I thought I would go to watch my old team play and feel a tinge of sadness, a sharp pain of missing the game that meant so much to me. I thought I would sit in the stands and be overcome with emotion, because it wasn’t me out there on that court, and it never again would be. I thought it would be tough to watch the games and not miss the energy, the camaraderie, and the passion that used to run through my veins every time I stepped on the court. I thought I would sit there and, even during the playing of the national anthem, wish I was still in that line holding my two hands together behind my jersey, swaying with the excitement a new game would bring.
But it hasn’t been that hard. I can go to my old team’s games, and I don’t miss playing one bit. Watching my old team doesn’t inspire many good memories, and it doesn’t conjure the intense feelings of pain and anguish I thought it might. But why not?
As some of you may know, I am an ex-Division Three college basketball player. I am still a senior in college, but no longer play the game I love, the game I’ve dedicated an enormous portion of my life to, the game that has always been there for me.
“Why?”, you might ask. If I love the game so much, why don’t I play it anymore? Why am I not in the middle of my senior season of college basketball right now? Well, here’s why: It was too hard for me to sit on the bench and watch as five of my teammates got to play the game I loved, the game I’d dedicated so much time and effort to. I would sit there, with my only hope of being inserted into the game resting on my team being blown out, and I’d think only of better times, of times when basketball was what I lived for. So I quit.
You see, I love basketball. When I played it, I was more dedicated than any player on my team. I spent more time in the weight room, more time shooting jumpers, more time working on my game, than anybody else. If I was anywhere near as physically talented as the other guys, I would have been an All-American; I was that dedicated to the game I love. But I wasn’t born with physical gifts. I’m not quick, I’m not strong, and I’ve never been able to dunk a basketball. Everything I ever accomplished on a basketball court was the product of hard work and a high basketball IQ.
Not being able to earn playing time killed me. It ate at my heart. Many nights, I came home from a game and cried. I’d spent my whole life proving myself at every level of basketball, working my ass off to improve, but I had reached the end of my basketball-playing road, and it was incredibly difficult, realizing I wasn’t good enough to play. Not even for one of the worst college teams in the lowest NCAA division.
By the end of my time “playing” at Skidmore College, I was demoralized. My sense of self was almost entirely based on playing basketball. I wasn’t just “Jay King”; I was “Jay King, basketball player.” If you don’t understand what I mean, you’ve never been good at sports. I prided myself on being a basketball player, I carried myself as a basketball player, and almost all of my thoughts and dreams were associated with basketball. Basketball became far more than what I did; it became who I was. And when it was ripped away from me, when I realized I was never that good at basketball, it hurt every single inch of my body.
So what’s the point of me telling you this? Why am I writing about my sappy experience playing college basketball, when I write for a Celtics website? Because all those thoughts I thought I would experience while watching my old team, I now feel while watching the Celtics play. You see, I miss basketball in the purest sense of the game. At Skidmore, we weren’t a team. We were a disjointed group that spent as much time criticizing our other teammates as trying to help them win games. We were a collection of individuals, many of whom bitched and moaned about playing time, others who bitched and moaned about teammates. There was never a sense of true camaraderie, never the feeling, “I would do anything to help anyone in this locker room win a game.”
And what we didn’t have at Skidmore was what I missed most about basketball. I didn’t miss what I had in college, and not just because I didn’t play any minutes; it was because we played the game the wrong way and, furthermore, because I never had the feeling of being part of a team. I never had the feeling of being part of an intricate brotherhood, that every guy in my locker room had my back, or that all my teammates just wanted to win.
Watching the Boston Celtics, though, floods back all the memories of high school basketball, a time when my team wasn’t a bunch of individuals, but a close-knit group of brothers. It is easily evident on the court just how much the Celtics care about each other and want to win the game, not just for themselves, but for each other. You can see it every time Kendrick Perkins sets a screen to free somebody else to score, or Kevin Garnett sits on the sidelines during a blowout and screams like the world is ending. You can see it when Rajon Rondo takes fewer than five shots in an entire game, more than willing just to set his teammates up, or when Paul Pierce defers to his teammates for large parts of the game, happy to ride out somebody else’s hot hand. You can see it when the Celtics go on a run, and the entire bench is standing up and cheering, even if NBA rules no longer allow that. You can see it when Shelden Williams, fresh after catching his first DNP-CD of the season, remarks on Twitter not about being hurt by not playing in the game, but about how big a win it was to beat the Spurs. You can see it in every defensive rotation, every dive to the floor after a loose ball, every extra pass to a more open teammate; the Boston Celtics play the game the right way, a selfless way, a way that inspires teamwork, friendship and camaraderie. A way that not only brings wins, but happiness.
But for me, watching the Celtics also brings a bit of sorrow. It makes me yearn for the time when I used to have those feelings of happiness on the court, a time when my team was my brotherhood and basketball my life. It makes me itch for the days when there was nothing in the world better than making a big run against a fierce rival, when I knew every teammate had my back and, not only that, but I had their backs too. It makes me want to be part of one more big game, to feel the excitement and anxiety build to a crescendo as I wait to go to battle with my teammates, my brothers. It makes me remember, and miss, all the memories I made, and I don’t just mean the games; the team lunches before games, running up an entire mountain as my coach’s way to build unity, the fans rushing the court after a big win over a rival we hadn’t beaten in over ten years, and even the time my coach made us run sprints for two hours straight… and that was after practice had already been completed.
Watching my old college team never brought back those memories, but watching the Celtics does. And that’s because the C’s play the game the right way, the way James Naismith intended for basketball to be played, five players joining together as one to take down another team. Don’t take it for granted that their camaraderie, teamwork, and brotherhood will always be around. Don’t make the same mistake I did, of thinking that basketball is always about something more than wins or losses, or the way an individual plays.
Because basketball isn’t always about something more than the game itself, although, watching the Celtics play, you sure get the idea that it is. There are many teams in the NBA, many teams at all levels of basketball, that aren’t at all like the Celtics. But the way the Celtics play, basketball in its purest form, makes me desperately wish I could suit up one more time, if only for one more game. The Celtics make me want to experience basketball’s joys, friendships, teamwork — and even its heartbreaks — all over again. Watching them play makes me reminisce about a great time in my life, a time when I got so excited for games I would sleep in my jersey, a time when I would come back after a game and rehash every play, every second of my game, over the next two hours with my family and friends.
But, more than anything else, more than the sad yet happy flow of emotions, watching a Celtics game makes me wish I could be out there, listening to the national anthem one more time, swaying to the music as I excitedly and anxiously await whatever the game will bring me.
You see, basketball doesn’t always inspire such emotions, but when it does, it’s as special as almost anything in life.