When the cheering stopped: Saying farewell to basketball

Is there life after basketball?

9 minute read
Obama learned to shift quickly from offense to defense.
Obama learned to shift quickly from offense to defense.
A colloquy between John Erlich and David Liss

Editor's note: Two former college basketball players from different generations— John Erlich of Sacramento (Columbia "'59) and David Liss of San Francisco (California and Pomona '10) sat down recently to ruminate about life after basketball.

John Erlich: When the last game of my final basketball season at Columbia was over, I was surprised to feel a profound sense of loss. I began to realize that the rhythms that had ordered my life for four years were gone.

No more training table meals. No non-training table meals, going through the cafeteria line getting pretty much anything I wanted. My class schedule and studying had been organized around practice and playing. No more getting "up" for games and getting "down" when we lost. No more taking the regular measure of my teammates' lives. Now it was as if I had too much time.

The next fall, when I started graduate school and worked part-time, basketball had prepared me for some aspects of a busy multi-tasking life. However, a few non-athlete friends just couldn't understand the mind and body changes I was experiencing, no matter how many times I explained.

Awkward feeling

David Liss: It happened differently for me, although I suppose I reached the same endpoint. I loved the game, the competition, my teammates, the whole thing "“ but it had physically started to wear on me. In November of my senior year at Pomona College, I accepted a full-time job to start the following August, thereby resigning my post-graduation self from pursuing any professional opportunities overseas.

I committed myself to giving my senior season my full attention. When it ended, though, the first few weeks were filled with a gradual "letting go" process— amidst, of course, the disappointment of our two-point loss in the league championship game— that felt awkward but necessary.

But now I've discovered that there is life after basketball after all! In between spending time with family and friends and working 60- to 70-hour weeks while traveling, I try to play as consistently as possible. The game is hardly what it once was to me; the camaraderie formed with 14 players united through a common goal has been replaced with a drive to stay in shape, and 7 a.m. practices have been replaced with 10:30 a.m. pickup games that rarely tip off before 11.

I'm confident of two things in my post-collegiate basketball life, though. One, I will never come close to being in the kind of shape I once was. And two, I'll never lose that jump shot.

A professor's smile

John: There is also a performance perspective to playing college-level basketball (probably high school too, but to a lesser degree). It's a structured opportunity we have to test ourselves against others"“ perhaps like actors, artists, singers and writers.

For me, it was partly a matter of systematically challenging one's own performance. I didn't have anything approaching your success as a junior and senior, but etched in my memory is a junior-year scrimmage against the local power, NYU, in which I scored 17 points. And at the beginning of that season (in one of the two games I ever started), I remember making all my shots. After that game, one of my classroom instructors was reading his copy of the college paper and checking the box score for the game. He looked up and gave me an unexpected big smile. Man, I was somebody.

Turning heads

David: I can't agree enough. It's nice to be somebody, especially at a larger school. I spent my freshman and sophomore years at Cal (2006-2008). Being on the team definitely came with its "recognition" perks. Wearing free gear around campus"“ even by myself"“ produced whispers. Walking around with my taller teammates would turn students' and Berkeley-ites' heads alike. After starting for the first and only time in my Cal career, I walked into a local restaurant and received high-fives from strangers.

I think I appreciate the ability I now have to look back on my basketball career with both fond memories of "being somebody" and the media to prove it. I have my jerseys from my time at Cal, which I plan to some day hang proudly in my home. I have DVDs from all my best games at Cal and Pomona, so that my grandparents, who were never able to see my games in person, can relive the experience.

Even after giving many away, I have more cut-off T-shirts and practice shorts than I know what to do with. Most of them are thoroughly worn and display faded logos, but I wear them as consistently as ever. Even more than alerting others to the fact that I played college basketball, sometimes it's just nice to remind myself.

When I chose to transfer from Cal to Pomona after my sophomore year, the "glory" of Division I basketball was something I expected to miss but also something I realized I could do without. As great as it was to get recognition on a large college campus, basketball had become too dominant a part of my life, and I wanted more balance.

What Obama learned

John: Does playing basketball provide useful life lessons? Well, Barack Obama played in high school. One of the things he appears to have learned is how to move very rapidly from the offense to the defense and back again. Better not to get too comfortable either way.

Whether basketball played any part in teaching Obama how to survive day-to-day in the hurly-burly of big-time politics, it did help me as a social worker, husband and parent. Not allowing yourself to get bent out of shape by criticism is another area of absolutely necessary learning in basketball that seems to pay off in many life situations, especially at work.

The kind of teamwork required in basketball has an intensity not often replicated in the post-basketball world, but knowing what it's like can be a major plus in many small work groups. Patience, too, is demanded in great measure in your training, practicing and playing. In many areas of life— like relationships, marriage, parenthood and work— there's no substitute for that.

You hear a lot about momentum in sports, but there's far less consideration of the significance of hustle— that is, giving your all, whatever the circumstances (like diving for loose balls without any consideration of your personal safety).

What "'leadership skills'?

David: See, this is where the argument always breaks down for me. When I was a college senior, I went through an intense recruiting process for high-stress jobs in consulting and finance. People made a big deal of my being an athlete and stressed the difficulty of "juggling it all." I learned ways of marketing my athletic involvement as "developing leadership skills" and "understanding how to work as a team," when deep down, I felt it was all bullshit"“ I was just playing ball!

Certainly collegiate sports gave me a lot, and certainly they contributed to my success in professional environments today. But I'm not convinced it was a crucial element in my professional development.

Band of brothers

John: Short of war, few experiences lead to a "band of brothers" feeling the way basketball does. The intensity of special relationships is hard to duplicate in most other sports.

For example, 20 years after college I ran into a teammate at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. I hadn't seen him or heard anything about him in the interim, but it was is if we picked up where we'd left off and talked non-stop until we had to catch our flights. I realized I cared about him, what happened in his life.

But perhaps the most powerful impacts are about learning how to win and lose. One year of winning (18-6) and two of losing (6-18, 3-21) stay with me forever. Discouraging as it was to lose, if anything, my feelings for my teammates in defeat were and remain more powerful and lasting.

I will always remember that when two of us seniors who had played very little all year got briefly introduced to the crowd at the end of our last home game, we got a standing ovation. As deeply as it cut into my education, I'm glad to have been a college basketball player.

A true team

David: My closest friends today are my former teammates. You could argue that these friendships would develop at a similar rate in any activity that requires contact and communication for 20-plus hours a week. But there is something intrinsic in playing on a true "team" that necessitates closer bonds.

Today I go play pickup with my high school teammates, many of whom have moved back to San Francisco. We've all accepted that our athletic primes are behind us, but we won't outgrow the desire to compete or the vitality of those bonds.

It's also been fulfilling to get involved in the game in different ways. I've started coaching a fifth-grade team in a local league and hosting "skills clinics" with middle school players.

Coach's inspiration

To this day, my high school coach is still one of my more significant role models. His devotion to our team inspired us; his knowledge of the game instilled confidence in us; his strategically timed outbursts brought us together and forced us to rely on one another.

While I haven't taken on all of his tactics as a coach, I've tried to instill the same level of dedication to the game, the importance of unselfishness, and the commitment to hard work in all of my teams and players that he instilled in me.

Nothing will ever feel better than draining a cold jumper over an opponent's outstretched arm. But I'm happy to know that my involvement with the game will outlast my knees.

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