I dribble up the court blinking away tears — it’s my last professional game, and I’m going out a winner, but not like you think. This game was about pride. About sticking it to the man. My coach. I didn’t go out a champion, like I wanted to go out, hoisting a cup over my head and celebrating a title with a colossal bottle of Veuve Clicquot with the guys like last year.
No. Of course not, I’d never do anything easy. At least, I’ll go out winning.
I think about the money. About my checks, the 100,000 dollars they owe me and the fact I have to sit and finish out this contract. I think about how I’ll be listening to coach Toupane talk about why we should run on a track for one hour every morning. No coach, running for one hour before two more basketball practices is a terrible idea. My ankles fucking ache. They ache like someone has bashed and mauled them with a sledgehammer.
But however it happens, I’m staying. Fuck them. Fuck their ideas. I know I’m not quick enough to start. To be the man. But I’m a winner. I know that much. There are guys on this team that have never won. So sure, send me to the IR. Put me out. I’ll sit and take that money. I deserve that money.
THE CLOCK TICKS DOWN. 10–9–8–7.
No one is near me. Can the guys see my tears forming? Do they even know it’s my final game? Coach Toupane is at half court pumping his fists to the crowd. He’s ecstatic and he knows it’s my last game. One dribble between my legs. The leather grain sliding up my hands one last time. The entire stadium is in a standing ovation. It’s the best they’ve seen me play all season. It’s what they remembered from me last year. I told our GM Stas he should have never hired him. We all told him, but he didn’t listen.
In Europe, when politics, money, and agents are involved, GM’s never listen.
And that’s just it, the greed ruins the game. Makes it a business. And it takes the love away from you, like a parent snatching candy from a teary-eyed trick-or-treater. The politics ruined our team, the memories of our previous title, and our hopes for another winning season.
My teammate Shaun Fein, an All-ACC shooting guard from Georgia Tech pats me on the shoulder. “It’s not your fault Huff. Stay positive. Great game. Great win.”
“Thanks Shaun,” I say, putting my head down.
It’s these last fleeting moments that break an athlete’s heart.
I mean, let’s talk about the ending of athletes. College players add four years of tying the knots of identity even tighter. They love to compete and play for their university. I loved getting to the Elite Eight and playing against the NBA picks of the future. I dreamt of being in the NBA like the guys I got to play against — Corey Maggette, Frank Williams, Carlos Boozers, Jared Jeffries, Mo Williams, Reggie Evans — and I bet if you ask every D1 college player what their dream is, most of them would say: “I want to play in the NBA.”
Good luck with hitting that point zero six percent fastball.
When a college athlete’s final buzzer sounds, it may take years for them to realize their careers and dreams are over. Hell, they may never realize it. They may hold onto those pro fantasies. To that identity. They may talk about it whenever they can, they may still wear their gaudy league championship rings and tell people how good they were as a college athlete. It will get them laid for a while, but it won’t erase the void.
Because really, it’s over.
And not all of the athletes can have a Kobe farewell tour. Not all of us get to say goodbye in a healthy way, on our own terms, while we deal. I know I didn’t.
Not to be sentimental, but the life of a pro athlete can be rather tragic. The athletes that never loved or got addicted to playing their sport in front of people won’t understand this piece. They won’t understand how these last plays, shots, catches, pitches, tackles, hits, throws, runs, and kicks will never be cared about as much ever again. There will never be meaningful points that truly mattered. Pros love to play because people love to watch.
It’s that simple.
3–2–1. The buzzer sounds. The thousands of faces and applause blur. I will never hear or see them again, not like this at least.
I flip the leather ball behind my back like pinball pedals to the ref.
We win by 10. There was no need to foul. No need to nail the clutch free throw. No need to pray and find my breath for guidance from above to make the right play.
Take the money and go on the IR? Or go play with another team — if another team would even take me?
Coach Toupane has bashed me. Said things in the papers. Gone to the president. The GM. But not once has said anything to me.
I just keep doing my job, well, until now. This is the last day of the best job in the world. This is when the emotions and memories of an athlete’s life amplify. Where our lives become crystallized emotion, whether it’s magnified grief, rage, joy, sadness, apathy, or bliss. It’s these puzzling events you’ll never get back to, or feel again. Not until you hold the birth of a child, or sell a company for a million dollars, or travel the world with a lover on edible brownies with a paycheck that comes again next month. The pure ecstasy of performing in front of people that pay you to do what you love doing is the best.
But no one likes to talk about the curtain calls of the millions of athletes out there that play their final game. A businessman can keep working. A mother can call her kids and keep mothering. An actor can keep acting. A coach can keep coaching.
But for pro and collegiate athletes, father time is undefeated and these intense moments end. I’d bet money most lifelong athletes still go to sleep and dream about their playing days, just like I do. Most coaches don’t dream about coaching, or working at their office, or doing their current jobs — they dream about that one heartbreaking shot they missed or that two-handed cram they had in traffic back in the day.
The challenge is these moments can become a mental blot clots, replaying in your subconscious, recreating what I call the “athlete effect.” This happens because we love to play so much, we can’t let go of our identity. This is really the cumulative effect of years and years of living, working, and battling with a band of brothers that fight through the athletic mortar shells of a season — either in their bunkers and or sprinting up the hill with their bayonets. Every season ends and we come out scarred, injured, or gloriously victorious, until the last game.
In my opinion, it’s why pro athletes commit suicide, because they don’t know how to find that bond again — with their team, with what they do, with everything.
I’m not a hero. I didn’t serve my country. But I served my teams since I was 15.
Today, I’m 39. And losing a brotherhood that relies on victories to get paid so they can feed their families, support their lives, and pay their mortgage is just half the struggle of dealing with the last game. The other problem is it feels like someone was tearing my limbs off my body, stuffing them with grenades, blowing them up, and then handing them back to me saying, “It will get better with time.”
No, not necessarily. In my profession, things don’t get better unless you deal with it, fast.
I take a deep breath and take in the final scent of this gym. The line of opposing players is leaving their bench. I’m first in line. I think about getting cut from the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns. I think about my dad rebounding for me. I think about my mom driving me to AAU. I think about my little brother D2 shooting hoops before school. I think about my brother Jeremy beating me in one on one in our driveway. I must have lost a thousand times. Then I look up into new, multimillion-dollar Antibes Sharks arena. There is one banner that will always be mine:
Antibes Pro B Champion 2012–2013
I envision the history and scope of my career. From Hagen, Germany as a rookie, to Ostrow, Poland, to the CBA in Flint, to Caracas, Venezuela, to Porto, Portugal, to Aalst, Belgium, to Oostende, to Charleroi, to Antibes, France. I will never be the same. The cultures changed me. I think back to Petoskey High with High School legend Dennis Starkey, playing AAU with Jeff McDonald, to my NCAA career with Gary Waters and Stan Heath, playing with NFL Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, to the NBA with Frank Johnson and Mike D’Antoni, and to my European careers with Brad Dean, Bozzi, Jean-Marc, Tom Johnson, or Julian Espinosa.
I am a winner. Keep your head up.
Even with my NBA failures to playing in the Elite Eight, to three MVP trophies, to two cup titles, and to one magnificent French Pro B National Championship:
My career is over. 20 fucking years. It’s finally over.
I shake my head. I try to suffocate my emotion. I choke them back like a man. No crying. I’m a fucking man. Don’t let these fucks see you cry. Fuck this coach. Fuck this man. He has never coached a winning team in his life. He has never put into the game what you have. Don’t even look at him. Just walk right by.
I get closer to the end of the line. I will turn and face him and head to the locker room. I will walk with my head high, but the rage is bubbling inside me like a pot of boiling water. My knees are weak. I’m going to faint.
Just as I’m about to walk past the Coach, I hear, “Hey Huff, great game man.”
It’s Tim Blue. He is 6'10 and had started in Finland a few years making $1,500 a month and now was easily making six figures. We had won together, even fit seamlessly on pick and rolls like a poor man’s Stockton-Malone.
I see him. Coach Toupane. He is smiling, shaking the hands of the other team. This is the man that wants me gone. I want to walk over to him and sock him in the face. He looks at me, “Good game Huff. Thank you.”
I nod, incredulously.
Toupane seems relieved. When coaches smile after a game, at least in the pros, it means they are relieved. Relieved to keep their job. Relieved to stay. Relieved to win a close game. Relieved to fight another day. I get it. Coaches and players in Europe can get fired in the huddle. It’s a business and we all have to make decisions to defend what we believe in.
I keep my feet moving slowly, my last game as a real winner. I try to keep my head up, as I throttle back the sadness of knowing it’s over. The grief rises up my chest into my face as I sit with a towel over my head inside the safety of my cubby hole locker. I take off my shoes, my McDavid padded tights, slice through my ankle tape, pre-wrap, and slide off my number four jersey for the last time.
A soundless tear drops between my legs — it’s over. What a good run. What a good fucking run, Huff.
The funny thing is, looking back, I shouldn’t have stopped playing, but I only knew what I knew at that moment. I should have never taken the money. Gotten ankle surgery. But every athlete has to learn their own lessons. Find their own path. It’s always a different type of tragedy when a career ends. Some quiet. Some slow. Some fast. Some with farewell tours. Some end with nasty injuries. Some with silent tears.
In the end, my final game still feels more grievous than it should. If only we all could go out with a farewell tour, celebrate our careers and the depth of our life’s work like Kobe, maybe an athlete’s final game would be an easier pill to swallow.
But then again, I’m not Kobe, but what does that have to do with it?
Trevor Huffman is a former professional basketball player and contributor at Grandstand Central. His new podcast, ‘The Post Game’ looks at the game after the game, as he speaks with retired athletes about life beyond sports. Subscribe here.