Even though I’m not a professional athlete, I can see why people hold on to their passions, often past the point of effectiveness.
Take Derek Fisher, for example. Derek Fisher isn’t exactly a household name. But he is a 17-year veteran of the National Basketball Association, and has been responsible for several big-time shots in his career. He’s also been vilified by people like me for making my favorite basketball team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, worse over the past two seasons.
When Fisher steps on to the court, God bless him, he’s giving it his all. But his everything isn’t enough anymore. He’s slow. He makes bad passes. The guy he’s supposedly to be guarding is lighting it up. He misses shots, badly. It’s groan-inducing basketball, and not fun to watch.
Fans like me want Fisher to retire. We want the organization to give the younger guys on the team more playing time, because professional sports is a zero-sum game. There’s only so many roster spots and so much opportunity to shine. Every minute that Mr. Fisher is stinking it up for the Thunder, it’s another minute that another player isn’t given a chance to develop.
Fisher should just retire and stop playing. How is this relatable to the common person? How is this relatable to me?
I have two hobbies. More precisely, I have two “passions.” Passion because it’s illogical for me to spend so much of my waking time doing it, and thinking about it when I’m not doing it. Passion because I self-identify with said activity, and because I can’t ever imagine myself not doing it.
My first passion is playing basketball. I am not very good at basketball. I try hard, but if there is a God, He isn’t giving me brownie points for trying. I am blessed with a decent jump shot. I possess some modicum of defensive smarts, from all the years of scrimmaging and being yelled at by teammates who wanted me to try harder. All my injuries – dislocated shoulder, ankle sprain, swollen fingers, gash above my eyebrow, chipped teeth, bad lower back – I accrued from playing the game I love.
My current casualties of war are my toe nails – or lack thereof. The thing about being a flat-footed, uncoordinated “athlete” with size 12.5 feet is that you tend to get your toes stepped on. The other downside to being uncoordinated is that anytime I make a real basketball move – say, a quick jab-step or a chase-down block in transition – there is a non-zero chance of me stubbing my toe against my shoe. Over the past few months, both of my toe nails have blackened from internal bleeding, due to repeatedly facing all of the above.
This is the third time that I’m waiting for both of my big toe nails, one on each foot, to grow back. I managed to find a massage parlor guy (don’t worry, he’s a pro) who cut off my nails so that my toes could breathe and the regeneration process could begin. My girlfriend was pretty disgusted with me for wanting to keep my dead toe nails in a bag, so I told the pro to throw them away. The two previous sets of dead nails are safe and sound, back home in Canada.
The nails are now growing back, and I’m feeling as good as Wolverine in super-healing mode. I’m taking a break from basketball so as to not risk getting stepped on again, or self-inflicting damage to my half-grown nails. My body is thanking me for it. I haven’t had as many aches and pains, and I’ve slept really well.
During the break, I’ve flirted with the idea of retiring from basketball. I really enjoy going to bed not feeling like there are severe bruises on my body. I enjoy running, and walking, and doing whatever I damn well please without having to worry about stubbing my toes. That time my toe started to bleed into my socks after a long day outside was not cool, and a day I wish to avoid repeating. In my heart of hearts, I know that I can stop playing basketball and enjoy healthy toes again.
I also know that I’m prone to beating myself up after a bad day on the basketball court. There are days when my jump shot is not falling, I can’t grab a simple rebound and a guy ten years my junior is kicking my ass. Why go through the mental and physical anguish? I have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Except that these days, I’m feeling a lot like ol’ Derek Fisher. I will never be the player I once was, but I still love the game too damn much to walk away. Unlike old man Derek, I have no critics and no haters. It’s completely up to me. Should I listen to my body? Or should I listen to my heart? That’s the open question.
My other passion is playing a collectible card game called Magic: The Gathering. For the uninitiated, the best way I can describe the game is this: Magic is like a chess game with random elements and insane strategic customization. It’s a combination of chess, bridge and poker. It’s a competitive outlet for me because there are tournaments world-wide – in Canada, the United States and even China. Suffice to say, I love it.
I started playing Magic twenty years ago with my brother, and I’m still playing today. After high school, I “quit” Magic to do more “meaningful” things. But I never lost my fire for the game. A few years ago, I started playing again with some friends on a casual basis. I then dabbled into competitive play and never looked back. Through Magic, I’ve made some great lifelong friends. I’ve also sunk a lot of money into it. I’ve spent hard-earned cash into shiny looking foreign language cards that tell people just how hardcore and cool I am. The Magic subculture is officially part of my identity, and I love to play in Magic tournaments whenever I can.
So why is Magic an issue now? Why does it matter whether I keep playing this game — a game that requires no physical conditioning and is strictly mental? In theory, I should be able to play this game forever.
That’s not how I look at it, though. One of the hallmarks of a skill-testing game is that it requires constant practice. You don’t expect to do well at a sporting event if you just show up and wing it without training. I’m not one of those people with an innate gift for the game of Magic, so I need to put the work in. Some of my most successful tournament finishes came from practice, practice and more practice.
Over the past two years, I’ve been playing in Magic tournaments on a whim, only to do poorly. I drop myself into events without preparation. I tell myself that I’m playing for the love of the game, but I know I’m really lying to myself. The reason I still play Magic and basketball is because I’m competent at it. When I step on the court, or shuffle my Magic cards to do battle, I believe that I am at least better than half the field. I won’t be the best player in the room, but I can hold my own. That’s important, because if I can’t feel some sense of validation, then I might as well quit now and spare myself the agony of a long decline.
I’ve reached an impasse. Am I content to dedicate more of my mental energy just to be mediocre? Or do I make a goal for myself to improve and see some real results? Results that are different from the pat-on-the-back, hey-at-least-you-competed variety? If I’m invested, I want to see some real progress.
Therein lies the rub. I want to play Magic. I want to do well in Magic. I want to play basketball. I want to hold my own on the basketball court. But I also want my toe nails to stay intact. Unfortunately, it’s a package deal. I can’t play basketball without another future incident.
What else do I want? I also want to focus on my career. I want to spend time with family and friends. I want to write a beautiful novel, have lots of babies, and do something so great that it goes right onto my tombstone. I want it all.
Life is a zero-sum game. Mental energy and focus are zero-sum games. Every minute that I’m training for basketball or a game of Magic, I’m missing out on something else in this world. I’m my own worst enemy, because I’m the type of person who won’t stop and smell the roses. Should I take a page out of Derek Fisher’s playbook and dedicate more of myself to my passions? Or should I “grow up” and step away from the game to focus more on “real life?” I used to think that I could have it all, but I’m not so sure anymore. At least Fisher is making a job out of it. I will never expect to make a living from basketball or from Magic. It just isn’t in the cards (pun intended) unless I sacrifice the really important stuff.
I really hated Derek Fisher for sabotaging my team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. I judged him on my terms and didn’t consider his frame of mind. Now that Fisher is retiring and has played his last game of professional basketball, it’s made me realize my own mortality. At least Fisher followed his passions. I’m 32 years old over here, and still trying to figure things out.
A smart dude once said something about life imitating art, or art imitating life. I could imitate Derek Fisher, circa 2014, and step away from my passions. I could save my poor toe nails from future destruction. I could spare myself the frustration of having spent a whole day playing cards, with nothing to show for it. Can I be happy being mediocre? I really don’t know. I know that I’m weirdly competitive, that I’m a nerd, and that I just posted a photo of my toe on the Internet for strangers to see. Maybe I have issues, or maybe I’m just too damn passionate.