“My Time in the Paint”

An athlete contends with injury and identity.

empty basketball court

As graduation loomed last May, I was anxiously preparing for a film on eco-tourism that I would be producing as part of my upcoming postgraduate fellowship. Painfully aware that few students go to Harvard looking for a career in art or storytelling, I began scheduling conversations with journalists from within the Harvard network whom I saw doing work I admired.

I was scheduled to speak first with Professor Alfred Guzzetti to discuss his time shooting in Tanzania, where I would film my own upcoming documentary.

“Being a basketball player will actually probably help you while you shoot your film,” Guzzetti told me. This immediately caught me off guard, because for most of my life, I’ve regarded my athletic endeavors as at odds with my artistic pursuits: time and time again I’ve imposed limits on the latter in the name of the former.

By this time, too, I saw my experience as a college athlete as a collection of temporary highs followed by vicious lows that I couldn’t process amidst five hours a day at the gym—on top of a STEM course load, multiple part-time jobs, and a struggle to experience Harvard outside of the athletic complex.

Years of mental, physical, and emotional defeat over that once-precious orange ball eventually severed my identity from the sport and, capped by a career-ending injury, led to my departure from the program right before my senior season. Defeat came in various forms: like the beginning of each season when one of my coaches would tell the team that none of us (except the walk-ons) could’ve gotten into the College without the staff’s support. That was one of the first messages I heard after stepping on campus freshman year and continued to be the thing I heard at the beginning of every subsequent year: that I wasn’t really supposed to be there. Just the mention of the sport reminds me of the emotional state that I was often left to balance: playful joy interlaced with embodied sorrow. I think of my first few months at the College, a period defined by the aching immobility of crutches. Doubling-up on training prior to my arrival on campus had led to a stress fracture in my knee that sidelined me for virtually my entire first season. Until that injury, like many recruited athletes, basketball consumed my entire identity. It wasn’t merely a sport; it was the source of my self-worth, the arena of my highest achievements, and, eventually, the riptide I barely resurfaced from.

When I couldn’t perform physically for my coaches, team, and community back home, I lost myself. And as I was losing myself, I spent hours in the training room receiving physical therapy (on top of hours watching practice and lifts that I couldn’t participate in) where I saw many other athletes in the same position. I often wondered how they managed to keep it together while I had to fake bathroom breaks in between electrotherapy sessions so I could cry in private. I wondered if they, too, had to ask new friends to carry their tray in Annenberg, or if they also had to crutch the half mile to the weightlifting facility during pre-season to watch a 6 a.m. workout they couldn’t perform. Regardless of the quality of my day, defeat for me was solidified each night when I returned home just to be demoralized by a painfully slow ascent up three flights of stairs to my dorm room. 

Having always struggled to accept the limitations my commitment to basketball put on my other academic and extracurricular interests, the frustration I was feeling peaked when I had to face the dual reality of not being able to play on the team and not being able to pursue my other interests. I was stuck in between the two things I loved, unable to pursue either.

Looking back, I can’t understand what motivated me to stand every day on the sidelines in Lavietes Pavilion to observe a practice I’d never be able to participate in. As the months passed, I was completely deflated and came to see myself as useless. Eventually, between MRIs and successive misdiagnoses, I blamed myself for being weak and the resulting self-judgment tormented me. With no outlets to turn to, encouragement from coaches and teammates blew over my head and nothing could steer me away from the darkness I was headed toward.

I recall that when I first arrived at Harvard, my plan was to concentrate in Art, Film, and Visual Studies, with a secondary in Environmental Science and Public Policy. When I mentioned this to one of my coaches, I remember being laughed at. It wasn’t until shopping week revealed that most of the film, photography, and art-focused courses conflicted with our daily, four-hour practice block that I understood the joke. I didn’t take such a course until I left the basketball program my senior year. Thus went the majority of my college experience: limitations were placed on my other interests for the sake of a sport I never felt I really excelled in, because I couldn’t live up to my own expectations for myself. 

Yet despite all that, now an experienced artist and journalist was implying something different about my athletic career. Though Guzzetti’s exact words elude me, he said something to the effect of: “Because of your experience moving around among nine other people on the court, you’ve probably developed a spatial awareness that will benefit you as you start framing your shots and physically positioning yourself within sometimes chaotic environments.”

As much as I wanted to disagree with him about the relevance of my history as an athlete, he had a point. There’s an organized spontaneity to basketball, and movement in general, that my time in the paint had trained me to read and predict that left me with a knack for spatial awareness and, more importantly, an ability to manage my position relative to other moving bodies. These were what made my style of filmmaking unique: I was physically confident enough to get myself and my camera into chaotic environments because of my years of playing basketball at a high level. 

That thought brought me back to my sophomore year when I was finally running through drills, and to junior year when I was voted captain and had earned some regular game time. To say that I learned spatial awareness through the process is certainly true, but the more I thought about how my experience in athletics might have influenced my career path as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, the more I realized that these parts of my identity were more interconnected than I was willing to admit. 

As I’ve alluded, through my first three years of college I understood my artistic and athletic selves to be as synonymous as oil and water. When I wanted to join The Harvard Crimson, my athletic schedule got in the way. While co-President of TEDxHarvardCollege, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to attend the conference I was meant to host because it meant missing a pre-game practice. I got used to skipping various departmental guest speakers and workshops in the name of afternoon lift. Repeatedly, my commitment to athletics always meant putting my non-mandatory academic and extracurricular interests second. 

I struggled to make sense of my predicament. Did the cost of college athletics have to be the limitation of all my other interests? For a while, it seemed like the answer was yes. Further, I couldn’t really voice my frustrations because I knew very well what I was getting myself into while I was being recruited. 

By the time senior year came, following a gap year I took during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was told by a surgeon within the College’s athletic department that I had a partial tear in my shoulder labrum that would likely, if I participated in my senior season, progress to a full tear for which I would need an invasive surgery followed by four to six months in a sling. Though I had my suspicions, it still came as a shock and effectively meant it was in my best interest to forfeit the season.

About a week after, a few of the coaches suggested that continuing in the program as a part-time manager (as I had half-heartedly suggested) wasn’t an option. Either I commit to standing on the sideline again for every practice, lift, game, and meeting for the entirety of the season (perhaps, as one coach suggested, taking photos as part of a social media position), or I walk away from the sport I had played for the past 15 years and the program I had led as captain during the previous season. As much as I had tried to separate my identity from the sport through the years, I knew walking away would be a painful, difficult process.

However, unable to justify the limits I would have to impose on myself again, I turned in a new direction and left basketball behind with my resentment for the sport at an all-time high. A few days later, as I finished moving my possessions from my locker into black garbage bags, I spent my final moment staring at the nameplate hovering over the empty cavern that had held my gear over the past few years. In large, white text the label suggested my identity: “Rachel Levy #12. Boca Raton, FL.” It made me wonder what my community back home would think when they heard I was no longer playing basketball. Too ashamed to keep the nameplate, I turned around and left, determined to convince myself that the entire experience was nothing more than a big let-down.

I donated the majority of my unworn basketball shoes and tucked away a single pair for the memories I wasn’t sure I wanted. As I closed the lid on a storage box full of Harvard Women’s Basketball t-shirts, practice jerseys, sweatpants, and hoodies, I also tucked away any association of self I had with that life. From that moment on, I didn’t even want to recognize my athletic alter-ego and spent the remainder of my Harvard experience in the Comparative Literature and Art, Film, and Visual Studies departments, and in the Folklore and Mythology program, pretending I had been there all along. 

Until, that is, Guzzetti off-handedly suggested that my experience as a collegiate athlete would come to influence my work in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Beyond the spatial awareness component, the more I thought about my time as a basketball player, the more I realized the insights it had given me into the way the world worked. Most influential were those lessons that zeroed in on the will to persevere through adversity, the power of community, and the limits of motivation.

Throughout the 15 years I spent playing basketball, I gained perspective on the human condition. What happens when you bring 20 people with different histories, races, religions, nationalities, and foundational beliefs together and ask them to work toward a common goal? What does it mean to sacrifice oneself for a teammate, and what can these layers of selflessness say about a person’s capacity for love? What are the best ways to cultivate community, and how do groups foster genuine care and understanding among people with different life experiences? It is hard to ignore the relationship between my desire to explore the way humans understand one another through my career in journalism and the experiences I had as a basketball player observing the ways people persevered through excruciating mental and physical pain, and clung to one another in times of difficulty and celebration.

Guzzetti went on to offer me insightful tips that have already proven to be useful during my fellowship here in Tanzania. His most important implication, however, was that my identities as a basketball player and as a filmmaker need not be mutually exclusive, an idea that has encouraged me to draw from the rich experiences and conversations I had left packed away within those black garbage bags. 

And while it’ll probably be a while before I lace up those shoes I kept and put on one of those HWBB (Harvard Women’s Basketball)-emblazoned t-shirts, I’m beginning with small steps to pull truths from my life as a basketball player so that they might influence my life as a journalist. And as I do so, I can feel myself darting once again in a new direction and weaving together moments of joy and sorrow through the process: the ever-present metronome to my life’s experience.

Rachel Levy ’22 is an independent writer and filmmaker currently living in Arusha, Tanzania, where she works with Dare Women’s Foundation as a Pforzheimer Public Service Fellow. Her journalism probes the intersections of environment, culture, and colonial legacies, and her current project brings this focus to the safari industry in East Africa.

Read more articles by Rachel Levy

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