Driven to Madness

Driven to Madness

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BY BEA CHANG

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First Quarter

I was a basketball junkie growing up. Maybe I still am. It depends on the day you ask me. Some days I will tell you that I have retired. Others I will tell you that I am making a last-ditch effort at an ESPN-worthy come-back. Sometimes I will take on three coaching jobs, and, most of the time, I will tell you that these are the last girls I will ever coach, the last ones I will ever love. Then, I will also tell you that I have been calling each season my last one for the past six years.

And sometimes I will lie and tell you that I have never played basketball. I will tell you that I am a shy little girl from Taiwan who has never elbowed anyone in the gut, gotten a bloody eye stitched up in the ER—that I have never felt the ball glaze off of my fingertips and heard the firm cough of the net that sent a whole gym erupting, screaming, wild with frenzy; lifted up on my teammates’ shoulders and paraded down the hallways of our school.

I am not sure why I lie about it. But I do.

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Here’s the truth: My love affair with the game of basketball began when I was ten years old. And slowly, it drove me to madness.

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I wonder if basketball had driven Pat Summit to madness too, so that, at the age of 59, she began to lose control over her mental faculties. After she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, she coached her team through another March Madness season before she retired.

What happens if she forgets her 1,098 wins at Tennessee? Will someone remember it for her?

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Maybe as a kid I should have chosen a more permanent passion, something, like chess or piano, that would not have to end. For a while, after I walked away from the game, I tried so hard to forget that I had ever wasted those ten years of my life on the court I could have spent doing something else, something that might have actually mattered. Who really cared that I could run a pick-and-roll and throw a behind-the-back pass? Who gave a damn whether or not I could kiss the ball off of the backboard? Sometimes it felt as if those ten years went missing, snatched away from me. In a fit of drama and despair one afternoon, I tore down the posters that had once decorated my dorm room. I would have liked to say that I ripped Dwayne Wade and Tracy McGrady’s faces straight down the middle in a crisp, satisfying sound, but that was not what happened. I took them down gently, careful not to wrinkle the corners, and folded them up neatly in my drawer.

Because I did remember. I do want to remember. How could I not?

___

I do want to remember, but I don’t know how to do that without feeling as if I had lost a greater part of my life. There are so many days when I want to say that those long, long years we spent on the court were wasted in a fruitless pursuit of some immature, hyped-up dream.

But that is not true either: I knew exactly what I was doing on the afternoon at Haverford College when I walked into my coach’s office.

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My parents tried to warn me. In the summer I got my first period, my mother sent me to a soccer camp. She told me, “That means you won’t grow anymore. You’re not going to be tall enough to play basketball.” After soccer failed, my father brought me to a tennis lesson because, he reasoned, we named your brother after Michael Chang. The tennis court was historically the only athletic hope we Taiwanese people have. But that afternoon I brought a basketball to the tennis court and, for two hours, mastered the between-the-legs dribble. Most adamantly, my parents dragged me to the golf course. For years they said, “You can’t play basketball forever, but you can play golf until you’re 70 or 80. Look at your grandpa, he’s still playing golf. Isn’t that what you want?”

___

At midnight on October 15th, every year, millions of basketballs bounce at once, in unison, a thwack against the ground, all the way up and down each of our time zones.

Imagine that: millions of basketballs hitting the wooden floor at the same time. If you closed your eyes and paid attention, you might feel the earth shiver. Then, like a well-scripted drum performance, millions of college basketball players flood the courts, shoes squeaking against the polished floors.

That was what I wanted: the powerful scream in those high-rise gyms, a kind of spasm, a queasy, slightly strung-out thrill throbbing to the sheer muscle of the place. We called October 15th: “Midnight Madness.”

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What I did not want: to drive around on a manicured lawn in a golf cart, smiling blankly, moving slowly, as if we were condemned already to a retirement community in Florida.

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Because one afternoon, Brandi Chastain took off her jersey and twirled it above her head. She fell onto her knees, fists clenched, tendons stretched. Ninety-thousand screamers in Pasadena. Forty million on television.

Because, Brandi Chastain kept telling us, There’s never been a better time to be a girl.

Because our coaches kept telling us the same thing.

Our parents kept telling us the same thing.

There’s never been a better time to be a girl.

___

My sixth grade coach told us that Steve Kerr put up more than 800 shots per day. A month later, when I came home from my first double-overtime loss, I brought a measure tape to our driveway and chalked a line in the cement. I made 100 free-throws while my parents and my brother ate dinner, watching me from the window.

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For two years in college my teammates were my best friends. I admired them, loved them. The affection that we should’ve had for our coaches we saved for each other: we sweated for one another, won a couple of games and lost many—way too many—games together. We hurt and we bled and we hoped and we cried. We limped to Drinker House and we hid ourselves in our captains’ room and we lamented, first in whispers, then in wails, about how college ball was not all it’s cracked out to be. And then we cracked open the cans and drank many—way too many—beers.

___

I was no longer sure what the dream was, but I knew, whatever it was, it had failed. Why didn’t anyone tell us it would fail?

Maybe that’s not the right question.

Maybe the right question is this: Did we ever really have a chance?

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The DVD set of the first season of Grey’s Anatomy came out in the spring of 2006, and many of us watched it over and over again, in part, I realize now, to search for answers. At the end of the first episode, Ellen Pompeo delivered a narration pitched with the perfect blend of despair and hope: “The Game: They say a person either has what it takes to play, or they don’t…I can’t think of any one reason why I’d want to be a surgeon. But I can think of a thousand reasons why I should quit…There comes a moment when it’s more than just a game. And you either take that step forward or turn around and walk away. I could quit, but here’s the thing, I love the playing field.”

At a certain point, all of us—all of my basketball friends from Morris County, New Jersey, and I—displayed the quote on our away messages. Which turned out to be funny, a sad bit ironic; because that was the spring when most of us, after two years of college ball, walked into our coaches’ offices basketball fanatics, and walked out free, ordinary women.

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My basketball friend at St. Michael’s College sent me a message: “How do you give up something that you’ve given your whole life to?”

Me: "It's going to be okay."

She: "How?"

 

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My friend at Ithaca College: “What are we supposed to do now?”

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Second Quarter

 What, exactly, does an ordinary woman do?

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Kim Perrot never had to figure it out. The hard-nosed, crowd-pleasing point guard in the #10 uniform led her Houston Comets to the WNBA’s first two championship rings. In the February of 1999, she underwent surgeries and radiation to battle against lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain. When the Houston Comets launched its third season, Perrot flew to Mexico in search of alternative methods to eradicate the tumor. In interviews, her teammates prayed for her. In the stadium, fans held up posters bearing her name. Two days before her death, Cynthia Cooper flew down to Tijuana to accompany the Perrot family on the medevac flight back to Houston. The Comets dubbed their third championship season, “#3 for #10.”

She passed away exactly a year after the last basketball game she ever played.

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Some people say that Jay Williams should have died in the motorcycle accident on the night of June 19, 2003, when his new Yamaha sports-bike crashed into a streetlamp in Chicago. Williams was rushed to the hospital with a severed nerve in his leg, fractured pelvis and three ligaments in his left knee. For months, it remained unclear whether the point guard, priced at almost four-million dollars, would regain the use of his leg.

___

It was sudden, the way it happened. One moment it was there on the roster: #10, Bea Chang, Randolph, New Jersey. And then, when I refreshed the page, it was gone.

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Like this:

 

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Even when Jay Williams successfully rehabilitated his leg and returned to the court, the Bulls never expressed any interest in him again.

In 2006, the New Jersey Nets signed Williams to a non-guarantee contract, only to release him a month later. At the end of that year, even the Development League waived him.

___

Some people say Williams was lucky to have survived the crash.

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I ran away. The United States became a sad place to be. There were so many things on television or in the newspaper that I couldn’t stand to see, in which Sue Bird or Kobe Bryant held their palms toward the roofs, bidding the crowd onto their feet.

So I left my basketball shoes at home and I flew to Athens. The people I met there had no idea of who I used to be. For a while, I enjoyed saying yia sas and efharisto to waiters at coffee shops on slow afternoons. I spent my nights drinking red wine with my new American friends, and we went dancing in Plaka with strange Greek men under the Acropolis. I lifted up my dress and walked barefoot through the streets of my new city, the men whistling, my girls laughing. For a while, I fell out of touch with my friends back home. I forgot to check how the Haverford team was doing without me.

___

One weekend, my new friends and I glided through the turquoise sea on the ferry to Mykonos. We put our flip-flops up on the railings, the wind brushing our hair, the sun kissing our skin. We wandered the cobblestone stairways and found an isolated, picture-perfect spot. We hung our feet over the water, watching the waves tumble over themselves, waiting for the white-washed adobe houses to turn into shades of orange and red. Just then, just for a moment, I almost believed that I could go wherever I wanted go, be whoever I wanted to be.

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Before my freshman season at Haverford, I made a poster titled “the Whalen Effect.” In the four years she spent at the University of Minnesota, Lindsay Whalen single-handedly lifted its basketball program from obscurity to national prominence. The average attendance at women’s basketball games grew from 1,087 during her first season to 9,866 by her senior year—when Minnesota reached its first-ever Final Four.

I thought, maybe.

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It wasn’t until our team flew down to Florida for a tournament after Katrina that we saw, like the images of third-world African countries, houses collapsed into a pile of rubble—and we imagined all those lives that were suddenly erased. On the bus, no one was talking, although I wasn’t sure whether it was the devastation that stoned us into silence or our pre-game ritual. Someone took a picture of the upside-down pick-up truck, and the flash bounced around the bus.

I remember almost nothing from that last season, but I know that down in Florida we captured our second win. There was a photograph from that bus of all of us holding up two fingers, smiling widely. I remember standing at half-court that game feeling my heart pound serenely against my chest. I could feel on my back the gazes of the crowd behind me, and I knew, more than I'd ever known anything then, that, at the end of the game, the All-Tournament trophy was undeniably and irretrievably mine.

But of course the memory of that sweet victory has been written over with what has happened since: my sophomore season failed, and, two months from then, I walked away.

___

Why do I remember this?

At the forefront of that photograph from Florida was one of my co-captains, her body leaning out in the aisle, her ponytail damp from the game. I was never sure what her illness was. It was one of those things we never talked about, and it didn’t seem right to ask. What I knew, though, was that for her 21st birthday, she took shots of brownies and candies; that she was ordered by her doctor to give up soccer at the risk of dying. What I also knew was that my captain refused to stop playing basketball.

One night, right at the cusp of that spring, she was huddled up on the cold steps of our apartment while the campus party raged before her. My soon-to-be ex-teammate and I sat on each side of our soon-to-be ex-captain, while she, arms hugged around her chest, rocked back-and-forth, back-and-forth, her jaws shivering, “I think I’m dying. I think I’m dying.”

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haverford team

Third Quarter

“She’s doing well. She seems happy,” I overheard my mother talk to my father on the phone. “She washed her car today. I think that’s the first time she’s ever washed it.”

But I wasn’t fine. I wasn’t even okay. My washing the car that morning—and in the five mornings afterwards—felt like a nervous breakdown, a manifestation of a cooped-up madness. I knew from my psychology class that I should talk about it, but I knew how foolish it sounded. I knew that. No one died. There was no storm. No war. What I lost wasn’t real. So I washed my car. I didn’t know what else to do.

Because all I wanted to do, all the time, was to race down the open court with the basketball in my hands, and my girls flanking my sides in a perfect formation of a textbook fast-break—running, running, running—and know that anything, anything at all, could happen.

___

A few months after his retirement, John Sally became clinically depressed. Other athletes fell to addiction; some to suicide.

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In the December of 2006, I went back to watch my high school’s season tip-off. Before the game, the reporter for The Daily Record walked by and threw at me not the proud, hero-worship smile of the olden days. Instead, she gave me a hard stare and asked, “What’s the point of being Morris County All-Stars if all of you are going to quit anyway?” She walked away, shaking her head, tsk-tsk-tsking. She would never speak to any of us again.

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In the bleachers, the father of a freshman girl who used to frequent our high school games turned around, “If you quit basketball, who are they going to look up to now?”

All I could say was, “I know. I know. I know.”

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My basketball friend at Wagner College used to have a dream. For four years in high school, she was The Daily Record’s proudest prodigal daughter. I spent two summers with her in the sweat-saturated basement of the YMCA and on the cements of our neighborhood parks. And she asked me to be there on the day of her press conference when, under the flash-flash-flash of heavy-duty cameras, she announced her decision to accept the $40,000 scholarship to Wagner.

And then, one day, she stopped.

After two years of college basketball, my friend detached herself from our beloved game and drifted onto an early adulthood roaming the high-life of Manhattan in stilettos and tube-tops in a revelry of youth she believed she had missed out on in high school. She told me that, since she had thrown away her basketball shoes and traded them for zip-up boots, she had not touched a ball—she refused to. I wanted to reach out across Facebook, take her by the shoulders and shake her awake: what happened to you? what happened to all of us? wasn’t there a time, not too long ago, when we thought we would be playing basketball for the rest of our lives?

___

My Wagner friend has moved on. Our beloved game became a memory for her tugged away like we do to our childhood imaginary friends—shamed into hiding, denied of ever existing.

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During what would have been my senior season at Haverford, I met Megan. She was a goofy girl, a lanky high school senior, an elegant basketball player with the goofiness of a graceless donkey. In those early practices, I fell in love with her jumper; it was the swiftest, sickest two-step pull-up I had ever seen. For months on the bench, I loved and pitied the guilt in her eyes when she scored too many points; I felt the depth of her sadness and struggle, tormented by the demons of her natural ability and her understanding of her selfless self, her frustration over the weakness of her team.

I spent a lot of that winter season in the gym with Megan. When it was just the two of us, we drained hundreds upon hundreds of jumpers. Somewhere down the street, I knew without knowing that my college team was struggling. I watched the graceful motion with which she elevated, her body gliding into the air. Megan was in the high-flying prime of her career. So I kept it to myself—my sorrow, my grief, my loss—and I assured her that college basketball was her salvation.

___

That semester, I undertook an independent study to work on a basketball memoir that I had proposed as an exploration of what it meant to be a female athlete in the 21st-century. But really, I think, what I wanted to do was to make sure that those ten years of my life on the court weren’t lost to the wreckage of time. I thought that by writing them down, it would give meaning to that long love affair. I thought I could write myself into zen-ness and absolution.

___

After I graduated from Haverford, I ran away again. Forty-some-odd countries. I took the file with me wherever I went. For more than three years, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I worked on the memoir in my apartment in Singapore, typed on overnight trains in India, took notes on the Amalfi Coast. But it wasn’t a narrative; it refused to be. And what I’ve finally figured out is that those 3,000 pages I have written, re-written, printed out and tossed away, are gone. For how could anyone—John Edgar Wideman or A.E. Housman—capture the beauty of Megan’s two-step pull-up in words, or the rushing high, the ecstasy, that came from performing in front of 3,000 perfect strangers?

___

Our professors told us that the Statue of Zeus vanished from the world in the 5th-century A.D. in what many scholars believed to have been a fire in Olympia. There are no copies or accurate representations of the statue in existence today. Some things are, perhaps, just irretrievably lost.

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You could say that I spent the final two years of college searching for answers. Often, until twilight broke over campus again, I was shrouded in dust, sitting cross-legged on the forgotten floors of our library. I was taking a class on the sociology of American sports, writing a psychology paper titled “the Female Athlete Identity,” and laboring through a thesis on John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. In all the literature I read, from psychological studies to literary criticisms and even, in the darkest hours of the night, spiritual theories, I do not think I found what I was looking for. All I wanted, I think, was to find a poem or essay or story titled “To An Athlete Not Dying Young.” But I couldn’t. No one seemed to be able to tell me what to do now that I had turned in my uniforms. How to deal with my loss. All I learned was that, no, it had all been for nothing.

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And then one night, in the midst of that long and foreboding winter, Megan defiantly lifted her head, and with that terrified but ready expression, dived into what she feared the most. That night, her humble, poised authority on the court—the certainty that the other nine girls moved centrifugal to her every desire—was so resolute, so intoxicating, that even when the home team threw three defenders at her, she glanced at them with that confident, not-a-chance grin and she dropped 38 points and dished out 12 assists in her team’s total annihilation of their enemies. Megan was absolutely beautiful in the cruelty of her game.

That was the night she signed with a college in my conference. Besides her parents, I was the first person she told. I wept in my car all the way back to my dorm.

*

 

 

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Fourth Quarter

By the time Shaquille O’Neal hung up his oversized sneakers, the fierce, powerful center had become the side-show to Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. Most people do not even know that after his run with the Miami Heat, Shaq spent three years jumping from Phoenix to Boston to Cleveland, traded around like an unwanted truck on Craigslist.

___

On beautiful summer nights in New Jersey, my St. Michael’s friend and I winded our way through the suburbs, singing along, loud and out-of-tune, to Dexter’s “Leaving Town.” I was riding in the backseat when her younger sister asked, “How much longer are you going to be playing summer ball?”

My friend glanced at me in the rearview mirror: “Psh, probably until, what, we’re 40?”

___

I am not sure what she did in the four years since she walked away from college ball, but my friend from Ithaca College showed up one night at our summer game in 2010. I embraced her as if we were still 18, high and confident: “Welcome back, stranger!”

And when she walked onto the court with running shoes, torn and blackened, we all cracked up. She shrugged, “What, I don’t own basketball shoes anymore. Why would I?”

We laughed. On those summer nights we were falling in love with basketball again.

___

That was the last summer we ever played together. My Ithaca friend moved to Manhattan. My St. Michael’s friend followed her boyfriend down to El Paso. And I moved to Seattle.

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One Tuesday in an elite women’s league in Seattle, I went up against what my teammates told me was a two-time Division-I MVP. Fresh out of college, she was still at the height of her career—like we had been years ago—and she single-handedly demolished our team. When she shook my hand afterwards, she told me, “Hey, great game. Who did you play for?”

But I knew she had never heard of me.

I wanted to tell her that, once, I could’ve stopped her. But they just keep coming up, these college kids. High school kids. Middle school kids. They keep coming up.

___

A couple of days ago, I asked my 8th-grade girls: “Do you know Pat Summit?”

“Who?”

“Pat Summit. She coached the Tennessee Lady Vols?”

“Huh?”

___

What I just realized: nothing has ever been said about Pat Summit’s playing career.

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Megan is the first girl I have ever coached to graduate from college. She is now serving for Teach-for-America in a kindergarten in Camden. When I asked her if she still played basketball, she replied, “Dude, I'm having my ass handed to me every day by 5-year-olds.”

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I recently started coaching an 8th-grade guard in Seattle. I wanted to hate her. I really did. Because she wore pink shoes. Because her name was Missy. Because she was good and she was both humble and arrogant and everyone loved her.

Maybe because I knew if she doesn’t make it, it will break my heart. And if she does make it, it will also break my heart. Even though I have no idea what that means: if she makes what? College? The WNBA?

___

Of course I came to love her. And it drove me mad.

___

In the process of researching for the memoir I never finished, I came across a video tape of my freshman year’s end-of-the-season banquet. My high school coach stood behind the podium in a room chock-full of people, and said about me: “The sky is the limit for this girl.” I replayed that over and over again. The sky is the limit for this girl.

 

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I spent a lot of this past fall in the gym with Missy. When it was just the two of us, I showed her the encoded secrets of our dance. Somewhere down the highway, I knew that my professors were waiting for a story, that my students’ papers were sitting on my desk. Instead, I memorized her explosive first step, the precise, carefully-timed rhythm of her dribble. I listened when she laughed about her middle school teacher, and I felt the sadness and courage when she told me she wanted to play college ball, that she wanted to go pro. I said nothing—nothing at all—and I watched her take into her pores each step I taught her.

Then her phone rang. Her father pulled into the parking lot. She threw her pink shoes in her bag.

“Thank you, Bea,” she always says in her scratchy voice, that perfect Ellen Pompeo pitch of despair and hope, and she never says good-bye.

___

It feels as if some piece of information crucial to my existence slips away every time I watch her walk out of the gym.

I suspect that these are the last nights I will ever spend on the basketball court.

*

And then there she is again, not yet 14, among her friends, in her pink shoes, snorting and laughing, snorting and laughing. She falls on the ground, hugging the ball to her stomach, her cackling echoing around the gym.

“I’m crying! Oh my God! I’m dying!”

She snorts; she laughs.

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The Awesome Sports Project is an online journal committed to inspiring girls’ and women’s voices in sports. We publish every Tuesday between November and June. Submit your own story or enter our Awesome Sports Writing Contest by February 15, 2018.

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