Photo by Collin Orcutt
“Finger pad control! Pound the ball into the floor!”
I crouch low on the balls of my feet and push the ball downward with force, knees bent, head up, off-hand warding away an imaginary defender.
“Harder! Bounce the ball through the floor!” Eager to please, I pump the ball into the court harder, fighting the fatigue in my skinny arm. Around me, a group of 15 other nine and 10-year-old boys slap at their own basketballs, the sounds echoing off the whitewashed concrete walls of the Thomaston Grammar School gym. It is my first ever practice.
But why finger pad control? Why bounce the ball through the floor? Why even dribble at all? Engulfed in the game, I never stopped to ask these questions. All the coaches I ever played for taught that you dribble to control, to make the defense react. Dribble hard, dribble low, dribble with a purpose. If you dictate the ball, you dictate the game.
But that rationale is superficial, I realize now. You dribble because, if you just drop a ball onto the court, eventually the ball stops bouncing.
This is the funny thing about sports: you can spend a lifetime readying yourself, perfecting the details, fine-tuning your skills, but no matter how thorough your preparation or masterful your performance, there is a conclusion. Games are finite.
The NCAA calculates that less than one half of a percent of high school athletes go on to play their sport professionally. Less than three and a half percent of college seniors graduate to the pros. Strangely, the biggest commonality in sports seems to be that the majority of athletes have their game taken from them before they’re ready for it to stop.
“It ends for everybody,” writes John Ed Bradley, a former LSU football player, in his wrenchingly honest memoir It Never Rains In Tiger Stadium:
“It ends for the pro who makes ten million dollars a year and gets his face on magazine covers. It ends for the high school kid who never comes off the bench but to greet his teammates as they leave the field and file past him on their way to the Gatorade Bucket. For me, it ended on December 22, 1979, at the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. We beat Wake Forest that night, 34-10, in a game that came and went in a chaotic, brightly colored blur, as all games do.”
Like Bradley, I remember the exact moment when I stopped being a player. I was the starting shooting guard for Bard College, a small Division III school in upstate New York. On February 18, 2006, with our team out of contention for the conference tournament, we beat D’Youville College 78-67 on our home floor.
Graduation was three months away, but my youth officially ended that night. Sitting on the wooden bench in front of the last row of lockers, I took off my jersey for what I knew was the final time— there was no professional basketball career in my future. I was now a young man with over 15 years of training in the craft of shooting, dribbling, defending and competing with no place or purpose to keep doing so.
What followed for the next few months and then well past the summer was a dull but persistent feeling of confusion, not over the loss of my playing career— I had always known that would stop— but over the loss of a significant chunk of my identity.
So much of my life was dictated by being a basketball player. It was the commonality between me and my friends. It was the basis for most of my childhood memories. It influenced how I dressed and informed how I thought.
Mostly, though, basketball was the lens through which I viewed my physical self. I trained and ate to be a basketball player. Plyometrics in the morning, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates throughout the day, weight training in the evening, a casein shake before bed. Long arms, quick reflexes, lean muscles. I built my body for the sport.
The summer after graduation, I still trained like there was a next season. Then fall came, and the routine fell apart. I didn’t pack my car and go back to school. There were no captain’s practices or team runs. There were no coach’s expectations to meet.
My ball-handling diminished a little. My shooting accuracy started to stray.
At the gym, my motivation occasionally wavered. It was harder to rep out that extra set of squats, to give that last 5 percent on box jumps or to sprint out the last 30 seconds of an interval. I tried to compensate with stubbornness, but it was blind determination, and I knew it. With no first game to prepare for, I had no goal.
In October, I moved across the country to a new city, found a job, then took an internship on top of it. Life became double-shifts, 60-hour workweeks and naps in my car on lunch breaks. My time for the gym was halved and my time for the game almost nullified. Perhaps this should have signaled it was time for basketball to become something that I used to play, something from a former me. But I found I couldn’t let myself compromise.
I carved out time to play. But when I did, my touch for the game was gone and my body felt out of sync with the natural rhythm on the court. I would miss a shot I used to make— a hanging reverse layup or a floater over the outstretched fingers of a defender— and not know how to react. Should I be disgusted, or was I supposed to be satisfied with being worse? Could I still be an athlete if I was no longer a player?
Sometimes I didn’t care about these questions. I would wake up early on a Saturday morning to find a pick-up run, play on the green pavement of the outdoor courts until stings of pain flashed through my knees, then head home and lie on the cool tile floor in my basement, shooting a ball into the air again and again, ice packs numbing down the pain. Makes outnumbered the misses on those days.
But most times I cared too much. I would find myself sitting in my car outside of the local high school gym after an evening run, my shirt clinging to my chest with sweat, fingers caked with dirt, angrily wondering why I hadn’t closed off the lane to stop the winning basket— wondering why I couldn’t be what I once was.
Despite these frustrations, I couldn’t give up the game. Too much was still unresolved, and I still cared too deeply. It was as if I was trying to step forward but with my head always turned behind, hoping my shadow would extend far enough back to connect me with my past.
Now, five years later, I’m still unwilling to let the game go. I play in a string of adult leagues, some good and some bad, but basketball nonetheless. My feelings of loss haven’t disappeared— in fact they have hardly diminished at all.
The logical side of me knows adulthood demands focus in different areas and that I should, after all this time, move on. I can’t practice for 20 hours a week when I’m already working 50.
Yet another side of me doesn’t care. I earned those skills and that fitness level by never being satisfied with what I was the day before. I shouldn’t have to unlearn that.
In my mind, I will always be that player from my past, when I was at the pinnacle of my abilities, and I will carry those expectations. I’ll never be able to stop measuring myself against what I once was. But I also don’t think I’ll ever stop trying.
This realization, perhaps in a sad way, has become my new motivation. Playing against my past self is an unwinnable game, but my measure of success now is simply the determination to keep trying. There is something to be said for issuing yourself a challenge and facing it head on.
But the one thing that has remained true from that first day I picked up a ball until now, the reason I am willing to fight this losing battle with my past, is the freedom I find in the smallest moments of the game. It’s that play when you beat a defender to the loose ball and the whole court opens in front of you, when you know you won’t be caught and you measure your steps perfectly and leap toward the hoop, ball extended, floating through the air and feeling for the briefest moment that maybe you can just hang there forever. These moments feel exactly the same now as they did then. No matter how much I struggle to accept the athlete I am today, these fleeting instances remind me why I play.
So now, every week, I lace up my sneakers and throw on a mesh jersey for my league game. Before I step onto the court, I drag my fingers across the soles of my shoes and scuff my sneakers into the waxed wood, just as I always have.
Then I find a ball, slap it from hand to hand until I have the feel, and push it downward, with force, onto the wooden court. Inevitably, the ball rises back to meet me.
So I continue.