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Ball is (not) Life

When I was a child, my dad had a particular flair for delivering one-line life lessons. He would use these gems to punctuate the silent moments after probing into a particular area of my life. These conversations often occurred during car rides home from late basketball practices or Saturday morning trips to Home Depot for which I was volunteered against my will. Just him and me driving and his intuition that there was something on my mind.

Back then, I appreciated the direct and rhetorical simplicity of his wisdom. I’d seek refuge in my visible discomfort, secretly hoping it meant a swift end to our conversation. Feigning composure in the passenger seat, it let my dad know his words hit their mark, that in my head I was turning over the nugget of wisdom and pondering how it applied to his particular line of questioning. Looking back, I now recognize the smug satisfaction he poorly concealed in those moments as pure fatherly joy. “I know… I know,” I’d mutter, not to dismiss the lesson, but to preempt his signature sign-off. It was a final comfort before an acute case of the bends and a sharp shift in conversation. “One day,” he’d say, “the lightbulb will go off.”

Since stepping away from basketball, I’ve been contemplating one of my father’s more profound proverbs: “Life is a set of stepping stones.” I can’t recall when he first imparted this wisdom. Like many of his teachings, he repeated it over the years, reinforcing its value and its wide range of applicability in everyday life.

I needed this wisdom when I couldn’t grasp why our family bounced from New Hampshire to Texas and back, to Alabama, and then, finally, Georgia. I needed it when I failed to see the purpose behind our grueling yard work or our 6am Sunday morning runs at the local track. And I needed it countless times throughout my youth when both he and my mother told me, in not so many words, that I would not play basketball forever.

The beauty of the stepping stones lies in their versatility. On one awkward car ride, it is about navigating unforeseen changes. On another, it’s a reminder not to skip steps because each has something to teach us—that some things are a stone without our even realizing it. And on yet another occasion, it’s about embracing impermanence and our capacity to take new steps in any direction we choose.

In my youth, I only scratched the surfaces of these revelations. I cherrypicked what seemed tangible, logical even, and dreamed about the order and direction of the steps I wished to take. The concept of stepping stones gave me a false sense of control; it meant that I could architect a plan.

As I ventured further into the world, I learned that the lessons from our youth have competition. One of the more hyperbolic tropes of a basketball career, simpler and even more distilled than my father’s lines, is “ball is life”. It’s difficult to capture just how addictive and insidious this idea can be for a young athlete. One moment it’s motivation leading up to junior varsity tryouts and the next it’s the foundation of one’s entire personality.

For most, this vacation into adopting an identity sputters to a harmless end in high school. They come to terms with the reality that they didn’t win the genetic lottery or that varsity basketball was in fact their peak athletic achievement. Alternatively, they might confront some other form of self awareness and admit that they just don’t love the game enough. The danger sets in when reality begins to bend.

What happens when life doesn’t shout back any compelling evidence to challenge such a lofty belief? What occurs when one’s successes and triumphs perpetually affirm a sport’s prevailing dominance over their life? For elite athletes, sports infiltrate every facet of their existence, demanding a mix of focus, dedication, and obsession that toes the line of toxic. And as is the case for any ambitious endeavor with a small window for success, sacrifices must be made. We forsake other parts of life to give us the best chance of squeezing through, what in my case was, the basketball shaped window frame.

Describing the extent of these sacrifices is challenging in practice. At the surface, it meant living abroad away from family and friends for ten months out of the year, missing countless graduations, weddings, and funerals. Zooming in, it meant sifting all of life’s most commonplace, daily decisions through the filter of “How will this affect my performance?” Basketball permeated everything.

Yet during my playing days, I was surprised how many friends and family viewed basketball as some compartmentalized hobby, no deeper than a few hours of practice each day and a game once or twice a week. I began to break that framing only after they’d ask “Well, what do you do then?” I’d systematically walk them through my daily routine, my latest roadtrip itinerary, or a gameday ritual. Only then they would realize all they had not considered—and all that was glaringly absent.

As athletes, and later, as I came to realize, in many professions, we too often intertwine what we do with who we are. As time pulls that knot tighter, the distinction between the two becomes blurred. In basketball, the rhythm of the season, the daily routines, the lifestyle and the intoxicating state of focus, they all create a self reinforcing structure that brings sense and order to the world. “Fall in love with the process,” they say. I reluctantly admit there is a certain comfort in surrendering to the simplicity and ease “ball is life” affords. We accept basketball as an omnipresent force that is both the problem and the answer. In the tough times, “ball is life” and in the good times, still, “ball is life”.

But what happens to this relationship after a career ending injury or when you can longer keep up with the surplus of youthful talent that are drunk on the same belief and vying for your job? Or what if after ten years of good health and fortune, you decide it’s time to walk away? When it comes to the knotted mess of sport and identity, we can either begin carefully untangling ourselves on our terms, or we can wait for life to forcefully separate the two for us.

And so as the lightbulb shines a bit brighter, we are reminded that sports are but a temporary step in life. The challenge lies in accepting as temporary a career that, for many, amounts to half a lifetime of effort. For this reason, I draw inspiration from my father’s analogy of “stepping stones” and rephrase it as “life is a collection of islands”. Some of these islands we call home for many years.

Basketball is one such island whose shores I washed up on at age four or five, shooting hoops alongside my older brother. It wasn’t until high school that I contemplated staying a while. I ventured deeper inland, testing my survival skills and scavenging resources to build a fire and makeshift shelter. Then in college, just on the cusp of feeling some regular, tropical comforts, I was forced to ponder, “What if the island is deadly?” I recalled Pi, the tooth he found, the meerkats, and the floating pool of dead fish.

For that reason, I never feared leaving behind basketball. After all, my junior year at Stanford I was on the verge of being forced off the island all together. For the first time, my parents’ warning felt real. I stood in the waist deep waves just off the shore and stared out to an infinite horizon understanding that I needed a boat. I realized my father’s original analogy of stepping stones underemphasized, hid even, just how far the next stone or island might be.

The day I was medically cleared to extend my stay with basketball was the day I promised myself I had already left. No matter what, only ten years. I could see Richard Parker already waiting by the shore. I immediately started disentangling myself from the notion of surviving on the island and instead expedited a shift in focus to learning how to survive at sea. I spent the majority of my professional career in non-attachment; I understood the game owed me nothing.

That said, despite all the psychological preparation and understanding of the necessity, it is still incredibly painful to shed something that was, for many years, so significant to life and identity. It’s akin to undergoing an elective major surgery. The healing process takes time, waiting to remove the staples, progressing through physical therapy, and eventually, ceasing to instinctively feel around for the piece of you that is no longer there.

So when I retired from professional basketball, I prescribed myself solitude, a space for healing, reflection, writing, and rummaging through whatever basketball left in its wake. At the time, I knew only who I was not. I thought, unironically, that I might get lost for a while traveling. A month here, another chance at the Indonesia trip I canceled after my Lisfranc tear in Venice. Another month there, I failed to reach my goal of ending my career in Japan, the home of my late grandmother. The list goes on. And then, when I was finally tired of my own company, I figured I’d find my way home.

Fortunately none of those plans came to fruition. If they had, my search would’ve taken me away during what I could never have known were my mom’s last precious months on earth.

Now, when I think about stepping stones, I’m reminded of the many ways my father repurposed the analogy to impart new lessons. I contemplate navigating the unexpected turn in my mother’s cancer diagnosis. I consider the distant “next” stones I initially fixated on in the distance and I see the overlooked step that God had placed right before me. And despite the storm at open sea and the agony of shipwrecking on grief, I’m reminded that, much like basketball, I have the capacity to find my way off this island too. Ball is not life. And though the last year might shout otherwise, neither is heartbreak.

My first year of retirement has reminded me there is no predetermined path, certainly no rush, to becoming. I’m learning that when a piece of us is lost, we must resist the immediate urge to replace it. And some things, I accept, we love and miss so deeply they leave a void we will never fill. The best of what remains grows around it.

My mom spent her last years living in a small city south of Atlanta. It’s the type of place with uncomfortably nosy, but well intentioned neighbors—the kind that, in their own words, “like to look out for each other”. They peek through their blinds when they hear car doors close and just happen to check their mail while you’re carrying in your groceries. They’re older, retired, and mostly white. This brought a welcome touch of levity when, last spring in the weeks before my mother’s passing, the neighbors next door invited me over. Until then, our interactions had been limited to exchanging pleasantries and my gratitude for the neighborhood church group’s prayers for my mom. In their age they’d seen cancer and loss many times. They wanted to console me. They also wanted to know me better.

“So you’re the one your mom said was traveling the world. I’ve met your brother with the cute new baby. But you’re the basketball player.”

“Once upon a time,” I defaulted.

It's what I settled on to appease both strangers and my patience. With a chuckle, I added that I, too, was retired. The lightbulb went off when she inquired about what I’d do next.

“I don’t know.”

For now, I told her, I was focused on the most important thing—being the loving son and brother I’d always been.

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