Autobenching the Elderly
In college basketball, there are 40 minutes of gameplay, and each player is allowed five fouls.
Often, during the first half, a star player will collect his second foul of the game. That’s when it happens: the autobench. No matter how important the player is to his team, no matter how infrequently he usually commits fouls, his coach sits him on the bench, as if it were an automatic response. Hence, autobench.
The rationale seems obvious: The coach wants to ensure his star player is available for the final few minutes of the game. It would be a risk, the coach reasons, to leave the star player in. “What if he commits another foul, or two more? Heaven forbid, I leave him in and he commits three more fouls! He’d be out of the game.”
And so, the coach proceeds to … take him out of the game.
Let’s give coaches the benefit of the doubt, for a second: They surely believe the last few minutes of a game are more important than a few minutes in the middle of it. After all, the game is won or lost at the end … right?
A quick example, from Missouri vs. Purdue on November 25, 2014:
Purdue was a solid team. Missouri was awful. The first 10 minutes of the game went pretty much as expected: Purdue dominated.
A freshman named Montaque Gill-Caesar was Missouri’s leading scorer. But with 8:58 remaining in the first half, he committed his second foul of the game. Straight to the bench he went.
Purdue held a 25–9 lead (I told you Missouri was bad!) but there was still a lot of time left, and 16 points isn’t an insurmountable deficit. The game was still, to some extent, up for grabs. However, to have any chance, Missouri needed its best players’ best efforts right then and there. There was no time to waste.
And yet, Gill-Caesar sat on the bench. Missouri’s coach, Kim Anderson, didn’t want to risk more fouls. He wanted to make sure his star player would be available for the “more important” minutes, toward the end of the game.
By the time Gill-Caesar eventually returned to the floor, at the beginning of the second half, the game was no longer up for grabs. Purdue led 45–20 and held a 98.8% win probability. It was over—even if Gill-Caesar were to morph into Michael Jordan.
My grandma is 82 years old. Her shoulder hurts, her wrist is bothering her; at that age, it’s hard to be fully healthy. But her mind, man—her mind is still sharp. She still drives. She can still whip up spaghetti and meatballs. She can still tell you what she thinks of Missouri’s basketball team.
That’s what she loves to do, or, at least, what makes her feel fulfilled, useful, and loved: Driving to her son’s house to dog-sit. Cooking for her family and having us over for dinner. Watching sports.
She can’t do those things now, though. Family dinners? Ha. Sports? Yeah right. Taken away from my grandma—from us all—not, in fact, by a virus but by human beings’ response to it. The main reason, as far as I can see it, is to save the lives of people in my grandma’s age group.
She’s avoiding the disease, confined to her home, with family checking on her from a distance, with no sports to watch. In the strict sense of the word, she’s staying alive. If you call this—existing without the things that give your life purpose—living.
I find myself wondering how much longer I’ll get to talk Missouri basketball with my grandma. How much longer will her mind be sharp enough? I hope it’s 20 years. I’d be thrilled with 15. If you offered me 10 more good years with my grandma, I’d probably take it.
Regardless, for my grandma, the most important minutes of the game—the only days she’s guaranteed—are right now. She has this time, right now, today, while she’s healthy and sharp, to chug as much joy as she can from the keg of life. To create as many memories as her phone has space for the photos. And these precious days of mental acuity — these precious days when she’s still physically able to drive to restaurants — they ain’t coming back. Just because we’ve put life on pause doesn’t mean the clock stops ticking. We haven’t stopped aging.
Like the basketball coach who removes his player from the game so that fouls don’t … remove his player from the game, we are preventing ourselves from enjoying life … so that the virus doesn’t prevent us from enjoying life.
My grandma is — hell, we all are — being autobenched. And by the time the world resumes, the game might be a blowout.
It knocks the wind out of me to even think this, but by the time the draconian (not to mention unconstitutional) shelter-in-place precautions end, maybe she’ll have developed Alzheimer’s. Maybe she’ll have fallen down the steps and be unable to walk. Who knows? What we do know is today.
If I were my grandma’s age, I wouldn’t be trading todays for tomorrows. I wouldn’t make that trade at any age.
“Carpe diem.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift and that’s why it’s called the present.” They’re platitudes, yes, but they hold. And we’re ignoring them all.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.