What seems like ages ago (really only a little more than 10 years), I used to be a pretty good basketball player. In fact, I was better than pretty good. I could do things on a basketball court that pretty much no one else my age could do.
I started playing basketball when I was 7 years old. I didn't seem to have much natural ability. I wasn't immediately one of the best players. However, that all changed when I watched the movie Pistol Pete: Birth of a Legend for the first time. It was a story about Pistol Pete Maravich's first year playing on his high school team. That movie, for better or worse, changed my life forever.
I watched in awe as the actor who played the young Pistol Pete dribbled the ball through his legs, around his back, threw around the back passes, between the leg passes, spun the basketball on his finger, and did all the things that made Pistol Pete famous. I must have watched the movie 1,000 times, and I spent literally hours every single day just practicing the dribbling, passing, and ballhandling drills I saw in the movie.
I was 9 years old when this obsession began. During this time, my basketball skills grew exponentially. Meanwhile, my social skills went to waste. I didn't chase around girls at recess. I didn't play games with my classmates. I dribbled a basketball. I dribbled to the bus stop. I dribbled every second of recess. I dribbled back home from the bus stop. I dribbled up and down my driveway for hours when I got out of school. The basketball became a part of me. All my hopes and dreams revolved around that ball. It not only became a part of my identity, but it actually took over my entire identity.
Needless to say, with that much time spent practicing my ballhandling, I far surpassed EVERYONE my age. I didn't get the courage to use one of my "fancy" dribbles in a game until I was 11 years old. By that age, I had practiced so much that it had become second nature to me, so in one game where a kid tried to reach for the ball to steal it from me while I was in the backcourt, I just quickly put the ball behind my back and discarded the defender like he wasn't even there. I remember feeling shocked that I actually did that in a game. However, that shock quickly faded into the realization that I was completely ready to showcase my talents.
From that point on, I put on a show in rec leagues that a lot of parents will remember to this day. Kids from other schools who I never met knew about me. Word spread around the league that there was this little guard who can dribble a basketball like no one else.
There's this one game in particular that always stands out in my memory. I was in 7th grade at the time. We were playing against the best team in the league. This team had a guard on it that was supposedly the best defensive player in the town. He could shut down anyone supposedly. Well, it took about 5 minutes for the whole gym to realize that he never played against anyone like me. Every time he reached for the ball, I'd leave him behind with a between the legs crossover. I'd set him up going one way then quickly put the ball behind my back to get passed him. I'd bait him to reach for the ball and double clutch crossover to go by him. I could do whatever I wanted with the ball, and there was nothing he could do. It came down to the last 3 minutes of the game, and we were hanging on to a slim lead. My coach told me to basically keep the ball and make them foul me, so I'd have to shoot freethrows (I was an excellent freethrow shooter). Well, I spent the next 3 minutes dribbling around double teams, going between my legs and behind my back all over the court while they desperately tried to get the ball from me. They never could, and we won that game.
Playing on my middle school team brought similar acclaim for me. I was a one man press breaker. We didn't even work on how to break presses. The only thing we worked on was how to get me the ball, so I could dribble through it. I was a little guy, but players were afraid to guard me. I remember one coach put a player in and told him to try to cover me full court. The player went to the coach, "I can't guard him. He's too fast."
I come from a predominantly white town, and we entered our team into an inner city league that was predominantly black. The first team we ever played in that league was this all black, super athletic team that thought they could full court press the white boys out of the gym. I dribbled through their press I think 6 or 7 times in a row before the coach decided it obviously wasn't going to work. He then put a player in the game that the whole team knew as "Speedy" (obviously because of his speed). His job was to follow me everywhere I went on the court. To put it simply, I made "Speedy" look pretty bad. After the game, even players on my own team were pretty impressed saying to me, "Mike (I wasn't Pharmacy Mike back then), you were too fast for "Speedy."
My coach at the time was a guy who coached Middle School and High School basketball in some of the most talented areas of the country. He was now in my area because he moved there with his son. He coached his son's teams whenever he could, and I happen to play for on his son's basketball team. He used to tell people, "I've seen a lot of really good guards in the years that I've coached and played basketball, but I've NEVER seen anyone like Mike."
I won MVP awards, Most Outstanding Player awards, All-Tournament Team awards, awards for having the most potential, free throw shooting contests... you name an award, I got it. So you might ask yourself, if I was so good at basketball, then why the hell did I not become a high school and college star? Why did the accolades stop once high school began? What happened?
I'll tell you what happened.... All the time spent living and breathing basketball alienated me from my classmates. With a basketball in my hands, I was king. Without a basketball, I was so painfully shy that I wasn't able to talk to a girl without shaking like a leaf until my sophomore year of high school. The realization that basketball was the reason I was socially undeveloped compared to kids my age devestated me. It made me hate the game I had loved for most of my childhood. However, no matter how much I resented the game for what it made me, I couldn't escape it. Afterall, it was my entire identity. Therefore, I continued to play, except I didn't enjoy it anymore. I stopped practicing. I developed a major confidence problem, and while I was a decent player in high school, I never became the star that I was capable of being. I wilted under pressure from my teammates and coaches. I shut down emotionally on and off the court.
My schoolwork never suffered because school was always ridiculously easy for me. However, every other part of my life did. I'm still recovering from it to this day. It seems like such a long time ago, but the disappointment and regret is right there under the surface. I've made great strides to get back to near social normalcy. I'm proud that I'm a pharmacist not because pharmacy school was difficult to pass. I'm proud because being a pharmacist is a position of leadership, and the fact that I've come so far to be able to competently lead a pharmacy by myself on a Saturday when I'll fill 300+ scripts with only a few clerks and no actual pharmacy technicians is nothing short of amazing to me. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have thought it possible.
Even still, I can't help but think back and wonder what if I had spent less time with basketball and more time doing the normal things kids do. Maybe I wouldn't be sitting here typing this at 25 years old only having had 1 serious relationship (albeit a 6 year relationship) and only 2 or 3 people I can consider good friends. Maybe I wouldn't be a pharmacist. Maybe I'd be a doctor or have some other very important job where I can actually help to make a difference in the world.
I continue to wake up every morning, go to work, come home, only to wake up again to do it all over again..... and again, and again, and again. I think the only thing that keeps me going is the hope that one day, I'll get the opportunity to showcase all of the abilities of the person I know I can be, but have always been too afraid. I think it might be like that first behind the back dribble. Just one day without even thinking, I'll do or say something that lets my abilities and personality shine, and from that point on, I'll be able to live without my senseless inhibitions.