- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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I always thought one day I’d have a funeral for my basketball game. My friends and people I played with or against would come up and tell stories detailing my game’s life.
My father and cousin David “Doc” Robinson would argue over and try to take credit for which one of them really taught me the game. My high school coach would talk about why he cut me despite me averaging “30” during tryouts and how the team won the state title because I wasn’t on it. Michael Conley (father of the Memphis Grizzlies' pg) and Curley “Boo” Johnson (former Harlem Globetrotter) would fly in and speak about our basketball exploits. My godbrother Andre would speak about the days traveling throughout Chicago, going park-to-park taking on all comers. My boy Shawn would tell stories of my Isiah Thomas impersonations.
Gary Payton would be there and talk about how he found out I could actually play. Kenny Smith would be there and talk about how he made a fool of me in a game while in London. L.A. high school legend Schea Cotton would get up and speak about how he destroyed me 10-0 in a one-on-one game. The Slam magazine crew would talk about the stories they heard and the lies I told about my game. ESPN’s Chris Broussard would talk about how he’s heard about me having game, but how I never came out to hoop with him whenever the media would have pick-up games on the road.
Scottie Pippen and Julius Erving would be in attendance. My basketball idol Alvin “Bo” Dukes would be there, too. As would my cousin, Tony Parker (yeah, the same one). Rick Telander and Alexander Wolff would give a dual eulogy. During the services there would be stories told about how I never played varsity basketball in high school but wound up playing two games of semipro before I graduated from college. Stories of how the one thing I may have been more committed to than writing about basketball was playing basketball, and how I was told when I was 21 that if I skipped my senior year in college to really work on my game, I could possibly get a contract to play ball in Sweden.
The theme of the funeral: “He held his own.”
But as Biggie once said perfectly, “It was all a dream.” Because the reality set in in a totally different way.
First there was the shoulder injury. One that Vince Carter would appreciate because I had no idea how or when it happened or what caused it. Phantom.
A glenoid labrum tear with an inflamed rotator cuff.
Then the same thing happened to the other shoulder. Two years of playing ball, gone.
Then, in the midst of a comeback on concrete, I suffered a severe sprain and torn ligaments in my left ankle after I came down wrong after doing a Steve Nash (one-handed layup in traffic) in a pick-up game. That took a year to heal.
My passion was still there, though. The more I couldn’t play, the more I wanted to. I’d have flashbacks. Things I used to do, followed by things I used to be able to do. I’d watch my sons and their friends play 3-on-3 and say -- to myself -- “they’re lucky I have work to do, or I’d go out there and serve them.”
Two years ago, I was invited to play in Michael Jordan’s over-40 summer league. Turned it down. I was asked to participate in a fundraising game for some charity. Turned it down. Gave them cash. Was told the next time President Obama and his crew were in Chicago playing ball, I’d have to come through and hoop with them. That hasn’t happened yet. But recent history has proved that if and when that call comes, I’d show up but find an excuse to not play. It’s come to that.
The basketball hoop in the backyard, the one that my nephew and I spent over 15 straight hours putting together 12 years ago, has been lying next to the garbage cans now for two years. My 14-year-old can beat me now. And even though he hasn’t and I won’t admit it to him, I know.
There was a time that whenever I went on vacation, the first thing I’d look to do was play ball. Either by myself or with/against whoever happened to be on the courts at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m. when I’d play basketball for an hour as a substitute for a workout. On my most recent vacation, the one that ended Aug. 24, for three weeks I never picked up a basketball.
Hence, I know it’s time to say goodbye.
I never thought it would end like this. Not at 48. I knew the injuries eventually would take a toll and stop me from going all out whenever I stepped on a court. But I always thought there’d be more pride on my part involved when I’d lay my game down to sleep. I always thought it would be harder coming to grips with the end of my basketball career.
But here it is. No funeral, no celebrity eulogy, no group send-off, no last full-court run on courts as the sun goes down and the lights come on. No kissing the sky.
Just a cold, hard, irreversible reality check. Playing the game once was as important to me as breathing. Now it has become a spectator sport, no longer a physical, daily part of my life the way it had been ever since I was 8 years old. There will be no public gathering, no speeches, no testimonials, no recollection and lies, truths and falsehoods of a life once addicted to doing nothing more than trying to prove how nice a guy could be once he had a ball in his hands.
It died alone, my basketball game. Quietly. Slowly.
Without anyone saying how I held my own.