A Farewell to Basketball

by Michael Dorf

My retirement from my favorite sport looked nothing like Derek Jeter's retirement from his. There were no standing ovations, no sneaker ads, no ESPN encomia. That's fair enough. If not quite the second coming of Babe Ruth that some of his fans seemed to believe, Jeter was nevertheless a truly great professional baseball player and a certain first ballot Hall-of-Famer, whereas I was never more than a mediocre recreation league basketball player.

So what did my retirement from basketball look like? Not much. One second I was boxing out for a rebound. The next moment my back seized up and I could barely move. Nothing dramatic precipitated the injury. I didn't jump and then land awkwardly. There was no sudden twisting motion. I was fine. And then I wasn't. The pain and reduced mobility only lasted for about a day but, coming on top of everything else, I knew it was time. Well past time.

When I was in my early thirties, I had what should have been a "career"-ending injury. I made a layup and landed on another player's foot, breaking three small bones in my own foot. I was in a cast for six weeks and on crutches for another six weeks; it took nearly a year of physical therapy before I had a full range of motion back in my foot. I returned to the basketball court but promised myself that I would give the game up after my next major injury.

There followed nearly twenty years of rationalizations and Bill Clinton-esque parsing of just what makes an injury "major." When an unexpected no-look hard pass from a teammate broke my thumb, I concluded that this was not different in kind from the countless jammed fingers I had suffered since first playing ball as a small child. Those weren't major injuries, so neither was this one. When I seriously injured my back in 2008, I couldn't claim that I had suffered only a minor injury. But when I eventually got better I convinced myself that the back injury didn't count because it didn't occur as the immediate result of playing basketball. I attributed my sciatica to too-many piggyback rides for my no-longer-so-small daughters.

Meanwhile, my basketball skills evolved. I was a pretty big kid and so when I was young my natural position was power forward. I developed a "physical" game, which is a polite way of saying that I fouled a lot. But I mostly played pickup: players called their own fouls and it was worse to be a whiner than a hacker, so there was no penalty for my style of play. When I played in games with refs, I frequently found myself in foul trouble, and so, over time, I became more of a finesse player. The transition was made easier by the fact that my size advantage as a youth went away. As a 6'0" adult, I was mostly playing with bigger guys. I worked on my ballhandling, my passing, and my outside shot.

The results were mixed. As a teacher, I pay attention to negative student evaluations as a means of improving my courses the next time. But to protect my ego, I remember the positive ones. One of my favorites went something like this: "Dorf is genuinely funny, not just funny for a law professor." I'd like to think that's true but I certainly haven't put the question to the test with a standup act. I do know that what talent I had at basketball made me at best a pretty good basketball player for a law professor.

Yet sometimes that's enough. Consider my game-winning buzzer beater in the 2003 Columbia-NYU faculty game. As the story just linked recounts, the final score of that game--which was 10 minutes running time--was 6-5, so I hardly produced an offensive explosion. But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Each year the Association of American Law Schools runs a conference for new law professors. The year I went, one of the speakers was Harold Koh, who cautioned against new teachers spending too much time preparing their courses, to the detriment of their scholarship. He said something like this: "You should work to be a good teacher, even an excellent one. But don't do it for the wrong reasons. The professional rewards go mostly to scholarship. Winning a teaching prize is rewarding but only in the same way that hitting a home run in the student-faculty softball game is rewarding."

It was a good line and it stuck with me, but I reject the premise. Hitting a home run in the student-faculty softball game--or, what amounts to the same thing, making a buzzer-beating game winner in the faculty basketball game--is not a trivial accomplishment.

Let me rephrase that. Of course those are trivial accomplishments. And yet, they feel important. I think about that 2003 buzzer beater more often than I think about some of the law review articles I wrote over the course of many months.

Giving up basketball is hard for two obvious reasons: (1) I still love the game I first experienced as a second grader trying to emulate Reed, Debusschere, Bradley, Frazier, and Monroe; (2) It's an admission that, on the wrong side of fifty, I'm not a kid anymore, not by a long stretch.

It's also hard for another reason I think. I am by nature competitive, unhealthily so. Consider the fact that on Wednesday, for the third consecutive year, I won the Cornell Law School faculty pie-eating contest.

For me, basketball was a harmless way to channel my competiveness, not despite the fact that I was a mediocre player but because I was a mediocre player. I could and did take pride in my meager accomplishments as a basketball player precisely because the stakes were so low. Basketball mattered to me because winning a pickup or intramural game of basketball didn't really matter. It was a place I could enjoy winning so much because I didn't care if I lost. In giving up basketball, I hope I can find a way to bring that attitude to some of the things I do that matter more.