THROWBACK THURSDAY – As I searched for a photo to post of Heather for yesterday’s daily note, I came across this Chicago Tribune article on the high school success of my former teammate, Nancy Kennelly.
At one point, during her NU career, Nancy led the country in assists. Nancy passed the ball so well that I honestly caught it more than once in shock that it was in my hands. She had a knack for getting you the ball exactly where you needed it – right time, right place – and with force that gave you faith. And like a gutsy quarterback, she also may let a few wild ones loose along the way. Yet Nancy would find you if you worked hard enough. And Nancy, along with her sister Moira, were always good for a 40-minute battle.
I remember word getting back to me that Nancy was trying to explain me and my drive to someone else. I think one of her guy friends was asking about me, and if I would date him. My intensity when I trained solo and my effort on the court during games was enough to scare most guys, so I think he was trying to get an idea of his chances of my being able to be serious about anything else except basketball and schoolwork. I actually think she did a good job of it. I think she said something like, “She is the way she is. That’s just the way she’s wired. Basketball means so much to her, and I think it’s hard for her to do much else sometimes.”
When I read this story on Nancy’s high school career, I was really impressed by how little she turned the ball over as a high school player who ended up on the floor during high school state championship as a back-up point guard who took over the game. What also struck me was the final line after being asked, as a senior in high school, about her love for the game, and her plans for the future.
Basketball is her only hobby, but she says she doesn’t regret the fact that there is no place for women basketball players to turn to after their college careers have ended.
“I love basketball, and it’s not as if I’ve ever been forced to play against my will,” Kennelly says. “But I think that once college is over, I will have had enough of it.”
The funny thing is that she did exactly as she thought she would. She walked. Nancy and Moira, South Siders and two of eight kids in the family, went from hoops at NU to law school. None of us have heard much from them over the years. I hear they’re both quite successful at their respective firms. They married guys they dated while they were in college, and I think they live in Chicago and Cleveland.
What struck me is why couldn’t I do what Nancy did? Why didn’t I just “end and walk”? Do I now wish that I’d done that?
I know I did not walk because at that time, in my mind, even after NU athletic director Rick Taylor told me to give it up and get on with my life (as Nancy did), I couldn’t leave something that was, in my mind, at the time, such a big part of who I was. I couldn’t walk away from something that made me feel so alive. I also think that playing the game gave me an incredible amount of confidence that I could work hard at something and see results; that I could face adversity and overcome it; that I could meet total strangers and create relationships while solving a problem; that I could escape my life for a few hours a day and get lost in a ball, a team, a goal and a game.
What I wish I’d done is put more of a timeline on when I’d retire, and maybe even a weaning-off period where I could have better managed what I now see was an addiction of sorts (for me anyway). I think you have an addiction when you really like yourself while you are doing something, and when you really like the way it feels even when it’s a horrible feeling, painful, and not, in fact, healthy or no longer healthy. Initially it starts out as something innocent and pure, and after a while, if you do too much of it—as we are required to do as student-athletes—you have to call a time-out and say, when is enough enough?
I saw Northwestern basketball star Maggie Lyon at the Final Four a few weeks ago. Coach Joe McKeowan and her parents were with her in the lobby waiting to speak to an agent. Joe saw basketball legend Cynthia Cooper, and asked her to come over to talk to Maggie. By then, I was in the circle, standing to Cynthia’s left. She talked about how hard she worked as a Houston Comet to beat out the younger, bigger names. She talked to Maggie about how good the game was to her. I liked what she said, and I know Maggie and her family appreciated it. Cynthia was an awesome player who went the distance. While she was talking, I honestly thought that if everyone in the lobby had to suit-up right then, Cooper, who has to be 5-10 years older than me, would still have a good part of her game intact, or at least find a way to do some damage.
After Cooper stepped away, I went up to Maggie and said something like this: “It’s great that you’re pursuing this, and it’s an exciting time. Without getting into the details of how miserable the end of my career was, I’m going to just give you this advice: when it starts to go south, start planning an exit strategy or give yourself a timetable now. You don’t have to quit cold turkey, but you have to think about income that’s potentially lost, all the networking you could be doing, how much personal and professional development you can be working on and off the court. Just make sure you stop and think about it because I didn’t put enough thought into it. You’ve got your body, your future kids, and your health to think about, too. So get as much as you can out of it, enjoy the ride and get out when you know enough is enough.”
I say this as a player who went from full-time warrior that you could not pull off the court to wounded warrior who was constantly injured and trying to limp back to action in the true form or a psychologically disturbed homeless person. Post-graduation, I tried to juggle work, writing, starting a business, living and eating week-to-week while training 2-5 hours a day hoping to hang on long enough to make a professional league. This was a “league” at a time when there were either 1) no leagues 2) fledgling leagues or 3) leagues that had about 8 teams, which meant being good enough to be in the top 80-100 living players in the country and even the world (not just in my class or close to my class.) At the American Basketball League try-out, so many former legends showed up clearly out of shape, but that didn’t matter to those ponying up the funds. Then somewhere in the mix here, I became a caregiver for my mother, yet still I wanted to keep hope and hoops alive. Even when I went to the WNBA combine and got my ass kicked and hit in the eye so badly that I couldn’t see out of it for a few minutes, I still played pick-up, which was totally stupid for several reasons. Eating and living month-to-month with little sign of financial improvement or goals somehow didn’t seem to be as important to me as it should have been. Neither did the amount of medical bills I’d soon be ringing up.
Seven surgeries later – and I’m really embarrassed at this point to even number them – along with several years of low income as an entrepreneur and caregiver – it is fair for me to address the risks and reality. I think a big part of me held on because I fundamentally didn’t want to quit. In my head, I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t give up on something that made me feel good, even when it wasn’t making me feel good anymore.
Enough had been enough a few times over for me, and it’s something I’ve written about in a book about the end of my career (not yet published). I just failed to accept it when I heard and felt what my gut was saying. And that’s all I was saying to Maggie. Yes, it is great to feel that pride and love of the game, but listen to your gut, too. By all means squeeze every ounce out of your passion, and get your fill, but don’t go back to the well too many times. Nancy Kennelly rationalized that it wasn’t financially worth all the trips to the well once college was over, and she had a valid point. Even today, with female pro players being paid, it is worth spending a week or two to do the math on the opportunity presented versus those opportunities lost.
So each of us has to figure out how to handle the dousing of what ends up feeling like a former life. Some of us can take those skill-sets and apply them in a coaching capacity, and others, like the Kennelly sisters, can walk without any college debt, and say, “Next.”
Read the throwback on Nancy Kennelly, the best passer I have ever played with…