I spent my entire basketball career trying to fulfill dreams I had conjured up on long solitary nights in the gym taking phantom defenders off the dribble and launching jump shots over imaginary outstretched arms.
Those dreams remained in the forefront of my mind, as they always did, when I arrived at the gym two hours before my final college basketball game as a member of the Oberlin College Yeomen. Our record of seven wins and 17 losses placed us 9th out of 10 teams in the North Coast Athletic Conference and eliminated us from postseason contention for the fourth year in a row. My fellow seniors and I were guaranteed that this game, to be played against the perennial powerhouse Wabash College, would be our last.
I punched the four-digit code on the door to the locker room and glanced over at the far wall. In years past the wall had been covered with poster boards listing various weight-training and skill-development goals for players to complete in the off-season. But over my four years those signs had been discarded, and now all that occupied that space was a small bulletin board with two typed notes addressed to the team from players who had quit during the season.
Our crimson and yellow jerseys were folded along the slender benches lining the lockers. I found my #33 jersey, changed and went to the court to take some practice shots.
Oberlin’s home court is lined on both sides by rickety wooden bleachers that can seat hundreds, but we rarely saw crowds of more than thirty. Splashes of crimson, yellow and black paint feature prominently under the hoops and along the boundary lines.
Down the hall a few doors are basketball courts with shaky hoops and a dusty floor where our team held open gym scrimmages in the off-season. On those slippery floors I was a lethal scorer and a fierce competitor, someone who was capable of getting hot and carrying a team to victory through a variety of jump shots and acrobatic moves to the hoop. I was not dominant in one particular skill, but my ability to do a little bit of everything—scoring, passing and rebounding—made me a versatile threat on the court. At just 6-feet-3-inches and 180 pounds, I thrived on guarding players who were bigger and stronger than me by outworking and outsmarting them. On offense I mastered the ability to create just enough space between myself and my defenders to get my shot off within 17-feet of the hoop, and I used my quick first step and jumping ability to blow by them to the rim.
In college I buried myself in basketball the way a shy child hides in books. I constructed my entire identity around being a basketball player, and my self-esteem was dictated by my performance in my last game or the number of shots I made out of 500 in a morning workout. I wanted nothing more than to be like my team’s top players whom I went toe-to-toe with in the off-season.
I spent my summers pulling two-a-days at the local athletic club obsessively working on my game. Heading into each season the coaching staff would ask the team who was poised for a breakout year and my name always came up. But there was no breakout, and by my senior year the coaches referred to me as an “open gym all-star,” a nickname I fully deserved for my failure to translate my sharp off-season play into production on the main court where the clutch baskets really mattered.
I was not always an “open gym all-star.” While I was plagued with self-confidence issues that resulted in bouts of inconsistency my whole career, in high school I was the guy who played his best when it mattered most. In my final high school game, I played the best game of my career on the biggest stage of my life in front of thousands of fans at the Target Center, home to the Minnesota Timberwolves. But four years later my identity as a basketball player devolved into someone who people would whisper about under their breath, “He’s good, but not when it counts.”
I had an odd sense of hope going into my last college game that I could shed my nickname for good with one memorable performance. In warm-ups, I felt an extra bounce in my step. I was soaring to the rim despite the torn cartilage in both of my hips and the bulging disk in my back. It was Senior Day, and family and friends of the seniors, along with Oberlin students and Wabash fans, slowly filled the unsteady bleachers. By game time my teammates and I had the largest crowd of our college careers. We were assembled mid-court with our families before tipoff and given a small plaque and a framed picture as they announced our names over the fuzzy public address system. As a nod to our service, all five seniors started the game.
We botched our opening play on offense, which we had practiced just the day before. The play ended with me driving to the hoop and throwing up a floating shot that barely nicked the rim and missed as the shot clock expired. Minutes later, I attacked the basket on a spin from the right side, but I inexplicably missed the wide-open layup. Three of the seniors, including myself, were quickly subbed out. Wabash proceeded to go on a 25-2 run to end the first half.
As the game slogged on, the capacity crowd grew restless. When one of our freshmen, a talented 5’10” guard, stole a pass and converted a layup to cut the deficit from 31 to 29, the fans erupted in a mocking sense of approval the way a restaurant full of people cheers for a waitress who drops a dish. My friends who had quit the team and were now sitting in the stands described that moment to me later as “sad” and “worse than the time we lost by 50 to the College of Wooster our freshman year.”
Glued to the bench while this charade unfolded, I could only think of my sleepless nights, those damning words “open gym all-star,” and my parents, who had traveled 700 miles for the game. At one point my teammate and roommate of four years caught my eye from down the bench and shook his head. I whispered, “I can’t wait for this to be over.”
With five minutes to play the seniors checked back in to what was now a 69-25 embarrassment in front of a packed house of mothers, fathers, siblings and friends. In the waning moments everyone tossed up ill-advised shots so he could at least say he scored in his last game, and with under a minute to go I pump-faked my defender and had a clean look at the hoop. I missed and finished the game scoreless and ashamed.
The team sat stone-faced and silent in the locker room following the loss. After my last high school game I sobbed uncontrollably into my jersey. But this time I didn’t shed a tear. I was numb.
I rarely played basketball in the final months of school because I had to rest the torn cartilage in my hips, which I had been treating during the season with ice baths and eight ibuprofen a day. I stopped watching basketball because the successes and failures of other players, whatever strengths or holes they had in their game, only reminded me of my own shortcomings.
In the summer after I graduated from school I joined a league at a local Boston gymnasium. The players were anywhere from my age to well into their 50s. As I recovered from my injuries, I regained my feel for the game. The first time I touched the ball in a game setting, I dribbled down the right side of the court, sliced through the middle of the lane and shuffled a no-look pass across my body to a teammate for an open layup. The “open gym all-star” had returned.
I wasn’t used to playing basketball for sport. It had been a lifestyle, and I felt that if I wasn’t constantly working on my craft, retooling myself to get better each day, then I didn’t deserve to be on the court. Before each pickup session I arrived early to get up extra shots and stayed late to practice those I had missed during the games. Whenever I showed up that summer I was after more than a simple recreation league win. I sought what I had failed to achieve during my college career: dominance and satisfaction in my abilities as a player. But I started to look around the gym and at times I saw a terrifying future path. These older men fought over foul calls and bickered about shots. One day, two middle-aged men got into a tussle over a foul call and one of them, a real-estate agent, started swearing and punted the basketball into the air. When the ball hit the floor I left and never went back.
These days it is not uncommon for me to go a month without touching a ball. Sometimes I play in a league in Brooklyn in a small, run-down church with a linoleum floor. Other times I play on Columbia University’s courts, usually at odd hours, and particularly late at night. Wherever I play, I keep my mouth shut and I rarely smile. I am usually one of the best players on the floor and I actually think I am a much better player now than I ever was when I was religiously working on my game. My off-balance shots and quick drives to the hoop, which completely eluded me when I wore an Oberlin jersey, often elicit a sigh or a shake of the head from whoever is defending me. But when people ask me about my college career, as some occasionally do after games, I can’t tell them I was a star. Their inquiries, intended to be flattering, are only burdensome, a constant reminder of what I failed to become in the small window that is any athlete’s playing career.
If I could tell them anything, I would say I was not lacking in fast-twitch muscle fibers or my understanding of the game. I lacked the self-confidence and killer mentality that every great basketball player I played with and against and looked up to possessed. During my career, my greatest fear was that when my playing days were over I would not be satisfied with who I was as a player. That fear became a reality, and I live it every time I pick up a basketball.
Many times I have left the gym, and whether I made almost every single shot I took or spent the day shaking off rust, I have told myself that it would be the last time I would ever play. I have yet to fulfill that promise.
I still play because I miss the moments in a game when my nerves turned to adrenaline, when my doubt turned to confidence. I could never predict when that switch would click; it could have been when I did anything as small as making a layup, as fierce as blocking a shot, as gratifying as snatching a rebound, as deft as zipping a bounce pass to a cutting teammate, or as exhilarating as canning an open jump shot. Those moments came in rumbling arenas and heated summer pickup runs, alongside some of my closest friends and total strangers.
When I play now, one of my favorite things to do is to dribble up the court in a half-jog as the other players settle in. I keep an eye on my defender, who these days is not nearly as tall or as fast or as smart as any of the players I grew up playing against. I can tell exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. I continue to dribble up the court and direct my eyes just above his shoulders, like a skilled presenter who looks all around the room, but never makes eye contact. I know that because this defender is new to my game he has no idea what I will do next, but all of my former teammates certainly know what’s coming. I use my peripherals to keep an eye on his feet, backpedaling, backpedaling. As his heels start to dip below the three-point line, I hunch forward slightly. With this extra signal he thinks I am going to take him to the hoop, but he is wrong. As he drops past the free throw line I stop on a dime and rise up, 17-feet from the hoop. He flails forward, trying to jump while moving backwards.
If I hang onto the ball too long, which is a bad habit I never fully shook, and I release my shot on the way down from my jump, then my arms feel heavy, like shooting a bowling ball. But if I let the ball go at just the right moment, then it feels light—a flick of the wrist—and I know it’s good even before it gently hits the back of the rim and rolls into the hoop.
Only in that split-second between when the ball leaves my fingertips and drops through the net, am I free. Once my feet hit the ground, that voice inside my head comes rushing back and chides, “Why couldn’t you do that more when it mattered?” And then I am off down the court, trying to escape who I was.
Hal Sundt is pursuing his MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University where he also teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Wilder Voice and Uinterview.com. For more of his writing visit halsundt.com.