For as long as I can remember, sports have always been my life. Not just a part of it, but all of my life. Every goal, every dream, everything I ever wanted to be, involved sports. Whether it be basketball, football or baseball, I was always driven to be good in sports.
When I was growing up, for a long time I wanted to play in the NFL and play college football. Eventually, those dreams faded away and hoop dreams began. When I was 17, basketball became everything I wanted to do. I was 6'6 and still growing, I had a natural ability and wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
I began putting in work to make my dreams a reality. I wanted to play in the NBA- at the highest levels the world has to offer. I wanted to buy my mum a house and take care of my family. Every day, I was at a court shooting, practicing my ball handling and playing pick up games. In the summer I was spending 8 hours a day, physically playing basketball. My friends at the time also played so we would play in Hightstown, get in the car, drive to a local court where people from other towns played, and sometimes at night would head to another court where there were lights to get a few more games in. When I wasn't playing, I was watching basketball on TV, talking about it or thinking about it. It quite literally, consumed my life.
At Stony Brook [University], those habits are built in to your daily schedule. You have practices for up to 3 hours a day, an hour of weight room, an hour plus in the training room rehabbing or getting treatment, meetings with coaches and if you went to Stony Brook, an hour or so of film (depending on whose scout it was, you could be in there for days.) Also, you have the expectation to get in the gym on your own time to get extra shots either in the mornings or at night. This of course, is all on top of being a full time student.
I was at Stony Brook for five years, and between those five years, a year of prep school and a passionate young kid from Hightstown, I had been a pro since I was 17. My bank account certainly didn't say that, but I was training like a pro to become one. I signed my first pro deal in 2014, but this was nothing new in terms of regiment or mindset, I was just finally making some money doing it.
When I turned pro, each year presented a new country to experience, a new set of sights to see, new teammates and new connections to make. In 2017, when I collapsed mid game, I thought it was all over. Fortunately, I got one more call and I came out to Australia with the intention to play that one final season and be done with it. I didn't think I would be healthy enough to go back to high level basketball.
Now, when I told Carlie that, she told me there was no way in hell I was quitting and that I had too much to give still. I am grateful for that. So I started working to get back to the levels I was playing at. I would receive a dozen or so offers from European clubs the past two years, but turned them down in favour of staying here in Australia with Carlie. My sights were no longer on Europe, but the NBL here in Australia.
For as long as I have played, I have had a chip on my shoulder. I have always been doubted.
A coach early in my high school days said I could never play Division I, but I did that. I had people in college say I wouldn't play professionally, but I have had the longest career of anyone in my time at Stony Brook. When I have played professionally, people have always doubted me because my resume isn't the most extravagant, but Coach Pikiell always told me, "you're a late bloomer, your best years will come around your 30's." He couldn't have been more right, I have always earned the respect.
Now for me, I have learned to love the grind. Stony Brook showed me what hard work really was, and since, I have learned to love it. I made myself a high level player and I did it the hard way, and that's something no one will ever be able to take away from me. I was always told if I were to become a good player, I would be self made. That's something I am proud to say I accomplished.
But over the last year or so things for me have changed. For one, COVID has decimated the world. It has shut down economies everywhere, and thus clubs have less money to offer. The issue with that is Americans have been taking less money each year, to play in higher leagues, to get their foot in the door and to say they're a pro. Clubs know that, and they will take a rookie for peanuts, let him play for a couple of months and if he doesn't work out, bring in someone who they know is capable and will right the ship.
The second thing that has changed for me is I have lost the motivation to workout like I used to... my heart isn't in it like it used to be. I have to force myself to shoot, or lift weights, the pressure and toxicity of being an athlete effects me more than ever. I haven't enjoyed going to practice everyday and don't even look forward to games sometimes. As kids, we start playing sports because they're supposed to be fun. Basketball hasn't been for a few years for me now.
When COVID hit, and there was no basketball for the first time in 12 years, I was happier than I was with basketball. Carlie noticed an enormous difference in me on a daily basis and it was something we spoke in length about.
I had the opportunity to get in with an NBL team over the past month or so with the idea that if I play well enough, I could land a deal. In that month span, I sprained my ankle on day 1, broke my toe the first practice back and sustained a rib injury the second practice. I couldn't walk, I couldn't sleep or roll over, I was stressed out trying to get myself ready for the next day's practice. After some back and forth, and the window of opportunity closing, I decided to step away.
Things don't always work out how we want them to but they will ALWAYS work out how they're supposed to.
Now that I stepped away, I realised, basketball isn't what I love anymore. It's not in my heart anymore and that's okay. We grow, we change and we evolve and that's what has happened.
So after you read all of that, now what? All I have ever known is basketball. I've never held a "real job." I don't know what it's like to work a 9-5 and live for the weekend. What is next for me?
Luckily for me, I have found what my next passion in life is. I want to help. I want to help as many people as I can. I've been through some things in my life, and I believe my experiences can help people. I have received so many supportive messages since starting this [blog] that it's really shocked me. I have gotten even more messages from people who are dealing with mental health issues and feel as though I wrote about them. I know what it's like to go through these things, and I feel comfortable putting it out to the world and be a voice for those who haven't found theirs yet. I was hoping to inspire, comfort or, at the very least, make people feel understood by starting this blog. Thus far I have accomplished it on a small scale.
So if you are struggling, if you are an ex athlete feeling lost or if you just need a friendly ear to listen, my door is always open (and by door I mean inbox of course, but if you know where we live, that door is open too.)
Be well everyone. Much love.
Eric McAlister is a former professional basketball player and now a passionate blogger, writer and mental health advocate. Eric's blogs can be found at www.downandbackblog.com.