Late on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, if you step onto the rubber grid of the basketball courts by Henley Hall, most often your only company will be the ball in your hand, the hoop and the soft glow emitted by the nearby fluorescent light posts.
If you look around to the edges of the court, you won’t find rows of classmates and friends sitting in the bleachers. You’ll find a steel white bench next to an empty street and if you’re lucky, a parked Public Safety car.
When you crane your ears to listen for the sound of cheering, clapping or stomping, you may only feel the thumping bass pulsating from your earbuds accompanied by the chirping of crickets in the background.
You can dribble between your legs, behind-the-back, in-and-out. You can let a shot fly from the top of the three-point arc and watch it drop through the bottom of the net. But there will be no crush in the stands to sneak a grin at afterwards. No parents or friends yelling in joy. No teammates there to high-five you. You’re left to conjure up those memories yourself and visualize them around you, before picking up the ball and taking another dribble.
I miss basketball. I miss the feeling of being on a team, of having a bond and shared goals bigger than simple friendships. And I, as I’m sure other high school student-athletes do, love my sport enough that I’ve kept playing it by myself – even if I wasn’t good enough to carry it into college. As a freshman last year, I’d dribble my way out Henley Hall’s sliding doors and play on the outdoor courts a few times a week. But at times, when the flick of the wrist became monotonous and I’d start to think about everything else in my life rather than the diversion I had dribbled my way over for, I felt truly lonely.
Occasionally, I would find company. Jake Thompson was also a freshman, also played varsity basketball his junior and senior years of high school, also didn’t continue on to play in college, and also frequented the dorm courts after 9 p.m. on weeknights. The difference was that he is better at the sport than I am, and after the first time I asked if he wanted to play one-on-one when we were both shooting around, those moments were a welcome reminder of the competition I used to have in high school.
One night, when we were playing a one-on-one, I was guarding Thompson while he drove to the rim. As he went up for a layup, he accidentally hit me straight in the face. I don’t remember where exactly, or if I was bleeding at all, but I certainly remember that my face hurt – and how weird it was at how much I relished in that pain.