Finding motivation along the winding road to recovery.
“Any American boy can be a basketball star if he grows up, up, up.”— Bill Vaughn
Relationships get old. Songs on the radio get old. Basketball doesn’t. Readers of SLAMonline understand this. They live and breathe the game. It’s a religion for most, a way of life.
I discovered basketball at the age of 7, astounded at how graceful the players were. Regardless of their size, they could maneuver a leather-covered sphere into a small circular rim, often with someone trying to disrupt their shot. Long afternoons were spent shooting hoops in my backyard. My quest was to get a shot high enough to touch the elusive 10-foot rim. I played on a Larry Bird-esque court on a blacktop in the country, with three acres of land and farms all around. Without a gym nearby, I traveled 30 minutes each way to be with my teammates. That meant hours practicing alone, emulating the moves of the NBA greats, dreaming of becoming one.
Elementary school ended, and my dad’s job took us halfway across the country to a suburb of Dallas, TX. Here, one shot off the mark meant a trip to my neighbor explaining why my basketball had gone over the fence yet again. I needed a new sanctuary and discovered it at the rec center – a mini basketball community.
During my days there, the best players balled on one court, while the youngsters who dreamt of playing with the local legends played on the other. They all came and went, some making it to the college ranks, some even further. This is where I developed my game and went on to play school ball for several years after. Then it happened.
It started during my sophomore year while I was weightlifting — a nagging pain in my back. Whenever I sat, the ache radiated down my left leg, making it numb. Before my injury, I epitomized the “white men can’t jump” stereotype, after it, my explosiveness on the basketball court took a major hit. It was the worst thing for someone who relied on his jumpshot and ability to slash in the lane. An MRI eventually revealed a herniated disc in my lower back. Months of physical therapy later, my dreams of continuing a basketball career were shattered.
It was difficult to do most everything, including little things like leaning over the sink to brush my teeth. The doctors said I would eventually recover, but it would take a couple of years and dedication to my exercises. Suddenly, all that mattered was my long-term goal of being healthy enough to have the game stay a part of my life – throughout my life. Telling the coach it was over was surreal. I flashed back to memories of the countryside, the years playing at the rec, and countless school games. It became all about making the adjustment in my mind – basketball was no longer going to be a passion, but a hobby.
But I wasn’t the only one at my school facing a fork in the basketball road. Xavier Cadot, a lanky 6-5 center, also herniated a disc in his back. He tried a different route:
“At first I went to a local sports doctor who told me I was done with basketball for life, and I almost cried right in front of him. He gave me three steroid injections over many months to see if it would calm down…and it didn’t. I was taking a lot of pain medication because the pain in my back was unbearable; I could barely sleep at night. Also, when I would walk, I would hunch over like an old man…I switched to another doctor…he told me that I could play again, but I would have to work really hard. He also told me I had two choices…and each of them would ultimately get me to the same spot but at different times. The first was to wait two years and give my back time to heal, and live on pain medicine. The only problem with that was there was no way I could suffer for that long and still keep up with school. The second option was microdiscectomy surgery. With that procedure, I would be back on the court in four to five months if I did my back exercises from physical therapy, and that’s exactly what I did. Now I am playing for my high school and feel no pain.”
Injuries are part of the game. For pro players with unlimited resources at their fingertips, most not only recover, but come back stronger than before. Still, it doesn’t make it any less impactful – the process is excruciating both mentally and physically. Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady are two legends who suffered career-threatening injuries. Agent Zero is trying to replicate his success from years ago, and T-Mac might be down to his last chance at redemption. So besides the obvious money factor, what motivates these guys to try and try again?
For some, their upbringing is key because it’s at the core of who they are and affects how they face adversity. Take Gilbert Arenas for example. Before he was calling out “hibachi” and blogging weekly, Arenas grew up on the streets of Los Angeles with his father. Gilbert’s mom was a drug addict with whom he never bonded. With little maternal support, Gil was forced to adapt to a tough environment. His dad looked for jobs as an actor, but they always fell through. Nowadays, “Agent Zero” knows what it’s like to be at the bottom, and he’s determined to make it back again. This motivation has been a key contributor in the Wizard point guard’s quest to redeem himself.
Tracy McGrady also went to the school of hard knocks. His father was never a part of his life, so T-Mac was raised by his mother and grandmother. He grew up in a neighborhood full of crime, deeply scarred by the violence that surrounded him.
Genes may play a role in how well NBA players recover from injuries. When you come from a long line of professional athletes – it’s literally in your blood. Gilbert Arenas has two cousins playing college football, including Javier Arenas, who is one of the most talented players at the University of Alabama. Everyone knows Tracy McGrady’s family history, with the ultra-athletic Vince Carter as his cousin.
But perhaps the real reason these stars try so hard to return to their glory has to do with their basketball roots – their boyhood dreams – the magic of making their first jump shot. Gilbert Arenas recently said, “If you have a kid that loves basketball, that eats, sleeps, drinks and thinks basketball and all he knows is basketball and he gets hurt and he’s your franchise player, you need to hold him back from himself.”
Fantasy basketball experts may tell you they don’t trust certain players to recover to full strength, citing some statistics, but they’re not accounting for a player’s passion. Some think Tracy McGrady is taking games off because he doesn’t feel like playing, but the decision he’s making to sit out while he recovers from various injuries is the toughest any ball player can make. It’s keeping him from his sanctuary. My bet is he’s looking at the bigger picture, not a quick snapshot.
Nearly a year after herniating a disc in my back, I still think about what could have been. What if I had made the team, injury free? How far would I have gone? What I do know is this: Basketball dreams never die, regardless of whether you’re a high school athlete or an NBA superstar.
Alex Shultz is a high school junior who lives near Dallas, TX. He loves everything NBA and is a big Washington Wizards fan.