I was chasing Johnny around a screen – a blocking position – on the left nail, a throwing point. Yao had settled it. He was perhaps my only friend on the team – originally from the Ivory Coast, he had been adopted by Germans and brought up in Munich, about an hour away. (One night we took the train to town and he took me.) Yao was guarded by a 6-foot-9 center, whose elbow caught me in the delicate skull spot just below the eye socket. .
It was as if someone had disconnected my cheek. For the rest of the practice, I sat with my back against the wall, wondering how I got here.
When I was a kid, I played basketball in the backyard of my parents’ house in Austin, Texas, but it never occurred to me that I might one day turn pro. I sat on the bench for my high school team, then I quit. At university I used to play in ‘captain training’ with the first team before the start of the season, but apart from that I was just an English student. Then the last year came and I had to figure out what to do next.
Most of my friends spent that year applying for college or jobs. At some point, I had the brilliant idea of playing basketball. My mother is German, that’s what gave me hope. There are quotas for foreign players in German teams, but the bar is lower for ethnic Germans. So I worked on my jump-shot, jogged, lifted weights, and had my roommate film me shooting hoops in an empty gym. I sent the video to various agents, and one of them got me the trial in Landshut, Germany. My real ambition, however, was simply to put off adulthood as long as possible.
The club paid me 1,800 Deutschmarks a month and gave me a one-bedroom apartment to live in. Lots of money for a fresh graduate working their first “real” job, but not the kind of money you can build a career with. You box spend your 20s like that, though, and move on to coaching later. For most of my teammates, it was the best-case scenario.
None of us were going to hit the jackpot. Not even Johnny, our star. He was 30, with a wife and children in Texas. Maybe he’d been to NBA training camp once, fresh out of college. After that, he bounced around in different European leagues, trying to move up the ranks, but he was already too old to make a real leap and the rest of us had no illusions about that possibility. We were stuck in places like Landshut – small towns on the outskirts of big cities, where football rules.
Someone I knew described writing a PhD as putting on the same wet bathing suit every day. The same goes for being a basketball player. Every morning I put on nylon shorts and a singlet still soaked from the night before and went to work. At some point, like most rookies, I “hit the wall”. How can you continue to worry about the endless repetition that being a professional athlete entails, when the best you can hope to achieve is a marginal improvement that will change your place in a hierarchy you no longer want to be a part of ?
Of course, the reason they call it a wall is because you end up going over it. And maybe I would have, if I had held on. But then came the stray elbow.
In bed that night, I started sweating. The team sent me to a hospital in Munich for X-rays, which revealed a broken orbital bone slightly impinging on the nerve. The doctor couldn’t tell me if it would get better on its own or if the feeling in my face would ever come back, but surgery was no guarantee either – the choice was mine. Mostly what I felt at this point was relief, because the injury meant I didn’t need to play anymore. I had tried to turn something I did for love and joy into something I did for money and this was the result.
I decided not to have the operation. A few weeks later, I left the team and moved in with a friend of mine, who was working on a PhD. It took almost a year before I touched a basketball again. By then I was in college and the nerve damage was mostly healed – I could feel my face again.