When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Orlando Magic the other night, putting them out of contention for this year’s NBA championship, LeBron James just walked off the court and didn’t come back. Didn’t talk to media, teammates, anybody. Showered, got dressed, and hustled out of the arena like he was being chased to the team bus by bears.
And you know what? I understand. The man was embarrassed on the highest stage in professional basketball in front of millions of viewers. When that sort of embarrassment happened to me in front of only eight of my closest friends, I almost gave up the game for good.
Truth be told, I didn’t touch a basketball for almost an entire year. That’s how scarring it was. Perhaps I should explain what “it” was. A man who loves hoops as much as I do doesn’t just give the sport up for no reason. It takes something extremely scarring to suffocate that sort of love. Truthfully, I’d just gotten to the end of my rope.
It should first be noted that playing basketball was the first thing I’d ever had any success with in my life as a result of serious practice. Singing came easily, acting came easily, comedy came easily, so I participated in those things. Piano was difficult, archery was difficult, tetherball was difficult, so I did not participate in those things. Tried, but gave up very quickly.
Basketball was something else, though. Maybe it had something to with growing up in Chicago’s backyard during an era when Michael Jordan was the most transcendent athlete the world had seen since Mohammed Ali, but the game was just something I loved. So, even though as a sixth-grader I was only slightly taller than that creepy midget dad on crutches from “Little People Big World,” I still worked my butt of because I wanted to play.
I’d lay on the floor practicing the proper wrist-flick for shooting. Over and over again, ball goes up, ball comes down. I’d spend hours in my neighbors oversized driveway doing dribble drills—through the legs, behind the back, “The Spider,” and I’d be out there until my lower back was sore from leaning over all day. My buddy Jimmy and I would lower his adjustable rim to where we could dunk it, and that’s where I’d practice jumping. We even played with older black kids who were way stronger and way better than us, just to get the hang of things.
Always overmatched, often scared, and usually inept, I went through all the motions summer and after summer. It helped, of course, that I grew several inches by eighth grade, and by then I was experiencing some success in school ball, even though stylistically I was more a Harlem Globetrotter than a Chicago Bull. The coaches didn’t like that, and eventually it put me on the bench.
I was sore about it, but deep down I knew I was pretty good. I could dribble with the best of them and shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere on the court. I’m known for my showy passing, which more often than not bounces of someone’s face or misses the target completely en route to “out of bounds.” What I can’t do is play defense or “be strong.” Which is what got me into trouble the night I decided to retire from the game basketball.
So how, after devoting years of my life to honing my skills as a baller could I just quit. Well, quite simply, I was dunked on.
That doesn’t sound too bad, but trust me, it was. I was involved at an intramural league in college with black roommates, and we were a pretty solid group of guys. Definitely won more than we lost—that much I can say with confidence. But we also wore the baggiest shorts in the league and were known to play the least orthodox brand of basketball of any team. My black friends are great people, and absolutely hilarious, so it was almost always a fun time.
Except for the night we played against some fraternity with a light-skinned kid towering over just about all of us. He could shoot, play D, and dunk the damn ball, so we stuck our best defender on him. I can’t remember which of us that was, but I’m positive it wasn’t me. I usually guarded the chunky white kid who hovered around the three-point line in his little cut-off t-shirt and never made any attempt to hustle or make cuts.
But on fast breaks defensive assignments mean nothing. Mr. Light Skin got a steal, and I was the only one with a chance of stopping him. So I took off after him and caught up five or six steps from the rim.
Then, everything went into slow motion, and I knew what was about to happen even before it actually happened. L.S. picked up the ball and took his two steps of momentum before rocketing towards the rim. Me—pale and unathletic—did the same, but the difference in height and hops resulted in him stuffing the ball in a pretty nice dunk, and me slamming my body into his, arms extended, while the ball came crashing down on my head.
There aren’t a lot of dunks in IM games, so his team was going bat-crap over the stupid play. My teammates were laughing their asses off. I can’t remember what happened the rest of the game, but that may have been the game-winning point. I don’t remember.
What I do remember is dressing much faster than everyone else and returning to the suite alone. The rest of the guys must’ve stayed back to play another game or something because I was there on my own for a while. After showering in frustration and wondering what it was about basketball I loved so much, I came to realize that I wasn’t really all that good at it. The dunk hadn’t been my only downfall that game; I’d missed a ton of shots, defensive assignments, and easy passes. Some nights you just play horrible, and this had been one of them. Except while most horrible nights are tolerable, this night ended with getting my head dunked on.
Also at the time the Bulls—my lifelong favorite sports team, period—were friggin’ awful, somehow adding to my overall frustration.
So, I got out of the shower, and retired from the game of basketball.
I left a note on the door for the guys expounding upon my decision, and I forget exactly what it said but I remember it being really formal and ridiculous. The guys loved it and told me I’d be back for more, thinking it was all some sort of ruse. But it wasn’t. They kept asking me to play and I kept declining. It wasn’t until the next school year (I’d be a junior) that I’d play again. I don’t know what got me back out there, but it wouldn’t be the end.
What does a guy do when he’s retired? I could’ve chosen to beef up on my piano or tetherball skills, but like I said, I’ve always hated practicing. My recent exploits in the game of basketball had proven this to me. Instead I devoted the majority of my time to my girlfriend at the time, something that proved to be a much worse choice than trying to block the dunk of an athletically pristine frat kid several inches taller than me.
But what is life but a collection of bad choices? The important thing is that we learn from them. In a way, it’s just like practicing a sport or an instrument. You make mistakes early on but learn from them and get better.
Me, I don’t have the patience for that. I’d rather just be good at it from the beginning. Of course, LeBron James was put on earth as the quintessence of athleticism and even he can’t seem to win a title. I guess the moral of the story is, whenever you fail at something, it’s best to just storm out and quit for a little while.
Hey, it worked for me.