Gutbloom, this really shined a light on my past obsession to become a professional tennis player and my present obsession to write about my first true loves, the Lakers and the Rams. (Wow, that says a lot about my success as a ladies man.) I, too, continue to rewrite the past.
The most formative and traumatic events in my evolution as an athlete shaped me and prevented me from realizing my true potential.
As a little kid (age 6 or 7), I have this deeply buried memory of possibly my first attempt to hit a ball gently tossed by my dad. I was crying because he “wouldn’t let me hit the ball.” Looking back, it was probably my own lack of hand-eye coordination, or his inability to throw the ball at my bat like every dad tries to do for his kid, but reading your reference to Erikson, man, did I have trust vs mistrust issues (I’ll save those for another time).
Trying to overcome the classic “last one chosen for basketball” syndrome as a chubby third grader, I became good enough at sports that I was chosen to play left field in the 8th grade softball championship. Even though I got a hit or two during the game, in the last inning, a ball was hit over my head and then got lost in the bushes next to the fence (is this why I rejoiced when the Cubs finally won the World Series?). By the time I threw the ball back towards home, the winning runs had scored, and it was my fault that the team lost. I never played in an organized team sport again. The guilt and trauma of letting down the others was too much to bear.
Eventually, I moved on to individual sports and finally got into tennis in high school.
Everything I did as a tennis player, both the good (working harder than 99% of the population, studying everything I could about the game to make up for my late start) and the bad (inability to reach out to a good coach for fear of rejection or play my best under pressure because I was overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment) are the result of that seminal event with my dad.
And when it comes to being a fan, that lucky shot by Don Nelson at the end of game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals was my defining moment. Call it “Cheever’s Basketball” (thinking about your reference and seeing on google that he was call the Chekov of the West).
As much as I hate (and love) Bill Simmons for his blind homerism, I write from the other side of the same coin, fantasizing about the Lakers’ rebirth, or steeling myself to the inevitable Rams’ loss to Seattle tomorrow. The Lakers symbolize the bad luck I am unable to accept (if only Frank Selvy hit that 10 foot shoot to win game 7 against the Celtics in 1962, Jerry West and I would be able to live in peace), while the Rams symbolize the self inflicted errors that haunted and prevented me from breaking through to win at a championship level:
But there is a sort of happy ending. It took another twenty years of practice, coaching, learning the Inner Game and studying peak performance psychology before I finally overcame my demons to win the last match of the last tournament of the year, so I could clinch the #1 ranking in Southern Californa Men’s 35 singles. While the venue was irrelevant to making it on the ATP tour, the process of performing (not my best, but fairly close to normal) under pressure is what separates champions from also-rans. (It’s interesting that my word choice was a term that means “a loser in a race or contest, especially by a large margin” when my failures often came in the finals, or after a deep run with huge wins over higher ranked players.) And that skill, along with some other painful lessons, helped me break though some of the self sabotage holding me back in my career.
Coming full circle, some of my fondest memories are of teaching and playing baseball with my kids. We played in a small, grassy corner of a dog park where we let our dog run free, so there were no organized sports, no other kids and no possible outside forces that could affect their experience.
They used a big fat red plastic bat and I could toss a tennis ball regularly at their bat. If they missed, I encouraged them to try again and apologized for my bad pitch. When they hit the ball (usually away from my wife in right field), I would chase it while they circled our tiny makeshift bases as fast as their tiny legs would carry them, as our laughter and screams of joy filled the park. For my little one, who couldn’t have been more than four or five, I would run back just slow enough so he could reach home plate just before I tagged him.
In those games, they always batted 1000. We laughed with the innocence of children, and cheered for them like it was the seventh game of the World Series. Everyone was the hero.