“Ooh, Mr. Watkins. It’s looking really bad for you,” said the orthopedic surgeon. He wore glasses with wide square frames and lenses that are tinted at the top, you know, like the mobsters wear in Martin Scorsese movies, and spoke with a thick Southern drawl. "You have what is called a wave effect, where one leg tilts and the other blows in the same direction to compensate. Exactly what happened to you, young man?”
“I had a football injury, basketball injury, and I fell off some dirt bikes back in the day,” I said.
“Well, that doesn’t explain the broken of pieces of metal in your leg,” he said, pointing at the X-ray. “This one here looks like a slug. What exactly do you do for physical activity now?”
I told him that I’ve had some rough times and that I love playing basketball more than I love breathing, and then I asked what he could do. On a scale of 1 to 10, my knee pain was at 1,500, and I’m not really interested in taking pills. It seems like every other person in Baltimore has a Percocet-popping problem right now, and I’m not trying to join the club.
“Well, Mr. Watkins, I can remove the slug along with those metal fragments, and saw your femur down to straighten your leg, which would erase your limp, but that won’t help with the knee pain," he said. "You have more arthritis than an 80-year-old, which is amazing because you’re so young. I think you are going to need both knees replaced in the next three years. And I know you don’t want to hear this.”
“I’m tough, Doc, and I write for a living, so I won’t miss work," I said. "I just want to get rid of this pain and get back in the gym.”
“That’s the part I think you don’t want to hear, Mr. Watkins. Once you get these knees replaced, you can’t play basketball anymore.”
He continued to talk but I lost service. His face was moving but words weren’t coming out. No basketball?
I discovered the game at 12, and it’s been there for me ever since. I can honestly say I haven’t gone a day without thinking about hoops. I'll look for any reason to spark a basketball conversation. I’m that guy — the one who will play in his best clothes, in a violent neighborhood with people I don’t know, in a Third World country, or with the elderly. And I always — always — look to win.
Let me be clear: I don’t have a career in basketball, never did and I never will. I’m too old and broken down, plus I don't have the pro-level gift. But still, I love the game. Basketball is a part of my identity; it's a way for me to connect with others and it's my best remedy for blowing off steam. I’m not as good as a pro, but I’m pretty sure that I’m better than every 30-something-year-old person and up in the world (who's never played college or pro). I can shoot. I can dribble. I’m a lockdown defender and I can even pass the ball when I feel like it — a skill set that allows me to anoint myself the best regular-person player ever, but not anymore.
The doc’s news caused my head to spiral into a dark place.
I started thinking about all the things I never accomplished as a ballplayer. I never taught my son how to shoot a jump shot — mainly because I don’t have a son — and I never sunk a J in Charles Barkley’s fat mouth on the set of TNT while Kenny, Shaq and Ernie cheered me on.
I never even got a chance to hit Obama with a crossover like a young A.I. did to Jordan — I can see Obama trash-talking me at the key, and me responding with an East Baltimore in and out, before hitting the best president ever with the best crossover, making his knees buckle and ankles furl. The move would be so good that Biden would spit fighting words while Cory Booker watches from the baseline like “dayummmmm!” Elizabeth Warren would be in the rafters dressed in Jordan apparel with a Nike headband on screaming, “Chill, Barry, chill! I got next!” Then we’d all joke about it over a beer while slinging darts at a photo of Donald Trump.
“No basketball?” I said when I came to, like a kid who just had the second half of the only piece of candy he had ever had in his life snatched away.
“Well, you can participate in low-impact sports like golf, doubles tennis and light hiking,” he responded. The nurse and resident nodded in agreement like backup singers.
“Golf? Light hiking? Man, hell no!”
They asked me to think it over, even though I didn’t really have a choice. I booked a follow-up with a specialist the doctor recommended and flew to Cuba the next day with my sore knees on my mind.
I arrived after a few hours of what I’d call one of the best of flights and one of the worst of flights: smooth ride, but seated next to an annoying family — you know, the ones wearing matching T-shirts.
A guy named Curly who was affiliated with the Airbnb where I planned on staying picked me up from the airport. He was holding a "Watkins" sign in the middle of so many happy people, all smiling and hugging and waving their own WELCOME [LAST NAME] signs.
We walked passed the mob and jumped into his car. It took us only a minute to realize that I didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English. From there we drove 20 or 30 minutes to the room. The streets were filled with smiling people heading to the beach, merchants, families and other taxi drivers wiping down their old-school Cadillacs and classic Buicks. I dropped my bags in the room and hit the streets, only to see more of the same.
People with limps like mine smiling, people with holey shoes and torn clothes bouncing up and down the streets just as joyfully as those in new sneakers, gelled hair and high-fashion denim. In just a few hours I felt like happiness was the Cuban common agenda. Of course there were people struggling, but even they had a glow about them that I never see at home or in myself. I completely forgot about my leg news. It actually didn’t seem that bad anymore.
I once read that people in warmer places are usually happier. There may be some truth in that statement: I traveled to a bunch of islands in my early 20s and have vague memories of happy locals. But back then I was a tourist who laid around on the beach for days next to a collection of empty umbrella drinks. As a writer, I see so much more — so much to enjoy and celebrate with people who don’t require much to be happy, at least not by greedy American standards.
Their energy made me realize that retiring from basketball won't be so bad. I'm blessed that I have the resources to get the surgery and the opportunity to enhance my identity while discovering new loves.
I don’t think those new loves will include light hiking or doubles tennis, but being healthy and alive with the opportunity to be inspired is the reward. I’ll miss basketball, but who knows what the future holds?