I’m 13 and I’m playing in the first organized basketball game of my life. My uniform doesn’t fit, because I didn’t join the team until halfway into the season and was stuck with whatever was available. There’s two minutes left in the losing game, and so I am called from the end of the bench of people I don’t know by a coach I only met the week before. Hitching up my too-big-shorts the entire way, I make my way to the officials table to check in.
Aside from my parents, no one in the gymnasium, including my coach or teammates, really have any idea who I am. Just some kid with a weird accent and zero talent for the game of basketball. I check in and just point at the kid I’m replacing because I’ve forgotten his name.
The kid inbounding ball never looks my way, though to be fair I probably wasn’t in the right place anyway. I amble down the court holding up my shorts with one hand while the tank-top jersey threatens to spill off one shoulder in a way that would be provocative on a supermodel, but on me would just look like a pot roast falling out of a grocery bag.
The ball is passed around a couple of times and, through a series of mistakes I can’t fully explain, ends up in my hands. I take three steps and shoot the ball. Three things happen at that moment:
The first is that I get penalized for traveling — apparently you have to throw the ball at the ground periodically to move.
The second is that the ball flies over the entire backboard and lands out of bounds.
The third is that I say a word that is not welcome in eighth grade sporting events, and get called for a technical foul.
You will be surprised to learn at this point that I stayed on my high school’s basketball team until I graduated.
Whenever I think I’m not going to have the fortitude or determination to actually stick with something, I remember my time playing basketball in school. When I quit smoking, cold-turkey, there was a part of me that actively thought, “Well if I made it through that winter on eighth grade basketball, I can do this.” When I went back to college after five years away and virtually no transferable credits, I did so with a similar frame of mind.
This travesty of sport I described happened in 1985. My family had just moved from suburban Dallas to a small farm in southwest Wisconsin. It was November. It was cold as hell. But it was the tenth time we’d moved in my bakers-dozen years of life, so I was used to it all in a resigned, discouraged way. The past couple of moves hadn’t gone well for me, though, and I was naively was hanging a lot of hopes on the chance to change who I was and how I was perceived.
It started inauspiciously, as a weird kid with a muddy Southern accent in small-town Wisconsin I was on display, and historically speaking, close analysis from my peers had not traditionally worked in my favor. I joined the basketball team having never played anything more than an occasional game of HORSE against my dad on an offset backyard goal. I thought doing this would shape how others thought of me. To be fair, after that first game I did succeed in a ironic, genie-wish kind of way.
By the end of that first game, I was determined to quit.
I didn’t, though. Some of that credit goes to my parents, who encouraged me to stick with it. Even then, I still could have quit internally — just sleep-walked through practices. But, for some reason I didn't. I actually tried to improve. I was terrible at the game, but I pushed as hard as anyone on my team.
The rest of that season did not go well. Trying hard was a good strategy, but it did not yield quick results. Though my mom fixed the wardrobe malfunctions with a series of safety pins, my next effort on the court a couple of games later saw me dribble the ball off my awkward feet, sailing it into a crowd that was already filing out of the gym. I attempted a couple of more shots in the, perhaps, 10 minutes total I spent on the court that season. As I recall, only one of them came in any contact with the backboard or rim. No shot was successful.
And then the season was over.
I was as surprised as anyone when the winter of ‘86 saw me sign back up for JV basketball. If we had been a school of more than a few hundred, and if there had been enough people signing up to have a full bench, I certainly wouldn’t have made any kind of cut. But there was no cut, so I was assigned a jersey that actually fit, and I took to the court again.
It was the sixth or seventh game of the season, and we were losing by twenty or so to our arch-nemesis, Dodgeville. The JV coach, a highly encouraging and patient man who was a sharp contrast to the dour eighth-grade coach, called me from my well worn place at the end of the bench. I was in the game, with a couple of minutes on the clock.
When the ball hit my hands in the open court, the other team having sent in their own basketball rejects, I found myself in a pocket of open court poised for a fifteen-foot jumper. I pivoted toward the goal and let the ball sail.
When I die and look back on the moments that defined me, I will think of this shot, which arced through the air in a clean way that was distinctly different than every other shot I’d taken before. When it swished cleanly through the rim and net, I was honestly dumbfounded.
The other team was equally dumbfounded, not because I’d scored a goal, but because quite suddenly and without any warning at all, my team and the spectators who’d followed us to this away-game ass-kicking, suddenly erupted into a huge cheer. Down by twenty-something, people were jumping up and down, shouting as if we’d just won the State Championship.
It’s funny, because I didn’t actually realize that anyone had been cheering me along over the previous year and a half. Probably for a lot of that time, they hadn’t, but at some point I’d begun to win them over. Though my shooting percentage was somewhere in the single-digit percentages now, it was no longer zero, and half that gymnasium was celebrating that fact like it was VE Day.
This isn’t the part where I extol the virtues of sports as an avenue toward perseverance and self-confidence, though that was my path. The fact is that there’s a lot of different ways to get to those particular epiphanies. Instead what I’m saying is that I’m glad I learned early on, through some method, what it feels like to fail over-and-over again but not give up. For me it was a sport. For others it may be selling their first story to even the smallest publishers. For still others it may have been the first day on a job that had once seemed unattainable.
It’s a lesson I wish I remembered more often, because it has rarely steered me wrong to weather the storm. The few times it feels like it’s let me down, I wonder if that was just because eventually I let the adversity win.
I never became exceptional at basketball. I managed to start a couple of games by my junior year, when a couple of guys got hurt. But I was the only player on the team with a cheering section — on at least four or five occasions, they brought signs. There was the one game where I scored some 14 points and was on the court for most of the game, and though that was the exception, it was a glorious one.
In the end, no one cheered for me because of my basketball game. It obviously wasn’t about respect for my play, but I did win people over with something like bullheaded stubbornness. There were dozens of times, particularly early on, when the desire to quit was almost overwhelming, and then the next day would come. I’d show back up and I’d do the work. In the end, though it’s almost never quick, people end up seeing that, and it becomes harder and harder for them to keep you on the outside. Somewhere along the line, and without really noticing, I moved on to the inside, totally and completely, and that just became the de facto standard. It stopped being an issue, even though I still wasn’t that great — even though everyone still had access to that memory of some stupid, Southern kid hiking up his pants.
I mention all this, because it’s the reason I ever had any kind of success, including my time as a paid games writer. It’s one of the pieces of advice I’d give to anyone looking to break into writing, or the games industry at all. "How do you do it?" You fail, and then you show back up every single day to try it again. You do that until you don’t fail anymore, even if it takes years … which it probably will.