Basketball: A boy's escape

Pierce on the hardwood with one of his two daughters. - Matthew Pierce

Pounding the Rock is pleased to present a new voice to our audience. You may or may not be familiar with the work of Matthew Pierce; if not, you should take some time to read the words of a fellow basketball fan. This is the first letter in a series that Matthew is writing to his daughters about his love of the game. Matthew's book, Ghosts In the Hills is now available.

Dear girls,

Basketball is a very important part of my life. I don't play like I used to, but I've still got one good run left in me. That's what basketball does to you-no matter how old you get, you can never quite let it go. It is a beautiful game, one that carves out a place in your soul that football and baseball and all the other sports don't fill in the same way. Basketball is different; there is a continuity, a restless pace as the teams are pulled back and forth across the court like waves in a storm.

There are lots of things I want to tell you about basketball, like about when J-Will made it cool for the white kids, or about when Duncan ended the Lakers' quest for a four-peat. Then there are things you will have to experience for yourself, like the tiny jolt of excitement you feel when you battle for a rebound and the ball bounces off the rim in your direction.

And then there is my story, of how basketball was my path out of the darkness to become your dad.

*****

When I was 14 my family left Alabama, where I had spent my whole life. We moved to St. Louis, where your grandpa had received a promotion. All of a sudden I was in a new state where everything looked and felt strange. Everywhere I went I was out of place. I didn't have any friends and I didn't know how to make new ones. When I talked, people laughed at my accent. I spent most of my days locked in my bedroom listening to music. Sometimes at night I snuck out and sat on the driveway and stared at the stars. Sometimes I just cried.

I had never felt such pain. It seemed like I was completely alone, like happiness was a ship that had sailed away and would never come back.

My dad saw that I was kind of a mess and put a basketball goal up in the driveway. He bought me a ball and set it in the garage. Here was my escape, if I wanted it.

*****

The time will come when you are the 14-year old kid, homesick and ready to give up. Maybe it's already here, and you girls are reading this in a place of great darkness. If so, dig in.

*****

To make a long story short, I came out of my room. I stopped looking at the stars and I stopped crying. I picked up a basketball and I started shooting. I didn't stop hurting-the pain was still there, but as long as I was running and jumping and sweating, I didn't notice it as much.

To make an even longer story short, some pretty amazing things started happening. A boy named Mike Chavez walked up the driveway one day and asked me if I wanted to play basketball. Not on my goal, though. At his school. I joined Mike's school and played on his team, kept practicing, and eventually got a basketball scholarship. I wound up at Rochester College in Michigan, where I met your mother.

Looking back, I wouldn't change any part of my history. Every bit of that pain had a purpose. If I hadn't felt so desperately alone, I might not have practiced as hard as I did. And if I hadn't met Mike Chavez, I wouldn't have met your mother or been your father.

*****

If I died before we could shoot hoops on a driveway together, I'm sorry. You'll have to make do on this one. Find a basketball and a driveway that has a hoop on it-someone in my family is bound to have both. Dribble around and find a sweet spot. At our house in Missouri, the sweet spot was on the high part of the driveway, where you could just roll the ball off your fingertips and the rim would gobble it up. Take a few shots until it starts to feel right. I wish I could be there to rebound for you, to pull the ball out of the net and flick it back into your hands. But this isn't about me-this moment is about you.

We don't see how we're connected until we've already made most of the important decisions in life. When I was 14 and shooting in the driveway I thought I was playing by myself, but I wasn't. I was playing for more, much more than any game I'd ever compete in. I was playing for you girls, for the chance to be your Dad.

If you're still on the driveway, take one more shot for me. Bounce the ball first, off of the house or a car, so that it comes back to you. That will be my pass to you. Line up the shot and let it go.

Close your eyes and wait for the sound of the net. When you hear the snap of the nylon, you'll know you made it. When I was 14, that was the sound of the darkness breaking.

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