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A First Love

May 24
by
Michael Rouillard
in
Sports
with
.

Jessie,

It hurts. Being in love hurts, right?


You told me once that I do not know what it is like to truly feel the pain of a broken heart if I had never been “in love” for that first time. The truth is, I have. It might not have been a first love in a traditional sense, when a human shares an intimate connection with another.

However, it was love, it just happened to be a bond with a round, orange inanimate object full of air.

I had my first love when I was three years old. It would wake me up at 6 in the morning along with the neighbors. It would call me to the self-reflective depths of my basement, when the weather would not permit, though every now and then it would draw me out into the rain, to test if wet clothes, hair, socks and spongy shoes would hinder my dedication. Though I was free to come and go as I pleased, I was not a slave to this love.

There were no expectations, assumptions, or things to be taken personally. More importantly there were no definitions or labels placed upon the connection I shared. Only a fire in my soul, or as my pops called it “a heart of a tiger,” to put a basketball between my legs, around my back, cross it over, and through a hoop. Then hear that confidence-building, sweet and crisp sound of the nylon net swish.

Perhaps when we are that young, we are actually aware of the mystery behind what true love is. Our minds are not creating obstacles to block us from what we want to naturally do, we just do it, whatever “it” is, we are not afraid of it. It became my escape from the distractions of a broken family, unwanted schoolwork, and the regular pains of being a kid. My driveway with the basketball hoop mounted above the garage was my portal to the coveted holy land, the land of milk and honey for creation, “the zone.”

As I grew older, %tags Sports I gained knowledge of the fundamentals of basketball. I learned how to shoot lay-ups right and left handed, footwork and the correct jump shooting form; from two-handed to one-handed using the offhand to guide the ball to the hoop with backspin created by the flick of the wrist. The only caveat was that I wanted to shoot like my Dad, who shot using his right hand. I was left-handed; it was not my natural fluid motion.

Slowly my conditioning of what a basketball player should be and look like took place.

I progressed through grade school gathering an identity like moss on a stone of being a “basketball player.” Then boom, it happened, a title was slapped on my back. A title turned a pure love into a near-egotistical obsession because if I was not a basketball player, then what was I? What was my place in the cafeteria; my role in school’s or life’s social society? I thought to myself, “Would I be worth being friends with or deserved any love from anyone without it?”

In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “A love once new has now grown old.” In high school, I nearly hated basketball because it was no longer fun. No longer my escape from an unaware and abusive father, or the social anxiety I had grown into that led to an indifference to school. I could not tap into that spiritual connection, “the zone” anymore and I hated myself like there was something wrong with me. If I could not make an open shot or get by my defender… I was simply a stupid, a no good piece of shit.

I had forgotten why I naturally gravitated towards basketball, and I had forgotten how to love myself. I let other’s opinions about my game shape my self-perception and determine my worth. I needed validation from it, so there was no way I could leave it, it was all I knew, it was my first love. Even when it crushed my heart, unleashing an endless stream of tears in front of grown men as I was getting cut from the varsity team; I still believed that it was the savior to my dreams and problems. I believed it could take me out of that basement where hours were spent dribbling in the dark or blind folded around various objects and chairs.

High school passed and I was soon skipping college courses to go play at local basketball courts. Without the pressure of impressing a coach, teammates or my father it became fun again. In addition I was growing and becoming stronger. I could jump higher and move quicker, I felt a sense of power.

Soon I returned to the love and knowing in my soul that this game could lift me higher and help me achieve my goal of playing college basketball.

Although, I was unsure how to get to my destination, so I sought out some guidance from high school coaches and I myself started coaching. Over a few years I taught junior varsity girls, freshman boys, middle school boys, spent summers working camps and making connections with other coaches. I was sharing this intense passion and love for the game that I had, so that maybe the players I coached could be lifted higher as well. This was noble and good but it was not the same as playing on the court in flow of a game, in harmony with the ball and four other teammates.

A pivotal experience occurred at a basketball camp where I worked as a coach but spent the last few hours of each day playing in competitive pick-up games against the other camp coaches. The coaches who played mainly consisted of NCAA Division 2 and Division 3 players as well as some high school players who were most likely going to end up playing at some level of college basketball. Needless to say the competition was not lacking in the least.

At first this intimidated me but after my first three point shot went in during my first game, I was in the zone. After a couple of weeks at the camp, my confidence in my game had never been higher and I felt I could compete with anyone. I had elevated my game to a new level but it was not solely because of my skills. It was because I had grown an undeniable belief in them. Almost in perfecting timing as my confidence was ascending, a test from life brought me crashing as I got injured. A severe ankle sprain suffered from coming down on someone’s foot as I was extending myself too far to block someone’s shot. Even though I did block the shot, I was devastated.

Quickly, the new fragile bravado about my basketball skills turned into self-loathing, “fuck basketball.”

Six months after the ankle injury and hardly looking at a basketball, I was depressed. The fire was still in me to chase my dream, but I was ignoring it. It hurt too much to let that love back into my life. It was too intense. Watching basketball commercials or highlights of my favorite players was like that breath-taking sting of seeing an ex happy and doing just fine without you. Restlessness would set in and tears would nearly be shed because deep down I knew I was only hurting myself by avoiding that fire within.

Eventually I reached my breaking point. I finally cried, letting that resistance go and began training for my dream again. It was out of half-love and half necessity because again, who am I without it? Am I worth anything? Will a girl finally want to date me if I am on a college basketball team?

Even though it was a burning fire within me, driving me, I could not let go of the anger at the world, my father, myself and or former coaches. There were hundreds of hours spent punishing myself and body for not being perfect. I would cuss myself out and run extra sprints or shoot for an extra hour for missing 2 out of 20 free throws when I had already been training for 3 hours. Giving myself a break was not an option for me.

After two years of internal rage at myself, my father, the varsity coach, or anyone who I believed doubted me, I completed my goal. I made the junior college team at Northern Virginia Community College, with a promise of playing time from the coach as well as a Division 2 scholarship, depending on my performance. Finally I was accepted and my skills validated but I still did not accept myself. I still was not good enough.

Over that summer before my first basketball season since sophomore year of high school, I was recovering from torn muscles in my left thigh. Doubts began to pour into my head whether my body could sustain a college basketball season as I was already dealing with a stress fracture in my lower back and deteriorating cartilage in my right knee. During my personal training sessions, it felt like I was fighting my body, pushing it to go farther but the results seemed to be diminished.

Not only was I reaching my limits physically but mentally as well. School started, and the pressure of balancing classes, work, financial issues, and practice was building like a molehill into a mountain. The more I thought about it, the more anxiety came flooding in and my brain wanted shut down. So much so that the first practice of the season I injured my most prone left ankle and at this point I said to myself “Enough!”

The self-hate and the physical punishment were not worth it anymore.

I decided to not play that season, and my dream of playing college basketball was nonexistent as my eligibility was going to end soon.I spent that winter quite depressed and questioning my decisions. Did I lose out on the chance to realize my dream doing the thing I loved the most? Regardless of the fact that I did the best that I could, with the knowledge I had at the time, the decision not to play would keep me up most nights.

In the spring, the nagging itch to play came back again. With the knowledge I had gained over the last couple of years of physical and basketball training, I was sure to become good enough to at least be taken seriously at an overseas tryout. Though a few months into it, my body said “NO!” again as I injured that same damned ankle two times in the span of 3 weeks. This time I had no choice but to listen to my body, so I did. I gave it up and learned to be at peace with no longer being a “basketball player” or a coach.

It was not that I did not love it anymore; rather I just could not do it.  The mental or physical capacity and determination to put that toll on my body did not exist anymore. I could not give it my honest 110 percent.

Since then I have tried other endeavors but it too became too egoic, as it was a way to prove to everyone and ultimately myself that this broken down, abused, pissed off kid was worth something. Living like that is not worth it, taking things personally, and letting how well you shoot in training sessions, not even a game; determine whether you positively or negatively view yourself. Such thinking sabotages any attempt I have or had to be the best version of myself or share the love that we all desire.

%tags Sports

My first love, basketball, reflected the relationship I shared with myself. Nothing was quite good enough, allowing my basketball performance or other’s opinions balance and weigh my worth as a person. I did not allow myself to feel love because I was not worthy of it. I had to be better, shoot better, and dribble better… I could not accept myself for where I was at, at any point. I was holding onto and squeezing basketball for something it could not fully provide, self-acceptance and love.

Life, passions, and love are not meant to have titles, be defined, or put in a box. It limits the spirit, our source of true creativity. We do not allow ourselves to change, grow, let go of something and have it flow naturally back into our lives. We hold onto those titles like they make up whom we are, when it is only make-up on a vanity desk. We ask, “Will others love me for what I truly look like?”

“Can I even love myself without it?” So we scratch and claw to defend them like animals guarding a fresh corpse from vultures, because who are we without them? If we did not have them, chaos and change would ensue, causing us to go to the self-reflective depths of our internal basements. Requiring self-induced moments of solitude; where one goes to get dirty, getting knee deep in the grimy, sticky mud of our past pain, and change the negative agreements we hold true in our mind about ourselves.

Initial moments of love are ones we tend to desperately hold onto while that love has already changed and moved on but we have not. Love is an ever-changing, uncontainable force as free as the wind and yet we tend to try to put in a bottle like it was lighting. Because conventional wisdom tells us that it does not strike twice. Instead it strikes differently each time and it is easy for us to fail to realize that each bolt across the sky is just as or more awesome, as each one teaches something new and necessary.

It is meant to break the bonds of anything that is not love, which is a painful process. By breaking those bond or us, it allows us to return to our true selves, having contentment, love and peace with whom and where we are in life. Therefore it cannot be defined otherwise something or someone else becomes our worth, our obsession, and our definition.


 

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