Basketball fans who are old enough still remember the dramatic death of the player Reggie Lewis, which occurred literally on a basketball court. I was a teenager when it happened. Of course, I was impressed, but, although I already fell in love with basketball, I felt it as detached event. Luckily, when we are young, we are so unaware we take for granted we are invincible and we’ll never have to deal with death. While we grow up, however, this carelessness leaves room for an abstract, existential awareness. That is to say, the concept of death becomes an integral part of our consciousness and we realize death is indeed something of our concern. In general, we constantly try to exorcise it though. We do our best not to think about it, but, at the bottom of our heart, we know well that this is our end, the great equalizer that, sooner or later, will truly make all men and women as equals.
That being said, I believe that every person, from time to time, thinks about how they would prefer to leave this earth. For instance, the founder of Alibaba Jack Ma recently stated about his retirement:
I suppose that most of us dream about dying while doing something we insanely love and that passing away should be sudden and unexpected. Physical pain reduced to the minimum extent. And, more importantly, there should be no time to realize you are leaving this world.
What about me? To answer this question, I have to bring up the travelling companion that has been by my side for 35+ years as I started to play basketball when I was 8 years old. It has always been there since my childhood. It has helped me to overcome moments in which I felt a deep-rooted loneliness. The rim, the ball, and the soft, thrilling sound of the net, gently petted by the basketball. These ingredients were enough to picture myself scoring the buzzer beater in game 7 of the NBA finals in front of 50,000 fans going crazy. Who else do you need when you feel you have the world at your feet?
I think that basketball played a major role in shaping the person I am today, too. As I wrote in this post, sports are phenomenal educational tools when it comes to turning a kid into an adult, physically and, more importantly, mentally. To me, basketball has also been a way to express myself. In this regard, it reminds me the role played by music and other arts in the life of many musicians and artists in general. A lot of creative people repetitively claim that the stage is the only place where they feel themselves complete and where they unfold their full potential. Sports can be that powerful too, as proven by the life of Dražen Petrović. Those who had the chance to meet him would describe this outstanding player as a person so shy and introverted that people often mistook him for an autistic guy outside the court. On the floor, instead, his opponents remember him as one of the most arrogant, self-confident, and irreverent athletes ever. Back to my experience, basketball is a way to express myself especially today when I have the chance to compete with young guys who are in their 20’s and that genuinely think James Harden and Russell Westbrook are way better than Magic, Larry, and MJ. Oh, holy and mighty gods of basketball, I pray you forgive me for this blasphemy! When I face these kids, I love to trash talk them by stressing the fact that I can still compete with them. And this is thanks to the old-school basketball team fundamentals my coaches taught me throughout the years, which this generation unforgivably thinks are pointless. Long story short, to me basketball is much more than just a game and I struggle to picture my life without it.
So, everything’s look great, isn’t it? Unfortunately, there is another side of the coin. Basketball gives you a lot, but it doesn’t do it for free. There is a price to be paid for the privilege of playing the game. And this price can be very high and painful, literally. I’m talking about injuries. I have suffered several and know well how dealing with such events can be tough, challenging, and hurtful. Most severe injuries can take many months or even longer than a year to fully recover. During the recovery process, you are angry, frustrated, and it’s easy to get demoralized because something you love was taken from you, suddenly and unexpectedly—an athlete never thinks about the possibility of getting injured. Some weeks ago, I added a new entry to my personal list of injuries caused by basketball. After I got an X-ray at the emergency room, I was told that my thumb was broken but I reacted differently than previous times. I didn’t get mad and didn’t feel frustrated as I would have done upon receiving similar news. This time, the first thing I thought about was asking doctors when would I be able to play again. Once more, basketball lectured me: it trained me to overcome such adversities and to stay positive, no matter what.
To conclude, when I play basketball, I truly and completely feel alive. That’s why, when my time arrives, I dream about being equalized on a basketball court like Lewis in the summer of 1993. So, I implore that I will be able to play until that moment. These spooky and macabre reflections remind me of another metaphysical question: how many times do we actually die? David Eagleman answered like this:
I’m even more pessimistic than him, and I contemplate about dying more than Eagleman’s three times. For instance, I know the day I face another injury and give up on playing the game again after recovering, I’ll be existentially dead for the first time in my life.
Editing assistance by Dr. Emily Braswell.