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Longread: My life as a (Irish) college baller

Once upon a time, in a country somewhat far away...

Me in uniform
Me in uniform

The story I tell people about my time as a college basketball player generally starts this way: I had to go to a country where they don't play basketball in order to be a bench player on a JV team. And this is true.

What those people don't generally know is it started out a lot worse.

I came to Ireland right out of college, in the fall of 2007, to get a Masters in literature at Trinity College, Dublin.  Even then, this was not supposed to be a useful thing to get, but I'd say, you know, if you have a feeling that the degree you want might be kind of useless, getting it in Europe is a great idea. Lower costs, generally one year programs.  I've actually done quite well off that degree, but if I hadn't, it still would have downgraded the error of getting a liberal arts masters without knowing exactly what job you're getting it for from "cataclysmic" to "that's your early 20s for you."

Since I didn't actually know a single person in the entire country, I decided to join the basketball team.

And yes, since I didn't actually know a single person in the entire country went I arrived, I decided to join the basketball team. And before long, I had shown up at my first college basketball practice for tryouts.

Well, actually, I showed up at my first basketball practice to find the hoops stuck up at the ceiling with no one around who knew how to lower them, but I showed up at my SECOND basketball practice for tryouts, and...

I made the B team, although "made" is kind of high-balling what happened. Turns out you can't not make the B team. But they do try to get you to leave by not even playing you in the end of practice ten-man scrimmage. And, as it turns out, I was definitely on that list.

I blame a lot of things for what happened: the slightly differently sized court (when I set my size-14 feet for the corner three, I was basically always standing out of bounds), the random interspersing of both men's and women's basketballs, this weird thing that happens to me when I cut my nails too short before I start shooting, causing my index finger to start bleeding freely halfway through a game...I blame Kirk, either of the Tims, the gods, the Tuatha de Danaan, all kinds of things. But the bottom line is that I really sucked at the tryout.

Truth is, at the time I was not at all bad at basketball. Or rather, I'd say I think it's amazing to think how good I USED to be at basketball in certain ways. In some ways, I'm a lot more effective now than I was then because I understand the game, spacing and myself. But there was literally one summer when there were just a few of us kicking around that we got so good at H-O-R-S-E that if you couldn't hit a half-court shot pretty reliably you might as well not try. I'm sure some of you feel me on that. I could shoot, and I could get my shot off against almost anybody.

I couldn't do anything else, like dribble or defend, and sadly only the shooting has changed over the years. So it didn't work out. At the end of the first practice, when I didn't even end up in the scrimmage -- that is, when I was considered to be worse than ten people on the B team at a college in Ireland -- I almost walked away.

But again, I didn't know anybody in the whole goddamn country. Where else was I going to? So instead, I went up to the coach, one of the only verifiably badass things I've ever done in my life.

I just like legit wept and begged for like ten minutes.

"If I make ten shots in a row, will you let me play in the scrimmages?"

"No!" I said to him. "If I make ten shots in a row, will you let me play in the scrimmages?"

He literally laughed at me, much in the way that, recently, an 18 year old girl saw my sweaty 28 year old ass gasping and using a water fountain for support and laughed at me at the college gym. But he said yes. I don't think I made it to 10, more like 7 or 8, but I also made my point.

And so began my unlikely career as, yes, technically, on some level, a college basketball player.

And yes, I chose number 41.

The first thing I learned is that you really had to show up to practice if you wanted to play in the games. This may seem obvious to you, but what you don't know is that the practices were Thursday and Friday evenings. And this was Ireland! And I was studying literature! Booze wasn't just there; it was on some level literally part of the job.

So yes, I did have occasion to learn how bad I was at basketball when deeply hungover, and also that, despite what I might have previously suspected, I was actually way worse drunk. But eventually I did start showing up for all of them.

Side note: while I really treasured my academic experience at Trinity, it also involved the most hilariously useless academic exercise I've ever experienced, which was a weekly Wednesday night seminar on a variety of topics which, while mandatory, and resulting in grades, did not result in grades that counted on your transcript.

The first several seminars were colloquially known as "teaching old people how to use computers" but I remember one particular seminar that was on "editing": not like making your papers grammatical but as in compiling the work of another author into an annotated edition. And we were given an assignment, which was to annotate a poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, because what Coleridge REALLY needs is my expertise after a single, literally one hour class.

I got a 17. Yes, out of 100.

The two guys sitting next to me got a 22 and a 24. One of those guys literally had a tattoo with a quote from Coleridge on his back.

In fairness to him, he did get the 24.

At any rate. My first playing time came courtesy of a mid-week game, a flu epidemic and an ankle injury, all of which conspired to transform me from 8th or 9th man extraordinaire to 6th man relatively average.  The coach we had mostly liked to play the starters the entire game so it didn't make too much a difference, but wouldn't you know it, I did get into the game and I hit both of the shots I took, a three-pointer and what would have been, for anyone competent, a layup, but was for me a Shawn Bradley-style jumper. Then the guy with the ankle injury recovered and off I went.  But it was the start of my moving up the depth chart.

It started in practice. We only ran two plays in our offense, both of which involved the two big men we had -- and yes, they were actually big, 6'7" and 6'8" or so, which is the #1 question I get asked -- flashing up to receive the ball, and a lot of backdoor cuts to spring people for baseline jumpers. And I became, let's say #2, on the list of guys highlighted for that baseline shot. This wasn't that big of a deal since the coach was really attached to playing all five starters basically the entire game, but it FELT good. I oscillated wildly between swishing everything and missing entirely, which has probably been more or less true of the rest of my life.

But I slowly worked my way up from ninth, to eighth, to seventh man. And then the sixth man -- an American college kid who I quite liked but who didn't quite have the mental makeup to accept being the low man on the totem pole -- well, his game completely fell apart. Two wildly missed 28-foot three-pointers later, I was in.

Again, it didn't ultimately translate into a lot of playing time. But the sixth man was more or less the only guy other than the starters who got to play on any given game day, so it did make a difference in my life. By that point there was only five or six more games left in the season. But the weird thing is, I kept making shots. I also would respond to making those shots by playing them off with extreme swag, despite the lack of swag I felt in my heart.

For example, the first time I got into a game DESPITE the fact that everybody else on the team was alive and basically healthy, I somehow managed to hit, for my first shot, a weird hook thing I didn't even know I had in my arsenal. After that I was basically Clifford Franklin in The Replacements.

(Coach: "Nice hook shot, Tobo, didn't know you had that in your game." Me: "Oh I've got lots of moves, coach. Crazy moves.")

And this, ultimately, is a weird, true fact about my life: I made nearly all of my in-game shots that year. Like, really nearly all of them. There weren't so many, but it was, and remains, pretty surprising. I retired from the game the all-time leader in three-point percentage in Irish league history (1-1, 1.000%) (stats self-recorded), and shooting like 75% from everywhere else. It was pretty weird.

Still though, most of my basketball-related memories of that year come from either practice, going out with the team, or my most constant occupation on that team which is to say, sitting on the bench. I remember one particularly magical day when some earlier event had ended with freshly-baked muffins being placed under the bench in our home gym.  I remember after getting what I knew would be my sole burn in that game, I went to town on those muffins. As the game continued to happen on some plane that didn't matter to me, I ate and briefly considered writing an autobiography entitled "The Muffins Are Better on the Bench."

I remember a couple of other things, plenty more than would be interesting. They didn't have Gatorade over there, they have something called Lucozade, which is basically the same, maybe a little more sugary. I'd often grab one after the practices. I remember St. Patrick's Day over there, which to our surprise, turned out to be the only day the whole year round that the police (the Garda) felt it necessary to crack down on drinking outdoors.

This was doubly disappointing because I hadn't been able to fit the beers that I had bought into the tiny-ass fridge I shared with three people (a racist Estonian, a naïve 19-year old Russian Physics PhD student, and an extremely angry mid-30s Thai art history PhD). Which meant that when we poured them into Lucozade bottles to hide them, the warm, stale beer had a lingering aftertaste of orange Gatorade. Which made for a pretty memorable morning, after all.

I remember karaoke night, which involved the B-Team making the disastrous song choice of one of those 90s songs that involved a LOT of humming and very few words. (I also remember shouting at the B-team which was collectively a lot less fit-looking than the A-team , that we didn't have to be B-team people, too. Nevertheless, let's just say that everyone made it to the Valentine's Day practice).

I remember working out at the gym in my "Trinity College Basketball" t-shirt and feeling like anyone who didn't know better might look at me and unthinkingly conclude that I was an athlete.


I remember a lot of pick-up ball, in which I was, again, alternately amazing and just completely and utterly awful.

I remember how often we didn't get to practice because we'd show up and be double-booked with the "trampoline team." I cannot tell you that I know exactly what a trampoline competition consists of.

And I remember the final "banquet", which, if I recall correctly, was at someone's apartment and involved everyone being asked to find and bring some kind of really strange liquor. Like just go to the liquor store and buy the strangest thing you see.

Everyone was there. Vic, a Russian player who was one of those guys who was a huge asshole on the court and a pretty nice guy off the court. Eoin and Sean who are still friends of mine (well, Facebook friends, with whom I keep in contact, anyhow). Yang, who was a phenomenal player, only stuck on the B team because his lack of command of English, at the time, made the A-team coach feel like he'd have trouble learning the plays.

And what I remember particularly is that towards the end of the banquet, Yang, roaring drunk on Hypnotiq or whatever, came up to me, and put his arm around my shoulder. He pointed at someone else there and said, "Listen, Andrew.  [Name redacted] really sucks at basketball. And he's always going to suck. You're also aren't very good, but you MIGHT be good, some day."

Old Yang has not turned out to be correct about that. But I've often had occasion to think of his words, to hope, and to keep working. If he believed it, I believe it. If he's a bird, I'm a bird.

(Whatever Yang, I totally beat you in one-on-one a bunch of times.)

(While you were recovering from a serious back injury.)


And so ended my one-year career as a "college basketball player."