Editor’s note – Republishing this on the anniversary of the events described.
I am often asked why I have a Nike Swoosh tattooed on my right leg. Allow me to share the story on the 16th anniversary of the event which led to the tattoo.
With a lawyer, a contractor and a real estate developer among the dozen or so members of my church’s informal basketball league, the fiercest competition often took place before the first basket was shot.
These well-to-do pillars of the parish picked teams with the same acumen that had made each of them successful off the court. A generation younger than most of these men, I wondered how those who prayed together on Sunday could bicker so much on Monday.
On most nights, I would be the second or third person chosen by the respective captains. Their first selection, invariably, was Charlie, a charismatic attorney with astounding jumping ability. An FSU alum, Charlie’s intramural basketball team had once bested a star-studded roster of football players. Once Charlie went to one team, I and another above-average player would be picked by the second team to counterbalance him.
It had always been my dream to become a good enough player — with skills surpassing Charlie’s — to be picked first. However, my stocky frame, handed down from a lineage of hearty Eastern Europeans, could only do so much. Still, I battled with the best of them, relying on aggressive playmaking.
The closest I would come to realizing my dream was on a humid summer night when the court’s parquet floor sweat with condensation. As was usual, Charlie and I were on opposing teams and I was playing him tough for most of the game.
The previous two times down the court, I beat Charlie off the dribble to score. Now, off of a defensive stop, I brought the ball up on the left side of the floor, looking to take my rival one-on-one. Dribbling close to the hardwood, I hop-stepped from left to right, bursting by Charlie to kiss the ball off the glass for a lay-up.
A fingernail’s distance from the rim, this final jump would be the highest of my basketball playing days. It would be my own athletic Pickett’s charge, coming as close to victory at the same moment I would suffer the most crushing setback.
The forceful push I felt in the small of my back from another player who had come to assist Charlie on defense was typical of the physicality of those games. But as I landed, I became aware of something different: the slickness of the floor!
The shrill sound of my right ankle separating from the rest of my leg was drowned out only by my own torturous screaming. I immediately fell over, yet I could not collapse to the ground quick enough.
As the paramedics were called, I remember being transfixed by the lights that illuminated the gym. They are placed so high in the rafters that I had never realized how bright they beamed. And considering the holy location of where I was playing, I will have to be forgiven for mistaking the light for a heavenly image.
I grasped the hand of my friend Mike, a body builder who had more than enough strength to keep me in a restrained position. I resigned myself to stay composed for the several agonizing minutes before help would come.
But whatever coolness I was gathering rushed from my body upon the arrival of my mother, who appeared in only a moment’s time from her nearby home. A nurse by profession, she has witnessed far worse. But with her son severely injured on the floor of the church where he made his first communion, she all but fell apart.
I was able to gauge the severity of the damage done to my leg by looking at the horror on her face. Still, I needed to see for myself. After several minutes of clenched fists and teeth, I gathered the courage to look. All that needs to be said is: perpendicular. As in my foot was now perpendicular to my leg, only 90 degrees left of where it normally should have been. Severe dislocation, torn everything.
Enter shock. Then paramedics. Then deep breaths of oxygen and shots of morphine. Exit any dream of ever being picked first.