Especially for Esquire, an essay on basketball, by Benjamin Markovits
my first job coming out of university was playing basketball for a second division team in southern Germany. By the time I quit, halfway through the season, I was a worse player than when I started. My confidence was near zero. Even simple things like shooting a basketball, which I had done since I was a kid, thousands and thousands of times, involved a kind of selfconsciousness that amounted almost to self-hatred.
Going pro — I mean doing something professionally that you used to do for fun — is like exposing your talent or ability to continuous erosion. Teammates are the real competition. Their jobs depend on beating you in front of the coach, which means that you are surrounded by people who are trying to undermine you. Not just during the two or four hours you spend on court every day, but off it, too, during the long bus rides from game to game, over team meals (meat and two veg) in three-star hotels, at the only nightclub in town. Landshut, where I played, was a nice place to live for kids and families, but didn’t offer much to the dozen or so 20-something tall guys who were also, for that reason, more or less stuck with each other.
All of which means that the high point of my season came at the beginning, when we rolled into some small town for a preseason tournament against the other top teams in our division. Our point guard had strained his hamstring, so I got to start. And since at that stage I still had no idea what I was doing on court, I just played... like it was a pick-up game in the local park. Shoot if you’re open, hustle back, try to stop your man from scoring. In the second game, against Würzburg (who eventually won the tournament and subsequently, many months later, the league, by which point I was back home in Texas, unemployed), I scored 15 points, including a couple of three-pointers against a 7ft 17-year-old kid named Dirk Nowitzki. He later won an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks and is headed to the basketball Hall of Fame.
Towards the end of that game, though, something happened which set the tone for what came later. We had a lead and Würzburg started a full-court press. When the ball came to me, under the bright lights, I froze… and then panicked. On television, it’s easy to see what the players should do, but in real life, in real time, it’s like trying to concentrate with gunshots in your ear. Well, I threw the ball away. Afterwards, our star player, a 6ft 8in forward with whom in other circumstances I got along well, ran up to me and slammed both hands against my chest — in the middle of the game. “Fuck you!” he shouted, or something like that, as I staggered backwards in front of a couple of hundred spectators. I should have punched him, he might have respected that. But I thought, “You’re right, I’m not good enough,” and apologised. It was the beginning of the long downward slide.
The novelist Saul Bellow talks about writing as one of the “delirious professions… trades in which the main instrument is your opinion of yourself”. Basketball is like that, too. It didn’t help that I got injured. A few weeks into the season, during practice, I caught an elbow just under the eye that unplugged the feeling in my face. Just bad luck, but somehow it also seemed like an expression of some subconscious desire to opt out. By the time I was cleared to play, the season was halfway over, and the club itself on the verge of bankruptcy and dropping out of the league.
Yet it’s a mistake to see these failures as inevitable. Things could have turned out differently, the elbow could have missed my cheek, a shot might have dropped. A few weeks after I came back, we had our biggest game of the year, against Freiburg, about a five-hour coach ride to the west. This was a knock-out Superliga match, which is a bit like the Champions League of basketball, better competition, higher stakes, more money and prestige. Our point guard got into foul trouble, so the coach put me in early and I barrelled my way to the basket, with my head down. Got fouled, made a foul shot, came out. At the end of the game, with a few seconds left, he sent me in again, for reasons I don’t totally understand. Sometimes coaches have moments of intuition, they get a feeling about a player or situation. Anyway, he wanted another shooter on the floor.
We were down by two points, and the play was designed for Johnny (the 6ft 8in forward), but if they double-teamed him, I was one of the relief valves — standing on the three-point line, waiting for the pass. And that’s what happened. With a couple of seconds left, the ball came to me. By this point in the season I didn’t care any more, I had the confidence of carelessness, and caught the ball cleanly and squared up for the shot, bending my legs, following through. If I made it, we would win, if I missed it, we would lose. As soon as the ball left my hand, I knew it was going in... and watched it spinning lightly backwards on its arc, dead on line towards the basket, where it hit the back rim and bounced harmlessly away as the horn sounded. My blood had been juiced by a micro-dose of extra adrenaline, because of the occasion and the stakes, which I hadn’t accounted for and explains that extra inch of flight on the ball.
After that, we had a quiet five-hour coach ride back to Landshut, and for much of that journey I was plotting my escape. My teammates never blamed me for missing the shot; they never expected anything else. The slight, still imaginable shift in the trajectory of my season had not happened, my place in the hierarchy had not changed, and a few weeks later I was gone, back home, spending Christmas in Texas as usual, as if I still had another year of student life ahead of me.