“The pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow. For every challenge encountered there is opportunity for growth.” – Unknown
I could hear my heart beating. I could sense the worry from my teammates. “Stay positive” is what I’d tell myself but my actions showed otherwise. My foot was bothering me more than it should have. In sports, there is ‘hurt’ and then there is ‘injured’ and this felt worse than just hurt. Hurt is the kind that you can walk off and injured is something that ends seasons and careers. After the game and my 6 minutes of glory, I went in to get an X-ray from the team doctor. Upon review, the doctor told me I had a fracture. I was sure that couldn’t be true, my foot couldn’t be fractured. I begged him over and over to do another X-Ray. After all, a fracture is extremely easy to misread in an X-ray and I prayed that he was reading it wrong. I was praying his diagnosis was wrong. I was praying that I could just walk this hurt off and go back to playing like nothing was wrong. I prayed that the X-ray came back fine the second time. Praying was the only thing I could do.
My prayers were answered, but not the way I had wanted. My answer was a confirmed fracture. This was my first injury. I had been hurt before but I had never been injured before. Literally, I could not play. Where had my injury come from? One of the downfalls to being a hard worker is not getting enough rest to recover. This fracture definitely happened over time and one day that was enough, my foot literally broke under the constant pressure. For the first time, I had a physical limitation that I could not walk off, ice for the evening or rest. I wasn’t ready to use crutches and I sure wasn’t ready to take a break from the game. I was a new player and I was worried about my professional future.
The day after the official diagnosis I got a call from Tim Connelly, GM of the Nuggets. He broke the news that they were going to release me in 3 days, and just when my breath caught in my throat in panic: he also said that the team would love to re-sign me once I was healthy. It was bittersweet. Yes, I had the injury. No, I could not play. Yes, I was leaving the team. No, my career wasn’t over. Yes, I had worked my whole life to get here and I was unsure about my future. No I did not know what to do next. So there I was, with a faint smile hiding my pain, both mental and physical. I sat in front of my locker in the team room of the Nuggets and I packed my team gear, memorable pictures and personal items. Denver was yet another team I thought I could call home but here I was leaving.
As I was put on physical rest, I realized that I wasn’t ready for life after basketball, or life as a regular human being who didn’t have to worry about practice, training or playing. Restlessly, I turned to the comfort of my girl, my dog, and even strong drinks, but nothing helped. I had never really dreamed of a day where I’d get out of bed in the morning but not play the game I love. What was the point? What was I supposed to do? I had no plan about life after basketball. This was literally all I had ever worked for, prayed for and wanted. And I was losing all of it. This nightmare was actually happening, but I understood that being world-class skills requires reinvention of self.
I felt as though this injury, though not catastrophic, was causing irreparable damage in my life and I had no idea how to handle it. This image of an athlete that I had created for myself during the course of my life had helped me create my identity and without it, what was I to do? Admittedly, I spiraled after my diagnosis and I started to have deep reflections of all my past failures, seemingly all at once, and how I could have ended up at this point and what I could have done differently.
Mostly, I thought of my dad who had raised me with this hardcore militant mindset which included 6am wake up calls to do push-ups, counter dips, dress code checks along with timed jogs before school so that I could play harder. I remember his screaming as I played to motivate me to do it stronger, better and faster. I’d been so mentally prepared that there was no way I was going to let this break me, but even the toughest skin can crack.
I know I had been told I could be re-signed but truly, I found myself back at square one and I was devastated. I felt as though I had let myself, my team and my family down. This brought heavy reflections on my career as a player from being the worst kid on the team up until high school to being drafted to my home team, Memphis Grizzlies. I remembered my first start as a rookie against Atlanta Hawks which just so happened to be the next day after my birthday. I remember the wild night before with my former teammates, which lead to a missed opportunity for my first start. Yes… I was in deep thought trying to balance my successes with my failures and how I’d have to reinvent myself for the future… again.
Sitting around with my fractured foot, all the hard work, time spent in the chapel and even all the prayer felt like wasted time. Literally years of my life had been spent creating an identity for myself which included the title of athlete. It was who I was and what I mastered. Before the contracts, the perks and the lifestyle I had spent years of my life playing ball just because I loved it. The fact that there were perks involved made no difference at the end of the day because taking away the perks of basketball were not nearly as important as taking away my identity. My literal self-worth and identity was defined through this one thing. This injury made me realize that this is really about identity. This is about self-worth. This is about life. I was about to find out what I actually needed and why it was so much important than all the things I thought I had wanted.