By Barak Swarttz // March 22, 2018 //
Just like that. Four years. Four LONG years of college basketball. I do not even know where to begin to compress the past four years into a few paragraphs.
The most recent memory I have is my senior day from this past season. A lot of people came to the game, for both teams. It was a high-energy game, which made it that much better for me because I feed off of energy and always have since I picked up a basketball. Dead basketball gyms are the worst environments to play in. Period.
The gym was loud, the fans were involved and the game was chippy. It’s funny actually…my entire life I have never gotten a technical foul. Ever. Not in travel leagues, camps, clinics, when I played in Israel, AAU, high school or college. Never. I always wondered if I was ever going to get one and my last college basketball game would have been an ironic time to.
During the first half, I forced the player I was guarding to travel and the crowd started going nuts. I proceeded to look at him and scream in his face because I was amped up – that’s just how I am; a very, very emotional player.
Right after, the referee sprinted up to me, got close to my face and said, “Don’t do that again, none of that. That’s where things get messy.”
I walked away with a huge grin on my face and thought to myself, “Man…that would have been the perfect time,” but I did want to preserve my clean record at the same time. After that, I was convinced that I was going to go the rest of my life without ever receiving a technical foul…but two weeks later, guess what?
In just my second men’s league game, I got T’d up for saying, “Man I think that was a terrible call,” under my breath; what a warm welcome to the league. Life is funny, man.
With less than a minute left to play in the Katz Gymnasium, one of my teammates caught a cramp and there was a delay in the game. I was on the other side of the court and for about 15 seconds, I had this weird moment to myself where I felt alone in the gym.
Just me, the hoops, the stands, and the smell of the hardwood. I took a seat and looked up at the ceiling and at the other hoop at the end. I took a deep breath and realized this is it. Less than a minute left, and it is over. Everything.
Wearing this jersey across my chest right now in this moment is the last time I will ever wear a jersey to play for a competitive program again.
After years of travel leagues, summer camps, clinics, off-season training, 6:00 a.m. workouts, runs, lifts, healthy diets, and conditioning just to make it to college basketball and bang – just like that, it is over.
But let me back up for a second.
The summer entering my senior year at Newton South High School, I was receiving a lot of interest from a pool of colleges in the New England area. My team participated in a weekend tournament at Boston University and we played twice on Friday and had two more games Saturday.
During the first game Saturday morning, I went up for a layup and landed on my right hip bone. Immediately, I felt an enormous amount of discomfort and pain in my lower back. I got back up after a few seconds, and a few plays later, I went up for another layup and landed on the same spot.
This time, I was down for a few minutes. I couldn’t really move that well and my lower back was so tense that my entire core felt shut down. My coach and a couple teammates helped me up and I sat on the bench for the rest of the game.
We were scheduled to play our second game at noon, which happened to be the championship game against New Mission High School. At the time, New Mission was a top-10 team in the state, known for producing Division I scholarship players, state championships and a tradition of winning.
On the other hand, my school was the utter underdog and not many people thought we stood a chance. Unfortunately, we only had a total of seven players for this tournament. I was still hurt from the morning game and another one of our players rolled his ankle that same game and was unable to play.
So, I had two choices – forfeit the game because we did not have enough healthy players, or push through the pain and play. Without a doubt, I decided to play against New Mission with just five of us healthy, no substitutions.
Somehow, someway, we played one of the best games of our tenure together.
Throughout the game, I was limping on offense and defense, because of how shifted my body was from the falls during the morning game. The pain, running, and competition did not stop me and I was able to temporarily block some of it out. In fact, I ended up scoring 24 points.
As the game went on, all of the players, coaches and college scouts from the rest of the courts migrated to the baseline and sidelines of our game to watch. It was packed; I mean jam-packed with people and I LOVE these kinds of environments.
We made it to overtime and a minute into it, my teammate passed me the ball and I took a step and suddenly stopped moving. I caught the worst calf cramp I have had my entire life – when I tell you I could not pick my leg up off the court, I felt like I was in quicksand.
I looked down at my calf and it appeared as if the calf muscle in my right calf was scooped out with a shovel and completely nonexistent. For a second, I thought it this would subside and I could finish the game, but there was no chance at this point.
My hip, my back, and now my calf – I was broken.
This was just the beginning…I experienced the first wave of many long-term injuries that pivoted not only my entire basketball career but in other aspects of my life as well.
After going through x-rays, cat-scans, and an MRI, I was diagnosed with two hairline fractures in my back, as well as something called Spondylolisthesis, a fancy way of saying one of my vertebrae slipped in front of another.
I was shut down from all activity for half a year and put in a Boston Overlap Brace (BOB) as well as hooked up to a bone stimulator. The BOB is a hard-shell plastic brace that I wore for 23 hours of the day for four months straight.
The other hour was for me to do my physical therapy stretches and take a shower.
Now I laugh and joke about it, but at the time, this was a difficult transition for me. Hugging friends in school was embarrassing and awkward because they would start patting my back and then ask, “Barak… what is this?”
Sometimes, I would sarcastically reply with “I have been working out a ton,” however over time, I opened up to more people about it.
Quite frankly, I felt embarrassed and out of place being a senior in high school confined in a plastic brace, partially immobile. If I dropped anything on the ground, I had to get on one knee to pick it up, because if I bent over the brace would poke out at the top of my shirt and restricted me from bending down.
In class, if the bone stimulator disconnected, it would make a beeping noise. I did not tell many people about it, including my teachers, so whenever the stimulator got disconnected, usually the teacher would call the class out for someone’s phone going off. I would have to leave class immediately without saying anything, reconnect the stimulator in the bathroom, and sometimes tell the teacher after class what happened.
I transitioned out of that brace around the time of the beginning of my senior season and ended up playing that year in a transitional brace, which was a more flexible and lighter material than the BOB.
I remember during the first game of my senior year, I was running down the court to set up the offense and my defender put his forearm on me as I was cutting and said: “Dude, have you been working out??”
While I was probably 150 pounds soaking wet, I looked at him with a grin and said “Every day man.”
Today, the hairline fractures are completely healed, however, the spondylolisthesis is permanent because of how far two areas in my lower back separated from the injury (L4-L5, to be specific).
During this back-injury phase, I got introduced to what remains one of my most valuable life assets; a foam roller.
Essentially it’s a cylindrical piece of foam used for fitness and massage to help speed up muscle recovery as well as relieve muscle tension in the body. A physical trainer at the gym I went to growing up showed me in one hour how to use a foam roller – just about everything from my back, shoulders, hips, it-band, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.
He showed me a routine that I developed over time which became consistent. Every single game of basketball that I have played since learning how to use the foam roller, I have used it to warm up. In fact, I cannot play without rolling out beforehand and I will not play unless I know it is guaranteed that I can.
When I get to the gym, I get my basketball stuff on and then spend 10-15 minutes rolling out, while just about everyone else gets in the gym, throws his or her shoes on, and starts warming up without spending a second stretching or warming up.
It has always been a major commitment within itself – getting there earlier than others, making sure I had a foam roller, and going through my routine so that my body was ready to go. Over time, this foam roller of mine became a movement.
Before every game, every practice, every workout, still to this day, I roll out. Over time, I have become a roll-out expert. I have soaked in a wealth of knowledge on the internet, from other experts, as well as being a practitioner myself, about mobility, flexibility, and differences between static and dynamic stretching. This movement allowed me to share this with many, many friends.
Due to the time I spent on the sidelines, I decided to do a post-graduate year at the Pomfret School in Connecticut to regain some of the recruiting time I missed. However, six weeks before the season was set to start, I was diagnosed with bi-later hairline fractures in my shins. Essentially I had stress fractures in both of my tibias.
Bone injuries typically take 6-8 weeks to heal, however, some take longer and others not as long.
I decided to rest during the time prior to the season and there was unfortunately no change. I was left with two choices: continue to sit out and wait for them to heal, or push through it and play. I did not really have much of a choice since this season was supposed to put me back on the forefronts of college coaches’ minds.
So, I played through it and over time they got worse. There were days during my season at Pomfret where I had trouble sleeping or putting any sort of pressure on my shins. The slightest touch to the bone caused an extreme sensation and major discomfort.
Today, the hairline fractures are unfortunately permanent. Every season of college, around the time of the first game, things would start to peak with my shins. There were only three things that have ever helped: ibuprofen (and a lot of it), ice, and rest. Aside from that, it has been a very, very long mental game with me.
Additionally, weaved into these years, I went through an avulsion fracture in my ankle, several sprained ankles, compartment syndrome in my right shin, and one other major injury which required surgery that I’ll get to shortly.
While my shins were a problem at Pomfret, I was able to regain a fair amount of recruitment from a handful of Division III schools in the Northeast. I graduated from Pomfret in 2014 and ended up on the roster at Elmira College in New York, 15 minutes north of Pennsylvania.
Up until that point of my life, my family and friends had always seen me play basketball growing up, especially my two parents. My father Michael and my mother Carol made it to the vast majority of my high school games between Newton South and the Pomfret School.
Moving to New York for college was a major transition in many ways; but for basketball specifically, it took a huge toll on me. Fighting through continuous injuries from high school blended with being over six hours away from home affected me in more ways, both mentally and physically, than I thought I could tolerate.
Choosing to transfer to Curry was not solely for basketball; in fact, basketball was near the bottom of the list of reasons to switch schools. Still, continuing to compete and play was important for me to consider in making the school change.
During a summer league game the summer before moving into Curry, I had an awkward fall after taking a layup. When I landed, I felt a twist and crack in my right knee but it was not that painful, more uncomfortable. I was limping for a little and then ended up running again. About a minute later, I took another shot and when I landed, I felt and heard the same twist and crack.
I found out the day before moving into Curry that I tore my ACL.
The timing on this probably could not have been any worse. It happened at the beginning of August and after knowing something was up, I was not fully surprised when the doctor told me.
Basketball season was down the drain for sure. However, what kept me sane was realizing that I was not moving back to Elmira the next day and instead heading to Curry. As opposed to six hours away, I was just 20 minutes down the street from my home, family, friends, and dog.
If I had to go back to Elmira the day after getting news that I tore my ACL, I am not really sure if my parents would have wanted me to go back, because I knew for SURE I did not want to.
Although, since I did not transfer solely for basketball, I was not completely crushed. Being here, back home, at a new school with new people, opportunities, and experiences, the transition was much smoother.
My junior season was washed away after that appointment and so I spent last year’s season on the bench supporting the team in every way I could. From the end of September all the way through May, I rehabbed HARD to get myself in the position to be able to play my senior year.
The adversity never came to a halt. With all of the injuries I mentioned above, it has been a commitment within itself to cater to those over my high school and college career.
In addition, statistically, things did not go our way.
Last year sitting on the sideline, I observed a one-win season. In fact, that sole victory was at a tournament up in Maine that I did not travel for because I was in the middle of my rehab process.
This year, we ended up with the same overall record. Having already been through a one-win season, I was determined to turn things around. Unfortunately, as a program and team, we lacked some talent in certain areas and were prone to incredible amounts of adversity.
One thing that a lot of people do not realize is how young of a team and program this is. When you have only two returning seniors (myself and John Coleman), one of which did not play at all and the other who played minimally the previous year, there is not a strong returning unit for the next year.
However, getting back to playing and getting up and down the court with my teammates was something I had been away from for far too long.
Not only being able to play but this time, looking back in the stands and seeing my parents, brother and other family and friends again put a smile on my face every day.
My whole life, I have not only played for myself because of my love, passion, and loyalty for the game but also for my family and friends; parents, brother, coaches, late dog and my entire support system.
The next “chapter” of my basketball life is certainly unclear for me.
Playing the sport at a competitive level is now over. However, to preface this, I will be just as competitive in my men’s leagues as I was in college.
I hate losing. I think losing has taught me and continues to teach me a lot and I have learned to turn losses into wins in various areas of my life.
But still, for basketball specifically, I really hate losing. In men’s leagues even, I will sometimes dwell and think about games for hours and sometimes days, losing sleep over them.
I know I may sound crazy, but, when it comes to basketball, losing takes a toll on me. It is a mixture of being too competitive and never settling.
I think that I relate to a current NBA player by the name of Russell Westbrook in this way. He is, in my opinion, the most competitive player in the NBA. If you are not wearing an Oklahoma City Thunder jersey, you are an enemy during the game. No friends, no mercy. I love that about him and have the ultimate respect for his ultra-competitive nature. This part of his game, in my opinion, is one of the driving forces for him being one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Fortunately now, I am able to be around the game at a professional level that does not involve playing but instead, I am a Strategic Marketing Intern with the Boston Celtics. The Celtics have been my favorite sports team my entire life and my passion for basketball grew while being a die-hard Celtics fan my entire life.
After all the injuries, all the x-rays, cat-scans, MRI’s, doctors’ visits, second opinions, rehab facilities, braces, stimulators, crutches, surgeries, immobility, pain, and discomfort, I can say one thing: I have never quit.
I never skipped a day of rehab.
There were nights that I got back home past 2:00 a.m., took my back brace off, stretched on my floor in the dark for 15 minutes and went to bed. There were nights I convinced myself I could not get out of bed after my knee surgery and make it to class.
I never missed class.
From all of this, I have taken a lot of pride in my work ethic and ability to never quit and give up. If there is something that I want to do, I am going to do it. Period. End of story. Nothing will get in my way.
Did I have a successful college basketball career? Absolutely not; probably the furthest thing from successful by my definition if you ask me. However, I love the game.
I love the process. I never want to let adversity dictate me; instead, I want to dictate adversity. That is why I still do the SAME stretches that I learned at 17 years old from rehabbing my back injury. That is why I roll out before any workout or game I have today and will until the day I can no longer move. When I am 75 years old, I want to be able to bend down and take the turkey out of the oven without any pain or major restriction.
The past seven years has been full of adversity – I can tell you that I have been to rock bottom. But, at some point in my life, it will all make sense as to why things happened they did.
Lastly, a final word, to basketball.
It has been the most unexpected, happy, sad, confusing, frustrating, unpredictable, uncertain career ever. There were times where not only did I want to hang up the shoes, but other people around me wanted me to. I never quit.
My ability to continuously push and push and push and block out all the noise has given me an inconceivable work ethic that I truly believe cannot be matched.
Right now is the time for me to thank you.
Thank you for the noise. Thank you for the uncertainty and unpredictability. Thank you for the injuries, the major and the minor ones. Most of all, thank you for all the adversity.
Thank you for teaching me that this game, this game of basketball, is more than basketball.
It is life.