Zen and the art of video game free throws

Of all the places to be struck by a sense of calm and — dare I say it — peace, the free throw line was an unexpected one. Particularly a video game free throw line.

I must have shot a couple hundred. By the end, my brain was barely engaged in the activity. There were no other sensory distractions in the virtual gym. No generic song by some-rapper-featuring-Drake in the background. Just the sound of the ball snapping through the net (sometimes), the thud of the same ball bouncing back at me (more frequently), and the occasional squeak of sneakers on the court as the two guys standing at the bottom of the key rebounded for me.

Now more than ever, people are being encouraged to make sure there’s some self-care in their daily schedules, particularly before going to bed. Disconnect from the never-ending roar of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the anxiety that comes with it.

And that’s hard, man. I sometimes wonder if it’s easier for people outside of the news business, whose job depends on being at least somewhat abreast of what’s going on in the world at all times. This hasn’t always been pleasant — inside my first two years I was exposed to, and quickly desensitized to, more photos of dead bodies than I ever thought I’d see — but it’s become a lot more of a heavy mental weight to carry over the past year as day-to-day politics have become an echo chamber of shrieking, rage, disbelief and despair.

It’s stressful and I don’t even cover politics. Hell, I don’t cover anything. I just make sure the stories that people will want to click on are in places where they can see them without having to work for it, and send a tweet or two every now and then. But the content has a way of dragging you down.

It’s been around 15 months since I moved to South Florida, and I’ve spent the vast majority of that time waking up sometime between 4 and 4:45 a.m. for the early shift. I’ve put on close to 25 pounds (thanks to my predilection for the good-ass fried chicken down here, but also due to stress eating), the left side of my beard is becoming increasingly overrun by white hairs, I don’t sleep through the night anymore, and until very recently I’ve been unable to muster the motivation or energy to stick to any sort of workout routine. I haven’t even picked up a real basketball — something I actually love to do — since I left central Maine in late 2015.

Up until last month, I would have grand designs on being productive between getting out of work and getting into bed. But that winning combination of utter exhaustion, post-stressful day apathy and an ever-present feeling of “why bother?” would plant me firmly on the couch, without the energy to do anything more strenuous than play my way, one game at a time, through five seasons in NBA 2K16. At roughly 34 minutes per game, that equals Jesus Christ I’m not adding that up, it’d just depress me.

I promised myself I wouldn’t get started on the 2017 edition of the game until I’d won a ring in 2K16, which proved to be an arduous task (since I have little to no hand-eye coordination), but one I ultimately accomplished. But the more I think about my free-throw shooting drills, shooting the same 10 shots over and over again in almost total silence on an average Wednesday night, the more I realize that chasing a virtual ring wasn’t me tuning out and escaping the stress of the day’s shift and associated news cycle; it was just keeping me tightly wound.

My former dog (don’t worry, she’s still alive, she’s just no longer my dog) didn’t know why dad was either swearing or whooping in delight on the couch, and the cat couldn’t figure out why I would squirt her with the spray bottle when she’d sit on the TV stand right in the middle of the screen. I’d play until either I didn’t want to chance breaking a winning streak or I couldn’t stand it any longer, and then I’d go to the gym, have dinner, feed the animals and go to bed to start the whole loop over again.

My circumstances have changed in the past month, and now I find myself with 12 to 15 hours of solitude a day, and in that solitude I feel a lot more calm. It’s almost like putting my brain on airplane mode for hours at a time, letting myself concentrate on the silence. It’s as though my NBA 2K gameplay, as weird as this feels to put on paper, has been a microcosm of my past few months. From chaotic, stressful and chasing an empty sense of purpose to quiet, introspective and, on some level, seeking self-improvement.

What a weird fucking thing to get out of a basketball video game.

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