Sometimes after I play basketball, I lie awake in bed unable to sleep. I’m told this has something to do with the rush of adrenaline the body experiences when out on the court. I don’t know if that’s technically true, though it’s always sounded reasonable to me.
The pattern is this: I spend my day sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Then, once a week, for an hour in the evening, I run up and down as fast and as hard as I physically can in an attempt to win a basketball game. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. This shouldn’t be important to me — but, strangely, it is.
As I toss and turn in bed afterwards, I tell myself it’s just the effect of my physiology, my body calming itself enough so as to finally be at rest, at peace. But, really, that’s not true. What keeps me up on at least some of those nights is the feeling of defeat; the idea that I played as well as I could have, and lost anyway.
There is no coaching in this recreational basketball league. In fact, in the one I play in — four-on-four, co-ed — there aren’t even referees. We just hit the court, usually with rosters numbering six to eight people, and go. The games are 55 minutes long, but with a modest half-time, a late start, other sundry delays, they are often shorter than that. A convener stays on the sideline and marks the hour; sometimes this person keeps score too. It’s a lo-fi competition, is my point.
And yet, to lose! Ah, the sting is acute. Before the game, I try to keep things in mind, a personal game plan, a little scouting report. I remember playing so-and-so months back, I glance down the court and worry about the size of one player or the speed of another, I hope all of my teammates show up so we have enough substitutes, or merely enough players to shoulder the burden. All of this flies out the window once the ball starts to bounce. It’s just a frenzy of action from that point on, and, usually, we discover quickly how the rest of the game will go. It’s another feeling I have deep in my bones, one that is equally hard to shake.
I’d like to tell you about the inspiring comebacks my teams have made over the years, those instances where we’ve bonded together, played just a bit harder, executed flawlessly, and won. Those moments, or versions of those moments, do exist, but for the life of me I can’t remember them right now. As I write this, I can only think of my last game. It got extremely physical, quite testy, and we lost by one in overtime. It was over by 10:15 that night.
I didn’t get to sleep until two in the morning.
Over the past decade, I’ve played countless hours of basketball in gyms and parks across the city, with friends and strangers, with what felt like stakes and without. I’ve won and lost so many games they all just blur together. I’ve learned much from these experiences, about myself and others.
So here’s the kernel of wisdom I have to impart: you only truly remember your last game, especially if, particularly if, you lose. Everything else is forgotten then — that hour sticking in your craw, resting uneasily in your gut, keeping you up at night until...
Well, until it’s time for the next one.
Here’s the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet after Game 2 against the Cleveland Cavaliers: