Just to set the record straight, I never played pro sports. To consider myself a “has been” would be a compliment; I’m barely a “never was.” I hobbled through two and a half injury-plagued seasons of college track at Princeton before I quit, claiming the collective frustration and residual pain of two high school knee reconstructions (and a third surgery in college) had eroded my ability to compete. The truth is that I quit because my ego couldn’t handle the sting of being only an average runner, but that’s a story for another time.
The point today is simply to say that I don’t presume to know anything about the pain you’re feeling or the frustration ripping through your body, frustration that cuts sharper than any slice to your Achilles coming from the cruel hand of God or fate. But what I do know about is athletic heartbreak. And it sucks.
In high school (cue Glory Days), I won 7 varsity letters, owned 3 school records in track, competed in the state track meet 3 times, was selected Academic All-Ohio, averaged nearly 10 yards per carry playing football, and had schools such as Notre Dame, Virginia, Stanford, Purdue, and many others calling and visiting to inquire about me playing football for them following graduation. I accomplished much of this after tearing my ACL, MCL (partially), and medial and lateral meniscus in my right knee playing in a summer basketball tournament before my junior year.
Worse, though, I accomplished all of it before I tore the ACL, MCL (partially), and medial and lateral meniscus in my left knee while carrying the pigskin for my high school team during my senior year.
On Friday, September 8, 2000, several hours after my left knee erupted, I stretched across the couch in my parent’s living room with two ice packs and an ACE bandage suffocating my knee. Tears dried in the corners of my eyes. I knew then that the dream I had since 3rd grade of playing sports at an elite level in college was probably toast. How many high school kids recover from two knee reconstructions in less than two years and compete in Division I college football or track? I also knew that misery awaited me, that my prize for putting the first surgery in my rearview mirror would be a months-long victory lap full of quivering leg muscles and hours alone rehabilitating in my high school weight room.
On the spectrum of problems facing people in the world, mine rated firmly in the “who gives a shit” category. Still, to a 17-year old kid who spent his entire life playing sports in some capacity, the certainty of knowing one of your dreams is shot isn’t easily dismissed.
Later that night my mind floated in a hopeless purgatory, careening off the walls of despair and anger. Why me? Why again? What now? These questions pushed through my brain’s revolving door in circles, carrying with them whirlwinds of doubt and hopelessness with each pass. I begged to nobody for answers.
My ass sank deeper into the couch as my brain raced to the rehab, isolation, setbacks, small victories, and large defeats that stood on the horizon waiting for me. I remembered the night during my first rehab go-round that I spent clutching my legs to my chest and rocking my body back and forth to the intermittent rhythm of tears cried alone in the dark while the television hummed Sean Connery’s voice from Finding Forrester like some callous Scottish baseline in the background. Patella tendonitis had ruined my attempt to comeback from surgery and play basketball during my junior season, and I feared that it would rob me of ever playing sports again.
Rehab might be a battle physically, but it is a war mentally. And the dread of the unknown was its cruelest weapon in the attack of attrition it waged on my psyche.
Finally, and still on the couch, I crashed. When I woke on September 9, 2000, I coined a new half-rhyming, grammatically butchered catch phrase: “F**k it,” I said, “ain’t time to quit.” I then set the goal to not only compete in the state track meet in June 2001, but to win either the 100 or 200-meter dashes.
Two days later, just a half hour after MRI results confirmed the initial diagnosis of my wasted knee, I drove to my high school’s weight room and sweat through a 2-hour workout. Although my surgery remained 2 weeks away, I didn’t have a single minute to waste if I wanted to reach my goal.
I started walking without crutches in November, six weeks after surgery. Sometime in January 2001, I shuffled down a basketball court at the local YMCA, learning to run all over again. Every day I encountered the same routine: 1 hour of rehab before school, a half hour at lunch, 2 to 3 more hours after school. I grimaced through limps, shouted at iron weights, screamed at everyone and no one all at once, and concealed the silent, frustrated tears that coated a heart broken by dreams lost.
But every morning, I said the same thing: “F**k it, ain’t time to quit.”
Finally, in early June, the blast of a starter’s pistol sent me flying around a track in Dayton, Ohio. I didn’t win that 200-meter sprint final, not even close. First placed dusted me halfway through the race, and I had no prayer of catching him. I did manage a 2nd place finish, and although it is a high school achievement (cue Glory Days, again), I’m damn proud of what I endured to get there.
So Kobe, doctors have performed the surgery on your Achilles and you’ve had your first taste of self-doubt. Now it’s time to recover. Ignore the pundits and critics, the vultures already circling the busted basketball corpse they believe you could become. Some will question whether you are too old to recover and play basketball at an elite level again; they’ll say you’ve never sustained a serious injury and might crumble versus rehab’s lengthy battle. Others will say that you’ve already accomplished everything possible in the NBA, and that you have no reason to force yourself back into basketball shape 6, 9, or 12 months from now.
Ready for some advice from a washed up never was? F**k it, ain’t time to quit.
Nobody other than you understands your drive to succeed, to be the best at a sport filled with athletic champions. Some might think they do, but they don’t. They can’t. The only person that knows whether you have the strength to “come back from this and be the same player OR better at 35,” is you.
Thousands of people will wish you a speedy recovery and even more will ‘retweet’ or ‘like’ any future vent sessions lobbed into the public domain. However, at the end of each day, when phones turn off and computers power down, you’re the only person who has to endure the desperation and loneliness of recovery. One person can answer the questions of why me and what now, and that person is you.
No, the injury is not fair compensation for a lifetime dedicated to the mission of becoming the greatest basketball player of all-time. Neither are the sacrifices you will now make to resemble the player you were only two weeks ago. Maybe your body will respond and maybe it won’t.
Kobe, you asked how you were supposed to recover. Well, getting back to work is the only one way to find out: F**k it, ain’t time to quit.
And for what it’s worth, this still-living his Glory Days fan in Ohio is rooting for you.