April 10, 2010

Crossed Over, VI

Typically, it’s high school when kids are militant about getting in great shape and working on their jump shot, and by the time they get to college it’s some combination of beer, girls and 10-15 pounds.
Not me.

OK, so that’s why I’m in China, and why I’m doing this blog: I’m a journalist by nature, but not by trade, and maintaining a basketball-based blog while teaching English is a way for me to keep my sanity, keep my pen sharp and keep my dreams of one day becoming a writer – you know, one that gets paid – alive. But what makes me uniquely qualified in terms of basketball?

The answer lies on the slopes of the Colorado Rockies. Every winter, people from around the globe descend upon Colorado to ski. With the state’s bounty of powder-covered venues, it’s no stretch to say that it is home to some of world’s best skiing. Spend enough time on a Colorado ski slope, and you’ll hear the guttural sounds of Western Europe, the varying tones of the Far East and the endearing twang of the American South. Word’s out on Colorado.

While people the world over appreciate Colorado’s mountains, it’s nothing compared to the way Coloradoans themselves relish them. They flock to the slopes on their days off. Roof-top ski rack are ubiquitous. Weather reports are tailored to skiers – in cities along the Front Range, for instance, meteorologists tell you not only what to expect in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs, but also what kind of conditions you’ll see at Breckenridge, Vail and Copper.

Nowhere is the Colorado ski-and-snowboard culture stronger than at the state’s numerous universities. From Colorado State up in Fort Collins right on down through Boulder and the various schools in Denver, college students in Colorado find themselves a few hours – or less – from the epic resorts of the Rockies. Not a few of those students chose to attend college in Colorado for the very purpose of recreating their childhood spring breaks for four whole years. (Or, because the ski-school combo doesn’t always mesh, five years.) I saw it first-hand. Students would tailor their schedules to secure weekdays off, overloading, say, on Tuesday and Thursday but freeing up the less-crowded Wednesday to scurry off to the slopes. Now, kids may finagle days off at universities all over the country, but there are few places with the day-off options of Colorado.

I had no intention of becoming such a student, yet before long I was infected by the lifestyle. The uni’s Colorado address allowed for the purchase of resident-only ski passes – you pay a one-time fee of $350 and have nearly unfettered access to the slopes. Having that pass in hand, and having those mountains a short ride away, was like letting an art major loose inside the Louvre.

During my freshman year, my friends and I started skipping class to go to the mountains. Or, if we were feeling studious, we’d pile into a car the moment our late-morning lectures let out – knowing we wouldn’t get on a lift until 2:00 – just to ski until the joint closed down at 4:00. We’d get giddy when we looked westward at the mountains and see ominous-looking clouds; they meant snow. I remember during a Spanish class, we had a perfect view of the mountains out the window. They were shrouded with dark grey clouds. In the middle of class, a student said to no one in particular, “Man, I bet the mountains are getting shit on right now. Sweet!” No one paid him any matter because that’s just kind of how it was: people were thinking about fresh powder during Spanish class. Sure, not everybody was a ski nut. Some people didn’t care at all. But there was a strong contingent of students at my college – and at colleges across Colorado – who got off on this stuff. I was one of those students.

I was the same way during my sophomore year. I had visited each of those five mountains vigorously as a freshman, but it didn’t get old. For a second consecutive year, I skied at least once a week, often more than that. For me, and for many of my friends, it was just what you did. I don’t know if I would have qualified as ski bum those first couple years at school, but I was definitely snowboarding my ass off. And loving it.


Along with snowboarding, my first few years of college saw a marked increase in how much I played basketball. Maybe I had a lot of time on my hands, or maybe I just had to be utterly exhausted to sleep through my freshman roommate’s prodigious snoring. But I was pretty active at that point in my life. Indeed, basketball didn’t take a backseat to snowboarding. There was room carved out for both.

Playing a bunch of ball was much less of a change in the status quo than all the mountain-hopping. I’ve been a basketball fanatic as long as I can remember. My older brother and I had a hoop in the driveway by the time we were old enough to heave a ball ten feet in the air; I played organized basketball as soon as I could; I used to cry whenever the Kansas Jayhawks got knocked out of the NCAA Tournament; I would play at night, in the freezing cold, because even if I couldn’t feel my hands, there was still nothing I’d rather be doing.

Though I’d played since I was a tyke, my affinity for basketball – and my quest to get better – for some reason intensified in college. Typically, it’s high school when kids are militant about getting in great shape and working on their jump shot, and by the time they get to college it’s some combination of beer, girls and 10-15 pounds. Not me, though. After I finished my homework I’d head over to this on-campus dome/basketball court and shoot, by myself, for hours. Sometimes the doors to the dome were locked, but if you yanked just right, you could rip them open anyway.

There were multiple times when campus security, which always traveled in twos, would quizzically peer inside to see me shooting jump shots by myself. They’d unlock the doors, waltz over to me and, with confusion written on their faces, ask me how I got in. “There,” I’d say, sweating and pointing to the locked set of double-doors. “They were open.” After this happened a few times, the security personnel got suspicious, but I was always really nice to them and would leave without a fight. I was so nice, in fact, that one time they let me stay even though it was their asses if something happened. “Please,” I said pleadingly. “I had a root canal earlier today” – which was true – “ and I’m just trying to blow some steam before I go home.” Yeah, I was playing basketball a few hours removed from a root canal.

My silly affection for basketball had strengthened with age. I’d give myself assignments, like learning how to shoot an off-the-dribble turnaround jump shot, or how to shoot a baseline fadeaway, or how to shoot a pull-up three-pointer. These are things I should have been doing in high school, you know, when I was on a team. My skill set and my social life had somewhat of an inverse relationship. I’d have friends who were getting high and drinking beers on some beautiful April afternoon, and I was shooting baskets by myself inside a crummy gym, seeing if I could drive baseline, jump to shoot, release and land out of bounds. I was a gym rat who didn’t really play basketball.

One afternoon, during the winter of my sophomore year, I was doing the old shoot-by-myself-until-I’m-exhausted routine. This time, though, I was in the university’s main gym – not the neighboring dome – where the coaches’ offices are located. The offices are upstairs, encasing the court and bleachers below. One of the assistants was up there watching film or something, and he shouted at me to come up to his office. I walked in. He told me to sit down. I did, not knowing what was going on.

He asked me my name, and then told me that he wanted me to walk on to the basketball team. (A walk-on, if you’re unfamiliar with college athletics, is a player who is on the team but not on scholarship, generally buried at the end of the bench.) He said that he’d seen me shoot a ton and that he had a spot for me on the squad. I’d get a jersey, he assured me, and travel with the team and be an actual player – not some token marksman who did drills and chores at practice.

I was flattered, to be sure, but I didn’t really want to play. The coach was a bit of a dictator. I had a job. I wanted to kill in the classroom. I was going to study abroad the next fall, and even if I got on the court and had a good end-of-season run, there seemed little chance to pick up steam and, say, earn a scholarship. Plus, I had a few habits that wouldn’t have jelled too well with collegiate athletics. (Come on, I had some social life).

So I told the coach thanks but no thanks and, for the remainder of my sophomore year, went back to doing what I had been doing: breaking into the dome late at night, treating the school’s intramural league like the NBA, obsessing, basically, about basketball.


Something strange happened my junior year: when it came time to buy that ski pass, I just didn’t care. My friends told me I was crazy, and I felt crazy. But when I scoured my psyche for that snowboarding fanatic – that kid who had spent much of the last two winters learning the language of powder and tree runs and carving and all the rest of it – well, he was gone. I couldn’t be bothered. I went snowboarding a few times, half expecting to be hit with a wave of remorse over not having bought a pass and a wave of excitement that, phew, I still had my senior year to board. But those sentiments never came. All the things that never bothered me about snowboarding – the lift lines, the cold, the drive – suddenly seemed excessively annoying. The part of me that was so enamored with snowboarding, and so gung-ho about living it up on the slopes, had apparently melted away.

This never happened with basketball. Not even close. I still played intramural ball with a dorky zest. I still broke into the dome when the main court was inaccessible. I still gave myself stupid challenges – after all, why couldn’t I shoot fadeaway a three-pointer? And it wasn’t just playing basketball that infatuated me. I was also writing about it and watching a borderline-unhealthy amount of it. Over my final two years of college, I covered basketball for the school paper and for the Colorado Daily, and I watched games habitually before I would go out, pre-gaming not with cards or drinking games, but with the NBA’s vaunted lineup on Friday and College GameNight on Saturday. While my love for basketball had existed for years, it wasn’t until college that it manifested itself so vehemently. And unlike my fling with snowboarding, this love was real. It was getting stronger with age.

I’m not recapping my basketball escapades as evidence of some on-court brilliance. Instead, I’ve laid out my basketball obsession to illustrate the lose screw that I have for the game. Think: I lived within two hours of ski slopes that lure people from all over the world. I had the option of going skiing any time I wanted. But I was burned out on the whole thing after two years. Meanwhile, after about 20 years of being obsessed with basketball, the intensity with which I indulged in the game – playing it, watching it, writing about it, studying it – had only increased. By the time I was a junior, after two years of tearing up the slopes, I was again a one-trick pony. I couldn’t conceive of a Saturday during my freshman year that consisted of anything but waking up early and snowboarding until I could barely walk. It didn’t take long, however, until I was opting for that rickety old dome over world-class ski slopes.

How many people do you know who made a habit of breaking into gyms to play basketball by themselves? And how many people do you know who preferred that over easy access to Vail and Breck and Keystone? And how many people do you know who are going to spend the spring and summer of 2010 playing basketball with locals in China, recapping the events on a blog?

1 comment:

  1. I love this introduction. Can't wait to read more posts. I have a feeling this is gonna be good.