Torn ligaments, broken dreams, and abundant grace.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Lately, I have felt more fatigued than normal. Perhaps that’s a consequence of “sedentary coronavirus syndrome.” Or laziness. Or old age. In all likelihood it’s some amalgamation of the three. Father Time is still undefeated. Despite the best efforts and innovations we can muster, old age afflicts everyone. As time marches on, so does our weariness. We’re powerless to thwart the aging process. It is almost comical how many “anti-aging” concoctions populate the cosmetic marketplace. The industry is bloated with all manner of creams and oils and “coconut-charcoal-eucalyptus” putties that promise to remove your blemishes and make your skin younger. But notwithstanding how much “easy, breezy, beautiful Covergirl” you apply, old age will have its way.
Maybe that’s the cynic in me. Maybe that’s the dormant “get off my lawn” gaffer in me stirring from his slumber. Whatever the case, of this I am sure: old age advances and ultimately overtakes the bum on the couch and the beast doing curls. Old age cannot not be felled by any amount of rigorous workout regimens. I feel that deep within my bones, but especially in my knees.
For as long as I can remember I have been a fan of the game of basketball. Unlike my other peers who were enamored with multiple athletic ventures, I was always singularly focused on basketball. I grew up with only a distant memory of Michael Jordan but a deep appreciation for the late Kobe Bryant (R.IP.), seeing as he was the G.O.A.T. for the bulk of my nascent basketball years. I have many fond recollections of shooting hoops all by myself in the front yard pretending I was hitting game-winners in an opponent’s face after I had crossed two other would-be defenders. My brother and I would sometimes play together, too, and there’s a picture somewhere in our parents’ house of the both of us decked out with every arm-band and headband we had just for the heck of it.
My fondness for basketball persisted throughout my high school and college years. In high school, I was on the starting-five for both the Junior Varsity and Varsity teams at the same time. For two seasons, I would play games back-to-back against both levels of competition. It was convenient that my dad was the pastor of a church whose facilities included a gym. I took full advantage of that amenity, forcing my way into pick-up games with much older adults when I was still shy of sixth grade. I developed the nickname “The Gnat” because, apparently, I was so small and annoying on defense. The more I played, the more I loved the game. And for as much as I loved the competitiveness of a regimented game, playing pick-up was always where my affinity for the game lied deepest. In college, my friends and I would run for hours on Wednesday nights after midweek church services. We’d congregate in my dad’s gym and go till our bodies couldn’t keep up anymore. And I know I’m going to sound like a ‘boomer’ right now, but those were the days.
Without burying the lede any further, “those days” seem to be in my rear-view now. I recently received some medical news that will likely prevent me from ever playing basketball (competitively) again. The “TL;DR” version goes like this: In 2017, I ruptured my ACL. About a year later, I twisted my knee again. In November of 2019, after moving from Florida to Pennsylvania, I twisted my knee again. In January of 2020, I decided to get an MRI done to see the extent of the damage. Then COVID happened. And just recently I have had two orthopedic surgeons examine my injury and conclude that the best remedy is likely a total knee replacement.
To be honest with you, it feels weird to think about not playing basketball again. And perhaps this will sound too melodramatic for your liking, but I’ve really had to cope with the fact that this sport will no longer be one with which I can experientially identify. Like I said before, the game of basketball has always been a part of who I am as a person. And I never thought that that would change, least of all when I’m still shy of thirty years old. There’s a sense in which I feel like I’ve had something ripped right out of my hands by a jealous toddler. And, indeed, there have been not a few moments when throwing a tantrum sounded really appealing. But in a more profound sense, what I have come to acknowledge is that athletics makes for a terribly shallow reservoir in which to find your identity. I guess I never realized how much weight I was putting in my abilities as a basketball player until they were forcibly taken from me. But now that that phase of my life is, for all intents and purposes, over, I have had to grapple with what makes me me.
Enter: the gospel. I don’t mean to “Jesus juke” this moment, but in all sincerity I confess to you that it is the gospel of God’s grace which has served as an uncanny respite throughout this season of life. My worth isn’t determined by any physical, mental, or spiritual achievement or accrual, but is gifted to me by the bloody hands of my Savior. I know that God is involved in all of this. Does he care about my pickup basketball career? Probably not. But he does care about siphoning my life of things — regardless of how good — that deafen my soul from hearing his voice. “God’s place is to speak, and ours is to listen,” Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar wrote.1 And it would appear that I’m still learning that. Perhaps it shouldn’t take a surgically repaired (and replaced!) knee to learn that lesson — but, if you must know, I’m a fairly stubborn person. Odds are, so are you. Lucky for all of us, though, God’s grace is stubborn, too. And that is a word he is always eager for us to hear.
Truthfully, I have resigned myself to the reality that my basketball career “under the sun” is over. I have the tears to prove it. But if there’s a half-court “beyond the sun,” in the place of glory divine, I’m looking forward to playing pick-up with the saints who’ve gone before. In a game where our bodies never tire and our knees never wear out. And I already know who my first pick will be. I got you, Kobe.
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 394.