There was this movie called Troy that came out a while ago with Brad Pitt playing Achilles with streaked blonde hair and the strangest accent you've ever heard where, after a whole war of killing armies with precise abandon, Brad falls to an arrow flung by Orlando Bloom that just so happens to pierce the area above his heel (yes, Orlando Bloom!) I hate Orlando Bloom for this criminal act (never mind that in the actual Greek myth, it's Achilles' mother who is to blame - she dipped Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability but failed to realize she held him by the heel, thus preventing the miraculous water from touching that part of his body). Did I mention that I hate Orlando Bloom? I hate Orlando Bloom.
When I was five years old, long before I'd read any Greek mythology, I was reading another mythology - the legend of Dr. Julius Erving. My dad had noticed I loved basketball and bought this book for me. I read it twice and copied everything Dr. J did. He slept with his basketball. So did I. He said you needed to walk onto every court and every room like you owned the place. So did I. He said you needed to play - basketball and life - with fearlessness. I certainly tried to.
From that point on, I knew myself as a basketball player. It was my thing. Everyone knew me that way as well. Over the next 26 years, I'd play basketball at least four times a week, sometimes shooting 500 jumpers a day, practicing post moves until the mosquitos outside had bitten every inch of skin. When people know you as something - and you know yourself as that thing, too - you own it. Soon, most of the people I knew were from basketball tourneys across California, others from basketball class and intramurals, dudes from the Filipino and city leagues.
This is the problem with being singular - when you lose it, you really lose it. Not lose it as in go crazy, but lose yourself. At least for a while. On August 18, 2011, I dribbled to the three point line on a fast break, stopped, jumped, shot, landed, saw the shot was going to be short, so when it clanged off the rim, I took a step forward to grab the rebound and felt a pop on the back of my right leg. Orlando Bloom shot me. I didn't know it at first. I thought someone had kicked a basketball against my heel. After I learned my Achilles had snapped, I spent three months holed up in a dark room watching Storage Wars and watching my lower right leg dwindle to half the size of the left. I knew I would never be the same player, which meant I would never be the same guy.
Almost two years later and I haven't played a game. Some of it is physical, most of it is mental. In the back of my mind I try to reconcile how you can lose such a big part of yourself so quickly. When I look at my Facebook friends, there are five times more people who know me from writing or the lit program at Sac State than from basketball. It's been a strange but difficult transition. I avoid my cousins' and friends' basketball games because I have a hard time watching. I tell people I don't miss it when sometimes, it's the only thing I think about.
There are many middle-aged or becoming-middle-aged people losing this part of themselves. My brother suddenly has back issues. My cousin, who's one of the most in-shape people I know, constantly battles ankle, knee, other leg issues. Professional athletes just cannot retire. Even if you're in tip top shape, you cannot be that athlete you were before, yet you still go out there, the weekend warrior, trying to do moves your mind thinks are possible but your body knows isn't. Why? Because it's who we know ourselves to be. We are basketball players, weight lifters, golfers, softball players. If we stop, if we give in, we won't know who we are anymore.
I know, this all very maudlin. I know, first world problems. But there is a common theme that runs throughout much literature and sports, and that's this: in order to be new, to be reborn, you must shed the old skin, you must "die." When MJ got old, he changed. He worked on his fadeaway jumper. He learned to pass up on the game winning shot. He improved his defense. When Kobe wrote the quote that started this piece, he had just snapped his Achilles and was staring at a future where he would no longer be who he and the world knew that he was. He, too, will learn something about himself and hopefully become better for it. Maybe he will even become a better teammate (yes, it's possible).
As for me, even without basketball, I've never felt happier or more fulfilled. Without the injury, I may have never found writing, books, a deeper part of myself that I never knew existed. Actually, now that I think about it, Legolas was pretty cool. Maybe I don't hate you so much, Orlando Bloom.