Pickup Basketball Was My Outlet. Then I Tore My Achilles.

Pat and his cousins had a weekly pickup run. After three years of claiming that I would one day join, I finally signed on, even as I silently wondered if I’d flake. I promptly purchased new lime green Giannis Antetokounmpo sneakers, $16 Nike compression socks, and mesh shorts in at least three different colors.

I learned the hard way that my jump shot had forsaken me. In my first game back, I airballed my first shot in front of all these younger Filipino dudes from Staten Island I’d never met before. I wanted to tell them that I used to be able to shoot really well, that I just needed to warm up a bit more, that I was returning from a serious injury — but before I could complete the thought, the ball was whizzing by me, the guy I was supposed to be guarding was calling for an alley-oop, and all I could see was a flash mob of ligaments and tendons, stretching and springing like dancing slinkies. The next morning, I was so sore I could barely walk. 

A week later, before the second pickup run of my return, I arrived at the gym early to put up a few jumpers. To my horror, my shot seemed to have gotten even worse. Each time I elevated and flung the ball up, my contortions felt uncomfortable, alien somehow, like I was talking to somebody at a party but didn’t know what to do with my hands. I missed nearly every one and couldn’t even settle on a form I felt confident in. 

Yet on the game’s first possession, when a stocky point guard with a thick Brooklyn accent passed me the ball on the wing, I let loose, reflexively more than anything. I regretted my decision the moment the ball left my fingertips, off-kilter and jagged, like a dancer who can’t find the beat. 

“Yo, good shot, son,” the point guard said. 

I have no idea how the ball went in. I strutted back up the court, face all chill, like the cold-blooded shooter I aspired to be. I missed my next two shots badly, but my reputation lived off the fumes of that first one, so the point guard kept feeding me the ball, directing me to open spots, calling on teammates to set screens to free me up. That poor point guard couldn’t understand why I kept passing up open looks and swinging the ball to the next guy. “Yo, that’s your shot,” he said, which boosted my confidence even though I doubted his faith. 

A few games into the run, my body started to remember the movements. I’d go minutes without thinking about the injury, losing myself in the flow of the game. I paced myself well enough to play two, then three games in a row without my lungs begging me to stop. I held my own against a guy at least 3 inches taller and a decade younger than me, even though he caught me flat-footed with a quick first step on a drive to the hoop that won his team the evening’s final game. By the end of the run, I was feeling myself, chopping it up with the other guys. I felt like my old self, in my old body, playing my old game. 

My confidence carried into my next pickup run a week later. I took shots from farther out. I dribbled up the court after rebounds. I jumped higher, ran faster, pushed harder. My body moved with a bouncy swagger that used to feel familiar. 

After snagging a long rebound early in the second game, I raced up the left side of the court, breezing past all but one defender, who tried to cut me off from the hoop. I mashed the accelerator, planning to beat him to the spot and scoop in an easy layup. But as soon as I hit the gas and extended my stride, I felt a pop in my right hamstring and tumbled to the ground. 

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