A kid like me didn’t have a lot of options growing up. From the day you were born, you knew the deal. If you wanted to make something of yourself, if you wanted a better life than everyone else in the neighborhood, there were just two ways out: basketball or whatever else you wanted to do.
That’s all there was in Cherry Grove. You either played ball or cultivated some other interest and eventually made a career out of it. If you couldn’t dunk or didn’t have a jump shot, all you had left was finding another rewarding path to professional and personal fulfillment.
That’s just a cold, hard fact of life where I’m from.
In our subdivision, if you weren’t playing basketball, you’d better be devoting yourself to literally any other academic or artistic endeavor. You have to understand, there was just no other choice for me and my friends. A Division I basketball scholarship was your ticket to freedom. Either that or some other type of scholarship, or the money your parents had put aside for your education. If you couldn’t make it happen that way, well, you might never escape your four-bedroom colonial.
You lie down at night and all you hear in your head is the sound of your SAT tutor, the school orchestra, your lines from The Importance Of Being Earnest, or a basketball bouncing in the gym over and over. If you’re dreaming about something besides impressing college basketball scouts with your game or doing pretty much anything else with little possibility of failure, well, you’re just wasting your dreams.
Kids in my neighborhood always said, “You gotta ball or choose one of many other available paths.” It’s just drilled into you: basketball or dental school, basketball or law school, basketball or art school, basketball or computer science, basketball or psychology, basketball or finance, basketball or medical school or economics or English or starting your own business. Pretty much anything your heart desires or basketball.
Or maybe football.
It’s sad watching what happens sometimes. I knew one kid who was on his way to a big-time university with a big-time basketball program until he got hurt. You know what that kid’s doing now? Attending that same college for mechanical engineering. If he’s lucky—real lucky—he’ll get into one of the top 10 graduate programs in a few years. See, that’s the thing: Even if you’re the best player the neighborhood’s ever seen, there’s still no guarantees. Twist your ankle the wrong way, and guess what? All you’ve got left are a nearly infinite number of other opportunities.
Sometimes I ask myself, “What if?” What if I grew up someplace where you didn’t have to take advantage of an endless supply of educational and vocational resources to build the future you want for yourself or play basketball? What would it be like if your whole damn life wasn’t riding on putting that ball through the hoop or experimenting with different career paths until one suited you? I don’t know. But maybe one day, I’ll go back and help change things. Because I want the kids growing up in my neighborhood today to be able to do what they want with their lives.
Or anything else, for that matter.