When I was in seventh grade, WNBA All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist, Swin Cash, came to my team’s basketball practice. As a young basketball player growing up in Swin’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, having the chance to meet her in person was very exciting. I remember sitting on the gym floor, eagerly looking up at her as she spoke about her experiences with basketball and answered our questions. One of my teammates asked how much longer she planned to play professional basketball and her response stuck with me: “I’ll play basketball until the air comes out of the ball. When the air comes out of the ball, I’ll know it’s time to move on. There’s more to life than basketball.”
If you were to ask me what I expected from my basketball career when I was in the seventh grade, I would have talked about AAU basketball, the excitement of senior night in high school and the chance to fulfill my dream of playing at the collegiate level. I never considered the possibility of having to walk away from the sport I loved before I was ready – I thought I would be able to end my career on my own terms.
From a young age, basketball was part of my life. As someone who grew faster than their peers, people often suggested I try basketball or volleyball to “take advantage of my height” and after years of failed attempts at gymnastics, dance and cheerleading, I decided to give it a try. Within a few months, I was hooked. I loved being part of a team, playing at a fast pace and being able to see growth in my skills – there was always room to get better.
The first few years of basketball were a learning experience filled with many ups and downs as I began to navigate the game, but things didn’t start to get serious until I joined an AAU team. Upon joining an AAU team that traveled regularly and practiced several times per week, basketball became a bigger part of my life. The girls on my team became family and the experiences we shared, from running sets of lines to winning championships and singing in the car, are now memories that I hold close to my heart.
Contrary to what I thought, my body was not indestructible. Luck had it that after so many years of training, my first varsity season was plagued by injuries that persisted through the spring, eventually costing me the opportunity to continue with AAU basketball. By this point, other people were encouraging me to consider of walking away from the sport for the sake of my health, but I loved the game too much to walk away. I insisted on finishing my career on my own terms, hopefully after several more years on the court.
However, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I suffered an ACL tear, sidelining me from the sport for a full year. I was crushed. For the first time in my life, I was aware that the air was slowly coming out of the basketball and taking my dreams with it.
After a long break from the game, I came back for my junior season. As excited as I was to be playing again, it quickly became apparent that my body couldn’t handle the stress like it used to. A few months after the season ended, my doctors advised me to walk away from competitive basketball for good. I finally understood what Swin was saying about knowing that it was time to move on – the air had definitely come out of the ball.
What I couldn’t see until I walked away is that when the air comes out of the ball, opportunities come with it. Without basketball, I’ve had the chance to discover other interests, passions, and hobbies that I never would’ve found when I was so invested in my sport. I’ve also discovered that just because the air comes out of the ball doesn’t mean that basketball is no longer in the picture, it just means you have to redefine what it looks like.
Walking away from basketball was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, but instead of crying because I miss it, I’m starting to smile at the memories. I hope to one day take on a coaching role, but for now, I enjoy watching and playing for fun. Basketball has taught me countless lessons that will serve me in many aspects of my life and for that, I’m thankful. The air may have to come out of the ball, but the love for the game never has to leave my heart.