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AGING SLOWS THE STRIDE BUT FAILS TO DETER THE TRULY GUNG-HO

Did you notice that Al Gore, a comparatively young man at 46, tore his Achilles tendon while playing a rousing game of basketball in the congressional gym?

Yup. This "raging bull" of basketball was wheeled into surgery and is going to have a hard time getting around for a while.In fact, injuries like his have been genuine threats to many professional athletic careers, let alone vice presidents.

But what interests me is that Gore, like me, still plays basketball long after he should have given it up. I've always loved basketball, too, because it is good, consistent exercise and requires a lot of brainpower.

Only thing is, once you get past the age of 35, it becomes harder and harder to keep up your stamina, and especially to keep up with younger players, who, in my case, are my sons.

When I first started playing basketball with my four sons, they were small.

I could stand all four of them and count on certain victory. I was so unbelievably tall that I could miss three or four shots in a row and still get the ball back every time until I made it.

Sometimes I didn't even run down the court.

We always had to be careful with the youngest, who ran the risk of never getting the ball from the rest of us big guys - and sometimes he could get hurt.

So we used to purposely give him the ball and fail to guard him so he could have a few cracks at the basket.

Well, things have dramatically reversed. Now all my sons can beat me with ease, sometimes without breaking a sweat.

As for me, I'm huffing and puffing, tripping and pulling tendons, while I race to the basket, always, it seems, just a second or two late.

Now I love the challenge even more, even though I can't shake that bursitis in the left leg.

One evening I narrowly but single-handedly defeated my two youngest sons, ages 14 and 18, and considered it the triumph of a lifetime.

You can imagine how embarrassed they were.

It doesn't happen very often, I promise. The only thing that ever makes up for my lack of speed is my trusty hook shot, which my sons can stop only about 50 percent of the time.

If that shot ever fails me, I know I'm through with basketball.

They still think it's sort of a silly shot and can't figure out why it ever goes in. They much prefer the powerful dunk.

The question is, how long can I reasonably be expected to play? How old do I have to be to take a well-deserved retirement from the game?

The professional players are considered over the hill when they reach their late 30s. If someone stays in the game when he reaches his 40th birthday, he is considered a miracle man.

By all rights, I should have given it up 10 years ago. I have been known to wear pads on my knees and elbows, and I'm seriously considering goggles to insulate me against the dunk shots.

Why not? Kareem got away with it.

It may be that I'm failing to accept the loss of my treasured youth, but basketball is still a lot more fun than all those other forms of mostly boring exercise. Aiming for the hoop with a healthy competitive spirit adds considerable zest to exercise - if my body can stand it.

So I think I'll probably keep doing it for maybe 10 more years. The only thing that can stop me is if one day my sons say to me in all earnestness, "Dad, we just plain don't want to play with your kind any more."