The Key Word Is Love

Basketball Planet

Sometimes The Thing We Love Becomes Our Whole World

“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love
what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning
and write something you love, something to live for.” – Ray Bradbury

Here’s what I know about love – it might just be the easiest thing to feel, naturally, I mean, for it seems one of the most inherent human emotions.

As we go through life, however, so many experiences and senses and other emotions tend to get tangled up with love so that, for some, it becomes almost inextricably bound to things like trust and self-worth (or perhaps I should say to a lack of trust and a lack of self-worth, and to fear).

As a result, it might also be one of the hardest things for some of us to feel (or to allow ourselves to feel, maybe). If it’s right, it can fill you up completely. If it’s wrong, it can leave you feeling empty and inexplicably lost.

I don’t intend to discuss the origins of the word or to examine just how much of its once-upon-a-time thunder (or happily-ever-after magic) may have been lost over the years due to people loving, well, pretty much everything – I’m a culprit in that as well, having told my parents numerous times as a boy how much I loved hotdogs (that’s all I ate, period, one entire summer), sunshine (I’m solar powered, I just know it), root beer floats, and a slew of other things.

Inside, I knew what I meant. I understood the subtle and the sometimes vast differences between types of love, but that’s the problem. The word doesn’t just mean one thing anymore. Some people wield it without a second thought. Others cherish it, unwilling to use it except for the rarest of circumstances. I’ll do my best to describe what I mean here so that the magnitude of its importance is conveyed, but I’m sure I may put off a few purists in the process.

This is NOT a romance piece. But it is about first love. My first love. I may also get around to the sort of love Bradbury alluded to above, though that’s not something I knew anything about until recently.

Sometimes we find love in the most unexpected places. I know that was true for me with the love of my life. It was also true when it came to finding words for what love might be (to me at least).

A couple months ago, I watched the latest Superman movie, believe it or not, and there’s a scene when young Clark Kent is at school and he’s hiding in a supply closet after having just struggled (and mostly lost the battle) with his feelings – rage, humiliation – and the hallway is full of students and chaos and he can hear everyone whispering (he literally has dozens of voices in his head, not unlike the way we sometimes feel when life gets overwhelming) and his mom shows up and through the closed door she says:

“Just focus on the sound of my voice . . . and imagine it’s an island . . . and swim to it.”

That line struck me, for the moment I heard those words I thought of the love of my life and the way she used to ask me how I could remain calm despite the often craziness of life, despite the incessant stress, and the answer was simple. She was the island I imagined. The one I swam to whenever I started to feel overwhelmed or confused or frightened or sad (I swam to her smile, to the way it felt to hold her hand), the very same island I swam to when I was feeling comfortable and confident and ecstatic.

I’m not talking about the whole Jerry Maguire “you complete me” thing.

I believe we need to complete ourselves, which is often the hardest thing to do, but I also believe that when we find someone who is that island for us, a safe haven of sorts (as in we’re in a good place, but also as in we’re safe to just be ourselves), when we have that island we can swim to when life is at its worst, as well as when life is at it’s best, that’s when we have something beyond words

I had that for a bit. And that’s enough.

I mention it because the very first love of my life was a different island I swam to, one that calmed me, one that made all the voices and all the pain and, at times, the rest of the world just fall away. Again, the differences between that first love and the love of my life are vast. I’m not comparing them in a sense of which one meant more or which was more this or that. I’m simply saying, my first love, from the time I was eight years old until I was almost forty, was one constant in my life, was one thing I could swim to, no matter what, and always, always feel good inside.

My first love was basketball. My First Love Basketball

And from the very beginning basketball gave me something no other person could (or, truth be told, that I wasn’t ready to feel with or around any other person). It allowed me to be myself!

Basketball gave me an opportunity to let go of my all-day-everyday life (of all the real, tangible, conscious troubles and of all the imagined troubles as well) and to spend some time out of my head.

In a way, looking back, it was a lot like yoga that way (only frenetic, and all out).

My first love gave me a safe place to be, and I played and played and played. I couldn’t get enough of it (in some ways it was my world, at least when I was out there on the court). In each of the houses I lived growing up, my dad installed a hoop for me and I’m sure I annoyed more than a few neighbors with my endless dribbling (even at ten o’clock at night, in the dark, under the stars and the street lights).

Basketball was a lot like a video game. It was addicting. Just when you seemed to master one level, you met someone who’d mastered three levels higher and you had to keep going, had to improve.

But it was better than any video game because you put every ounce of yourself into the playing: physically, mentally, emotionally. By the time you were done, you had nothing left.

Maybe that was one of the reasons I loved it so much, one of the reasons I needed it so much, because you sort of bled out, then you went home and showered (not always right away) and you fell down onto something (floor, bed, chair, soft comfy sofa) and you transfused yourself with the best parts of yourself over the rest of the day and all the bad stuff that had been in you had been left on the hardwood or the blacktop, you just didn’t have the energy left for anything but the good feelings you had washing through every square inch of you, that wonderful exhaustion that was magnified a hundred times, at least, from having done something you love.

The summer between my junior and senior year of high school I played basketball about ten hours a day. I played in the rain. In the dark. In neighborhoods all over town. I played where there were only white kids. I played where I was the only white kid. The one thing we all had in common was that when we were on the court, running, sweating, going as hard and as fast as we could go, nothing else mattered (not how some of our teeth bucked out or how are toes turned in or how much we hated asparagus and adverbs and sitting still).

We were all, I imagine, in those moments, swimming to a special island inside ourselves.

When it really comes down to it, that’s what the essence of love is. It’s that special island in ourselves. If we’re lucky we might find someone, or some thing, that ends up being another side of that island, so that when we swim to him or to her or to it what we’re really doing is swimming to that deep down truest part of ourselves.

That’s what basketball was for me.

I have many basketball stories. I’ll get to some of them in the coming months, but today is about how it was my first love. Unlike people, basketball never, not one time ever, let me down, it never lied to me, never pretended to be anything other than what it was. And, as I intimated above, it was one place, regardless of what was going on in my life, where I could always be completely, totally, all the way, me.

I don’t remember how or why I started playing basketball except that my dad introduced it to me and I don’t know, maybe at first it was just one of the sports I played (like football and baseball and golf). Maybe it was because my dad never pressured me to pick one sport over another. He encouraged me to follow my heart. That was a great gift.

My dad has shared some advice with me over the years, a few insights that have shaped me probably more than any others. One of those was related to basketball.

I was a freshman and I’d just played a game and I came home in tears because I only had about six points and I felt like a failure. He asked me to go back over the game and make a list of anything else I may have done (like the fact that I’d had eight assists, seven rebounds, and five steals). By the time I got done with that list, I saw just how many ways I had contributed. I saw that being good and helping my team wasn’t just about one thing.

I’ve tried to follow that philosophy in the rest of my life as well.

Here are a few things I learned from basketball:

HUMILITY – When I was in eighth grade, I was squatting by the scorer’s table, waiting to check into the game for another boy, and when the ref waved me in I stood and ran with so much enthusiasm my legs couldn’t quite keep up and the moment I got to the half-court line, I went tumbling face first into a long squeaky skid across the court. I got a standing ovation from the parents and the kids in the stands. Good thing, I’d already grown a thick skin by then, had already developed a sense of humor, thanks in part to some of those same kids.

FITNESS – I’d always been a sickly, scrawny, string bean. I didn’t have blazing speed, could barely leap over tall phone books in a single bound (with a running start, that is). My brain worked so much faster than my body that it was like the opposite of Frankenstein’s monster only with similar results as signals got crossed and feet got tangled. I’m pretty sure I fell to the floor every time I played basketball (which explains a lot of the aches and pains I have today), but over time basketball got me in great shape.

TORMENT – In high school, I would go to JV basketball practice followed by Varsity basketball practice (the coaches were enablers, I suppose). By the time I got home I’d missed all that wonderful after-school free time other kids got. You know, like my sister. Of course she missed it too. She was the hardest worker I knew. She studied from the moment she got home until she went to bed. So, on the way to the shower, I’d stick my head in, find her on her bed doing that dreaded homework, and I’d share some sweet melodic thoughts (okay, maybe I’d say something sarcastic or something simple like, “What ya doing?” knowing full well what she was doing).

Then, maybe, I’d mention how I just got home and how I was going to shower and eat some mac ‘n cheese and have some strawberry milk, two glasses maybe, and plop down on the sofa, you know the big fluffy one downstairs, the one with no parents around, with no sister around, and watch TV for the next couple hours and, oh I probably shouldn’t mention that since you’ll still be doing HOMEWORK. I might have said that sort of loving thing which wasn’t as bad as the bees in the peanut butter jars I used to lob at her in my gram’s back yard, but close.

CALMNESS – For most of my life, I’ve been the calming influence on, well, pretty much everyone I know. Adults, kids, friends, even strangers (long story). Basketball was always my calming influence. It was the one place, as I mentioned, where I could just be me and the one place where just being me was enough. Even with all my shortcomings, I could still play. I wasn’t Division I material (in my mind, I was, in my mind I aspired to play for the Tar Heels), wasn’t going to posterize anyone with thunderous dunks, though I did have people actually threaten me bodily harm after making a pass between their legs or throwing an old school up and under on them (hey, I couldn’t jump, so its not like I had a choice).

Anyway, there are so many basketball stories that I’ll get to in time. I’ve even got a down the road book waiting in the wings (after about ten others that is). But basketball was the first love of my life, my one true love during my youth, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

When friends in high school were going on dates, making out in cars, I was in a park somewhere, under a crooked streetlight, practicing bank shots and crossovers. Sure, there were some days I wondered, what the heck are you thinking (I mean, come on, some of them were making out in cars). But as long as my body would let me, year after year, day after day after day, even those times when everything seemed to be falling apart, I swam to that island inside me and all was right with the world.