By Lucy J. Madison
special to Lesbian.com
My mother always referred to falling in love as “the thunderbolt.” The first time I fell in love, it was magical, sudden, and entirely unexpected, as if I had been hit by a beautifully energetic bolt of lightning. The feelings were so intense I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t think of anything except my newfound love and how we could be together forever.
I was eight years old, and the object of my attention was a leather basketball, twenty-nine inches in circumference, twenty ounces in weight with seams about one-quarter inch apart. I’ll never forget the first time I held that brown leather Spalding ball in my small hands, felt the dimples of the leather, saw how my hand naturally curved to cup it. I stood in rapt fascination in the game aisle of a local store lost in my own thoughts. I barely noticed the snot-nosed boy and his father sniggering at me, a girl with blonde pigtails, cut off shorts, a Joan Jett tee shirt and scabby knees in the sports aisle of the local department store in the summer of 1980.
Over the next thirteen years of my life, I focused most of my energy on learning the game played between the lines of the ninety-six-foot rectangular shining hardwood court. My life revolved around practice, repetitions, studying the greats like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordon on television. I ate, drank, slept, and existed entirely for the sport I loved. The sound of a ball hitting the hardwood immediately calmed my nerves. The court was my home, and I was my most authentic self on the court. Shot after shot, drill after drill, year after year, my focus was laser sharp, and my goal was elusive but straightforward: to be the best player on the court every single night.
While I wasn’t always the best player on the court, I was good enough to become a standout high school player in a Connecticut private school program and ultimately go on to play college basketball. Through four years of college at a small liberal arts Division III school in New York, my eyes were opened to life outside of basketball. I fell in love with writing, ultimate Frisbee, late nights out with best friends, the college newspaper, classes in philosophy and literature, and all the experiences that life in college brings.
During my junior and senior seasons, basketball started to feel like a chore, a time commitment I began to resent. It became a job, a responsibility and something I no longer did for the joy of it. Although I had the opportunity to play professionally in Israel upon graduation, I couldn’t see a career in the game, although I tried to. I tried to imagine how many good years I had left in my body. I tried to imagine myself as a coach or a commentator, or to envision how I could make a good living inside the sport. But try as I might, I could not see the way forward. So, the day I graduated from college was the same day I walked away from the game I loved.
To say I wasn’t prepared for the first year after graduation, away from basketball, is a severe understatement. For the first time in my life since that day when I was eight years old, I did not have basketball to come home to. No practices, no teammates, no National Anthem, no butterflies before the game began, no pre-game rituals or studying film, no competition, no outlet for all my physical energy. All of it was gone in the blink of an eye, disappeared by own doing. I had no one to blame for this but myself.
Looking back, I realize now that I spent the first year after college in an intense mourning period. We often only think of loss regarding the death of a loved one, but other types of losses are equally challenging. My entire identity had been centered on basketball. Without it, I had to learn who I was all over again and proved harder than I could ever imagine.
Over the years, I dipped my toe back into the game. I played in some leagues, coached high school and pee wee girls, at one point had season tickets to the New York Liberty. To an extent, all of it felt false to me. Because I had only known how to give 110 percent to the game, anything less felt inauthentic and, to a certain degree, a colossal waste of time.
Now, as I sit and watch the WNBA playoffs in their twenty-first season and my forty-fourth year of life, I realize that I’ve moved into a different phase – appreciation. I’ve lived, and watched, the women’s game change and improve by leaps and bounds over the years. I often attend WNBA games at the Connecticut Sun Arena or UCONN games at Gampel Pavilion and still get a little misty-eyed when I watch an exceptional performance or play. The National Anthem always gives me goosebumps, and sometimes, I close my eyes to recall the days when I stood courtside too, sneakers double knotted, a wad of bubble gum in my left cheek, ready to do battle. I’ve learned to appreciate the Diana Taurasi’s and Sue Birds of the league much more entirely because of their commitment to the game, to be the best every single night.
Some people are born with a natural talent and physical attributes for the sport, but there are very few who also possess the inner desire to be the best. While I’ll never be an Olympic basketball player, basketball has taught me so many lessons that I now apply to my life as a professional writer such as:
• Practice your skills.
• Never stop trying.
• Hate losing (or rejection) so much that you’ll do whatever it takes to avoid it.
• Writing, like basketball, is a discipline that can be learned and improved.
It’s taken me years to fully understand how much my life changed that day way back in 1980 when I first held a basketball. I wouldn’t be the person, the woman, I am today without the game of basketball. Love changes over time, but when it’s true, it lasts forever.
About Lucy J. Madison: Lucy J. Madison is a novelist, poet, and screenwriter from Connecticut. She’s the author of two contemporary lesbian romance novels In the Direction of the Sun and Personal Foul as well as a collection of poetry entitled I.V. Poems (Sapphire Books). Personal Foul features a love story between a WNBA player and an official. It was recently named one of the top 10 Lesbian Sports Romance Books by the Lesbian Review. www.lucyjmadison.com Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @lucyjmadison.