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 by Ron Cruger
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C
The last game of H-O-R-S-E
          I was eleven years old when I played my first game of H-O-R-S-E. It was on the rickety backboards and bowed baskets of the playground at Highland Elementary School. The asphalt playground slanted southward, so any misguided shot on the basket would find the ball rolling down, into the soccer field, a good jog away, interrupting the game.
          H-O-R-S-E is a game that can be played with any number of players, but it is most interesting when played with two contestants.
          It’s a simple contest. The first player makes a shot and the second player must follow and make the exact same shot – same distance, same style, same shot.
          Miss the shot and you get tagged with an H. Miss a second time and you earn an O – and so on. First player to get H-O-R-S-E loses. Any kid who has spent any time at all on a playground or park with baskets knows how to play the game.
          I’ve been playing H-O-R-S-E for three and a half score years. Thousands of games. Probably broke even in wins and losses over the years, but every game was fun. Fresh air, competition, friends.
          For the last few score of years I’m sure it looked a bit curious to the twenty year olds on the next court to see a gray haired senior citizen in shorts and tennis shoes firing up shots at the basket, dribbling, jumping, doing reverse layups, followed by the shots of his equally mature adversary.
          The old Wilson basketball resided in the trunk of the car, always ready for the next game.
          Over the years the old friends have moved away or worse. They’ve given up the game. The aches and pains of the advancing years have retired them from playing H-O-R-S-E. When the old friends get together we talk about playing “one more game” – like a big finale to our playground careers. We sit and talk about one last game of “over-the-line,” one last game of H-O-R-S-E, but the games are never played.
          A few years ago, missing the bounce of the old Wilson basketball, missing the swish of the ball as it slides down the cords of the net, missing the simple joy of making the ten foot jump shot, I asked my lovely wife if she would like to go to the park up the street and play a game of H-O-R-S-E. After explaining the simplicity of the game she agreed to play.
          It was good exercise. Fresh air, sunshine. She became fairly proficient at the shorter shots. She’s a good sport. She won a few games that first time.
          Since that initial game a few years ago we’ve played a few times, maybe five or six times a year. The old Wilson basketball was always in the trunk of the car. Just having it there meant something to me. It meant there was always a chance to return to those days on the playground of Highland School. Those days when we would play H-O-R-S-E for hours on end.
          The games are less frequent now. The stabbing discomfort of arthritis has slowed my companion down. A week ago we played H-O-R-S-E for twenty minutes. We each won a game. It was still fun, even with pains shouting from the joints.
          When the last game was done we hugged each other and walked to the car. I carried the ball and placed it in the trunk, where it has been stored for all these years.
          We drove home without a word being said. I think we were both silent because down deep we knew that we had just played our last game of  H-O-R-S-E.
          But somehow I still think of having one more game. One more time, together on the playground of the old Highland School, shooting baskets with Tommy, Laramie, Ward, Don, Gene, Dick and the other guys.