In case you didn’t get the memo, I’m Canadian. Red and white maple leaf flag waving proudly north of the 49th parallel. Up here in Canada, the sport that’s our pride and joy (you guessed it) is hockey. I grew up worshiping the sport and I always played goalie, mimicking my all time favorites, Richard Brodeur, Mike Palmateer and Rogie Vachon. I played hockey with my brother since I was 4 years old, dawning the goalie gear and mask while my brother who is 7 years older, took slap shots on me in the basement. With each diving save I made, I held a beaming smile. By age 7, I started playing street hockey and playing goal was my thing. Everyone in elementary school knew that I was THE goalie when it came to playing in the gym. I loved it.
I followed NHL hockey practically by age 7 and my favorite team was the Winnipeg Jets. My all time favorite player was team captain Dale Hawerchuk and even to this day, I think he’s one of the best centers to ever play the game, but was overshadowed by the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. I watched hockey on TV and I listened to every local game I could on the old AM radio station while sitting in my bedroom underneath all my hockey posters and team banners.
In Canada, hockey is a religion. Walk into any sportsbar and there’s a hockey game showing on TV. Hockey season ends in June when the Stanley Cup gets hoisted up, after a grueling 82 game season and playoff run. If that’s not enough, some sports channels will air old highlights of hockey in July and August, simply because Canadians breathe the sport like an addiction.
For over 4 decades, I’ve been a huge hockey fan, playing it, watching it and cheering at the top of my lungs.
When my son was about 4 years old, I introduced him to hockey. I bought him his first wooden hockey stick and net and taught him everything from slapshots, to snapshots, to wristshots to the backhander. I taught him the rules of icing and offsides and for the most part, he understood it all. I took him to live games in box seats and taught him about the star players from each team. In short, I did my very best to influence him to enjoy the game as much as I could. For reasons of his own, he never really latched onto hockey the way I did. You might say, he had a loose grip on the sport.
By his early teenage years, he completely lost interest and I no longer forced the issue. As he struggled with his depression and anxiety I did my best to find connections with him. Other than movies and video games, I struggled doing so and communication with him became fragile and tenuous.However, one day, back in 2016 he was watching something on YouTube and I gingerly asked him the obvious question, “…what are you watching?”
He enthusiastically replied, “Basketball highlights!”
I was puzzled and amazed at the same time, after all the game of basketball never existed in our vocabulary prior to him mentioning it. Soon this became a repeated pattern of him watching basketball highlights and me asking him what he’s watching. This was a sliver of hope for me with his depression and anxiety at the time.
Bit by bit I began learning more about the sport of b-a-s-k-e-t-b-a-l-l. Like a toddler learning how to walk for the first time, I inched my way by reading a little bit each day about the NBA. I remember vaguely playing basketball as a child at school, but never excelled at it, because again, HOCKEY WAS KING OF SPORTS. Eventually one afternoon, I bought him his first basketball when he was about 14 years old and we brought it out to a nearby playground and started clumsily bouncing the ball looking like a couple of feeble Canadian hockey players attempting a new sport.
He joined a couple of recreational leagues but his social anxiety got in the way of him having any long term success with that. With his depression steadily climbing, I didn’t want him to lose his passion for the game because it was all he had at the time to hold onto, thus I didn’t force the issue of him staying on the teams. Instead, I thought outside the box and started playing 1-on-1 with him as much as I could. We’d play outside on sunny days and would find a local gym that had an opening for us to practice in. We even went as far as playing at nights with barely a street light on during the dead of winter because he needed an outlet. We eventually played together 3 to 4 times a week, after I came home from work, on weekends and at nights.
I travel a lot for work and I remember while I was attending a conference in Purdue University one time, he was at a very low point in his life feeling extremely depressed and cutting himself. Unable to physically be there for him, I remembered grasping at solutions as best as I could. Desperate, exhausted and with my deepest worries looming over my heavy mind, I turned to basketball. I went to the University’s arena where the Boiler Makers played and began reading and researching more about them. I reached out to him and excitedly explained how HUGE college basketball is in the U.S. and that the Boiler Makers generated some NBA players over the years. He was THRILLED and equally as excited that I was in the presence of his beloved sport. I went to the nearest souvenir store and picked out a black Boiler Maker’s t-shirt that he wears even to this day. I remember the smile on his face when I returned home days after with it.
By the time he was 15, we went to our very first live NBA game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. He still knew more of the rules than I did and he taught me more and more about the sport as the years went by. His passion for the game was endearing and I couldn’t help but want to learn more. When he talks about basketball, I can see so much passion in his eyes and voice. Whenever he felt depressed, I knew we could turn to basketball. We could either go play it, talk about it or watch it. We now play a lot of 1-on-1 basketball at the community gym and it’s been about two years now that we go every Sunday. Sometimes we invite a couple of my best friend’s kids and go 2-on-2 and he has such a good time imagining he’s his favorite player LeBron James. From time to time, we all join in with some of the other people at the gym and go 5-on-5 and I see that as a huge step forward for him. I notice that after a fun game of playing basketball, his depression melts away for those brief hours as he focuses on the game he truly loves. And to keep up with his skills, I enrolled myself in basketball lessons last summer to make sure I continue to challenge him and to keep his enthusiasm going (I’m proud to say that my hook shot and post up moves have significantly improved over the years.)
On one occasion I asked him to do a powerpoint presentation on who the better player is between superstars LeBron James and James Harden. He presented it to our friends to practice his public speaking skills and to overcome some of his anxiety.
As a result, I began loving basketball so much that I must confess I LOVE basketball more than hockey! In fact, I don’t recall watching a single hockey game this season because I actually find it incredibly boring with all the stoppage in plays, face offs and icing calls. (I can easily write an entire blog on why NBA basketball is a far more entertaining sport than NHL hockey.)
Basketball has given my son an outlet for his depression and anxiety. He turns to it when he feels down. It’s given him a focal point to practice something he truly enjoys and provides him with entertainment that pulls him away from his negative thought patterns. I’ll always love the sport because it’s helped to bring smiles and laughter back onto his beautiful face. Basketball’s bonded us together and strengthened our father-son relationship that I even wish I had with my dad. In November 2018, we took a trip to Cleveland and LA to watch the Lakers and his favorite player LeBron James. The two of us had the most incredible time together traveling, connecting, laughing and enjoying life. Basketball deters my son from his depression. We talk about basketball in car rides and over dinner. We watch highlights together and we communicate better as we ask each other thought-provoking questions about the game. We talk about our favorite players LeBron James and Russell Westbrook and the amazing stats they produce. We’ve found common ground on something that is relevant and meaningful to us. Basketball bridges a gap when communication is sensitive between us.
The other morning, my son was upset with me because of something I said to him and refused to speak to me for a couple of days. He went into a complete shutdown mode and wouldn’t reply to my texts or phone calls, and naturally this worries me sometimes because of my own fears with his depression. However, I’m learning to give him time and space and I believe he’ll speak when he’s ready.
Tonight, the LA Lakers President, Magic Johnson resigned and I immediately got a text from my son saying, “Yo Magic Johnson just stepped down from his position today! This off season is going to be interesting for the Lakers!”
I replied with a smile on my face and a big thanks to a sport that I’ll always love.