Thank you, Lady Terps, for bringing me back to the game.

I've been gone a long time. Eighteen years, in fact, and I never thought I'd be back. I let my last jump-shot fly off my fingertips back in 1996.

And I haven't touched a basketball since.

I don't recall whether that final shot swished, bricked, toilet-bowled or something in between. I don't recall whether I managed to block a few shots (likely, given my monkey arms), how many times coach bellowed at me to box out (many, I am certain), or whether any of my teammates drew blood (a distinct possibility).

All I remember is that we lost that round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament. And I couldn't stop grinning. I wanted to shout, to throw confetti, to tap dance my way across the court and right on into the locker-room.

I was beside myself with glee.

I never again had to lace up a pair of high-tops or feel the rough leather of a basketball beneath my palm. I never again had to hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on a shiny court or the squeal of a whistle in my ear.

I happily left behind the sport I had loved for over a decade.

That was 18 years ago. And it's taken until now, until this current NCAA basketball tournament, for me to feel the stir of interest in the sport again. And it all has to do with the heart and hustle of the Lady Terps and their mighty, hard-won climb to the Final Four.

They yanked me off the sidelines in spite of myself.

So thank you, ladies, for the swift kick I needed. I haven't raced off to sign up for a league quite yet, but it sure feels good to have that itch again.

Although I have to admit, I am rather surprised. After nearly two decades of pure indifference to the sport, I never expected to have that spark of interest rebound. I thought I was done with basketball.

I may not recall the details of my final jump-shot, but I still remember half-time in the locker-room during that game.

It was the first round of the Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament in California. I was captain of the Chico State Women's basketball team, and it was my role, in part, to rally my fellow teammates to a win.

We were lagging behind.

We had a team full of seniors hurtling toward the end of their basketball careers. And if we didn't figure out a way to the basket soon, most of us on the court would be hanging up our black Nike high tops indefinitely.

As I sat in that locker room, watching our coach slam doors and stare us down, I had only one mantra in my head, "please let us lose, please let us lose, please let us lose."

Disgraceful, I know. It still makes me cringe to think I had those thoughts, but that's how frazzled I had become.

I was no longer the passionate athlete, rendering her high-school boyfriends speechless (and then, eventually, crazed) because I would ditch their proffered dates in order to practice free-throws and hook shots in my driveway.

After years of summer basketball camps, traveling teams, four-hour practices, track workouts, weight workouts, running bleachers and giving up holidays, sleep, parties and yes, even academics at times, I was done. That NCAA game, for me, was over at half-time.

So although I turned my back on the game some 18 years ago, it's nice to know that one can bounce back from burnout. It is a very unexpected yet welcome gift. Especially since the sport gave me so much.

Even now, after all these years, the one-liner on my resume indicating I played college basketball has sparked more interest, enthusiasm and, quite frankly, job offers than anything else that is more pertinent to my career today.

Basketball did a lot for me.

The sport sucked me in as a tween, giving me focus and an athletic outlet. It helped build my confidence as a teenager as I worked my way up from benchwarmer to a starting varsity freshman. It molded me as a young woman, testing my limits of physical strength, speed, endurance and mental focus. And above all, basketball gave me the gift of camaraderie and the unbreakable friendships that I still cherish today.

In that sense, I suppose, the sport never really left me. And I am grateful for that.

It's good to be back in the game.

Joelle Babula is a former journalist turned nurse practitioner who works in the Baltimore area. Her email is joellebabula@gmail.com.


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