One thing you won’t find in a Duke packing list is to bring a good pair of basketball shoes. Rain boots, yes. Shower shoes, yes. Dress shoes, of course. It’s all there, primly assorted. But not basketball shoes. They’re the sort of item, like extra towels, or air freshener, that are only brought by the people who think of them.
I was not one of those people, declaring to my parents the only footwear I needed were a pair of running shoes. Utility over specificity, I thought, picking out a pair of blue Nike sneakers that looked like they needed a diligent owner.
In the two months I’ve been here, my shoes have served me well. They’re quick to put on after I wake up ten minutes before class. They’re useful for sprinting after rogue C1 buses departing the East Campus bus stop. And they’re easy to take off after a long and arduous day.
But they aren’t designed for hardwood. It’s not codified anywhere, your feet are yours to squander, but just trust me on this one: do not wear running shoes to a basketball court if you are not prepared to fall.
Crouching in a low stance, I stalked my friend Jerry who was dribbling the ball. I knew I couldn’t give him space to shoot, so I decided to close the space between us. Jerry must have expected my defensive adjustment. He suddenly changed his pace, dribbling towards my left side with his right hand. I pawed at the basketball, touching it briefly before Jerry immediately switched to his other hand. By this point, my forward momentum had already destabilized my legs, which collapsed under me like putty as Jerry transitioned into a smooth layup. Game.
In basketball vernacular, when an overzealous defender falls over themselves, they call the action “breaking one’s ankles”. But it’s more of a euphemism for the breaking of one’s soul.
Since then, every time I went to Brodie Gym to play basketball, I harbored this fear. I did not want my ankles to be broken again, so I stayed back on defense. I covered the zone instead of the man. I let the dribbler blow by my left side without reaching for the ball. I gave them all the time to shoot. It’s an incredibly passive playstyle. It’s also incredibly mundane, and it ignores a salient reality of our time at Duke.
Whether it happens in a gymnasium or not, eventually, we will have our ankles broken despite playing perfect defense. We will contest the ball and still get dunked on. We will make every shot and still have the buzzer-beater ricochet off the backboard. We’ll prove we can do everything- that we can hustle, playcall, set screens, and rebound- and still be the last pick on the team.
In the words of Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
But who says we need to follow the rules? Life in the absence of mistakes is just a scoreless basketball game. Why wear running shoes if I’m not going to take a risk to steal the ball, even if it means hydroplaning into hardwood? Why take a challenging class just to play it safe? Why come to Duke University just for the degree?
I know I can always buy a pair of basketball shoes, or simply not go to Brodie Gym at all. But there is an intangible satisfaction, running up and down the basketball court in my infirm Nikes, of committing to things that don’t make conventional sense.
A few weeks later, I’m crouching in front of Jerry again. I don’t zone him this time, or hide in the paint. He dribbles forward. We both know he’s going left. I shift my stance. Jerry suddenly does the familiar, dribbling towards me, the ball outstretched in his hands. I lunge. He crosses. I stagger. He scores. But I’m not on the ground this time.
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I can still feel my ankles, and they’re ready to go again.
Michael Cao is a Trinity first-year. His column, "marketplace of the mind," runs on alternate Fridays.