After I hammered home a slam dunk, I fell, landed on my buttocks, and got the wind knocked out of me.
I crawled around on the floor for a bit, unable to breathe. My friends assumed I was putting on a show because my motions were exaggerated, and frankly I was kicking butt in this game.
But alas, no.
Once the teacher noticed everything was not as it should be, he came over and had me lie still and calm down. Eventually, I started breathing again, but I’d hurt my back, so he sent me to the school infirmary.
As I said earlier, I had my share of injuries as an athlete (but this was far from the worst).
I can recall getting the wind knocked out of me many times in childhood. I was an active kid, and Japan was an amazing place to be just that, thanks to the moderate weather (except for the scorching, humid summers) and the fact that everything was so close together, be it the local convenience store or game arcade.
I used to watch baseball games all the time growing up. The sport itself maybe isn’t the most exciting, but for some reason I became obsessed with stats – batting averages, Runs Batted In (RBI), home runs, Earned Run Average (ERA) and so on.
I was never much into math, but when it came to batting averages, I knew more than most.
Japanese players like Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo, and Ichiro Suzuki later became stars in North America, Major. But I was literally watching them on TV in their early stages of their careers before they made names for themselves internationally.
My obsession with stats carried right into “play time” in the form of video games. It wasn’t enough that I watched baseball on TV. Or that I went out and played with my friends. I had to have baseball video games too. And that was generally the case for any sport I would come to love including soccer and basketball.
Now, I understand that some North Americans still consider video games obscure or esoteric.
Not so in Japan. Video games and life are very much integrated, and this was the case even 40 years ago. If you’re still under the impression that video games are just for smelly, cheese puff covered nerds sitting in a basement, you just don’t know Asian culture.
I had many interests in childhood that didn’t have anything to do with putting things on paper. But to be fair, most of them were things people consider “fun” – video games, sports, and fishing especially.
My first sport was soccer.
I recall that even as a brand-new elementary student, I wanted to join the “big kids” in their pickup games at school. They wouldn’t let me, of course, and for good reason. It was a little dangerous for a first grader. And despite their caution, I seem to recall getting hit in the head with the ball at least once.
So, instead of playing soccer, I played on the jungle gym and let my imagination run wild. I remember sitting and meditating on top of a small sandhill, believing that one day I would grow up to be a great fighter and that I would go train in the mountains. Anime was clearly having an influence on me.
But once I made it to fifth grade, I joined my elementary school’s soccer team. Finally, I had the chance to be the “big kid”.
I did okay as a soccer player, but my conditioning wasn’t that great, and I never had that much stamina or endurance.
One of our coaches even remarked behind my back, “I don’t know which team he’s playing for.”
True, I did give up the ball to the other team sometimes. And even though I had hustle, I chased down some balls I never should have.
I was often put in the game as a defender or midfielder, but I don’t think that was my calling. I probably would have done better as a forward.
My training has stuck with me though. Despite my weakness (endurance), I’m still quite the dribbler.
I’d found a natural talent I didn’t even know I had.
I was good at basketball.
But when I was introduced to the sport, I thought it was the weirdest thing ever.
“What? You’ve got to dribble the ball as you’re walking or running up the court? That doesn’t make sense!”
You can probably get a sense of how well my first game went.
But before I knew it, I discovered I had a knack for it. My height didn’t hurt one bit as a kid growing up in Japan. But it wasn’t just that. There were literally times in-game when I would just toss up the ball and score a hoop.
In grade six, I would stay after school just to shoot 100 hoops. Not impressive numbers by any means, but I can tell you none of the other kids were doing it.
When it was time for me to go to Jr. High, I thought I would be a shoo-in for the basketball team. Of course, that’s where I first encountered Mr. M’s Hyde personality.
The training was also intense (in the militaristic sense) to say the least. One autumn, I remember running 7.5 km per day, and that was just for warmup! Never mind the various running drills, strength training, and pickup games that followed.
I had to get out of there. Perhaps, given a chance, I would have gotten used to the training, but there’s no way I would have ever gotten used to Mr. M. I feared the guy. And to be honest, by that time, the damage I had sustained to my Achilles one summer in a trampoline accident, was repeatedly getting aggravated due to all the pressure.
But even after calling it quits in Japan, I would go onto play basketball in grade nine in Canada. By this time, my self-image and belief in self had taken a serious dive, so I didn’t perform anywhere near the level I was fully capable of performing at. My team still ended up winning the local tournament, though I only played a small part in that.
I went to the grade 10 tryouts as well, but that’s when I had a choice to make. After seeing the level at which other kids were playing, I decided to find something else to get engrossed in. Had I worked hard, I’m sure I could’ve still made the team. But I decided against it.
I still love basketball. And while I may not play like an NBA star, I’ve still got a little bit of that “magic” touch. More so than you might be inclined to think.
Shh… Don’t tell anyone. Only the cool kids are talking about it.