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The Meaning of Basketball, Part I

Why are we here? What's our purpose? What drives us forward? These questions are well-suited for an intro-level Philosophy lecture, but not particularly fitting for a Milwaukee Bucks blog. Probably because none of us really have the time to discuss Important Things when we could be talking about Tobias Harris' jump shot or whether or not Larry Sanders will be on the team on opening night.

But I think the community that has sprung up around these parts is ready for this kind of talk. We know our Bucks, we (mostly) love our team, and we're fans of the NBA and the sport in general...and now we get to explore the conversations about the game.

So consider this an open forum to discuss basketball and everything that comes with it. What does it mean to you? What experiences or perspectives do you have? How did you get into it, and where do you want it to take you?

I'll start this party off by sharing how I got into basketball in the first place. I grew up in Cudahy, a small suburb south of Milwaukee and not exactly a hotbed of basketball activity. I was two blocks away from the appropriately-named Mitchell Park, but I never really played there until I was older.

I was a sickly child from the day I was born. I wasn't really told what made me ill, but I know that I had regular infections that (combined with severe asthma) required hospitalization so often that I half-jokingly tell people that I was born in a hospital and liked it so much that I never left. And it wasn't like my parents were racing me to the E.R. every time I had the sniffles; one of my trips was due to a collapsed lung. I was three.

My medical problems kept me inside when the other kids wanted to play outside. Sometimes my friends came over, but usually they didn't. After all, whenever I was their playmate, we didn't get to do much of anything fun. I was completely oblivious to how they saw me until I was an adult; I had Nintendo and Legos, so I was set. I was a loner, even though I didn't know it.

By the time I got to 7th grade, I had grown strong enough and developed a decent enough immune system to actually try playing sports. I played fall soccer, though not very much and not very well because I couldn't get my conditioning right. I couldn't play football because I was too scrawny and my bones too brittle. Volleyball was only offered to girls, and baseball was just straight-up boring to me (though to be honest, I had always been petrified of batting ever since getting hit in the face by a pitch twice in the same gym class).

Basketball was the first sport I could play that I actually enjoyed, even though I was garbage. I was tall-ish for my age, but terribly skinny and uncoordinated, and I couldn't remember the simplest of plays on offense, so I was the 10th man on a 10-man squad. I remember my mom being furious with the coach after a game because I didn't get to play the amount of time I was supposed to play (we played with 4 quarters, so the starters were supposed to play the 1st and 4th and the bench played the 2nd and 3rd). I tried telling her that it didn't bother me and that I just enjoyed being on the team, but she wasn't hearing it. "You don't have to play next season." she angrily declared, putting me to tears.

I didn't play the next season, even though I wanted to. Then when I got to high school, I decided against even going to freshman tryouts because I didn't want to get into a fight at home. Looking back, I would have gotten cut right away because I was a part of an extremely talented high school class and I hadn't even hit puberty yet (I was a late-bloomer.) But it bothered me that there was something I wanted to do and I felt like someone else kept me from it. In reality, my mom would have been supportive, but I kept everything to myself and just never brought it up.

So I didn't play much beyond my driveway during my formative years, but I did watch as much basketball as I could find. The NBA offered the best of the best, and I was hooked. I followed the Bucks because they were the local team, but there was one player who I followed more closely and identified with more than any other: Allen Iverson.

Like me, Allen Iverson was undersized compared to his peers. That's where the similarities end, but I loved him all the same because of how he treated the game. To many, he was a gifted scorer who struggled to find success because his style didn't translate into consistent wins for the team. And as true as that is, to me, he was something else entirely. He was an avatar; someone I wanted to be even though I never could. He overcame his disadvantages by sheer force of will and created opportunities where there were none. He took the game and made it his, no matter what anyone else tried to do. That exceptionalism eventually became his downfall, but the mark was already made on me.

To me, that's what basketball is; taking the game and trying to make it your own while someone across from you tries to prevent it. It's one of the best ways to really learn about both yourself and another person, even if they're someone that you'll never see again. Every possession is your own superhero movie; try to achieve your goal while your arch-nemesis tries to keep you from it, then trade places. And even if you fail once, there's always next time.

That's how basketball became a fixture for me, and why the only things keeping me from it is a real job and this balky knee of mine. So what about you? How did you first get into basketball, and what does it mean to you?