Essay | We Had Courts

It's hard to tell now, but basketball used to be a defining part of my life. When I was a child, it was more than just a hobby and sport of choice, but my goal in life. Back when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defined the league, when Dennis Rodman was more than just obscure pop culture trivia, when Nick Van Exel was the coolest guy on the Lakers. Today, it's a faint lingering taste. It's a source of brief nostalgia.

Charles Barkley, Dennis Scott, Shawn Kemp, Grant Hill, Tony Kukoc, David Robinson: these guys were my NBA. They was my cast of characters that I had grown to know from stats on the back of Upper Deck trading cards and blurbs in SLAM magazine. Now, these guys are either all retired as color commentators or analysts. A few are still playing, but as backups to backups, veterans with limited minutes in free agent limbo whose sole purpose is provide mentorship or act as maturing influences on the locker room.

The prime example of this fall was Penny Hardaway, who could be described as my basketball idol. I had the shoes, jersey, even sent him a letter (all I got back was an application for his fan club.) It's not uncommon: Penny Hardaway's work with Nike & Chris Rock on the Li'l Penny shoe commercials made him a household name and a piece of 90's pop culture. It endeared him as the cool new star that young kids could latch onto, many of which still latch onto today. It's a rare quality for sports stars: not just a following, but a cult following.

Today, I don't even know where he is. He never filled out the Michael Jordan role that everyone projected for him. He never fulfilled his potential; After Phoenix, he meandered a bit to different teams, often getting injured, scoring only handfuls of points. But Li'l Penny nostalgia stuck to him. He even made the NBA All-Star team mid-injury, to the surprise and anger of some. The point is, here was this shining star of the game, the future embodied in good marketing and good talent, now all but faded and forgotten. Jordan himself said on TV he would pass the torch onto him. I wonder what he thinks now.

But even Jordan himself is eclipsed in today's NBA. He's a legend, yes, but with that status comes being a relic of the past. Coming back to play in the modern NBA as a Wizard watered down his legacy. It's hard to look at the possible greatest of all time and not look at those two odd seasons he played as an old man and couldn't hang on the court. Today, Kobe Bryant is the ideal when fans want to talk about the pinnacle of the sport and although his myth is still building, it's hard to reach the miracles and stories that Jordan's career sowed.

Basketball used to be my sport. But like a friend overseas, the absence leads to a wider personal gap, and soon your caring dries up. I turn on the TV now and I don't know any of these guys. These aren't my characters. These are replacements, like Power Rangers or Megazords that aren't even Dinosaur-based.

I used to play, too. Sometimes I wonder if I was as good as I remember being -- because I remember being really good. I hit three pointers before anyone else I knew. I had an outside jump shot on the small mini-courts in elementary school. I couldn't handle the ball, okay, sure. But on that 5th grade playground I was otherwise one of the best. In my head, anyway.

Sometime in elementary school, we had an assignment to draw what we wanted to be when we grow up, accompanied by a few sentences explaining the picture. I knew what I was going to be. It was easy. I drew a picture of myself landing this totally sweet skyhook over some unsuspecting opponent. I drewa smile on my face and a swish in the net. That was all I wanted.

Then I submitted it to my teacher who broke out into a near tear-jerking laughter. Confused and silenced, I waited for her to calm down. "You're not going to be a basketball player!" she said. "You're smarter than that, no, no, you're going to be a scientist or something." She laughed to herself a few more times, scoffing off my dreams, leaving them in tiny fragments at her feet.

I'm pretty sure I cried that night.

That was the night the dream died and I started to focus on the other things I was good at, like math and drawing and reading. Eventually they took over basketball. I stopped going down to the park to pretend I was playing with an invisible Scottie Pippen. I stopped shooting the ball in the backyard. I stopped caring about the game. I spent more time on the internet while my neighbors went to play at the park.

By the end of Middle School I had stopped identifying as a basketball fan. It's just a distant artifact, now. This weird, faded scar. A mark on my body that, sometimes, I forget why it's there.