Basketball Taught Me How to Live

On the impermanence of youth, health, and my crappy ankle

Photo: Mint Images RF/Getty Images

ItIt happened again one night when my fiancée and I were walking home from work. One second we were side by side, mid-conversation about our days, and suddenly she was alone in the darkness. I dropped abruptly, as though I’d been hit by a sniper. Andrea took a few steps before noticing I was on the ground behind her. I was holding my right ankle and biting back curses into muffled groans.

It wasn’t my first sprained ankle. The pain was familiar, the procedure instinctive. I untied my shoelaces, then retied them extra tightly to put pressure on the impending swelling. I pushed myself upright and took a few cautious steps, finding the pavement with my heel before rolling the rest of my foot flat to the ground. I limped and hobbled the rest of the walk home. We looked like an elderly couple whose wish to return to their youth had been granted, but were still stuck in the fragile habits of old age.

There was no reason for the accident, and there were no mitigating circumstances. The pavement was smooth—no cracks or uneven surfaces, no loose rocks or tree roots breaking up the concrete. Nor was darkness an issue. Between streetlights, headlights from passing cars, and the insomniac fluorescence beaming out of storefronts, I could see just fine. I have only the boring excuse of physical frailty. I’m 30 years old.

There’s a history behind my ankle’s chalky integrity. Most of my serious ankle injuries have happened somewhere on the basketball court. The first time was during a practice in ninth grade: I was sprinting on a fast break one second and writhing on the ground the next. My guess is I stepped on someone’s foot while I was running, but I can’t say for sure.

Me as a basketball player always had an expiration date, but that’s what made the game beautiful.

“The ground just came up and bit you, eh?” my coach asked, as he taped up my ankles in what would become a prerequisite for every game and practice for the rest of my life. He chuckled at the thought. I was haunted by it.

In twelfth grade, while playing a pickup game with friends—so of course my ankles weren’t taped—I jumped in the air to contest a shot and landed squarely on my friend’s foot, sending the full force of my weight in the opposite direction from my ankle, shredding whatever youthful elasticity was left down there. I was on crutches for weeks.

When I replay those moments, my right foot automatically and involuntarily lifts off the floor, as though anticipating the ground might come up to bite it again. But surrounding those specific instances are countless episodes of lesser twists and tweaks, rolls and wrenches. In the world of ankle injuries, there is little uncharted territory for me. Tendons and ligaments have been sprained, strained, stretched and torn. When I rotate my foot, my ankle grinds and gurgles. It both sounds and feels like there is gravel between my bones. I wince at the sight of high heels. How my mother could wear them every Sunday morning without snapping her ankles into right angles was a miracle worthy of one of my father’s sermons.

I’ve never broken my ankle, though. As far as ankle injuries go, a break is supposed to be ideal. Broken bones heal back to full strength, but the rest of the ankle does not. As time passes and injuries accumulate, my ankle has only grown weaker, and will only continue to do so.

TThe night I twisted my ankle in front of Andrea forced me into some unflattering disclosures. We had been living together for more than six years, and I thought our past lives had been adequately exhumed. But I’d never brought up my off-and-on relationships with ice packs and compression bandages. It’s hard to reveal your secret weakness, to send hints of its possible recurrence into the world. It’s hard to admit out loud I’m afraid to run a hard sprint or play a light game of pickup in the park, lest one small error fuck up my next four to six weeks. Despite thinking of myself as the Achilles of my own personal Iliad, the only thing he and I have in common is our general zone of vulnerability. The marksman who sniped me on my walk home may not have fired as fatal a shot as Paris did, but he didn’t need to. My demise is already more certain than Achilles’.

My injuries represent years of dedicated delusion, more generously called my identity as an athlete. If you looked at me now—a corpulent lump hobbling about on a flimsy foot—you would probably not characterize me as an athlete. But for much of my life, I was a basketball player. I played on every school team from elementary through Division III in college, although I was never particularly good. My obvious limited talent added an additional layer of challenge to the game. Every pass I completed, every shot I made, every turnover I forced was that much more triumphant because I was almost always at an athletic disadvantage. My shortcomings were constraints that made beauty possible, the way haiku confines syllable counts or villanelles dictate rhyme schemes. I wouldn’t be the first to call basketball poetry in motion, but even bad poetry is still poetry.

Basketball is artful. It’s a test of creativity in which pattern recognition and problem solving are as integral as cardio and coordination. Its freedom allows you, even forces you, to map out the contours of your personal limitations. And, in rare moments, you get a glimpse of the view from the other side.

From the time I was put into youth sports until I retired from competitive ball, I always operated within physical boundaries I thought I could will myself to transcend. On occasion I did, but my ankle regularly and emphatically reminded me those occasions were fleeting, and the boundaries were about as flexible as a femur. There’s only so much poetic sentiment and inspired motivation can do against a taller, faster, stronger player. By playing in college, I surpassed everyone’s expectations, including my own. When I told my high school coach I made the college team, he laughed and asked why. But there was always a higher level of the game I couldn’t hope to reach. Me as a basketball player always had an expiration date, but that’s what made the game beautiful—just as life is beautiful even though (or maybe because) it must eventually end.

I wouldn’t be the first to call basketball poetry in motion, but even bad poetry is still poetry.

Basketball was less about sharpening myself into manhood through competition and teamwork than the sheer joy of creative motion. The game was open and dynamic, brimming with seemingly infinite possibility. Free movement is a fulfillment of purpose. It’s why we have a physical existence. There are rules, of course: You have to dribble the ball, you have to stay within the boundaries of the court, you can’t assault other players. But within those defined boundaries you can do whatever you want, however you want. As long as your body is capable enough.

Yet there’s a more profound freedom in basketball, a uniquely kinesthetic expression of imagination. As a kid I shot hoops by myself for hours in my driveway or at the park. This became a portal to another world, one in which I was a professional athlete in high-stakes situations. A world in which I was great. I felt that world in an immediate, sensory way because I was actively playing what I was pretending. And it was more than last-second, Game 7-winning shots; I was also giving postgame interviews: I’ve been lucky my whole career, man, but I’ve also worked for everything I’ve got, all 10 of my championships and MVP trophies. Look out for my debut rap album dropping this year.

A child leaves the snug confines of the womb and enters a world of limitlessness without a sense of who or when or where they are. Basketball was a similar sort of rebirth for me. In the throes of play, I left the only world I knew for one that was impossibly vast and open. The game was the in-between that connected those worlds. It collapsed the borders between imaginative infinity and concrete reality. My delusional adolescent belief in myself stemmed from the cross-pollination of these worlds. That type of optimistic buoyancy, no matter where it comes from, prepares us for life in the same way losing a basketball game prepares us to carry the weight of real loss.

My relationship with basketball and my identity as an athlete are as obsolete as old pencil marks etched into a doorframe, set to join the junkyard of past selves alongside the indestructible teenage me and the childhood me who firmly believed in an afterlife simply because his mom and dad did. Now I’m physically active only when I make a conscious effort to be; that is, when I go to the gym, and no one in their right mind would call what I do there athletic. David Foster Wallace wrote that sports are “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” I’m not sure how he defined reconciliation, but there can be no restoration of friendly relations between my body and me. It’s too late. To look back is to look up, at the pinnacle of my athleticism; to look forward is to look down a slope that leads to a black hole. Even if I could dedicate myself to getting back into basketball shape—which would mean losing about 50 pounds—my ankle guarantees I’ll never be able to run as fast or jump as high again. Even if I dared to try.

There are identities and personalities we try on throughout our lives; collections of habits, perspectives, and tastes. We keep some longer than others. Some transform into something new, others simply fall away. We constantly molt our former selves, but with age the identities that remain grow heavier, more meaningful. You’ve had them for longer, and it gets harder to say goodbye. Who are you when you are no longer who you were? Are you still a basketball player if you stop playing basketball? Are you still a son when your parents are gone?

So now I avoid the game. It’s not exactly pain I’m trying to avoid, although that’s certainly part of it. There’s something larger and darker lurking beneath. Injuries of any sort confront you with the reality that you are every bit as impermanent as anything else. Pain makes you acutely aware of time and its passing because you have to concentrate so intently on enduring it. There are times when the only comfort to be found is the understanding that forever is impossible, so pain too must end. When it subsides, however, that understanding is no longer a comfort, but rather a tragedy from which we perpetually seek additional comforts or distractions. My ankle reminds me everything isn’t going to be all right in the end. No matter how much I wail or curse or ask why, I will one day be left to shoot hoops alone, and as soon as I stop, the gymnasium lights will go off on me, too.

No one close to me has died, but that’s bound to change soon. We all know we and everyone we love will one day be gone and forgotten, but to experience that absence—not as some down-the-road theory but as the extinguished warmth of a familiar touch, a shot taken on an empty court, or the creaking stiffness of a once-supple limb—is unspeakably sad and unforgivably artless. I’m not worried about my own death. I’m still young enough to harbor the delusion that it is far, far away. But if death reveals itself to me through my ever-weakening ankle like a dark ink blot blooming through thin white paper, what does that mean for Andrea, my older brothers, my parents? When did they stop being who I assumed they’d always be, the timeless invincible people I needed? When did they become susceptible to time? When did they grow up, move out, slow down? How much ink is showing through their paper-thin existence, and what does it say?

It’s one thing to leap for a rebound and realize you’ve aged, but altogether different to realize it isn’t just you. Everyone around you also grows old and vanishes. So much of life is spent expanding your social circle to include more people to love. But then it stops growing, and then it starts shrinking. You can only watch others disappear into their fate while you wait for yours. It makes you want to sit life out a little, to allow distance to frost-shatter between your relationships so it won’t hurt as much when they go.

AA few weeks after I tweaked my ankle, I went outside to shoot hoops for the first time in a while. I was stiff and awkward at first, like trying to make small talk with an estranged lover after years of silence. But eventually I settled into it and started moving without thinking. I was still able to access the delusional optimism of childhood. I pretended I was a could-have-been NBA legend playing overseas, and when I stepped off the court I was a modestly selling but acclaimed novelist—your favorite writer’s favorite writer.

It’s unfortunate how easy it is to forget the magic of play. It has the ability to suspend time and let you feel like you’ll walk back home from the park like you did as a teenager. Your mom is playing solitaire on the computer and your dad is outside, still in his slacks and loafers from work, watering the grass. Your brothers are playing NBA Courtside on the Nintendo 64, laughing at its glitches and slamming the controllers. You smell the chicken in the oven, so you have to shower quickly and start setting the table. There is no tomorrow, only today, and anything after that is still far, far away. Everyone is home, everyone is home, everyone is home.

You play on anyway, knowing pain will surely come no matter what you do, so it’s a little better if it comes on your terms.

Then you stop shooting. The ball bounces, shorter and faster, until it rolls to a stop on the grass behind the hoop. The veil is lifted. You’re 30 years old, and the expanse of the future and the weight of your decisions is causing your ankle to tremble.

But you play on anyway, knowing pain will surely come no matter what you do, so it’s a little better if it comes on your terms. You feel the invigoration of the ball in your hands, see the open court and the vastness of its possibilities. You explode toward the basket, plant your foot, and push off in the other direction to spin into a layup—not because you’ll make it in but because it lets you feel, fleetingly, like forever is possible and time is not so mercilessly linear.

For a moment you are home again, where everyone is there waiting. You forgive people for growing old, for dying, and you forgive yourself for needing to forgive them.

You refuse to give up what you love just because it’ll be gone eventually.

You refuse to sit on the sidelines.

You accept the pain.

You choose.

You play.

Writer, teacher. Columnist at Sherdog and Honolulu Civil Beat. Essays and journalism all over the World Wide Web but conveniently located at ericstinton.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store