he thud came from my blind side. By the time I realized I’d been hit, my car already was spinning.
You don’t have much control when your car starts sliding at 65 m.p.h. You have little time to think.
It was midafternoon last Friday. The sun was shining. The traffic was heavy. And I was just about to merge onto my last interstate after a 5-hour drive from Ann Arbor, headed to the western Chicago suburbs to help coach a couple of boys’ travel basketball teams.
I’d been coaching youth and travel basketball for years. But this was the first year coaching without my son on the bench. He graduated from high school last month.
So, when asked to stay with the travel organization as an assistant for this year’s spring and summer season, I couldn’t resist. It’s basketball. Besides, few things boost the senses like walking into a gym with a team you’ve helped shape, ready to compete.
I’d grown up playing anywhere there was a hoop. I was a decent player until I blew out my left knee at 40.
For years, I survived in pickup leagues with old-man moves despite a bulky brace on the right knee — I’d ripped that up as a high school senior — and cumbersome eyeglasses I secured with an elastic band.
Hello, Kurt Rambis.
All it took was a single bank shot, bounce pass or snap of the net to make the court feel like heaven.
I thought about none of this as I drove north on I-294 last Friday afternoon, eyes switching between the congested road in front of me and my rearview mirror.
And then … boom!
My head and neck shot forward. The left, rear end of my car slid out to the front so that I was looking directly back at the crush of vehicles trying to avoid me.
I felt as if in a vortex, clutching the wheel to hold on … to something, to anything.
The force of the hit flung open the sliding panel that covers the sunroof and the burst of light compounded the disorientation. From the sound, I knew it was bad. Yet it took a second to realize what was happening.
At first, you feel the body blow, the crunching trauma of the impact. Then something heavier begins to sink in, a kind of psychic weight: like, is this the end? Right here on some random freeway in Chicago? Spinning toward oblivion?
And yet, the urge to fight.
So, I held on. Pleaded (in my mind) for my fellow drivers to be alert. Laid off the gas. Searched for an escape route.
The impact carried me across four lanes, right to left. As I spun, I didn’t turn the wheel or hit the brake. Physics were in control, along with the fine engineers who designed the car.
I don’t remember how long I spun. It felt like stop time. But it wasn’t more than a few seconds.
When I stopped spinning, my car was headed in its original direction. I’d gone a full 360. Somehow, I was still moving forward. So, I eased my foot back onto the gas pedal.
A grating, grinding noise came from the rear of the car. I knew I needed to get off the interstate, but the shoulder was too narrow and hemmed. So, I guided my car another few hundred yards to the next exit.
As I did, I spotted the sedan that had plowed into my left rear. I’d gotten a glimpse of the car during the spin. It was speeding off onto another freeway.
I think the driver hadn’t allowed enough time to merge onto the upcoming exit ramp and mistimed how much space he she had. Or maybe the driver didn’t care. I don’t know.
Even now, as I write, I can’t believe I didn’t clip another car after I was hit. Or smash into the dividing wall. Or cause a pileup as I pulled a doughnut in rush-hour traffic. The surrounding drivers saved my life.
Later, inside the back of an ambulance, as paramedics checked my vitals, one told me to go buy a lottery ticket.
“I think I just got one,” I said.
We all chuckled. It hurt to laugh.
After sitting for a police report and filing an insurance claim and working with an Illinois Tollway Help Truck to cut away a chunk of mangled car that was rubbing against my tire, I was released.
I also was shaken.
I bought some water and sat for a while, waiting for the adrenaline to recede, for shock to subside. Waiting to gather the courage to finish the drive to the gym.
For me, the game always was about the escape.
That urge pushed me to playgrounds on summer nights, to driveways on winter afternoons, chipping away ice to dribble — and shoot, to airplane hangars on Air Force bases on the weekends, heaving worn-out balls toward makeshift rims.
Basketball is a solitary pursuit and a fluid, improvisational connection to something beyond yourself. Anyone, just about anywhere, can play it. Or at least some facet of it. Which explains, in part, why basketball remains our most popular sporting export.
This also explains, for me, why I drive to places as far as Chicago to remain a part of it.
After a couple of hours of recalibrating so that I could get back on the road, I headed back out for the gym.
I’d missed the first game but arrived in time for the second. I’d gotten word to the head coach about what had happened, but he hadn’t told the team.
During the first half, I sat woozily. Almost every noise startled me. The shriek of the whistle. The hollering of a coach. The cheer of a parent.
I couldn’t clap. I couldn’t yell out. I couldn’t encourage.
I could just sit.
By halftime, I began to regain my equilibrium. In the huddle, I told our team my story but said nothing of the game itself.
“I’m grateful to be here,” I said. “And I enjoy watching you play.”
I had nothing tactical or inspirational to offer, other than my presence, which, at that point, felt like luck.
The kids took the court, played with their usual grit and lost a tough game. The next day, we were back in the gym for our final game of pool play. We won to earn a spot in the bracket.
The victory was nice, but you learn in these settings, with so many games during a weekend, to quickly move on to the next.
But should you?
More than the win, what I enjoyed was hearing the sounds of the game again, absorbing the smells of a court, engaging in the rush of competition.
By then, the fogginess was gone. I could stand during time-outs and applaud. I could bark instructions. I could yell encouragement. I could coach.
Less than 24 hours earlier, I’d survived a frightening handful of seconds, for reasons I don’t understand.
But here, back on the hardwood, I was part of the team once more. And it never felt better.