Sports

Chronicles Of A Retired Athlete

I knew I had really done something special after the third day of practice. We were finishing up our conditioning–a full 20 minutes of sprinting–when Coach started lining up our team gear on the end line. Fresh boxes of Under Armor shoes sat in front of brand new Under Armor backpacks–all stuffed with practice uniforms, travel gear, and a pack of bright, white socks. There was a package just like this for each woman on the team, all embroidered with our designated numbers. I scanned the row and found mine, the number 35 stitched in white on the gray bag. I sat down on the cold, wooden floor and ripped off the well-used shoes I had been wearing. They had carried me through my final season of basketball at North Carroll High School a year before, and they were faithful enough to accompany me to my beginnings as a collegiate athlete. I tossed them aside as I opened the new shoe box, my old, trusted friends finally receiving the rest they had earned. The new shoes were stiff, and so I loosened the laces as much as I could. I forced my sweaty feet into the shoe and stomped repeatedly until my foot laid flat against the bottom. I looked down the line at my other teammates–26 feet standing on that gym floor in the same pair of white kicks.

I first started playing basketball when I was 5 years old. My first experiences with basketball weren’t magical by any means. I distinctly remember getting pegged in the nose by a pass from one of my teammates, and another time when I tragically shot at the other team’s basket. And my dad, who eventually became one of my coaches, constantly hounded me for standing around with my hands in the pockets of my shorts. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I was having fun. I remember being the only kid on my team who could launch the ball high enough to reach a regulation, 10-foot hoop. I ran up and down the court with my curly ponytail swishing from side to side. I started wearing flip-flops to practice and carrying my basketball shoes in a separate bag, just like the older girls did. What had started as a fun activity for a kid to do after school quickly turned into part of my identity. I was a basketball player.

Like most kids, I insisted on keeping a list of all my favorite things. My favorite color was purple. My favorite animal was the llama. And my favorite sport? Well, at the time I had said it was soccer. I started playing soccer when I was 3, and my dad had always been my coach. Soccer was my favorite because it came first, and so naturally basketball ranked second. When I was about 8 years old, however, I started reevaluating my list of favorite things. While purple and llamas stood unwavering, I questioned my true love for soccer. Basketball challenged me in a way soccer never had. While I felt largely lost and unnoticed on a soccer field with 10 other girls, I felt powerful and in control on a basketball court with just 4 other teammates. I came to my dad one day to share with him the revelation I had about my identity. With tears streaming down my face, I said, “Daddy, I think I like basketball better than soccer.” I was sure that my dad would be angry with me–I mean, he was my soccer coach after all. Instead, he told me just the opposite. He smiled at me with all the love in the world and said, “Shelly. It’s okay to like basketball more than soccer. You’re not hurting my feelings.”

With Dad’s permission to fall in love with the sport, I did just that. I played in a recreation league throughout elementary school, and then tried out for a travel league in middle school. When I made the travel team, my love for the game skyrocketed. I wanted to play basketball any chance I got.

After a couple years of travel basketball, I joined a team through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) with a lot of the same girls from my travel team. The way it worked was that we could play travel ball in the fall and winter, and then play AAU through the spring and summer. The sport that had once been seasonal was now a part of my life all year round. I was in heaven.

AAU was my dream come true. Whereas most leagues have one to two scheduled games per week, AAU only plays tournaments. For two weekends a month, my team would enter tournaments that lasted all weekend long. In a single Saturday, we could play up to 3 games, only to return on Sunday to play a couple more. AAU was all about experiential learning. The more I played, the more I learned; and the more I learned, the more I wanted to take those new tricks to the court. With all of this experience, I was actually starting to see some edge in my game. I learned how to score in certain situations, and how to defend against girls who were quicker and taller than me. I learned how to play a game that worked for my height, speed, and ability, and I worked on parts of my game that weren’t as strong.

When I started high school, I tried out for the girl’s basketball team and was put on the junior varsity (JV) squad. In the spring, I continued playing AAU ball. I was a solid player on our JV team, and I was moved up to the varsity team for playoffs at the end of the season. For my remaining three years in high school I played on the varsity team. I started nearly every game and consistently scored double digits. I was one of the top-ranked free-throw shooters in my county. I didn’t know where basketball was going to take me, but all I knew is that I wanted to go higher. I wanted to achieve as much as I could in the sport. I wanted to be the best I could be.

When I began my college search, Eastern fell right into my lens. As a college, Eastern offered everything I was looking for. It was a small school with a beautiful campus that gave me the opportunity to grow in my faith and play college basketball. Eastern was the whole package.

I only played one year of college basketball before I decided to give it up. It wasn’t that I stopped loving the game–I don’t think that could ever happen. I just decided to pursue other big things in my life, just like basketball had trumped soccer when I was little. I wanted to spend my mornings drinking coffee and reading good books, and my nights talking and laughing with my friends. I wanted the freedom to do whatever on the weekends and to enjoy holiday breaks at home with my family. I wanted to soak up as much knowledge as I could during my short 4 years in college, and that meant dedicating a lot more time to my school work. I wanted so many things for myself, and basketball just got squeezed out of the picture.

Just because I no longer play my sport doesn’t discredit me from being an athlete. I still think like an athlete and work like an athlete. There are things in life that will come and go, but it doesn’t mean that I have to let them go all together.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find something that gives me the thrill of 3 seconds on the shot clock, a ball in my hands. 3, 2, 1.

Swish.

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