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Getting Vulnerable And Shooting Your Shots

Sports can be cruel. And that’s why they are magic.

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At the start of the 2018 NBA season, Klay Thompson went cold. If you read news stories from the time, it seemed even worse than the statistical noise of some missed three-pointers in a small sample size. He was asked daily about what was causing the chilly snap, with SLUMP in all-caps on some headlines. To quote Andre 3000, “what’s cooler than being cold? ICE COLD!” 

A month into the season, he was shooting 32% for three-pointers, after shooting 40%+ in his previous seven seasons. Halfway through the year, he was still around 34%, below the league average for one of the best shooters of all time.

In a terse interview, Klay said: “What is somebody going to tell me about my jump shot that I can’t fix? Unless it’s [NBA Hall of Famers] Reggie Miller or Ray Allen, I don’t know who I’m supposed to listen to.”

Reggie Miller responded on Twitter with advice that I want tattooed somewhere special. “SHOOTERS SHOOT!!!”

But Klay knew that already. That’s what made him Klay Freaking Thompson, the legend-in-the-making who once scored 60 points on just 11 dribbles in three quarters. He catches, and open or not quite open, he often shoots. Because that’s what shooters do.

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Shooters Shoot

Now, if you follow the NBA at all, you’re probably cringing reading that intro, knowing that I’m not going to take this to an immediately joyful place. Yes, Klay shot, and yes, those shots went in at a disturbingly high rate, as if he made a deal with a powerful wizard. He ended the season on an absolute tear, helping lead the Golden State Warriors into the NBA Finals. Adversity, conquer that adversity, triumph for glory! A sports story made for Disney!

But that’s not sports, at least if you zoom out past when the credits roll. Sports are not the movie “Rudy,” ending in being carried off the field on the shoulders of your teammates. Sports are more like the messy existence that happens next, when in real life Rudy Ruettiger is charged with securities fraud (that actually happened!). The triumph and the downfall are all closer than they seem. Sports can be cruel sometimes.

Brace your extremities for what comes next. In the NBA Finals that year, Klay Thompson came down awkwardly on his left knee. He tried to stay in the game, limping up and down the floor, before reality hit. It was a torn ACL. Season over, of course. The next season too. 

That moment after a severe injury is a lucid nightmare. You are aware of where you are, but you’re also living months ahead, immersed in uncountable hours of pain and physical therapy. Thompson spent over a year in that liminal space between injured and healthy, before he was finally ready to consider returning.

Then in a pick-up game for rehab, he tore his right achilles tendon.

Hopes, built up brick by brick, dashed in an instant. Historically, an achilles rupture meant an NBA player would never be the same–and that was without a preceding ACL tear. From surefire Hall of Famer at the peak of his powers to some commentators wondering if he’d ever play again…in two instants. Forget the word “sometimes,” sports are plainly, uniformly cruel.

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Sports Are Cruel

What did Klay go through in that dark forest? We’ll probably never know the full story–even if he writes a book, I’m not sure we can ever understand the extent of someone else’s experience except by analogy. As his teammate Steph Curry said, “Nobody will understand what he’s been through.” Coach Steve Kerr, himself one of the best shooters ever, empathized with the struggle. “He can’t help but stop and think about how much he’s lost the last couple of years, just on a personal level. He loves the game so much and not being able to play, not really being able to be a part of the team the way he wants to, it’s been pretty emotional for him.”

“He loves the work, and he wants to be part of everything. All that’s been ripped away the last two years. So, there’s been times where he’s been pretty down.”

Why put yourself through that? Klay has made $182 million in his career, he’s probably already a Hall of Famer, he’s smart and can do anything with his life. Yeah, he could come back, but the chances he ever reaches his past heights seem close to zero. So…. why?

I think the answer is all the way back in that 2018 cold streak. “Shooters,” it has been said, “shoot.”

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Running Is Cruel Too

That’s a roundabout way to get to a running story. My writing can have the narrative flow of a merry-go-round ride on mushrooms, leaving you unsure of where you are and wondering why you are petting a plastic horse. 

At the September 2021 Run Rabbit Run 100 Miler, Tyler Fox (follow him here) stepped up ready to make some noise. He had won the Bighorn 100 in June, and he was even stronger after a great training block. The race has $15,000 to the winner, so it could even put him one nanometer closer to Klay’s career earnings! Tyler did everything right…. and he DNF’d.

Totally ready, the big race of the season, up in smoke in an instant with little explanation. This wasn’t Tyler’s first merry-go-round though. Over the last 5 years, he has seen much of the cruelty sports has to offer. Bad injuries, dreams crushed, questioning the point of it all–you know, the shit stew we’re all served eventually, in just about anything we truly care about.

Through it all though, Tyler kept showing up, getting comfortable in that liminal space between triumph and disaster that every athlete occupies if we zoom out past the end credits. He built an amazing coaching business with his partner Ellie, a full life where running can seem like a load-bearing buttress, at least from the outside looking in. That’s scary at the best of times. And in the tough moments, like after a DNF in a season-defining race, I imagine that feels like an existential peril. Running performance doesn’t really matter; he’s built a successful business that doesn’t require him to strive too hard in his own athletics; the inevitable failures are so difficult. Why even do it?

That’s the thing about shooters. THEY SHOOT.

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Bandera 100K

Tyler lined up at the 2022 Bandera 100k as his first big race since the DNF. The race plan was simple: shoot your shot. He went to the front of the race around the halfway point, pulling up from distance and launching the ultrarunning equivalent of a contested three-pointer. If you’re an athlete long enough, you become painfully aware of the bad shit that can happen. Yeah, you miss shots. Also, sometimes, you land awkwardly and tear your ACL, pivot and rupture your achilles, sprint and find out that you have a heart condition….do everything right only do have it all turn out wrong (and sometimes to have strangers on the internet tell you that you’re a piece of crap in the process).

Those narratives involve living in the past or in the future, though. That’s not where shooters live. Shooters shoot in the moment. Sometimes they add a sweet pose to admire it going in, even when they know it bricks off the rim more often than not.

Tyler held that metaphorical MJ-pose, smiling in photos as his brain must have been fighting off intrusive thoughts about what happened before and what might happen next. Over the rocky Texas hill country, he held off all but one racer (Jonathan Rea) to earn a Golden Ticket to the Western States 100. It was a fantastic race and monumental achievement, but the perfect race wasn’t Tyler’s goal. He was there to shoot his shot, not to judge himself about whether it went in.

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Time To Shoot

A day after that race in Bandera, Texas, across the country in San Francisco and 941 days after that fateful knee injury, Klay Thompson returned to the court. Analysts speculated that he’d be rusty–there isn’t really a story quite like this in NBA history. There were going to be so many questions, so many narratives–would he be the same? He couldn’t be, right?

I don’t think Klay was trying to answer those questions. I mean…how could you answer those questions? Go through the cruelty of a sports life, and you eventually realize that things will get better, then they’ll get worse, then they might be great, then catastrophic, possibly with some fun moments thrown in, before you fade away or die. Instead, Klay responded with the answer that made him Klay Freaking Thompson in the first place. 

He took five shots in the first few minutes. He took 18 shots in just 20 minutes of playing time. Some went in, most didn’t. But shooters can’t concern themselves too much with things they don’t fully control, with the whims of uncertain cruelty that define relying on a slowly decaying body to conquer increasingly difficult challenges. Klay, Tyler, or any other triumphant athlete you read about is a whisper away from disaster. What can anyone possibly do in the face of that cruelty?

As Klay said after the game: “I’m proud of myself for persevering.” He didn’t have to do that. Tyler didn’t have to do it. None of us have to do it. And that’s where sports teach us about so much more than whether a ball goes in a basket or who crosses a finish line a few minutes faster. Running is a great place to practice. Choose the scary race, take the aggressive race tactic, train harder for the hell of it, come back from that scary injury, invest in yourself fully because you have one chance at every passing day. 

But sports are most meaningful when they are about more than that. Ask for the promotion, start the business, write the article with the convoluted thesis, see if they’re free for dinner, take the big chances and get vulnerable every chance you get even when you factually know it’s not a Disney movie and it all won’t work out in the end. 

Do that, and… a bunch of your shots will still be bricks. It’s the unfortunate reality of trying to do difficult things–like Klay, we can miss more than we make and still be Hall of Famers. The key part is the question that comes next. What’s the best way to respond after a miss? 

I think you know the answer to that question.

Because you are a shooter.

And shooters shoot.

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.