Look, I never wanted to be one of those washed-up college basketball players returning to campus, years later, chasing a life that had long since outpaced me. In college, I believed I was forging a past unworthy of reliving.
But on September 23, 2016, four years removed from my last college game, and after an eight-hour drive from New York, I pulled into Oberlin College on the eve of the alumni game and headed straight to the gym.
Outside of the basketball locker room I changed on a narrow, wooden bench. The door leading into the locker room was propped open and I could overhear a few current players extolling their triumphs from a recent preseason scrimmage.
“Man, I blocked you then hit that three!”
Their banter reminded me of the competitiveness that wavered between invigorating and toxic when I’d played. My teammates and I were all chasing the same thing — the potential for greatness that athletics teases but, in its cruelty, so rarely delivers, and in its place leaves scars of dreams conjured but not realized.
Lacquered and shiny where it had been dusty and faded, the practice court felt — smelled, even — far different from what I’d known. When I played, it was a bleak place. The rims on the hoops were shaky and bent, the floor slippery, the lighting dim; and in the early fall, when northeast Ohio clung to the residue of summer, it sweltered.
I began shooting at a hoop near the doors leading to the gym. I slipped into my old, bad habit of holding onto the ball too long before I shot it and was again releasing the ball not at the top of my jump, but as I fell to the ground. This rendered my jump shot flat and powerless and sent the ball careening off the front of the rim rather than falling softly through the net.
In high school, I’d been aggressively recruited by Oberlin. With each phone call and handwritten letter I received from the coaches, I entertained dreams of having a successful college career. I didn’t need to be a star, but I wanted to become someone who felt like he belonged on the court when the game was on the line.
Once at Oberlin, though, I spent the majority of my career on the bench. Our teams were perpetually terrible. My freshman year we once lost a game by 50 points; sophomore year I quit the team (for a day); junior year I tore my groin and some cartilage in my hips and also witnessed a season where we won two games and lost 23 (including 19 losses in a row); and near the end of my senior year, buried at the end of the bench, I came this close to quitting — again.
I wouldn’t say my relationship to basketball was healthy, but I used to find comfort in how the game directed my passions. In bed at night fretting over the efficiency of my jump shot, I would imagine an ideal version of myself as a capable college player. By senior year, I felt humiliated that I was chasing something I would never catch.
After graduation, I ignored my coaches’ text messages inviting me back to alumni games and deleted their emails before reading them. Whenever I received a letter in the mail from Oberlin I threw it, unopened, in the trash.
Last year, after much pestering from one of my friends, I finally went back to Oberlin for the 2015 alumni game. My teammates expressed joy upon my return and, to my surprise, my coaches expressed remorse for how my career turned out. For the rest of that weekend, I reveled in the news that my career hadn’t been entirely my fault. Oberlin now felt like a gift.
In the months that followed, though, the ease with which I re-embraced the place troubled me. Had I really moved on from my shame? It seemed that time had merely softened the bumps of my past, not erased them. I returned to campus for the 2016 alumni game determined to understand.
In college, just as I began losing my grip on basketball, my rhetoric professor piqued my interest in writing. For the weekend, she was letting me stay in her home, where she lives with her husband, who’s also a professor at Oberlin. Their place is the kind of big, old house you imagine professors living in, with floorboards that actually creak and a lush, untamed garden in the front yard.
Because I’d gone to the gym the night before, I didn’t have a chance to catch up with my professor when I got to town. So, I awoke early the next morning, and we had coffee together in her kitchen. Since college I’d gone to graduate school for creative writing and began teaching, and I was eager to share with her what I’d learned. As a gift for letting me stay in her home over the weekend, I brought her a few books. One of them was The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. I’d come to adore Orlean’s book in the last year.
“This book has one of my favorite sentences,” I told my professor. “Will you read it out loud?”
To appreciate the sentence you need to know that Orlean is writing about people who are obsessed with orchids. Driven to understand their orchid fever, Orlean travels to Florida, where orchids can be found in many places. The place that most interests Orlean is the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, an “unmistakably inhospitable place . . . hot and wet and buggy and full of cottonmouth snakes.” People trek through this swamp in search of an extremely rare breed, the ghost orchid.
After telling my professor all of this, she read aloud:
You would have to want something very badly to go looking for it in the Fakahatchee Strand.
I downed the rest of my coffee and rushed across campus to the gym. Once inside, I checked in at the scorer’s table and hurriedly changed into a crimson and yellow Oberlin jersey and shorts.
I want to tell you that I cannot begin to describe the game I played that day. I want to tell you that it is only now, years removed from the cloying pull basketball had on my psyche, that I can finally approach a game suspended in a carefree sensation of total bliss, to finally appreciate basketball for all its majesty and beauty, and to see the basketball court as a place of peace.
But I cannot. I remember exactly how I played. I scored nine points. I dunked (don’t mistake the brevity of this note as a reflection of the magnitude of that moment for me; it was my first dunk ever in a game, and for the rest of the weekend I incessantly talked about it and repeatedly made my teammates retell this event from their perspective). I also turned the ball over three times at least. I played energized and erratic, just like I had in college. In the second half, when the game got close, I felt the familiar nerves of not wanting to fuck up in front of a lot of people.
My team included three guys who’d each scored 1,000 career points, and I contentedly deferred to them. If I mastered one skill in college, it was how to hide from getting the ball: I buried myself in the corners of the court, away from the main action, and half-heartedly juked my defender so I wouldn’t get open.
My plan after the alumni game was to interrogate my teammates and coaches about our past failures. Yet once I got to campus the answers to those questions no longer felt urgent. I fell into the same euphoria from the year before, when I allowed forgiveness and rejuvenation to wash over me. I giddily took pictures with my teammates. I attended a soccer game on campus and cheered loudly.
In The Orchid Thief, Orlean chronicles the various reasons why people venture into places like the Fakahatchee Strand. She focuses on one eccentric, fiercely intelligent man named John Laroche, who had been arrested for poaching orchids from the Fakahatchee. Laroche was driven to find “the oddest, rarest stuff . . . What he wanted was to find a special plant that would somehow make him a millionaire.”
While orchid collecting consumes many, it barely tickles Orlean. She appreciates orchids, but she cannot give herself up to such a mad, endless search. The Fakahatchee closely guards a treasure she isn’t desperate to find. But still Orlean trudges into it: “I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants, but it isn’t part of my constitution . . . I suppose I do have one unembarrassing passion — I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”
Orlean doesn’t find a ghost orchid in the Fakahatchee. She calls Laroche that evening to tell him. “What I didn’t say was that strong feelings always make me skeptical at first,” Orlean writes. “What else I didn’t say was that his life seemed to be filled with things that were just like the ghost orchid — wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with but a little fantastic and fleeting and out of reach.”
My teammates and I wandered around campus that evening, grateful that none of us had blown out a knee during the game. Someone mentioned the pang of sadness he felt when he thought about how Oberlin was no longer his, but now belonged to the current students and players.
But I didn’t relate to that melancholy; throughout the evening, I fantasized that I really felt part of this place. I fended off unwelcome memories of hobbling around campus with a torn groin, waking before sunrise for practice with toothpaste caked to the roof of my mouth, approaching each day striving to overcome my profound sense of inadequacy.
Instead, I admired the serenity of Oberlin, especially at night, when the hazy glow from the lampposts spilled onto the pathways crisscrossing campus and how, if for just a moment I stopped and said nothing, I could savor its unruffled stillness. I wanted very badly for these to be my memories.