Monday, November 19, 2018

Love and Basketball

Earlier this evening, I successfully executed my first flashy pass. After beating my defender off the dribble, I leaped into the air and, as I saw the help defender rotate to challenge my layup, I retracted my extended arm, brought the basketball to my torso, clutched it against my hip, and threw it behind my back to my open teammate for the assist. All while I was midair. Not all assists are created equal; this moment was pure magic. Following this play, one of my teammates started hyping me up, This guy so fucking cold. Jeremy Lin on my team. And, for the duration of the evening at an LA Fitness in Baltimore County, Linsanity was resurrected. I played the lights out, and we proceeded to win 8 of 9 games.

Basketball is the most tangible measure of growth in my life. That flashy pass was the culmination of three to four hours of playing basketball, and another half hour reflecting on my game each day, during the three years I was in law school. Summers meant valuable alone time in university gymnasiums to perfect my craft, while the school years presented the opportunity to implement my training against live competition, which in turn, presented new challenges that forced me back to studying, training, and innovating my art form.

Years before I began playing basketball, when I coached it instead, I learned the significance of selfless growth. My players worked hard for the team, for each other. My players learned their individual roles, their movements during offensive plays, and their rotations on defense. When Tom beats his defender and drives the ball into the lane and sees a help defender rotate, he can blindly pass it to the short corner because he expects his teammate to be there ready to catch and shoot. When Tom gets beat on defense, he can expect Nick to rotate beneath the basket to help contain the ballhandler, and Nick in turn can expect Clay to rotate down to cover both his man and Nick’s. As the season progressed, these expectations of others were increasingly met, chemistry sparked, and victories became second nature, reflecting our collective growth.

As it turns out, if ball is life, life can be a very lonely journey. At its purest form, playing basketball taught me to strive for personal excellence and to fight against stagnancy on the one hand, and coaching it depicted a vision of communizing social relations and camaraderie on the other. Refracted under capitalism, basketball teaches meritocratic success as a professional, and a pathway towards Army as One militaristic culture. If only the hard work ethic I gained from perfecting my craft carried over to intimate relationships. 

I fell in love with two women when I lived in Los Angeles. They taught me first, that love is not enough, and neither is hard work. Second, they taught me to manage my expectations and to control my emotions. These are the lessons of love.

You can imagine how counterintuitive these lessons are for a guy who’s learned about life through basketball. Almost as significant is how intellectually disturbing these lessons are from a humanistic viewpoint when you strive to live selflessly and desire that selflessness to be reciprocated. But, we are all forged under a cold capitalism that produces and reproduces social antagonisms for which we, as human beings, live out interpersonally and for which women especially, under patriarchy, must develop defense mechanisms.

Enter Stacie, a short relationship – perhaps too short – that imparted invaluable wisdom towards reconciling love and basketball. I approached the relationship with calculated progression, one that began with the lessons of love and ended with the lessons of basketball. Stacie is confident in relationships, in contrast to me. I think this is what I’ll miss the most about her, since confidence is infectious. At the outset, she moved quickly, a point guard to my center, going down her litany of past relationships and the lessons learned, what expectations she had in a present relationship, and what she wanted sexually. 

On my end, in the beginning, I approached this relationship with skepticism, not of Stacie per se, but of skepticism that if things are too good to be true, then it probably is. The lessons of love taught me not to expect anything from her and to control my emotions. I think my ability to implement these lessons ultimately saved me from what could have been a devastating heartbreak, knowing that I am, to a fault, a hopeless romantic at heart. At the same time, though, I embraced each moment of the relationship with the fullest appreciation. As the weeks progressed, my feelings for her grew, based on the core principles we shared, which for me, transcends the constructs and coincidences of racial difference, culture, and experiences. So long as the foundation is the same, I felt that the abstractions would dissipate, and we could, like the players I coached, grow together. For that reason, I consciously opened myself to her – perhaps in the most intimate and deepest way – by sharing this blog, my personal space for deep introspection. Thus, the lessons of love gave way to the lessons of basketball. Together, I hoped, we could strive for collective excellence.

What have I learned from my time with Stacie? I am genuinely proud of myself for how I conducted myself emotionally and physically in this relationship. Though I managed my expectations, I approached Stacie with utmost kindness and integrity. In other words, I have learned that my mastery over emotions does not necessitate cold actions. One of the most fun experiences I had was helping her sand her kitchen counters on our second date, which would have been deprived had I not determined to overwhelm her with kindness. Second, through her confident example, Stacie has taught me to clarify and articulate my needs in a relationship. And in the spirit of my lifelong process of disrupting Asian male stereotypes that are constantly projected onto me, I crave intimacy and physicality. Third, I learned that I can remain in control of my emotions, even if I follow the speed and cues of the other. Fourth, I learned that I can control my vulnerability without sacrificing honesty. For these lessons, along with revalidating some other central ones, I am deeply grateful for the brief time Stacie and I shared.

In the end though, I can’t help but feel unsatisfied about how safe I approached this emotionally, and uncertain whether that contributed if at all to the present outcome. This feeling inevitably reflects the lessons learned from basketball that I so want to be true of life itself, in all its complexity – the unconditional love and dedication I put towards the game, which constantly rewards me with concrete markers of growth, to wit: the flashy pass. The better takeway, then, might not be that love and basketball is reconciled sequentially, as with approaching this relationship with calculated progression, but dialectically, with enough emotional risk from the outset coupled with just enough security in case it fails.

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