I went and saw the chair of the department. I told him I wanted to change my major, and asked about what writing students do when they get out of Susquehanna. He hemmed and hawed a little, and then he told me a story about a guy who graduated and was a manager at a Chili’s. I signed up anyway.
My sophomore year, I showed up for “Intro to Fiction.” The professor was Tom Bailey, who was an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was publishing novels. The other kids were talking about all these books that they’d read, and all their favorite writers, and what their “process” was. I had no idea what they were talking about. I felt so out of place, so overwhelmed, that I skipped the second class.
But I did do the homework assignment. I wrote a story called “The Big One-Two”—it’s part of my novel now—and gave that to the class. It wasn’t very polished. It needed lots of fine-tuning. But my professor responded with praise and encouragement. It was confusing for me. I didn’t understand what he was reacting to, or what constituted good literature. I couldn’t see what they saw. But I’d been in so much academic trouble the year before, and I was struggling athletically, and I was glad at least one thing was seeming to go well.
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?