When The Game Is Over: My Kelvin Cato Syndrome

EDITOR’S NOTE: What does a pro athlete do when the cheering (or booing) stops? Paul Shirley, a former member of the Chicago Bulls, answers that question in his sixth essay in a monthly series for ChiSide. Read his previous essays, here.

When I was a freshman in college, I had a teammate named Kelvin Cato.

After college, Cato would go on to a professional career that was either marginally successful (if you were a fan of one of the teams for which he played) or wildly successful (if you were his accountant and/or posse; he made upward of $50 million.)

In college, Cato was not what anyone would call a highly motivated basketball player. One day at practice, after a play that demonstrated Cato’s ambivalence toward hard work, our then-coach, Tim Floyd, stopped play and lit into Cato with an analysis of his psychological makeup.

“Your problem, Kelvin, is that you don’t want anyone to see you giving any effort. You aren’t willing to commit to trying hard because, if you fail, you’ll always be able to say, ‘Well, hell, I wasn’t really trying anyway.’”

The lesson being that, in basketball, as in acting, as in love, as in driving race cars: you have to commit.

I smirked on the inside, thinking that at least I didn’t have that problem. I wasn’t nearly as talented as Kelvin Cato, so when it came to the basketball court, I didn’t have any choice other than to commit.

But I had a little Cato Syndrome in me, too. I wasn’t willing to admit that I had big dreams; that I thought I would someday play in the NBA.

I didn’t want anyone to tell me how stupid my dreams were.

So I covered them up; I didn’t cop to how badly I wanted to make it. I got an engineering degree, to show that I was being responsible.

I led a strange, double life: To everyone around me, I was the prudent, reasonable guy who made all the right decisions. To myself, I was a hopeless dreamer—a hopeless dreamer who knew that the only way to make those dreams come true, because that hopeless dreamer wasn’t all that athletically gifted, was to work a lot harder than everyone else.

I met Jackie Stiles at a basketball camp after my sophomore year of college.

Jackie was legendary in Kansas. A native of tiny Claflin, she won as many state track medals as is possible for one person. (Twelve; four years, three events each year.) Not surprisingly, those medals were in distance events; if there’s one thing Jackie was good at, it was pushing herself.

After a brief career in the WNBA, Jackie pushed herself right out of basketball. It is impossible not to assume that she was (or is) obsessive-compulsive; she would stay in gyms long past what is reasonable for a human being. She would run even further. Eventually, her body had enough, and she retired from basketball after yet another surgery on yet another part of that body.

Jackie is the only person I’ve met who I was sure worked harder on the basketball court than I.

Hard work is like a cobra’s fangs: difficult to measure unless you’re too close. I never really told anyone exactly what I was doing, or how difficult it was to keep doing it.

Summer, 1998: I’m backing my light blue Chevrolet Corsica out of my parents’ driveway, trying to find a perch for the Discman that’s plugged into the tape player so that the Third Eye Blind album I’m about to listen to won’t skip when I take off down the gravel road. I look up and notice that one of my brothers is throwing a dirt clod at the other. I wish I could stop the car and participate in the grabassery, because what I’m doing isn’t going to be fun.

I’m going to drive to the track in the town where I went to high school, and I’m going to run 400s until I can’t run them anymore.

I’m going to do this, in part, out of fear—fear that everyone else on my college basketball team is doing the same or more—and, in part, because I’ve made a pact with myself: All this work, and toil, and effort, and silence—because no one, not even my parents, really knows what I am doing to myself on the track and in the gym and inside the weight room—will be worth it someday. I won’t explain to people what I am doing because I don’t have to; the results—being a professional basketball player—will speak for themselves.

So I finish my three-point turn, hit play on “Semi-Charmed Life,” and put the car in drive.

It turned out I made a bad deal.

“Making it” wasn’t the dreamsicle I’d always assumed it would be. I’d always thought that the people in the NBA would be a lot like me; as it was, they were pretty much the opposite of me.

This was a problem. Further compounding that problem: it quickly became clear that I was never going to be financially set for life because of my basketball prowess. All the work in the world is no match for an opposition with a 35-inch vertical leap.

To make matters worse, all those days on the track, all those sprints, all that worrying: it began to catch up to me. My body, not unlike Jackie Stiles’s body, let me down.

Pretty soon, I was 32, out of basketball. And starting over.

Now, my days follow a pretty standard routine:

I get up and drink two glasses of ice water while stretching my left calf, which will always be a little troublesome thanks to the three ankle surgeries that escorted my basketball career into the dumpster.

Then I make breakfast, check my email, send off a Tweet, maybe meditate. If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I work out: lift weights, but never run, because running was always punishment and, well, you wouldn’t expect an ex-con to build a version of The Hole in his house, would you?

And then it’s time to write.

The hard part of writing, anyone will tell you, is the starting. The assumption—my assumption, anyway—is always that this isn’t the perfect moment to start, because later I’ll be more profound, more interesting. But there is no perfect time. In the same way that I had to practice basketball (or run sprints, or lift weights) every day, I have to write every day. Some days you make shots, some days you don’t. But string enough days together and you’ll start to make a lot more than when you started.

When I’m at my best, getting started is the only thing I have to overcome.

When I’m at my worst, though, getting started becomes bigger and more difficult. Because I’m not just getting started on the day’s work; I’m getting started on a new life.

And this leaves me feeling like a jilted lover.

Even though I know that it was unreasonable and wildly illogical to assume that if I made it to the NBA the rest of my life would fall into place like Tetris pieces, I still feel that way sometimes. I still feel cheated because I gave everything I had to this one thing, that one thing isn’t there anymore, and now I have to find something else.

For me, that something else is writing. That I like writing as much as I do—and that I think I will someday be good enough at it to support myself doing it—is hard to admit.

My Cato Syndrome is alive and well.

The good news is that there aren’t many days that I don’t get started. I may not have been blessed with Kyle Korver’s jump shot or with John Updike’s clarity of vision, but I was blessed with the ability to persevere. And to dream. Or suspend reality, if you prefer.

If I hadn’t assumed that basketball would solve all my problems, I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did, and I probably wouldn’t have made it to the NBA.

My delusions of grandeur actually brought some grandeur to my life.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself every day, when I open my laptop and start typing.

STORY ART: Photo courtesy Nick Juhasz/cc.

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