This Is Your Brain on Basketball: What I Learned about My Pro Career … After That Career Was Over

"And how did that make you feel?”

I’m in the third-floor office of a psychologist who shares a waiting room with four other doctors. On the other side of her door the scene is like you’d imagine: potted plants, receptionist, pens with fake flowers attached so nobody steals them. A mother sits next to a mess of People magazines, here with her inattentive teenage son. Next to them, a hipster girl looking like someone pissed in her Count Chocula; maybe she’s in rehab, has been in rehab, or will be in rehab someday. Her parents have enough money to pay for her to be here, I guess.

Speaking of money, this fifty-minute session isn’t free.

I shift in my seat next to the window. I push aside the response that jumped into my brain, which is to ask my new psychologist if she really and truly just asked me “how that made me feel” like every psychologist in every joke about psychologists.

Instead, I tell her how it made me feel.

I played professional basketball for nine years. My career encompassed stints on three NBA teams, three minor league teams, and five European teams, along with more training camps, tryouts and summer leagues than you knew existed.

The end to that career didn’t come like you might think—with some spectacular injury or with me riding off into the proverbial sunset, on my own terms or whatever people say. The end came because a contract I had with a second division team in Italy came apart right after I signed it. (These things happen, in Italy.)

Then I had another ankle surgery—my third in 18 months. Then I rehabilitated that ankle—my fifth rehab in four years. (I’d also had two knee surgeries.) Then I trained for another six months, thinking that maybe I wasn’t quite done with basketball. But the offers that came in weren’t enough to get me onto the court again. Plus, I was getting “old” and my body was waving giant red flags at me. Flags emblazoned with scalpels and explanations of benefits by Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

So, at age 32, I quit the only career I’d ever had.

I thought, at the time, that I was prepared for what was next. I wasn’t like some of the imbeciles I’d played with; I hadn’t deluded myself into thinking that basketball and I had paired for life, like gibbons or swans or Hall and Oates.

I was ready, I thought.

Then a few months passed and a dark existential dread crept into my life. My days were no longer colored by hopeful thoughts like, Today! I shall become better at basketball! One day I will conquer this dastardly game!

Instead, it was more like, Today. I shall get groceries. One day I will have all of the groceries.

Illustrations by Sarah Sypniewski

Eventually, my psychologist and I decided that for me, basketball was like an emotionally destructive wife or a forty-year career as a middle manager whose boss never smiled. Psychotherapy is not an exact science.

Either way, I had attached most of my self-worth to something that hadn’t returned the favor.

My father has a Ph. D in child psychology, so I’ve never thought of psychotherapy as weird, or as something that should be hidden away. I’ve never shied from talking about the therapy I’ve had. When I do, though, people always react rather negatively to the part where I say that we decided it was like I’d gotten out of a destructiverelationship.

“But,” they say. “You must have LOVED basketball. How could it have been destructive?”

This evokes a sigh from me. I know that I will struggle to explain how this works.

I will try all the same.

As basketball players go, I was pretty talented. I wasn’t nearly as talented, though, as many of the people I was playing around. In college at Iowa State, I played with Marcus Fizer, who was an All-American and who would eventually be the fourth pick in the NBA draft. In the pros, I was faced up against men whose names rhymed with Gevin Karnett and Bobe Kryant. I was better at basketball than almost anyone you’ll ever meet, but I was nowhere close to as good as those dudes.

In order (to try) to even the playing field, I tortured myself. Before my freshman year of college, I received in the mail a workout plan sent by a strength coach at Iowa State. It bordered on sadistic: more lifts and sprints and plyometrics than any one person ought to do in a day. I did it all. When I arrived on campus, I learned that my new teammates had laughed it off and thrown it in the trash.

But my war with myself was mostly mental—I set up a rewards system not unlike that employed by a battered wife. I told myself that if I just got good at this next thing, then basketball would tell me that I was OK. The problem was that I kept doing that, again, and again, and again.

Sure, I loved playing basketball at the start. When I was in high school, I counted down the days left in the season, not because I wanted the season to end, but because I loved practice so much; I was trying to savor each of them.

But basketball and I got twisted up, with me thinking it was the only decent thing about me, and with it getting weird and distant, and with me trying even harder to get its attention, and with it going on long lunches with its “financial advisor.”

And then, after all those years of fighting to make it and then finally making it and then getting hurt and then getting better and then making it again and then it all petering out like those last drops of water from a garden hose you’re putting away for the winter..after all that, it was over.

**

What you learn about therapy is that your therapist won’t fix you. She only provides you with the framework to talk yourself through whatever it is that’s bothering you. That stereotypical “How does that make you feel?” – that’s all there is to it, really. That plus asking the next question, and the next, and the one after that.

After two and a half years and several thousand of my dollars, I stopped seeing my psychologist. In part because I thought we’d done about as much as we could do, and in part because I couldn’t afford to go any more. (During my professional basketball career; I averaged an annual salary of around $70,000. I am not Shaquille O’Neal.)

I took with me some tricks my therapist taught me, tricks that helped me think about what I was thinking about. But more important, I took away some tricks I’d taught myself—tricks that apply whether you’re a basketball player, a trial lawyer, or just a guy in love.

What you do is not who you are.

Your accomplishments will not make you happy.

There is a difference between love and dependence.

Basketball gave me many things: I lived in foreign countries, I got paid to play a game, if everything else failed at the bar I could always fall back on, “Well, I play professional basketball.”

But the best thing about it was this: I learned how difficult it is when something important ends, and I wasn’t seventy or seventy-five when it happened.

Which means that, now, I can do something with that knowledge.

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