To the start and end of my senior season

November 20, 2020

When I played organized basketball for the first time at the young age of six, I never pictured myself still surrounded by the game some 15 years later. I do, however, remember the way that the sport made me feel in those first moments. It was like I was alive and free, suddenly feeling as if I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. I quite literally became addicted to that excitement, never wanting to spend another minute doing anything else other than dribbling a basketball.

For the first few years, that was all basketball was to me: a sport that gave me an outlet for my tireless energy and allowed me to channel my overflowing spirit into something distinct, tangible and purposeful. I would spend hours in the front yard shooting baskets, making up game-like scenarios in my head, playing against my brother and his friends, and asking my dad to rebound for me as soon as he pulled into the driveway after work. In the summers, I would ask to “stay up late” so that I could spend more time outside, with my parents finally calling me in when they wanted to go to bed, silencing the echoes of the ball bouncing as they tried to sleep. By the time I arrived in the fifth grade, I brought this passion of mine to another level, turning an obsessive hobby into a competitive dream that brought me where I am today.

I entered the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit as a naive 10 year-old, now suddenly playing with and against girls who were more skilled than I was, while simultaneously being confronted by coaches with extremely high expectations. It was like being transported to a whole new world, with my old recreational league games serving as a past dream, and this realm existing as my new reality. While the transition was tough at first, my team, the Oklahoma Spirits, established a foundation in me that allowed for exponential growth both on and off the basketball court. This group brought girls together from across the entire state, introducing me to people I would have never met otherwise, and giving us a platform to simply play the game we had all grown to cherish. Our fearless leaders—Coach R. and Coach D.—introduced me to the real concept of tough love, and taught me what it means to be a supportive teammate, friend and companion inside and outside of the sport. Playing on this team not only provided me with a high level of basketball, but also gave me lifelong friends, mentors and a true family that has supported me in nearly every aspect of my life. For that alone, I am forever grateful.

Fast forward to high school, where the road started to get rocky once more. As I anticipated, high school basketball was just another beast, evoking similar hardships to the ones I had experienced during my initial transition from recreational league to AAU. I was no longer playing against kids, but rather young women who were twice my size, miles-per-hour faster and much stronger than my freshman year self. However, what was standing in my way was no longer a matter of height, skill, or even commitment and dedication, but rather an external force that created a pressure so great, I thought many times about giving it all up. What was once my passion very quickly turned into a demeaning and discouraging experience, leaving me with a moral dilemma as to whether or not I should continue. When playing for a program that prioritizes winning at all costs—even over the physical and mental health of the players themselves—you encounter humiliation, shame and an internal struggle that never seems to fade. When this turn of events occurs in the same space as something you love, the detrimental impacts it has on self-esteem, confidence and self-worth become that much greater.

I could not make it through the school day without worrying about what awaited me at our three-hour practice later that evening. I began to dread being there. I felt as though that same fire that had been sparked so many years ago was slowly being put out. The yelling, the constant pressure to perform perfectly and the unnecessary scrutiny on my body followed me everywhere. Although I did not notice it so much at the time, all of this took a monumental toll on both my mental well-being and physical health.

So, what got me through it you might ask? The promise that this was only temporary, and that my initial love for the game was still underneath the new baggage. I told myself time and again that my respect and passion for this sport outweighed other voices who might try to convince me otherwise.

When my junior year of high school was ending, I had two thoughts on my mind. First, my senior season was nearly here, signifying that this would all soon come to a close. But second, I knew that I was not ready to say goodbye to the sport, and that I did not want to end my basketball career with such a bad sentiment lingering on my mind. After experiencing the game like this for the past four years, I craved a clean slate. At that point, I did not know if college basketball was truly a possibility for me, but I sure as hell was going to try.

My team was headed to a number of showcases that summer, and I was attending a few recruiting camps in between, so I sent a schedule out to as many universities as I could think of, inviting coaches to come and watch us play. I knew exactly what I wanted: to venture far outside of Oklahoma and leave the place that felt so small and damaging to me, possibly using basketball as an avenue to do that. But, perhaps more importantly, I wanted to go somewhere that I could be a student first and an athlete second, while still being able to pursue both things at the highest level.

And that is exactly how I ended up at Brandeis. From the moment I stepped foot on campus for the first time, it was like a breath of fresh air. I needed a new start, I needed space and I needed a place that would challenge me, support me and build me up rather than tear me down. As a first-year, even before the season started, I felt an immediate sense of family, similar to what was cultivated while I played for the Spirits. I was brought back to my early days of playing the game, feeling that same rush of excitement that I thought had completely faded during my high school years. 

Prior to landing at Brandeis, I had spent the summer after high school graduation in Israel, playing in the 20th Maccabiah and winning a silver medal to bring back to the United States. Here, basketball was fun again. It was liberating and gratifying and made me smile, just like it did when I first began shooting baskets in my front yard with my dad as a kid. Because of these experiences, and the incredible mentorship from both my fellow teammates and coaches, I fell in love with the game again. Truly, that is all that matters. It is the reason why we all pick up a ball in the first place, so it should be the reason why we continue playing, why we make sacrifices for the game and why we choose to make it such a central part of our lives.

For all of the reasons described above, the news of our season cancellation stung just a little bit harder. The years of both fun and hard work were ending prematurely, and came in response to a circumstance that was out of my locus of control. Especially after spending almost a year and a half on the sidelines due to various injuries, all I wanted was to wear “Brandeis” across my chest one last time. But, when it seems as though the world is going up in flames around us—from the deadly pandemic, to the systemic racism and the disgusting “leadership” that our country has been under over the past four years—I remind myself that there are more important things in life than basketball, and that those things need our attention right now more than ever. In drawing upon what I learned throughout high school, external obstacles or the loss of a season do not in any way tarnish my love for the game. I have proven that nothing can take that away from me.

This week marks the final lap of this 15-year journey. It is not exactly how I pictured it to be, but the beginning of the end has arrived nonetheless. While it has been a roller coaster of a ride thus far, I am beyond grateful to be standing here now. Everyday, I am still in awe that I was given the opportunity to play at this level in the first place, and I simply want to leave everything I have out there one last time. To my many supportive coaches along the way: thank you. You have demonstrated how positive leadership really changes everything. You know what you have done for me, and I hope you continue being that unwavering source of support for anyone who might follow in my path. To every last one of my teammates: I could not imagine playing the game with anyone else. You have profoundly changed my life, and make all of this worth it. And to the game itself: thank you for being my rock, my outlet, my therapist and my lifelong teacher. You have given me so much more than I could ever possibly reciprocate in return.

So, here’s to one last season. Despite the circumstances, may it be the best one yet.

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