In high school, a girl I liked called me “Bird Legs.” I don’t think she meant it in a negative way; she probably said it with a degree of envy, though I wished she had seen me as more than a pair of legs, spindly or not. Still, this was typical for my life.
Around this same time, I was demolished by a girl, two years my junior, in a game of backyard football. I was running for the end zone and didn’t think twice about the neighbor girl a good foot smaller than me who was in my way. Then she flattened me. Not in a graceful manner either, but in a slow motion, gasp-inducing, struck dumb, and followed by hysterical laugher from my friends kind of manner. I clung to the fact that I hadn’t fumbled as if it was a life raft.
When I graduated high school, I weighed one hundred and fifteen pounds, even though I was just a few inches shy of six feet tall. I couldn’t gain weight, despite valiant efforts. I chugged whole milk, I ate the fattiest foods I could find, and I exercised. All the while, I learned that I wasn’t good at anything athletic.
This came as a shock because when I was growing up as a missionary kid in the Philippines, I held a degree of athletic prowess, at least on the basketball court. I was taller than older boys, and Filipinos often avoided physical contact—at least with a foreigner—so I was able to bully my way into the paint for easy points and rebounds with all the grace of a newborn giraffe. However, when I moved back to the United States I wasn’t remotely tall enough to rebound anything and was displaced by virtually any player on the floor, regardless of their height. In the occasional game of one-on-one, it was a moral victory if I could keep the score competitive.
This all came to a painful head when I graduated from college. I spent a year interning for Campus Crusade for Christ at my alma mater, the University of Kansas, which is, of course, a basketball school. Some days the five Cru staff men would play basketball together. All the other men had vastly more experience than me, all of them were faster, all of them were stronger, and almost all of them were taller.
What transpired was a painful deconstruction of my self-confidence. I was destroyed with minimal effort. I was too passive, I turned the ball over against token defense, and I shot like an inebriated praying mantis. I can only imagine how painful of an experience it was for the other men, who neither wanted to insult me by going easy nor further erode my ego by playing hard.
I desperately wanted to quit because my favorite sport suddenly wasn’t fun. Still, doggedly I persisted. I played defense, practiced my three point shot, and took open looks, which given my level or proficiency were very, very open looks. I learned to pass before I coughed up the ball, and ever so gradually, my game improved.
At the end of the year internship, I was staffing a summer project in Juneau, Alaska. One day the men divided into four teams for a basketball tournament. My team lost twice in a row, and I played abysmally. However, afterward, I joined the more athletic guys in playing a third game.
All of the sudden, I wasn’t trying to carry a team. I was matched up against a taller more athletic guy—something I was used to by now—and while hyper competitive, he didn’t know what he was doing. I took advantage of the matchup all game long. Another staffer, who was running point guard, saw what was happening and kept feeding me the ball. For fifteen minutes, I was everywhere. I ditched my defender on screens, I cut backdoor for easy layups, and I hit an open three, scoring the bulk of our team’s points in a dominant victory.
After the last points, the best player on the other team came up to me and said, “You’re a stud,” a comment that he probably made because it came as such an unforeseen surprise.
I reveled in the achievement. I had made it; I was a stud. The moment has stuck in my mind ever since.
Yet after that one glorious moment, I quit. I don’t think I’ve played basketball in the six years since then. I reached my goal. I knew that I had peaked, and as so often happens in life, the prize once attained, even briefly, lost its allure. It was a height not worth maintaining, but I reached it. I was a stud for fifteen minutes, and fifteen minutes was all I craved.