One summer afternoon about 20 years ago, out on the basketball court in the schoolyard around the corner from our apartment in Forest Hills, I got into a game of three-on-three with some teenagers, including a kid on my team named Roy.
Roy, about 15 years old, all arms and legs, gangly and awkward, soon dropped a pass and missed an easy shot right under the basket.
Our opponents, all teenagers themselves, started to tease him. "Give the ball to Roy," they wisecracked. Roy frowned, competing harder, but to no avail.
"Come on, Roy," I said. "You'll hit your next shot. No sweat."
Still clearly new to the game, he struggled. "He's going to be the next Michael Jordan," our adversaries taunted.
Finally, I'd had enough.
"Guess what, guys?" I said. "See this kid you're making fun of? Someday he's going to be better than anyone here."
Roy looked at me quizzically, as if to ask, Is that true?
We lost that particular game.
About 10 years later, a guy in his mid-20s came out to the same courts. He looked familiar, only he was taller, taller than me, broad in the shoulders and deep in the chest, too. It was Roy.
We chose up sides for a pickup game, with Roy again on my team. Only now Roy could play. Boy, could he play. He hit his shots from all over the court. He passed the ball crisply to teammates, cutting to the basket. He snatched rebounds with authority.
But he was so much more than just the best player out there. He was also a perfect teammate. He set picks. He doubled up defensively if my opponent drove the lane. He called out encouragement to the third member of our team.
We won in a blowout. Afterward, Roy told me he now coached teenagers at basketball.
I left the court that day understanding yet another reason why I kept playing basketball. He was why. I had graduated to the role of mentor.
Let me propose we do more such mentoring -- ad hoc, grassroots mentoring, a guerrilla, drive-by sort of mentoring that happens in the moment. It can consist of nothing more than the right word from the right person at the right time.
As it happens, I had started playing basketball at age 8, and throughout my adolescence usually wound up chosen last for pickup games. I was always the worst player, the shortest, scrawniest, slowest and most timid. I knew all too well how Roy felt.
Today I'm 62 and I still hit the courts for pickup games around the corner. Yes, I like to stay in shape. Yes, the game is still fun. But through Roy I discovered a larger meaning.
At a certain stage of life, if we're lucky, we recognize that we're supposed to take on a special responsibility, that we should share the lessons we've learned and set an example for those who are younger. After all, we've already gone where they're still going.
Come summer, then, I venture out to the courts as a tribal elder to encounter the next generation. I never know what might happen. Tomorrow could bring me another chance to pass the ball. Tomorrow could bring me another Roy.