Retiring from Competitive Basketball in my mid-30's...

Retiring from Competitive Basketball in my mid-30's...
ball is life, or ball was life?

This reflection is deeply personal. It’s a glimpse into the struggle that’s inside my mind at this very moment and has nothing to do with business. This is all the narcissist, the self critic, the imposter syndrome.

From the age of 12 when I first picked up a basketball, the game has been my life’s compass. It’s not just a game; it’s been my narrative. Ball is truly life. From the early setbacks of getting cut from the 7th grade C-team to the triumphs of being the only brown kid on the high-school Varsity team, basketball has been both my mentor and muse. It’s taught me about discipline, teamwork, resilience, and the nuanced dance between success and failure. As a Pakistani-born American, the court became my sanctuary, shielding me from the challenges of my home life and of course, teenage bullying. Public service announcement (PSA): being good at sports is a solid way to move up in the high school popularity contest and demand respect.

I’ve observed many, far from the hoop dreams of making it into the NBA, still play with a passion that’s palpable. Adult basketball leagues are a real thing, and why do people still play so competitively and take it so seriously? I don’t know. For each, the drive is unique. For me, it’s been two decades of camaraderie with my teammates and the competition in the main tournaments and leagues I’ve grown up playing in, the Ismaili basketball tournaments & leagues. This league has been my version of the NBA, although no where near as skilled. From multiple regional victories to multiple national and global championships, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve tasted winning in this league at every level, over and over again. I compare myself to being the Bill Russell of this league, I have many, many rings. Along the way basketball became intertwined with my identity, with people only recognizing me for one of 2 things: for my ventures in business or my dominance in basketball.

My team has consistently plays at a high level and constantly won. The Dallas Titans are a recognizable and respected name in our community. We play our asses off and we’re good dudes who have all excelled in multiple parts of life outside of sports. I love my team and my teammates. I’m a Titan for life.

Yet, change is the only constant and Father Time is unbeaten…

The world paused with COVID, and so did my time on the court. Mid-2022, an attempt to reconnect with the game led me to a jarring back injury, a stark reminder of life’s fragility. The next morning I collapsed on the bathroom floor for 3 hours with excruciating back spasms with no one around for help. Alone and in pain, I confronted the possibility of parting from the sport that’s been my anchor. The tears from pain and realization that I might have to give up playing the sport I love put me in a period of depression. My ego was shot and I felt that my body had finally given up on me.

By January 2023, I chose to end the self-pity and rise once again. After a hiatus of three years, the game felt distant, almost foreign. But before I could think of dribbling or shooting, my first battle was with my own body. With constant dedication, I overcame the physical challenges and “fixed my back.” I’ll explain in another blog post how I did this, but just FYI, it took 2 hours of hard work 5 days a week for about 6 months to overcome this.

After not playing basketball for 3 years skills tend to deteriorate. From handling the ball to shooting, it felt foreign. Mix in there the mental fear of throwing out the back again and being in excruciating pain, it becomes an unfamiliar sport. You aren’t able to play at the same level that you were able to once play, unless you put in the work to get back to where you once were.

The question loomed: Can one, at 34, recapture the magic of their 20s? With commitment, undoubtedly. I just proved it could be done, I turned back the clock. But I started noticing something was different in me this year… the fierce competitor in me has mellowed, replaced by a more reflective player. The court, once a sanctuary, now feels like a place of disconnect.

There was a time when my hunger was insatiable. I approached every game with a fierce determination, wanting to outdo every opponent on the court. My dedication was evident, and it earned me a lot respect. I was a force to be reckoned with on the court, having put in the hours and the sweat to be among the league’s best. But now, that burning desire, that relentless drive, seems to have mellowed. I find myself pondering: Why is this still worth it to me?

Is it the fatigue from the relentless effort I’ve invested this year to reclaim my former glory? Or perhaps it’s the realization that I have nothing left to prove. My track record speaks for itself, I’m a fking winner and I’ve won at every level multiple times. I used to create imaginary adversaries, using the smallest critique as fuel to push myself further. The court was my battleground, and every game was a war. But now, as I look around, that combative spirit has softened. Despite overcoming a debilitating injury and holding my own against the 20 year old players in a tournament this past week, I question my motivations to keep playing.

I stand at a crossroads. With another six months of dedication, I genuinely believe I could surpass my prime. Physically, I’ve never felt better. Yet, the energy and time I pour into the sport could be channeled into my other endeavors that have a tangible impact on people’s lives. Why does basketball still hold such a sway over me? I grapple with these thoughts, wondering if it’s time to hang up my jersey and retire.

Yet, there’s a lingering spark. Last weeks tournament served as a reminder of the player I can become once again. Being the oldest player in every game yet still competing toe-to-toe with younger athletes reignited a familiar flame. The flame isn’t burning as bright as it used to, but it’s returned, although dimly. And not winning this recent tournament has added more fuel to it. We got 2nd place. And if it’s one thing that I absolutely hate, it’s 2nd place. I rather be last than be the first loser. I absolutely hate losing more than I love winning.

However the support I received during the tournament was overwhelming. The joy in the eyes of my family, friends, and their children watching me play was humbling. I am filled with gratitude. The sheer number of spectators that came up to me after a loss, the stories of 5 year Ezra picking up a basketball for the first time after watching me play, or of 10 year old Leila wanting to “play like Shaz”, or the 20 year old kid from Houston telling me he models his game after me and countless others expressing their admiration, reminded me of the legacy I’ve built over two decades. The requests to coach, the words of encouragement, the “can’t believe you can still play like that at this age,” they all signify the impact I’ve had my own little bubble.

Basketball has given me so much. It’s not just about competing; it’s about inspiring the next generation, showing them that age is but a number. The game has shaped me, brought countless blessings, and defined a significant part of my life off the court. It can bring the same to them, I can bring the same to them…

I’ve just never been one to do things half-assed. If I decide to keep playing, it won’t be a casual endeavor. I have the potential to be among the best, if I continue, and I will put in the work to be the best player I’ve ever been. There is no middle ground for me, I either put in all or nothing. But it demands motivation. It demands unwavering dedication and commitment. There is no other way because I won’t be content by being the benchwarmer, or just a source of motivation for the team. Or just a coach… but that’s just not me. I still have a lot left in the tank. I can still compete at a high level, if not higher than ever before. And I still unfortunately have an ego to try and do so. But again… why does it matter? This isn’t the NBA lol. We take this way too seriously…

The path ahead is uncertain. This recent tournament has added some fuel to the fire, but for now, it’s time for a pause. I need to reflect, to find a renewed purpose to keep playing or perhaps, create new challenges to overcome. Or maybe, I just need to manifest a new enemy.