Court­ing dis­as­ter

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Ben­jamin Markovits

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.

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