How Learning to Shoot Hoops Taught Me to Write
I was supposed to be a basketball star, but inside, I was a bookworm who couldn’t wait to get off the court
We were down three points in the District II semifinals against John Glenn High School. I had the ball and was dribbling somewhere near the hash mark, 25 feet from the basket. There were ten seconds left in the final quarter. I was a senior and I had been practicing for this moment since I was six years old.
Playing basketball in the Steubenville’s St. John Arena was like playing in a cement desert. It was one of my favorite places to play because it was huge and old, a relic of an arena from the early part of the twentieth century that easily fit thousands of people and also doubled as a hockey rink and as a home to the circus. I always imagined I could smell hay in the locker rooms. The basketball floor had to be assembled; it was made up of interlinking wood panels a few feet square in size. The wood creaked and sagged and our footfalls created hollow sounds. The parquet also deadened the ball so that, at certain soft spots on the court, the ball failed to bounce back up to the expected height.
Because of St. John’s multi-purpose use, the bleachers were at least a good 30 feet beyond the court, creating an eerie cement slab between the cheering crowds and the court, filled only sparsely by a meager line of cheerleaders. The combination of the distant fans and the nearly constant cacophony of the hollow parquet made me feel happy, far removed from the pressure of the coaches and the expectations of the crowd. Others hated playing at St. John’s because of these exact qualities. It lacked the frenetic intensity of, for example, our home court in Cambridge, Ohio, whose pep band-infused roar was famous. In fact, the loneliness of playing in St. John’s felt comfortable because it so well matched my experience as a person. I had always been popular, so much so that I was noted in both my junior high and high school yearbooks as Class Favorite, which was ironic because I had zero friends, never hung out with anyone, never went to parties, and had only one girlfriend in all of junior high and high school—for a few months. Rather than partying, I spent Friday nights sitting with my mom in matching reading chairs in front of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that spanned the walls of our suburban ranch.
My shelf, incidentally, did not foretell any kind of literary future. It consisted mostly of the Hardy Boys and Louis L’Amour, and I have an especially fond memory of a glossy biopic of Willy Mays. Nevertheless, it pleases me to look back over my childhood and adolescence and see my would-be writer self peeking out: in these Friday evening read-a-thons, I see the quiet introspection that, while perhaps awkward at the time, has always been the part of myself I feel most at home in.
Zack Pauley, John Glenn’s best player and my basketball nemesis since junior high, wasn’t fast, and he wasn’t a particularly good defender, but he was a good two inches taller than me, and yet I was a good enough shooter to know that if I gave myself the room to shoot over Pauley, I could make the winning shot. I don’t really know why I was a good shooter, or how I became one, other than I practiced thousands and thousands of jump shots. Still, I knew plenty of people who practiced their jump shots and weren’t particularly good. It’s all about how the ball leaves the last inch of your hand, which is such a small aspect of the things that make a good jump shot (feet alignment, leg strength, jumping ability, upper body strength, elbow alignment, support hand position, eye sight, courage, confidence, practice and probably another half dozen intangible elements). But how the ball leaves the top of one’s middle finger…that’s it. A poet might work forever on a turn of phrase or a title, but it all comes down to a poem’s final line, that’s it. How the poem leaves the reader’s mind determines if the poem hits its mark to remain lodged in memory, or if it’s forgotten.
And yet — and here is the crux of my basketball career — when given the chance to select, at a summer basketball camp, one of three T-shirts (The Rebounder, The Shooter or The Passer — each complete with a mock personality description), which one did I choose? The Rebounder. I wore it to practice once and our center, who was a very good rebounder, saw it, tipped his head and asked, “Why are you wearing that shirt?” I couldn’t really answer him. I think he was slightly offended, like I was making fun of his realm, and I don’t blame him for his response.
People were always telling me I needed to shoot more. There were stages in my career where people told me I needed to shoot more so many times, and in so many strange places, that my life could’ve been a farcical movie entitled Shoot More! These interactions felt like the people were wrenching my insides with their knuckles, but I always smiled and tried to take their advice, as if I’d never heard that before. Why yes, I’ll consider shooting more.
One answer to the question “Why don’t you shoot more?” can at least be partially found in what I am doing now, which is making my life as a writer. Shooters shoot without thinking. Shooters never think about the past. Writers, on the other hand, seem to only think. Thinking is a writer’s material. It’s all about thinking and questioning and self-reflection. Writers take all that through an alchemical process, and if we’re lucky, come up with a manuscript, which then needs rethinking, revisioning, and reworking. But not Shooters; they just shoot. I always thought someday I would shed my introspection and become a Shooter. But it never happened. At least not in the way I imagined.
The essence of a pull-up jumper, the kind of shot I would need to shoot as Zack Pauley guarded me to tie the game and send it into overtime, is simple, though its execution can be difficult. It’s the shot Michael Jordan made to beat the buzzer in the 1997 NBA Championship. The offensive player takes one or two dribbles toward the basket, making as if they are going to drive to the hoop, but then, once the defensive player has been driven off and the defender’s momentum is going toward the basket, the offensive player jumps backwards into shooting position to execute a wide-open jump shot. For those like Michael Jordan who are gifted with high vertical leaps and supreme quickness, it is a very effective shot because it is virtually unstoppable. I practiced the shot all the time and at that point in the game against John Glenn, I had just hit a string of three-pointers over the course of a minute or two to bring us within three points.
There are some athletes who love the spotlight. The bright gymnasium lights, the roar of the crowd, the hollering of the coaches, the shrill calls of the referee’s whistle — it all heightens the experience and they play better. But I was not that kind of athlete and that was shameful. I was the kind of athlete who most loved shooting baskets outside at the Cambridge City Courts at six AM with my father, or driving with my brother out to a barn, way-the-hell-and-gone out in Cadiz that my dad had rigged up with a basketball court to spend the afternoon. I was also the kind of athlete who shirked the obligatory post-game MacDonald’s trip to soak in the tub and read. I so seldom enjoyed, actually felt comfortable and good, playing varsity basketball for Cambridge High School. Even on the rare occasions when I scored over twenty points in a game and we actually won, I couldn’t feel good about it. Shouldn’t I have done better?
Ten seconds on the clock. I knew I needed a pull-up three to tie the game. Instead I drove left around Pauley, easily making it around him, and headed for the basket, where I thought I could draw a foul and maybe even make a three-point play. It seemed like the entire John Glenn team was waiting in the paint. I jumped toward the basket, tried to draw enough contact for a foul, and threw up a left-handed runner, one of my favorite shots, hoping it would bank in off the glass.
To use the backboard is not easy, nor is it very popular. It requires the use of angles, similar to shooting pool, but without any of pool’s slow methodical shot preparation. One of my coach’s favorite rants against me was when I drove to the basket, tried to draw contact, and threw up a lefty runner. He called this “a fuckin’ Flyin’ Wallenda.” I now know that the Flying Wallendas were dare-devil circus performers, but back then, I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about and didn’t want to find out because I knew it wasn’t good. Often I made my Flying Wallenda shot, and sometimes I didn’t. That part didn’t matter to my coach. He thought it was too desperate a shot.
And that was the shot I took at the end of the game against John Glenn. Of course — how could it be any other way? — I missed. It was close to going in, but not that close. Nor did I draw a foul from the referee. The buzzer went off and we lost the game. We shook hands with the other team. Zack Pauley told me I played a great game. My coach put his arm around me and told me I gave it a good try. I walked toward the locker room. This was the last game of my high school basketball career. A middle-aged woman who I didn’t know leaned over the railing as I entered the tunnel to the locker room. “We love you, Jeff!” she shouted. I sat on the bench in front of my locker. Some of my teammates were crying. My brother gave me a hug. The police chief said I played a real good game. I didn’t say anything. What could I say? But what I felt was the biggest sense of relief. The season was finally over. Or at least until next year, as I had committed to playing college basketball at Denison University for my freshman year. But maybe that would be different, I reassured myself.
The next day in my English class, my teacher made a special point of pulling me aside. “You really went for it last night,” she said and patted me on the shoulder. I forced a smile. But what did I actually go for, and why was I going for it?
This essay is the first time I’ve tried to write about basketball and my muddled experience in it. I realize now that it’s been muddled in part because I’ve avoided the obvious: despite holding the record for highest career three-point percentage for 23 years, despite the modest hometown fame that persists to this day, it turns out that I failed at basketball. When I eventually quit playing a few years into college and instead focused on writing, it wasn’t anything more romantic or courageous than an acknowledgment of what had always been true about me — I was a well-rounded kid with some natural athleticism that almost made me a great basketball player. But at heart, I was a shy, socially awkward, gentle bookworm. I avoided reckoning with this suspended experience of failure because it seemed really depressing for a long time. I’d dedicated a large chunk of my childhood and adolescence to something I would never be great at. Forget the movie montages where practice leads inevitably to greatness. Those thousands of hours led me nowhere. Wasn’t there shame in that?
I’m in my forties now. I realize there is more to this story than avoidance and failure and shame. Because to write well, and to be happy doing it, we have to lose our fear of failure. And we have to accept the unfair truth that hard work and talent do not automatically lead to success. And further, success is not the point! I loved playing basketball, and I love to write. Writing without fear of failure is a true pleasure. It allows us to be loyal to our weirdness and vulnerability. Through my experience with basketball, I lost the deep, elemental fear that I sometimes see in the eyes of other writers. I have faced the stark truth, and I no longer doubt — I just shoot.