One word. Hear it and memories come flooding back. I know one thing for certain: it is far more than a game.
This post is one man’s personal trek, one man’s tireless effort to surrender basketball.
I never imagined I’d have such a hard time giving it up. I went out to my backyard this weekend and just reflected on the sport. This ritual happens every week or two, and I imagine a lot of former players do the same. I can’t begin to grasp how tough it must be for former NBA stars to accept that they are, in fact, former stars. My feelings for the game are endless. It raised me. It made me a man. It introduced me to my closest friends, and it’s the reason I know the other two Gentlemen of Sport.
I sweat. I cried. I bled. A lot.
I played basketball from the time I begged my mom to let me play in fifth grade (and earned the opportunity by performing up to her standards in the classroom; I was always a bit of a goof in class, but when basketball was on the line, I got serious) until I won the State Championship as a senior. I was the point guard. The captain. The undaunted leader. The kid who just wasn’t athletic or explosive enough to get recruited anywhere but one small, expensive private school. Heaven knows my pockets weren’t deep enough to play there.
I played varsity for four years after I was the last one to make the team as a freshman. I only made it because a senior quit. My coach looked me in the eyes and said: “It’s going to be really hard for you; I don’t think you can do it.”
He was right: it was hard, far and away the hardest thing I’d ever done. I did it.
Why did I persevere? I loved the game. Let’s go back in time.
When I was 5, my dad got me a basketball hoop, which I still own, for my birthday. That hoop got abused. I lived in a pretty bad neighborhood and owned the only hoop in town. All the neighborhood kids came over every day and played with me. It was like a community gathering. I was the only white kid, but that didn’t matter. It’s funny, when I was first playing in high school as a freshman, one woman came up to me and said: “you play like a black boy but shoot like a white boy.” I just laughed. The inner city of Buffalo was where I learned to play and it made me the player I was.
The problem, as it turned out, was that I couldn’t jump like “a black boy.” I suffered countless knee and ankle sprains/breaks/bone bruises in high school, and they’re coming back to haunt me now and I have “early arthritis,” as my doctor put it.
Here’s my point: when I go out to my backyard, the rim looks exactly the same. The game is the same. I look at the hoop just like I did when I was 5, just like some 5-year-old kid does today. He might think he’s going to the NBA like I did. I figured that by now I’d be playing college ball somewhere. People would be watching me on TV.
I am 20 years old, and I have a hell of a life. But something in my stomach still feels empty when I watch 19-year-olds like Kyrie Irving tearing up the NBA. That was supposed to be me.
Honestly, nowadays, I’m probably half as good as I was in high school. It’s been over three years since I played a real game. As the Editor in Chief of UB’s paper, I get to cover any sports games I want, and as a basketball freak, I cover the men’s basketball team year-round. It’s awesome having front row seats. I love meeting the players and watching them grow. I just…I always believed I’d be one of those players.
I look at some of the white guys who make the team (this is Division-I basketball) and think: What separated him from me? Maybe someone saw him along the way. Maybe I should blame my genetics or frail bones.
I don’t think I should blame anyone. I just want you to know, if you’re out there and struggling with giving up any sport…you’re not alone. It sounds so overdramatic. So cliché. An outsider could never understand.
As I was getting done shooting around, a kid from up the street who I’d never met walked up to me. “Hey man, can I shoot?” he asked.
We played one-on-one a few times and I reminisced with him, sharing the stories of my career and knocking down jumper after jumper. Boom. Step-back, crossover, fadeaway. Money. He asked about my life now and I explained everything: how I’ve been blessed to work at UB, The Buffalo News, etc.
He was a few years older than me and refused to get frustrated when I wouldn’t let him score. He stayed upbeat and then reminded me of an important lesson: “You’ve just gotta do what you love, man.”
And that’s what I’m doing. I’m not playing the game I dedicated my life to, but I’m doing something bigger: I’m putting it in perspective and writing about it, informing the public about the incredible, life-changing sport I just can’t get enough of.
I can’t play any more, and I have to accept that sad fact every single day. But man, the game isn’t going away, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Former basketball players unite. We’re still here; the game is still here. And Good Lord, is that a beautiful thing.