By the fall of 2014 I had already gotten past surgery on my ruptured Achilles as well as the rehab process. For all intents and purposes, I was back into my normal life and routine. The only real goal left was to get back into better shape and ultimately get to the end goal of getting back on the basketball court. Throughout this part of the journey is when I really started to use playing in the annual alumni tournament as my final mission. My goal was to get back in the alumni tournament and prove to myself and everyone else that their lasting memory of me on the basketball court would not be me crawling off the court unable to walk.
The truth is I was actually embarrassed about my injury and what it had meant about the state of my fitness. I knew I was overweight and I did nothing about it. I ignored warning signs like suffering from plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis. Injuries like these were not things that young men in their mid-20s should be suffering from. I used to joke that I had the fitness of a 45 year old man. Seriously, whenever I looked up symptoms for plantar fasciitis and tendonitis all I found was the phrase “most common in middle-aged men.” Not exactly what I liked to see. So yes, suffering from this kind of injury at such a young age was somewhat scary but just as embarrassing.
Regardless, the motivation I got from my own embarrassment wasn’t enough to overcome the fear that was building as I tried to continue my full recovery and get back on the basketball court. While I had suffered from those nagging injuries in the past, I’d never gone through anything as serious as a ruptured Achilles. So when I did start playing basketball again, which at this point meant just shooting around sparingly by myself for 30 minutes at a time, I was definitely taking it slow. By the time the following Alumni Tournament rolled around in 2015, I didn’t consider myself ready. Instead, I showed up and considered myself a “coach,” which merely consisted of me sitting on the bench and watching my former teammates play, no real coaching involved. I’m not really sure what was worse about the whole experience, just having to watch the games and not play, or having to answer everyone’s questions about why I wasn’t playing. I could’ve been on the court; I just didn’t trust myself or my body to hold up yet.
Fortunately, the rest of 2015 started to look a little better. E and I started a couple new fitness programs and we got back into running over that summer. That fall I actually knocked something off my bucket list when we ran the Fox Cities Half Marathon together. It was my first half marathon and the first time I had run any kind of distance longer than 5 miles in a long, long time (that’s right, we didn’t train a whole lot, not something I’d recommend but there may be an update on that in a few weeks)! So you might think that after getting into better shape and running a half marathon my basketball potential would be back on track, right? Well, for one reason or another, and now sitting here a few years later I can’t even pinpoint why, I still didn’t consider myself ready to play in the 2016 Alumni Tournament. Again, I showed up as a “coach” and had to answer more questions about why I couldn’t play. By this point I could tell people really doubted whether I’d play in the tournament again. And I couldn’t blame them. Would I ever be able to fully trust my body again after recovering from my injury?
Over the course of my recovery and journey back to playing sports I remember watching many athletes suffer from the same injury that I’d gone through, or worse even, and start their own comeback process. I even started to recall some of the past players who had come back from injuries to play again. I remembered Kobe Bryant rupturing his Achilles in 2013, I saw Derrick Johnson from the Kansas City Chiefs suffer the same injury, and the same with Cavaliers Center Anderson Varajeo and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. I saw countless NFL players carted off with ACL injuries and NBA players like Paul George suffer from gruesome leg injuries. And they all made comebacks (or have comebacks in process). I started to respect these athletes more and more because I could now understand the mental toughness they had to suffer those types of injuries and make comebacks. I even had an example of this toughness in my own family. During the summer before my brother’s senior year of high school, he suffered a torn ACL which caused him to miss almost all of a hyped basketball season where his team, for which he was the star player, had high expectations. He came back within 6 months, which still seems like a remarkable feat to this day, once you consider the normal rehab time many athletes go through for that injury. Just another example of the mental toughness I knew it would require for me to overcome my fears and get back on the basketball court.
Heading into the fall of 2016 I knew the time was right for me to get back on the court. I wanted to get into a league or some sort of organized ball before the Alumni Tournament, just so I could get my bearings before actually playing in the tournament. In October, I joined a league in a town nearby, my debut was set. My ankle felt fine, but I still remember how nervous I was before the first game (I even considered packing my crutches in the trunk of my car just in case), and I’m sure E was too. Neither of us really knew what to expect. But in the end, I played, and played well, and I made it home in one piece. The more I played the better I felt, not just with trusting my ankle, but within my own mind as well. Each game was a relief, and it didn’t take long for the fun to come back as well. By the time the 2017 Alumni Tournament came around I know I was ready.
That year, I felt great coming back to the tournament. Instead of people asking me why I wasn’t playing, people were actually happy that I was back and ready to play. I got the sense that they understood how long the journey had been and that they felt genuinely happy for me. As I always had before, I had a blast playing in that tournament. I still wasn’t moving as fast or in as good of shape as I would’ve liked, but I played. And at least for the 2017 tournament, that was all that mattered. I got to get out on the court and realize my ultimate goal that was 3 years in the making. Sure, I regretted that it had taken me that long, but it was definitely a road worth travelling. In the end I showed myself that I could persevere. And again, I made it home in one piece. Of course that was nice too!