Basketball in Mania and Depression
an essay from the archives
I’m a good basketball player but I’ve never been a good athlete. At any point in my basketball life, on any competitive court in the world, I’d invariably be the slowest player with the shortest vertical leap. My friends joke that I even fall slowly—that I’m still falling from the time I started to fall in March, 2003. And, yet, somehow, despite my obvious physical limitations, I’ve usually been one of the best players in any particular game. At the very least, even in my old-man hoops years, I’m a guy who’ll hit a few buckets if you leave me open.
So how did I—the guy who looks and moves like he’s made out of random Lego blocks, two 1970s Radio Shack computers, and a Scrabble game missing all the vowels—become a decent basketball player? Through obsession and repetition.
As a slow and awkward child, I taught myself how to shoot goofy shots with either hand at any angle. I’d practice the same eccentric moves for hours. My game became more like table tennis and pinball than actual basketball. I became unpredictable.
Most of all, I played with a cannibalistic ferocity. That emotional fury helped me transcend my lack of elite athleticism. I’ve also come to understand, after the last few years of intense mental health therapy, that my basketball rage often rose out of my bipolar mania.
I’d be so eager to play, so ready to thrash and crash myself through my opponents. Sometimes, at my most hypomanic, I’d play with severely sprained ankles, wicked back spasms, and fingers broken at 45 degree angles. I once played in a high school game with a fractured jaw. Twice, as a middle-aged man in zero-stakes rat ball games, I’ve kept playing after teeth were knocked out of my mouth.
I think hypomania increases my pain tolerance. But with bipolar mania comes bipolar depression.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve sometimes emailed my friends at the last minute to let them know that I wasn’t going to play. I didn’t tell them it was because of my bipolar depression. I’d always give them some other excuse. I let them think I was lazy. I didn’t want them to know about my sadness. I’d cancel the games even though I was the one who had the keys to the gym. Then, still wearing my basketball gear, I’d crawl into bed and weep.
In high school, I knew how to mimic athletic excitement. I was a star player. I was a leader. I was usually the most effective scorer. I couldn’t disappoint my teammates. I had to play. And I had to play with fundamentalist zeal.
On a basketball court, I’ve always been a gunner. I could miss 27 shots in a row and still take the 28th shot with no guilt whatsoever.
But, in depression, I would start the game already demoralized. I didn’t want to shoot. I didn’t want to run at all. I’d be telling myself that I needed to quit the team. I needed to drop out of school. I needed to lock myself in my bedroom and let my parents slide me food under my door.
I vividly remember a crushing game in 1984. My Reardan High School Indians were playing the Wilbur High School Redskins. Wilbur only had an average team, but three of our starters were sick or injured, and a fourth starter had been suspended for getting drunk on a school trip.
I knew that I’d have to play like a crazy man for us to win. And I went completely manic. I was miserable, constantly on the verge of tears, but I still blasted up and down the court. I was sad as fuck, but I scored, rebounded, defended, and threw assists better than I ever had.
I think I was in a bipolar mixed-state, where I felt depressed and manic in equal measure. It’s a dangerous place to be. In life, it means that I’m depressed enough to seriously contemplate suicide and manic enough to carry it out. In basketball terms, it means that I could play the game of my life through two quarters and then run outside at halftime, throw myself into a snow bank, and weep into a towel.
We had a thirteen point lead at halftime. And that lead grew to twenty-one by the end of the third quarter. In a regular game with a full roster, I probably would’ve slowed down. I probably wouldn’t have played in the last quarter. Coach would’ve sat me down and let a deep bench player get a run.
But, with only seven players, I knew that I’d have to keep going. There was really nobody else left on our team who could get buckets on their own. And we’d already given up a sixteen point lead and lost in another game that season. So I had to play. I had to keep playing well. I had to keep playing hard.
But my most adept opponent that night was my depression. I was miserable and enraged. One minute into the fourth quarter, I drove hard toward the basket. I wasn’t even thinking about the rim and net. I just wanted to slam into somebody, anybody.
So I crashed into a few guys, opponents and teammates. And, somehow, as I drove into the crowd, my right arm got twisted behind my back and it kept twisting as I slammed to the floor. Later, my father would say that he was certain that I’d busted my arm and my ribs.
But I wasn’t injured at all. I was quite aware that I hadn’t hurt myself, but I still started to sob. The gym was silent. They assumed that my injuries were physical. But I was in severe emotional pain. I wanted to stop playing.
I needed out of that gym. I needed out of that town. I needed out of my life. So when our Coach leaned over me and asked me how I was, I lied.
I said, “I think my arm is broken.”
The EMTs came to examine me. Still on the court, I winced and cried out when they touched my right arm. I wept when they slowly and carefully turned me over and immobilized my arm on my chest. I wept when they put me on the gurney, rolled me out of the gym into the waiting ambulance, and rushed me to Sacred Heart Hospital Emergency Room in Spokane.
There, with my parents terrified in the waiting room, the ER doctor examined me. He knew that I wasn’t hurt. I could see the suspicion in his eyes. ER doctors have to deal with so many hypochondriac patients, with so many patients who are lying to get drugs, lying to get attention, lying to feel any kind of love.
But I don’t know often they see patients like me, a high school kid who lied his way out of a game that I didn’t have the emotional and spiritual strength to finish.
I wish that I could’ve told the doctor about my state of mind. I wish that I would’ve told him about all of my sleepless nights. About my irrational anger. About my deep sadness. About my suicidal ideation.
But I just kept telling him that my arm and ribs were killing me. He had me X-rayed. And, of course, there was nothing broken or torn. I wasn’t even bruised. So he vaguely diagnosed me with muscle spasms and sent me home with a bottle of aspirin.
That next Monday morning, my teammates and our Coach rushed to me when I walked into school with my arm thickly wrapped in a cast and sling.
“It’s broken,” I said.
My teammates and Coach sighed and cursed at the thought of playing without me. They’d kept playing hard against Wilbur and won that game. But could they keep winning against good teams without me?
My teammates and our Coach stared at my ruined arm and mourned for the near future.
But then I laughed, pulled my arm out of the sling and unraveled all the toilet paper that resembled a cast.
“I’m joking,” I said. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
But I wasn’t okay. Not at all.
I didn’t know how to be okay.
This is the first time I’ve told the truth about that night. I feel an equal measure of shame and relief.
I was a boy who didn’t know that he was profoundly mentally ill. And I’m a man who for decades couldn’t accept how much sicker and sicker he was becoming.
There is no triumph in this essay. There is no game to be won. There is no cure for bipolar disorder. There is only therapy and medication.
And there is basketball.
I’m an elderly hoops player now, so slow that I think I actually travel back in time on the court. But I still know how to play the game. I’m still unpredictable and strange. I’m still the guy who’ll hit a few buckets if you leave me open.
But I no longer play with fury.
In another essay, that might be the happy ending. But, in this essay and in my life, my loss of fury makes for a far more ambivalent ending.
I’m a lesser basketball player without that fury.
Does that mean I want to reclaim that fury? Nope. But it does mean that I get lonely for it.
Through my entire life, when I’ve driven past basketball courts filled with strangers, I’d size them up and think, “I could kick their asses,” even when I knew I couldn’t. But I don’t think that way anymore. A few days ago, my wife and I drove past a court on Rainier Ave in Seattle. I watched those players run a fast break and I turned to my wife and said, “I couldn’t keep up with those dudes.”
Call that acceptance.
Call that rue and regret.
Call that me looking in the mirror and seeing what I am: an aging bipolar Indian man who’s going to survive.