Dwayne Wade is retiring and Dirk Nowitzki is saying goodbye to the NBA this season. They are both living the dream, but one day soon, like every other athlete to ever play competitively in the NBA, or overseas, or in the NCAA, or high school, their dream will end.
Don’t get me wrong, D. Wade and Dirk deserve retiring with a bang this year.
Maybe if either of them reads this, which every NBA player will, they’ll know a NBA retirement tour may not do crap for what’s going down on the inside. The basketball soul knows what the basketball soul knows. Their bodies might thank them, but even then, they’ll miss crashing into full grown men and talking shit for game winners night in and night out.
My prediction is that Dirk Niwotzki and Dwayne Wade’s retirement will be short lived because nothing can replace the chemicals, adrenaline, teamwork, and camaraderie of playing on championship sports teams.
No one told me how to prepare for it unless you count the cliches: save your money. Invest wisely. When your body starts to break down, you’ll know it’s time. Except I never knew when it was time. There was no clock inside me that struck Cinderella midnight and told me to run home to America to start my life after pro basketball.
And that’s the beauty of sports and this is my story.
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, or get a European farewell tour like Dwayne Wade, or Kobe, or Dirk. 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.
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 at 35 years of age 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 the GM’s ideas. I know I’m not quick enough to start. To be the man like last year. 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.
But the tears still well behind my eyelids.
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 because he knows it’s my last game and the first game he’s ever won in Pro A, the top league in France. 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. The city will remember the true me. The player from last year. I told our GM Stas he should have never hired this coach or signed guys we didn’t know.
We all told him, but he didn’t listen. In Europe, when politics, money, and agents are involved, the greed ruins the game. Makes it a business. And it steals the love and innocence away from you, like a parent snatching a pillowcase of candy from a teary-eyed trick-or-treater.
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, hiding my tears.
I mean, let’s talk about the end of athletes’ careers. Let’s get it out in the open. Some NBA players turn to drugs. To booze. To gaining weight by the hundreds of pounds. Some go broke. Okay, most of them go broke. College and high school stars might stay in their cities and talk about the good ol’ days. Some athletes can never let go of talking about or being what they once were.
Their athlete past haunts them and I know why.
When an athlete’s final buzzer sounds, it may take years for them to realize their dream job is 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 ring and tell people how good they were. It will get them laid for a while, while people still remember them, but it won’t erase the void.
You can’t run from the void of what you once were and never will be.
And not all athletes can have a Dwayne Wade or Dirk Nowitzki’s “retirement tour,” and splash around like unicorns getting adorned with love and bead necklaces in every city they play in. Not all of us get to say goodbye on our own terms.
I know I didn’t.
Not to be sentimental, (okay, actually, to be sentimental) the lifespan of a pro athlete is predictable and rather tragic. Some play for a year, others play for decades. 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. And as much as Dwayne and Dirk want to enjoy this retirement party, they will miss playing the game in front of people that 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. No one will ever pour beer on their friend when I hit a three. No one will make out when I hit a game winner. No one will cry when I miss the shot for the championship.
I flip the leather ball behind my back like a pinball pedal.
“Merci Huffman,” the ref says back.
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. No need for any of that anymore. I can just relax. I can let go.
Coach Toupane has bashed me in the papers. Gone to the president. The GM. But not once has this coach 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 the moment you take stock for your life and stand grateful at the gates of basketball heaven.
This is an athlete’s frozen moment in time, when the memories amplify into crystallized emotions, 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. Maybe not until you hold the birth of your 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 doing what you love and performing in front of people that pay you to do what you love doing is truly amazing.
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 sorry Dwayne and Dirk, you will wish you could keep going, even if you tell yourself it’s time to retire.
Most coaches or former players don’t dream about coaching, or working at their office, or doing their nine to five jobs — they dream about that one heartbreaking shot they missed in the district finals or that two-handed cram they had in traffic back in the day.
I’ll remember this day, my final moment with a ball in my hands watching a city of fans that gave me just as much as I gave them.
The challenge is these ending 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 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.
I’m not a hero. I didn’t serve my country. But I’ve served my teams since I was 15 — blood, sweat, and tears.
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 popcorn scent of this gym. The line of opposing players is leaving their bench. I’m first in line. I think about getting all the wins I’ve had, all the championships I’ve won. 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 to him 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 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. I am a winner. I am a winner.
I choke on emotion trying to spew out of me. My career is over — 20 fucking years.
It’s finally over.
I get closer to the end of the line. I will turn and face my coach 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 until I reach my locker. I try to keep my head up, as I throttle back the sadness, but the grief rises up my chest as I sit with a towel over my head inside the safety of my cubby hole. 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 silent tear slides off my face onto the floor between my legs — it’s over, but 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 Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki retirement tours. Some end with nasty injuries. Some with silent tears.
Some never end in the athlete’s head.
My final game still feels more grievous than it should. If only we all could go out with a Dwayne Wade retiring tour, or Dirk farewell shot, or celebrate our careers and the depth of our life’s work like Kobe, then maybe an athlete’s final game would be an easier pill to swallow.
Granted, I’m not an NBA legend, but then again, what does that have to do with it?
Trevor Huffman is a former professional basketball player and contributor at Grandstand Central. He talks about sports to life on his new podcast, ‘The Post Game,’ which looks at the game after the game, as he speaks with retired athletes about life beyond sports. Subscribe at GrandStandCentral.com.