but you can't think about it just now.
An errant pass from a tall, blonde boy hits you in the lower chest in the second quarter. Tomorrow, there will be a small bruise and it will hurt to breathe when you turn slightly to your right in your chair for about a week. You have a similar bruise from a similar pass on your back, on your arm. It is early in the year and the kids are not ready for smooth basketball yet.
You are the referee. You are just part of the court. Be glad you have not fallen or pulled a muscle or taken a shot in the teeth while your whistle is in your mouth.
You have this gnawing feeling in your stomach; something is not as it is usually is tonite and you cannot quite figure it out just yet. In the third quarter of the second game of the evening, in severe oxygen debt, an epiphany occurs.
Panther Creek, Texas versus Paint Rock, Texas, puts in the gym, collectively, the nicest group of kids you have met in a long, long time.
They call you sir and seem to mean it. They thank you for handing them the ball. They ask questions politely and accept the answers you give them without moaning or rolling their eyes.
You are not accustomed to politeness.
These are good kids from good families in good schools.
They are, after everything, an oasis of kindness in the sea of hatefulness you usually navigate.
You finish the games with the realization the $60 plus mileage your get will not pay for the knee replacement you will get one day. You dodge deer down dirt roads on your way back to the "highway." You take your ibuprofen but the ache in your knees is back. It will go to bed with you that night, wake you up in the morning and walk to the bathroom scales with you in the morning. You and your ache will notice on the scale you lost more than four pounds of water weight the night before and you will really need to rehydrate today or the aches will be worse.
Why do you do it? You just love the stinkin' game.
And, just often enough to help, you get to call Panther Creek versus Paint Rock, and meet some of the kids from some of the families who make this country great.