Here's how it goes:
You play basketball and you love it, a game with friends and two hoops and a moving ball. You do the usual things: join a club, shoot hoops with Dad, watch televised bj-league matches. It's all fun at first, nothing like the weighty and complicated thing it will be one day.
You are twelve, and so ordinary it is extraordinary: neither liked nor disliked, praised nor scolded, envied nor despised. You are too young to know if this a good thing. You are too young to know if it is a bad thing. And while you're beginning to realise, maybe, that you're more forgettable than the average kid, it's not something that bothers you. You haven't learned to let it bother you.
Basketball is the best thing in the world, you discover: better than milkshakes and detective novels and magician's tricks. You play and you learn and you grow, and the game unfolds like an undiscovered map before you.
The catch is that basketball doesn't believe you're the best thing in the world. But you haven't learned to think of it like that yet.
You make a friend and he's the beginning of the end, but also the beginning of the beginning. He looks at you like you count for something, which maybe is the real reason for everything wrong that comes afterward.
He teaches you hope and despair intertwined – joyfully, innocently – at a time when neither of you know what these things mean. You've never met someone like him and never will again, although you don't know it. To you and him it is only basketball, only the games that children play – a thing you do because you both want to, without idealism and without expectation.
He shines and you notice, of course, but it's just a part of him, not something he thinks about and so neither do you; you're still invisible and ordinary when you're with him but that's not you, just something about you. And so the two of you play and you play and you play. And you become his measure and he becomes your measure.
(The time will come when he moves like jagged lightning and you like an afterimage at the edge of a player's vision; when you are not enough for him and he is not enough for you; a time when, having given each other all the questions, you find yourselves mute to offer answers. But in these days you are far less than what you will be and yet still much more.)
And then suddenly you're something more than ordinary.
You study a new language of basketball, a dialect of strategy and specialisation and obsession. Of victory and loss. You are a winner now, surrounded by winners; you talk the talk and dream the dreams of champions.
It's no longer one of him but now five, five persons whose individual presences light up a room merely by existing. And their brilliance casts shadows and gives you a place to live.
It's unreal at first, the biggest thing that has ever happened to you. It's weeks before you truly believe any of it, months before the fluttering excitement goes away. But the seasons come and the seasons go, and gradually, you come to expect the way things are.
There is a sixth who becomes a fifth, and he too shines like a star, like you never will. That's okay, because you know who you are, who you're meant to be. And it is enough. You are one half of a whole. You are -- against all your expectations -- extraordinary. You are useful, needed, valuable.
And you are a shadow because that's what you've been told to be, and because it is what you are, and you know that it is true.
But light does not need a shadow.
The beginning of the end comes slow, though not so slow you don't notice. It comes in your friend's eyes and his voice and the fading of his smile; it comes in the way he plays, swifter and surer and astonishing.
He grows taller and more distant, until there's an acquaintance where your other half used to be. He speaks of basketball in a language you understand but can't pronounce; wanders wide and far, into a place you can't follow. And so comes the day when you believe you have nothing left to give him.
(What he believes, what he doesn't believe, you have no idea.)
You are fifteen and you hate basketball, because it made you what you are. You love basketball, for those precise same reasons. One emotion and its opposite, tangled so deeply you can't tell the two apart – but maybe, after all, that has been your story, right from the beginning of the beginning.
You don't play for a while, try to find your place in the world. Mostly it doesn't work. The hoop, the ball, the game – they're so deep inside you they can't be dislodged. There's too much despair within you, mostly because there's too much hope.
(Is it the effect of too much victory, is it the effect of Teikou, that you can't stop believing in yourself? You have always been ordinary and you have always been weak – nothing about that has changed; and yet, you remain certain that basketball will go on forever for you.)
You walk in darkness and your light does not need you and you're not sure, truthfully, who you are or who you're meant to be. But you are learning by the day that you're not very good at giving up.
And then there's a boy, and he lands in your classroom from a distant land like fate placed him there, a shining light prepared just for you. And he speaks a language that you knew once, and spoke yourself, in a time when you were young.
You've done this all before, and it all went so wrong once; but you cannot, after all, help being you. You believe and you hope and basketball is still the best thing in the world, even with everything you know and carry.
(And in the end maybe that's what basketball meant you to be, one half of a metaphor. But even that isn't very important when all is said and done.)
You think it will be different, this time. You fear it will be the same. And yet you would change nothing, in the end – not the mistakes you made then, and not the steps you take now.
You play. The game goes on.