On a Wednesday in May of 2011, in a game of full-court basketball during my lunch hour, I ruptured my Achilles tendon.

I was at the top of the key and a shot went up strong side. The shot was long, bounced off the back of the rim, and while several players near the basket jumped for the rebound, no one secured the ball. It was tapped to the corner, and I turned to chase it down. One guy made a final attempt to leap and catch the ball, and when he missed, he landed on the back of my leg with all his weight, anchoring me in place. I hit the floor hard and screamed in pain. 

My friend, Marc McKee, a wonderful poet and a fellow hoops junkie, was also playing, and when I went down, he raced over. He asked, did you hear a pop? It was an important question. Every sports fan knows that when a muscle or tendon tears, it’s always described as a pop, a sensation of something small exploding, whether it’s a knee, shoulder, elbow, or, in this case, an ankle. This is important information. I did not hear a pop. Therefore, in my logic, I was fine. A sprained ankle. A badly sprained ankle. But a sprained ankle nonetheless. 

Still, I knew it was bad because I couldn’t seem to plant my right foot to stand up. I needed help to my feet, and when I was standing, my foot wouldn’t rise when I wanted to walk. Of course, it didn’t: the Achilles was fully ruptured. I didn’t know until much later how the Achilles worked, how it connected the calf muscle to the heel bone, stretching down the back of the lower leg, that when you are lying on your stomach, and someone squeezes your calf muscle, your big toe will twitch. All I knew then was that walking wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. I turned my right foot out at a forty-five degree angle and walked—limping, painful, dragging my leg, but yes, walking with no help—to the bleachers and sat down. 

I didn’t see a doctor for five days.

What did I do during this time? I iced my ankle. I went to work; I traded in my dress shoes for my boots, laced those suckers up as tight as they would get, and walked. I drove to work (remember, this was my right foot). I walked up the stairs—I rarely take the elevator—to my fourth floor office. I gritted my teeth. I was stubborn. And stupid.

Finally, recognizing that I did in fact have health insurance (nope, I don’t even have the excuse of poverty to claim here), I drove myself to the doctor’s office, where an intern who looked maybe twelve examined me for twenty minutes—why so long, I don’t know—before declaring with almost zero confidence “I’m not sure, but I think you ruptured your Achilles.” 

My stomach dropped. A ruptured Achilles, I knew, was serious. Surgery. Weeks on crutches. Months of physical therapy. A long time before I play basketball again. This was one of my very first thoughts. 

Why does basketball matter so much?

This feels like a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad answer. I should tell you that I write to figure out the world. I should tell you I write to communicate. I should tell you I write to shed light on the shadows of our world. I should tell you something pithy about art, and creativity, and being engaged in the world through my work, trying to make sense of the ever-changing and always challenging human condition. 

What I keep coming back to, though, is basketball. How I love to shoot jump shots. How I love to make a pass that gets through three defenders, bouncing once through traffic, into the hands of my teammate—he catches it right at his hip—and with one step, he rises, and lays a soft sweet spinning shot off the glass for an easy bucket (Marc McKee and I, actually, work this like the Clyde and the Pearl). I am not exaggerating when I say that this image, this action, is a beautiful thing. I love basketball because you can see the players. You can see their faces, their arms, their hands, the aggression and frustration and competition and dedication visible with every movement of their bodies. I love it because it’s a team game. I love it because it’s an individual game. I love it because you need five guys to play. I love it because you don’t need anyone to play, not a single soul in the gym, just you and the rock, to work on your dribble, your jumper, to spin and spin and then fadeaway, think to yourself “JORDAN …!!!” in that Marv Albert voice of anticipation before launching a silky jumper that you release just before the buzzer in your head sounds, in that empty gym, the only sound the ball swishing through the net. 

Basketball is not a refuge for me from the world. I don’t think “Man, I need to get away from all this stuff and play ball.” I just think, “I want to play.” It’s a part of my world as normal as breathing. It’s exactly like breathing, actually: I didn’t think about its importance until I can’t, until a cold or a flu (or a ruptured Achilles tendon) comes along. Until I, quite literally, could not stand on my own two feet. 

Recovering from Achilles tendon surgery is a slow process. I had surgery, my leg in a cast for eight weeks, and navigated the stairs on crutches. Then I got a walking boot. Then I got heel lifts to put in my shoes. At physical therapy, I rolled a tennis ball under my foot, heel to toe, in slow circles. I had to do calf raises, pushing my heel off the floor, rising up as high as I could onto my toes … and laughed when for the first two weeks of PT all those signals from my brain to my foot didn’t get me even a millimeter off the floor. There was more. There was the repaired ankle as inelastic as a new rubber band. There was the calf muscle that just won’t get strong again. There were quarter-body squats, then half-body squats, then full-body squats, deep down until my hips were below my knees. There was jumping rope. There was running for the first time—hot damn, did that feel fantastic—and the realization that I heel-strike way too much than is good for my back, hips, and legs going forward into middle-age. Then, finally, in October, there was the first time I dribbled a basketball again, the feeling like seeing an old friend for the first time in years. 

Did I ever think I wouldn’t play again? Honest? Not for a moment. Of course, I’d play again. I just needed to not skip any steps and work my way up to it. It’s a process I love. I love remembering to jump straight up on a shot, to keep my elbow in, to follow through, to keep my eye on the whole rim rather than one spot. I feel satisfaction when I get it right, and I chide myself when I get it wrong. But I do not quit. I don’t even think about quitting. I didn’t need to tell myself that I couldn’t play anymore and that I need to take up golf. I love playing. Why would I stop? 

Why do I write? I love sentences. I love words. I love that it might take me a very long time to write a good sentence, and that I have no problem reading a sentence dozens and dozens of times before I find the clause, or word, or sound, that isn’t correct, and then grab my thesaurus and dictionary, or both, and fish for that one perfect word (which may not, of course, matter all that much; it might show me that the right word changes the clause, and hence the sentence, then the paragraph, then … well, you see where this is going). It’s methodical, sure. But that’s writing. 

I write because the process of narrative—the making and shaping, slicing and dicing—is what I love. All those lovely things that writers much smarter than me have been saying for centuries is also true: art, particularly storytelling is human, and the way we understand ourselves and others is through our stories. 

In his essay “The Crack Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” He’s my literary hero and I’d like to believe I’m smart, so I love this quote. I write for the finished narrative; I don’t write at all with concern for the finished narrative. The idea, that I think I’m driving at here, which is that I both care and don’t care why I write. And like Denis Johnson wrote: you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

# # #

Michael Nye’s debut short story collection is Strategies Against Extinction (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, New South, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.