“Have you peaked as an individual?”
The question hung in the air longer than I ever did on the court, as I sat there wearing a second-day undershirt on the patio of a too-nice pizza place with two coworkers and my first real boss, my belongings stuffed into a backpack I stole from Luke Harangody.
“Have you peaked as an individual?”
I don’t know whether my boss had actually repeated the question, or whether it just reverberated in my skull — my brain a gong, the question a mallet. When I finally came to, it took every fiber of my being to keep from chugging the rest of the wine and breaking the bottle over his head. I’m eating pizza right now. DON’T RUIN THIS FOR ME.
But had I peaked as an individual?
It was 2011, my first summer as a non-basketball player, retired at the ripe old age of 24. It was more or less of a forced retirement after being fired from a team in Germany’s second league after an 0-5 start, and facing the question of whether or not I wanted to play in Latvia for even less money. In my heart of hearts I knew I could make just as little money back in the States and so I chose to come home.
So had I peaked as an individual? I was 24 and my mom was my roommate. THANK YOU FOR ASKING.
Retired so young, I began my next career as a human being. I started learning how to be something else.
Fast-forward to last summer, when a bunch of former Notre Dame teammates and I won $500,000 as the inaugural champions of The Basketball Tournament. I never thought I’d get a chance to be that version of myself again (at least a version of that version), let alone with my friends and for such a handsome purse. It was an incredible and timely gift that I’ll never pretend to understand. And what we were able to do was something that 99% of athletes don’t have the chance to do, and that’s to end on a win.
But as nice as it was to return to form and see those fishies swim into the old bank account, the hunger inside for what you once were doesn’t go away. It’s the daily awareness that you should technically be at the perfect cross-section of your physical and mental primes, but that your current outlet is to tear some guys (sometimes girls) apart in recreational league soccer games. Having a couple of beers beforehand to level the playing field has the opposite effect and instead makes you more relaxed and capable, and you wish that you would have put down the Gatorade and not the basketball.
Sometimes I'll wear spandex to work, underneath my pants, convinced that it's a smart and logical thing to do (the flexibility!). Or I’ll create special handshakes with coworkers as if the starting lineups are about to be announced, essentially anything to simulate rituals past. It’s getting older and different and better and less relevant all at once. What exactly should I do with all of this decaying physical capital and eighty-six Instagram followers?
In a recent episode of the WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, President Barack Obama touched on a similar nerve:
It ALMOST compensates for the fact that he can’t play basketball anymore!
Here we have the Leader of the Free World nearly wishing that he could run for a third term, but at the last minute pivots and shares that his hard earned wisdom is almost a fair trade for not being able to play basketball anymore. If pressed to answer whether he’d like to be in office for another four years or in the gym for another forty minutes, it sounds like he just might choose the latter, and I can’t say that I’d blame him.
So if Obama struggles with it, it’s no surprise that the aging athlete does as well. It’s not only the physical transformation, but it’s the physical transformation as connected to identity that takes the most getting used to. A week doesn’t pass where a stranger doesn’t share the wise advice that, “Hey! You should go play for the Bulls!” MY GOD, WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?!
But I did think of it. Every day since I was five years old. It just wasn’t in the cards this time around. If the commercial for the HBO show “Ballers" and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have taught me anything, it’s that “Legends Don’t Retire. They Reinvent.” Ok, that’s great, Mr. Rock, but what do the Not Quites do? We reinvent too. We stop taking our shirts off at weddings. We stop wearing sweatpants in public. We learn. We grow. We recognize the peaks and are comfortable in the valleys, and we know that it all comes around, that it all happens.
And that’s what is so special about The Basketball Tournament. It gives the aging athlete an opportunity to play again, and to play on his own terms. We might not be as good at our sport as we once were, but we have become good sports, and we know that the chance to play is a beautiful thing.
And if that question was posed to me another time, I know what I’d say.
"Have you peaked as an individual?"
No. I’m just getting started again.