I was chasing Johnny around a screen – a blocking position – on the left nail, a throwing point. Yao had set it. He was maybe my only friend on the team – from Ivory Coast, he had been adopted by Germans and raised in Munich, about an hour’s drive away. (One night, we caught the train into the city and he took me around.) Yao was guarded by a 6ft 9in centre, whose elbow caught me in the delicate patch of skull just under the eye socket.
It was like somebody had unplugged my cheek. For the rest of practice, I sat with my back against the wall, wondering how I had ended up here.
As a kid I used to play basketball in the back yard of my parents’ house in Austin, Texas, but it never occurred to me that I might one day turn pro. I sat on the bench for my high school team and then quit. At university, I used to play in the “captain’s practices” with the first team before the season started, but other than that I was just an English major. Then senior year came around and I had to figure out what to do next.
Most of my friends spent that year applying to graduate school or for jobs. At some point, I had the bright idea of playing basketball. My mother is German, that’s what gave me hope. There are quotas on foreign players on German teams, but the bar is lower for native Germans. So I worked on my jump-shot, went jogging, lifted weights and got my roommate to film me shooting hoops in an empty gym. I sent the video to various agents, and one of them landed me the try-out in Landshut, Germany. My real ambition, however, was just to put off adulthood for as long as possible.
The club paid me 1,800 deutschmarks a month and gave me a one-bedroom flat to live in. Plenty of money for a recent graduate working his first “proper” job but not the kind of money you can build a career out of. You can spend your 20s like that, though, and later transition into coaching. For most of my teammates, this was the best-case scenario.
None of us were going to hit the big time. Not even Johnny, our star. He was nudging 30, with a wife and kids back in Texas. Maybe he had been to a NBA training camp once, when he was fresh out of college. After that, he bounced around various European leagues, trying to climb the ranks, but he was already too old to make a real jump and the rest of us didn’t have any illusions about the possibility. We were stuck in places such as Landshut – small market towns on the fringes of big cities, where football reigns.
Someone I knew once described writing a PhD as like putting on the same wet swimsuit every day. The same is true about being a basketball player. Every morning I pulled on a pair of nylon shorts and a jersey still soaking wet from the night before and went to work. At some point, like most rookies, I “hit the wall”. How can you keep caring about the endless repetition involved in being a professional athlete, when the best you can hope to achieve is a marginal improvement that will shift your place in a hierarchy that you don’t want to be a part of any more?
Of course the reason they call it a wall is that you eventually get over it. And maybe I would have, if I had stuck it out. But then came the stray elbow.
In bed that night, I started sweating. The team sent me to a hospital in Munich for X-rays, which revealed a broken orbital bone lightly impinging on the nerve. The doctor couldn’t tell me if it would get better on its own or whether the feeling in my face would ever return, but surgery offered no guarantees either – the choice was mine. Mostly what I felt by that stage was relief, because the injury meant that I didn’t have to play any more. I had tried to turn something I did out of love and joy into something I did for money and this was the result.
I decided not to have surgery. A few weeks later I quit the team and moved in with a friend of mine, who was working on a PhD. It was almost a year before I touched a basketball again. By that point I was in graduate school, and the nerve damage had mostly healed – I could feel my face again.