My First Addiction

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
— Michael Jordan

Basketball is a metaphor for life. Someone told me that once, or maybe I heard it in a movie. It sounds like a line from “He Got Game.” No matter where I heard it, I agree with it. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they play basketball, and you can learn a lot about yourself by playing basketball.

When I was very young, my grandma taught me how to dribble a ball. When I first saw her dribbling, it looked like magic- the way the ball just bounced right back to her over and over. I couldn’t even get the ball from her. Grandma had handles. I knew I had to learn that. I mean I really wanted to be able to dribble the ball. At the time, the ball was probably as big as me. Didn’t matter. I had to learn to dribble.

Then there was my first grade gym teacher, Mr. Cox. He pulled me to the side during class one day and asked if I was playing basketball on a team. I wasn’t. At the time I had only played baseball. I remember he said “well you should play – you have a nice shot.”
That’s all it took, and I haven’t stopped shooting the ball since. It’s amazing how much impact you can have on a child’s life by giving them basic encouragement.

After that, I was convinced I would one day play basketball professionally. Eventually, after months of begging, my parents put a hoop up in our driveway. It was old and rickety, the backboard was thin wood and splitting in spots. Didn’t matter. I was shooting on the hoop all the time. I would drive my parents crazy if the cars were parked in the driveway.

A couple years later my grandparents built a garage in their back yard with a small concrete slab in front of it. Of course I had to have a hoop on that slab of concrete. Looking at it now, the slab was small and odd-shaped for a basketball court, but at the time it was perfect. I was able to talk my grandpa into getting an adjustable hoop with a breakaway rim, and I could lower it and dunk. I was in Heaven.

When my family moved, we put a hoop up on the carport but the house was in the way so we typically would play in the neighbor’s driveway. I feel like we used their hoop a lot and maybe were not always welcome. I assume we were rude and didn’t ask permission but I can’t remember.  Josh and I played a lot of 1-on-1 on that hoop. It was a really small space. The hoop was on one side of the single car drive, width-wise. We would check the ball on the grass of the other side and basically start pushing and shoving as soon as the ball was checked. I suppose that’s where I learned to play so physical. Josh was 4 years older than me- taller, faster, stronger and more skilled. I rarely won a game against him. When I did, it was probably because I cheated somehow- gave him a bloody nose or pulled out an earring. The games often ended in a fight, which I also lost. Those games made it a lot easier when playing people my own age, my own size.

What I wouldn’t do to be able to play a game of 1-on-1 against Josh right now. Obviously because I miss him, but also because I have A LOT to prove. I’ve gotten a lot stronger, a little taller, and debatably  better. I am confident I would win over 50% of those games now, or maybe not… depends on how much he has been playing, I suppose.

A couple of serious knee injuries in 7th and 9th grade basically ended my organized basketball career. Well, the knee injuries and the fact that practice for the 10th grade team was at 6 am. I was more concerned with partying and being cool than getting up early to play basketball. I wasn’t taking life all that serious at the time.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

Instead I played anywhere I could find a pickup game. I played at the Y, the Center, AIB, Sayer’s Park, Jordan Park, the park in Valley Junction with the skateboard ramp, Legion Park. I played on a Mercy Hospital team, an Iowa Games team, a church league team, 3-on-3 teams. I mean anywhere and everywhere I could find a game. When I was 17, I got in with a group of guys and started playing a regular pick-up game on Thursday nights. The guys were all older than me, by at least 5 years. I am actually surprised they kept inviting me back. I was a selfish player- really only cared about scoring the ball. Defense, passing, rebounding- all those fundamentals were boring to me.  I was equally selfish off the court. Equally as bored by the fundamentals of life.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

I played with those guys for a couple of years and then moved to Iowa City. When I was in Iowa City, there were 3 or 4 of us who would go to the gym together. We’d pick up a random guy and challenge the best team in the gym. Most times they would look at us and seem excited to play us, overly confident. I guess we didn’t look like your typical ball players. We probably all looked hungover at best. Most days we surprised the shit out of the opposition. We were all pretty good and were really good at playing together. We were also cocky and mouthy. A lot of our games would get chippy as guys didn’t like being shown up by us, and they certainly didn’t like having to hear about it as it happened. I remember a lot of games ending in near fights. It reminded me of the driveway games with Josh.  Josh had just passed away and basketball was the only real positive thing I was doing. As time passed, basketball would be my only refuge from the pain of losing my brothers. Well, the only healthy refuge. You can’t think about the shit going on in your life when you play basketball – not if you want to play well. You have to stay focused and rely on your instincts. That therapy the game provides is still my favorite therapy.

When I moved back from Iowa City, I picked back up with the guys on Thursday nights. I was a mess. I was drinking way too much. Thursday night basketball was the only thing that required me to take a night off from drinking… at least until we were finished playing. I would try to take it easy on Wednesday night too, and I’d typically fail. My game suffered. My effort on the court was more focused on trying not to throw up than trying to win a game. I was playing like shit but still overly confident…okay cocky.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

By the time I was in my mid 20’s I wasn’t able to sustain playing basketball on Thursday nights. I was bartending, and if I wasn’t working I was drunk. Eventually addiction takes everything from you. It took away my favorite thing to do since I was 5 years old, and convinced me that I didn’t need it because I had alcohol.

I believe I was 28 or so when I first started trying to get sober. I was in a really bad place mentally. My life at that time revolved around the bar scene, so I was extremely lost without it. I came back to that same Thursday night group of guys, and my spot in the group was still available. Not only was it available, it was encouraged. They would help me when I couldn’t afford the annual fee, or with rides when I didn’t have a license. When I finally gave up my youthful arrogance and asked for help, there were people there waiting, willing to help me.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

My personality on the court had changed drastically. Life had humbled me. I was broken and trying to rebuild myself. I would fail over and over at sobriety the first few years. I might miss months of basketball, but as soon as I pulled myself together I would be back in the gym. When I did play, I poured myself into the game. I had a lot on my mind and the escape basketball provided was so welcome. When you lose a game of basketball you don’t just consider yourself a loser and give up. You try harder the next game. You focus more mentally and you try to get stronger. That was the same lesson I needed to remember when dealing with the failures of my early attempts at sobriety.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

Around the time that I finally got sober for good, I was invited to a Sunday morning game. I think at the time the games were at 7 am at the Lincoln Roundhouse. That invitation couldn’t have come at a better time. I was trying to find a new path and suddenly having a reason to get to bed on Saturday nights was extremely helpful. Those Sunday morning games became my church. The irony wasn’t lost on me. The point in my life when alcohol started to become more important than basketball was my sophomore year at Lincoln, when I decided I couldn’t wake up a couple hours early to be part of the team. Now I was waking up early on a weekend to play for fun.  The balance of power had shifted back to the things that made me, me.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

Now its been over 7 years since I drank. That’s over 7 years of playing ball on Sunday mornings. 7 years of waking up early for “church.”

I missed several years for various reasons- all relating to alcohol- but it’s been over 20 years since I originally started playing basketball with that group on Thursdays. I’ve gone from being a cocky, mouthy, selfish, fundamental-lacking young jerk to the current “commissioner” of the group. Believe it or not, they trust me to work out the rental details with the school, collect the fee, and send out the weekly roll call emails.
In my youth I could have never been trusted with that type of responsibility, nor would I have welcomed it.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

When my wife and I bought this home we had a list of renovations, and the list was in order of importance. Near the very top of the list was a basketball hoop. I grew up playing on a single car driveway hoop- an old, tattered wooden backboard and a rim with no net. Now I have this beautiful adjustable hoop, complete with a glass backboard, on a really large slab of pavement and the most amazing background view. I could have never imagined I’d be so fortunate. I would never have dreamed of owning a basketball court like this. I’ve never shot in a more peaceful setting.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

The life lessons taught to us by basketball start the very first time you pick up your dribble in a game. You have 4 other players on your team begging for the ball. They are all yelling your name, confident that they are the best option for you to pass to. You have to make a quick decision and whatever decision you make at least 3 people are going to be disappointed. You can’t please everyone.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

There are hundreds of life lessons to be learned inside the game of basketball. “Let the game come to you,” “act like you’ve been there before,” “good shot, great shot,” “no I in TEAM,” and so on.  The most important lesson I have learned from basketball is how to respond to failure. It’s inevitable that you will fail in life. The failure doesn’t define you – your response to it is what defines you.

Basketball is a metaphor for life.

Basketball really is a metaphor for life. It’s poetry in motion. It’s my church. It’s my sanctuary. It’s my first addiction and my greatest escape.

Good luck on your brackets.

6 thoughts on “My First Addiction

  1. Good s$&t Robert. This old man has watched your journey from a far and up close on the court and is truly inspired by man you have become today. Thank you for sharing your story. Truly blessed to be able to call you my friend.


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