If you guys like it, I thought, well—I do, too.
From there, I think I could feel my loyalties switching. It was a baffling paradigm shift from being a basketball player to becoming a writer, and it required a lot of soul searching. At the same time, I was out in the middle of central PA—which wasn’t the most hospitable place. I had fallen out of grace with a lot of the big basketball people, and the coach responsible for linking me into to Susquehanna wasn’t jazzed about the writing thing, and he didn’t have good things to say about it. It’s hard not to listen to what a coach you once trusted says is best. This was the guy who believed in me enough to pull me out of a bad situation in high school, and paid for me to come. It was a complicated split and it rattles your confidence to pursue another endeavor with no backing.
I’d burned a lot of my bridges at Susquehanna, by sophomore year, and the coach that put us at Susquehanna wanted us to leave. He said he saw a way forward for me. He wanted me to forget about the writing thing and go to Robert Morris, where he knew the head coach, who he thought could get me into shape. That world is all a big fraternity—he could get me a spot, he said. He’d even buy me a computer to write on if I’d behave.
The coach at Robert Morris at the time was Mike Rice—who was later fired from Rutgers for abusing his players. I was in the game early enough that I knew Coach Rice back in Boston. And I knew he was crazy—he was throwing balls at me, he was screaming at people. I left that workout feeling like I took part of something completely not OK. That man? Is a lunatic.
So, when my coach said, you go play for Mike Rice at Robert Morris, I was like: Have you lost your mind? I’ll pass on that one. And he snapped.
He said, You’re going to be an alcoholic. You’ll be suicidal. You’re not going to make any money. He said, What the hell is a writer going to do? You going to wait tables? He held his authority over my head. The message was: You’re coming out of my graces, so you better not run too far from the money pot. I knew our relationship couldn’t be the same after that.
But I had to figure something out. At a basketball camp one time I had a coach who said, “Listen guys, use the game but don’t let it use you.” In other words: don’t be 24 years old, still trying to reclassify yourself to get into a Division I school. You’re delaying the process of your life. Go to school, man! If it hasn’t happened, it hasn’t happened. The longer you skirt that truth—thinking it applies to everybody but you—the harder you fall on your face. But me, my teammates in college, nobody really prepared us for what would happen if it didn’t work out. I don’t think anyone really thought past that point. It was too hard to think, “Oh, so it’s just over now?”
So I decided to stay in Pennsylvania and keep writing, try to turn it into a viable Plan B. That summer, instead of working on my game, I stayed on campus to work in the library. I put myself in a well of books. It was total immersion. My “Intro to Fiction” teacher gave me reading suggestions—but I mostly blew them off. He broke it down for me in basketball terms: “You think your jump shot’s going to get better if you don’t work on it?” But I wasn’t a huge reader growing up. It had never been my thing. He’d kept telling me to read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, and though I’d tried and hadn’t cared for it, that summer I opened it again and just fell in. I had to ask myself: What the hell have I been doing? Why have I not been reading this?
I took his suggestions more seriously after that.
I remember reading “Sonny’s Blues,” “Nilda” by Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer’s stuff, Edward P. Jones, and James Alan McPherson. Jim McPherson's stuff made an impact on me especially: I’d never seen fireworks like that on the page. That’s when I started to realize, now this is the stuff I like.
As I read, my confidence in my ability to learn and comprehend grew too. And in Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, I found a quote that I returned to countless times as I wrote Team Seven:
Philosophers have long conceded … that every man has two educations: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.
I feel like I could have those words tattooed on my heart. I couldn’t only teach myself. I needed Tom Bailey to point out certain writers he knew I’d like, people I’d never find out about on my own. That’s the education you are given. But it’s another thing entirely to actually read these authors, see what they’re about, and decide how much they matter. Nobody can do that for you. That’s the kind of education you can only give yourself.
And it’s applicable in a broader sense, too: People are always going to be telling you who you are. But you’ve got to learn to make your own decisions about who you can and can’t be.
That fall, two things happened. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And I started playing the best basketball of my life.
As a senior in college, it was the first time I’d ever been healthy. At the same time, I could see my athletic life coming to a close. In my senior year bio, the first line was “Marcus Burke is healthy through preseason for the first time in his whole career.” I understood; how much longer could I do this to my body?
I would pray before every game that I didn’t get hurt. I got nervous every game. We’re all out here, and we’re all really strong. If someone hits you in the wrong way, that could be bad.
But it didn’t even necessarily take that. I saw guys get career-ending injuries just turning around on the court. Nothing drastic. I had a teammate—we were just laughing in the tunnel, and suddenly his ACL is done. Nothing dramatic had to happen. Your number can get pulled any day.