Cancelled sports: What I learned from months without basketball

Nick was 14 and competing with the nation’s best basketball players when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the summer of 2014. He credits the support of his family as well as the doctors, nurses and friends at St. Jude for helping him get back on the court, and for encouraging him to express himself through music.

Nick was 14 and competing with the nation’s best basketball players when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the summer of 2014. He knows well the frustration many young athletes are now feeling with their sport taken away for a season. Nick credits the support of his family as well as the doctors, nurses, child-life specialists and friends at St. Jude for helping him get back on the court, and for encouraging him to embrace a new way of expressing himself – through music.

Nick

It's almost painful to see the abandoned basketball courts around Memphis right now, and especially the empty backboards. I guess they had to rip off the rims to keep people in this city from playing.

It's the reverse of how I felt that first spring after I was diagnosed, when it was tough to see the courts filled with people out competing – when I couldn't.

I know a lot of athletes, especially kids, are going through something similar now. Their sport has been taken away and I feel for them.

I spent almost three years at St. Jude so I definitely understand why it's important for us to stay apart to stop the virus from spreading.

But I also know the physical distancing is rough for athletes. Sure, they can train, but I can attest that it leaves a void, to not be able to perform and compete.

Whatever you think you love in life, imagine having it snatched away from you.

Anybody who has gone through cancer knows about focusing everything on fighting for your life, every single day. Everybody going through this pandemic is really getting a good look at how it feels to basically be on life alert, and I think it’ll all help bring us together as people and as a community.

But I always felt like I would return to basketball. That motivated me. I thought about my little brothers and sisters looking up to me, and I had to keep striving, no matter the obstacles.

For me, at first, that meant re-learning how to walk. Literally, thinking about lifting each foot, one after another.

I would take my pole with the IV drip and see how many laps I could make around the unit.

I must have made thousands of loops around that cancer unit, seeing other patients, waving to the nurses at their station. They even gave me certificates for walking so many miles. I can relate to that story about the runner under quarantine, running a marathon in his backyard.

My parents knew that without my sport, I needed to find other ways to express myself, and I'm grateful they encouraged me to find other outlets.

Nick

For me, that was music.

I would put on headphones on those walks, and really get in my zone – especially when I listened to J. Cole. He was my guy really before he was big, because he's always been one of the realist rappers there is. Not flashy. Not showy. Just real.

Getting into music helped me understand that working on your sport is also a way of expressing yourself. When you can't play and compete, it can cause a whole range of emotions, from depression to anger.

It was my friend Hannah, another St. Jude patient, who encouraged me to create my own music. I've written dozens of songs since then, and we even had an album release party at St. Jude.

Unfortunately, Hannah wasn't there. She passed away from her disease. She saw greatness in me that I couldn’t even see in myself.

Just like Hannah coaxed me outside my comfort zone, I hope those dealing with the loss of their sport right now see this as an opportunity to develop another part of themselves. My dad is a basketball coach, but he has always emphasized, "Don't be one dimensional."

When you aren't so busy, with school and practices and games, that's a time when you can go deeper and discover what else speaks to you, find other ways to express yourself.

Something my mom says stays with me: "Do what makes you happy, what gives you meaning."

That kind of support helped me make a really tough decision last fall, before my freshman year in college, to move on from competitive basketball. I'm proud that I did play in high school, especially finishing as captain of my team at my dad's alma mater – where some of Memphis' all-time greats won championships.

Nick

Nick plays basketball outside his home with his cousin, Antonio, as seen here in 2018.

I do still love the game, but it's a different relationship now. Sometimes I still go to the gym and shoot for a few hours, although lately that's only possible outside at our house. It's a way to clear my mind, to be free.

Right now, in addition to taking my classes online, I'm working on new songs. One of them is called Sacrifices. It's about how in order to make it where you want to go, to get to whatever it is you want most, you're going to have to give up things.

Nick in studio

That can be rough, especially when it's not your choice to lose something.

During this pandemic, I'm thinking of patients I knew like Hannah. She was taken from this earth way too soon and I feel like I must succeed to honor her.

So many friends I met at St. Jude taught me that life is short, so strive for your dreams while you're still alive, whatever they may be.

I view life now as a series of obstacles, placed in front of me for me to overcome, to grow stronger from them. My life as a blessing not despite those obstacles – but because of them. 

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