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Basketball Was My First Love. Climbing Is My Last.

Danny Gilbert was an avid basketball player. When he sprained his ankle, he couldn’t play anymore and needed a new outlet. Climbing delivered.

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I’m at the top of the key with the ball in my hands and I haven’t used my dribble yet. I jab right to test the defender out. He’s quick but he snaps back too close to me. I feign relaxation and back away to start handling the rock. He wants that steal. As he moves  toward me I step twice to the left, then snap right with a fluid crossover. He bites and I’m gone. I dart for the paint where I can get airborne and creative with whichever defender comes to help. Only problem is this this guy is young and fast and I’m now older and slower. I won’t make it to the rim. Just as he recovers, I pull up for the jumper. Not my first choice, but this isn’t a bad shot and he can’t guard it. Way up here in the air, I’m wide open.  

Thinking back on that play, there is an illusion that I was conscious of the choices I was making. But that isn’t how it works at all. I was following instinct. My mind was empty. Basketball for me is like being carried down a river—its always flowing and changing, and you have to be ready for anything. There isn’t time to think in the traditional sense of the word.

Danny Gilbert on the Diamond, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
The author on the Diamond, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Photo: Bill Wright

Thing is, I don’t know if I made that shot or not…. When I landed, my left ankle folded over the defender’s foot. I was on crutches for over a month. That was the third time in two years I was benched by an injury. My ankle was becoming deformed after so many sprains. Far worse, I was having a harder time finding my flow in the river. Movements required thought and consideration, and my body had begun to relinquish control of the ship.  

Basketball was my first love. When my dad built the foundations of our house, he used some extra concrete to pour a small slab. He couldn’t have known the impact it would have on me, but little from my youth would shape me like that slab of concrete did. I played in the rain, in the snow, and in the heat. My old man liked to tell me that somewhere out there another kid my age was playing more. Playing until his hands bled. I liked to try to prove him wrong.  

When my dog died, when my girlfriend cheated on me, when my future was uncertain—I dribbled and shot on that slab of concrete. I never made money playing ball, and I didn’t get a scholarship. I may have started out wanting to Be Like Mike, but I had to let that dream die long before I finished playing. The thing that kept me coming back was the feeling of being in that river of unconscious instinct. I was seeking it with my entire being before I could even articulate what it was.  

Danny Gilbert on Death and Transfiguration in the Flatirons, Colorado.
The author on Death and Transfiguration in the Flatirons, Colorado. Photo: Bill Wright

But I came to a a crossroads with my ankle. Basketball was too difficult for me to play. Admitting defeat at the age of 25, I retired into something that “old” people do. I settled on hiking, mostly because I couldn’t get psyched on golf. My clock had run out and  it was time to drift into the American Dream State. I would concern myself with lawn maintenance, the local sports team and my 401k plan. I was prepared to dedicate a large portion of my identity to the car I drove. Now was the time to begin the search for a fleeting sense of self worth in each new purchase.  

After graduating from my crutches, and as soon as I felt I could trust my ankle, I went for my first hike. I  didn’t start out with much enthusiasm, but I managed to find it along the way. When I finished I was left feeling that I could do something harder. So I did. Then something harder after that. Eventually, the hiking required me to use my hands. Later, I felt like I should tie into a rope. Soon I was testing that rope out with falls. I became absorbed in it and I couldn’t give a shit about lawn maintenance.  

I fell into climbing as a somewhat natural progression and I’ve continued to this day. I wasn’t looking for the meditative state I had discovered playing ball, and I wouldn’t have expected it could be found in this sport. Climbing is slower, more methodical. The environment you interact with is running on geological time. But I found it all the same.

I still miss basketball for a variety of reasons, but chief among them: nobody ever used to ask me why I played. The risk is so low, the reward need not be justified. I’m regularly asked why I  climb. Climbing seems excessively pointless and dangerous to people that don’t participate in it. The solution for most people is to write the participants off as adrenaline junkies. We must “get something” from the sport that is not required of a sane and rational person. Climbers have  become addicted to the thrills and cannot help but march toward an untimely and preventable death just like any other addict.  

I guess I am chasing something. I have been chasing it ever since my dad poured that slab of concrete and set a hoop upon it. I could die climbing, but I don’t think I will. Most of us don’t. All I can say is that there is a river out there. I don’t think everyone knows about the river, but if you can figure out a way to find it, and absorb yourself in its flow, you should.