On July 8, 2010, the greatest basketball player on the planet revealed to millions on live television which new team he would join. That’s when LeBron James uttered those nine words that might live forever:
“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
It was called “The Decision.” James’ decision to play for the Miami Heat rocked the sports world and signaled a new era of the NBA, in which elite NBA players began to form “super teams.”
I was thinking about “The Decision” because I’ve been wrestling with one of my own for months. Actually, I have several decisions pending. Each day we all make decisions that allow us to keep moving forward. Sometimes they’re easy. Do I want ketchup on my hotdog?1 You’re kidding, right? Cash or credit?2 Laughable. Window seat or an aisle seat?3 Easy peasy.Most of these decisions carry little, if any consequences.
Other decisions are more difficult. I’ve hated my job for two years and each day is worse than the last. Should I quit?4
Well, I uh…I guess that depends.
As a kid, I played basketball every year from third grade through my senior year of high school. Then, owing to remarkably average skills and suboptimal height, it was over. Years passed. Then came 1997.
The invitation came from my wife’s uncle. We met in an old gym on the third floor of an aging public health clinic. Most days we walked up the fire escape to get in. The water-damaged floor was always dusty. A couple of narrow pieces of flooring had warped and buckled near one sideline. The space between the end lines and the wall was about two feet. A bucket used to catch drips from a leaky pipe hung from the ceiling.
On my first day, this Sunday basketball ritual was already 15 years old. Some of the original players were still there. We ranged in age from our mid 20s to mid 50s. Only about half of us had ever played organized basketball, but we all loved the game. We played with enthusiasm and joy but in a friendly, considerate way. After all, we played together each week. We needed to get along. Every now and then a new guy would join with a hypercompetitive streak. Or he played a little too rough. Those players never seemed to last long. We picked new teams each week and we called our own fouls. For many of us, Sunday ball was our therapy. I savored the feeling of exhaustion.
Just bad luck
I’ve had my share of injuries. There was a broken collarbone and a dislocated shoulder playing football. There were jammed fingers, ankle sprains and maybe a concussion or two. But my knees were great. I could jump, pivot, stop, start and change direction with ease. For Sunday basketball, those knees helped me work my way around traffic, maneuver to get open, take some shots and play defense.
Then one Sunday my wife and I had dinner plans, so I would leave basketball after just two games so I had time to get home and clean up. But when it came time to leave, I was persuaded to play one more “quick” game. Well, I wasn’t late to dinner because I never made it at all.
While dribbling the ball up the floor, a player on the other team suddenly appeared right in front of me. To avoid a collision, I had to make a hard stop. I planted my left leg in front of me. Then in slow motion I watched the top of my knee slide forward while the bottom of the knee didn’t budge. I remember a pop. I crumpled to the floor and rolled onto my back. With my knee bent and badly misaligned, white-hot pain shot up into my chest. As I reached toward the knee, it began to slide back into normal alignment. A couple players helped me up after a few minutes and I hopped off the court on my right leg. I was 46 years old.
A month later, I underwent surgery to repair a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). It’s a big surgery. Then, it’s 11 months of physical therapy. I knew I would play again. With my knees, this had to be a freak accident. Bad luck. It was a weird play that probably would never happen again. Frustrating? Yes. But it was time to get back out there.
Six weeks later, while driving into the lane for a layup, another player slid over to defend. I turned and stepped around him. The maneuver put a twisting motion on my surgically repaired left knee. Pain shot upward. I went down hard and rolled onto my back gripping my knee as tightly as I could with both hands, trying to reassure myself. It hurt, but not like before. After a few minutes, I walked with full weight on the left leg. I told myself and the rest of the group I was ready to go. So, we started playing again. Running straight ahead felt perfectly normal. Then I turned back to grab a rebound and the stabbing pain returned. A few days later, the MRI confirmed it. The ACL was torn. Again.You’ve got to be kidding me.
In the days to follow a few older players advised me to dial it back on the floor. Take it easier. Just let those younger, faster players go by me. I prided myself on effort. But effort was getting me hurt. I blamed myself, my surgeon and my physical therapists. Somehow, lightning struck twice. I researched my options. I talked to nurses, other athletes and a new surgeon. I wanted my knee fixed. Two months later, the team doctor for a local pro team performed a revision surgery on my knee. I got a do-over.
Recovery was harder because I worked harder. In a year, I was back on the court. It was 2014. This time, things were different. I was a different player. I wasn’t as fast. I wore a large knee brace. I couldn’t jump as high. I learned to play differently. It took at least a year before I stopped thinking about my knee. Then another year went by. And another. I wasn’t the player I used to be, but neither was anybody else. I was on the court and it felt great.
Five years passed. Then one Sunday, I took a pass from the point guard, looked up at the rim and thought about taking a quick shot. A 20-year-old defender smiled and guarded me closer, ready to spring. Nice kid. I looked at his eyes. Then I brought the ball down and faked to my right. He began to follow. Then, I cut hard left, toward the basket, pushing off my right leg. If I could just get a half step on him…
My right knee buckled inward. I fell onto my chest as the ball bounced away. Oh my God. It happened again. Tears welled up in my eyes. I got off the floor as quickly as I could. I encouraged everybody to keep playing. Then I hobbled out of the gym. I was 52, and I felt like a complete idiot. I didn’t even drive home. I went straight to the walk-in clinic at the orthopedic surgery center. I got an x-ray, then an MRI. But I already knew. This time, I tore the ACL in my right knee.
So here we are. Both knees are fixed. But the history is sketchy. Three surgeries. Three 12-month recoveries. On one hand, the orthopedic surgeon and the physical therapist are relentlessly optimistic. Do what you love! Get back in the game! On the other hand, my sensible wife has a different opinion. She’s clear and unequivocal. One friend chewed me out by email after the 2nd ACL tear. He said I was foolish to keep playing and that he didn’t really care to hear any more about my knee troubles. Naturally, I didn’t tell him about this one.
Hard decisions need deadlines. Sunday basketball is on hold due to the pandemic. But the guys are antsy. Every so often somebody emails the group. “Hey fellas, hope you’re all hanging in there. I’m still hoping we can get back to Sunday ball soon.”
Clearly, I’m done. I’ll grab a sweater and take a nap. Several people told me to take up golf. Or swimming. Get yourself a really nice bicycle. Have you thought about walking? Why yes, I’ve been walking since I was a toddler. I should be smart and walk away, instead of hobbling. I am getting older. Sooner or later, this decision whether to play will get made for me. Maybe that’s why I need to get out there and play while I still can.
Okay, here it is: If I make this next shot, I’m playing.
Actually, if I make two out of three, I’m in.
Seriously, if I can make at least 5 of the next 10 free throws…
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1. Ketchup shall find no safe harbor on a hotdog. Ever.
2. Cash is king. Plastic is for peasants.
3. Aisle seat. Unless you’re a kid.
4. Seriously? Quit. This isn’t Russia.