There we were.
Two adult males standing a few inches from each other: fists clenched, eyes squinted, chests heaving. I couldn't tell you exactly what the guy said to piss me off that day. But I do remember that we stood there in the middle of the basketball court, ready to scrap, for about three seconds. I know this because somewhere in those three seconds I made the decision to be a man.
You see, I walked away. And to be honest with you, I'm still wrestling with it.
A large part of me knows my decision was the right thing to do. I mean, what would I look like getting into a fistfight over a pickup game in a gym that sells sushi downstairs?
But there's another part of me that wonders what happened to the guy who once clocked a kid for stepping on his new Filas. What happened to the guy who showed up to school -- bleeding from the head -- after a gang fight the night before? The guy who wouldn't have debated whether to swing on a guy who called him out on the court.
In those three seconds I thought about the TV shoot I had to do the next day and how unprofessional I would look showing up with a busted lip. I thought about the fact that the ESPN offices were across the street and how embarrassed I would be if one of my bosses sauntered by as I re-enacted a scene from "Fight Club." What if I threw the first punch, and instead of fighting back, the guy just decided to press charges? My defense? He called me a bad name. Yeah, that's going to go over well.
Yet, I couldn't ignore the questions racing through my head about what would happen if I didn't swing. Would the regulars at the gym -- the ones who halfheartedly tried to break us up -- still think I was a tough player? Would I now become a target for any chump who had a bad day at the office and wanted to flex his ego at my expense? Would I be viewed as soft? Sure, I did the "right" thing, but each time I step onto that court it eats away at me. Just as I'm sure it eats away at any other man who has been challenged in front of his peers and decided to walk away instead of make an ass of himself.
As competitive as Kobe Bryant is, there has to be a part of him that hates the fact that he didn't take a shot at Raja Bell for clotheslining him. Yes, he did the "right" thing, but it came at a price. He knows it. Raja knows it. And we know it. People call guys like Ron Artest or Zinedine Zidane selfish, stupid and unstable. The one word you won't hear, though, is "soft", and there's a reason for that. I'm not advocating violence -- I walked away, remember -- but we can't ignore the fact that just as there's a cost to taking a swing, there's a cost to turning the other cheek.
Every time I hear about an athlete getting into a confrontation with some out-of-line fan or another athlete, I wonder if they go through the same checklist I did that day at the gym. Do they think about the endorsements they could lose or what the kids in the stands may think? Are they concerned about what their boys back home will think? Or the other guys around the league? In those rare moments when they are alone with their thoughts, which decisions gnaw at them the most -- action or inaction?
Allegedly Stephen Jackson inserted himself into a fight between teammates and other men outside a strip club last month. Next thing you know, he's firing a gun and dodging cars. On the outside, it seems like a very stupid thing to do. And it was. But I can't help but wonder what his team's chemistry would be like if he didn't show that he had his boys' backs in some way. I know if I went to a bar with friends, I would want them to help me if I got jumped.
Again, I'm not advocating violence. But whether you're talking about a professional athlete or a gym rat, as men get older, with more responsibilities, manhood becomes a trickier thing to navigate, especially if you grew up in an environment where hostility was the currency of choice. It's bad enough to actually lose your edge, but no man wants to even appear that way in front of other men. That's why Ice-T released a CD last month called "Gangsta Rap" even though he's played a cop on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" for, like, six years. To maintain appearances, if to no one but himself. At first I thought, "Dude, let it go." But really, that's hypocritical. I'm still wrestling with a decision that, as a 34-year-old father of a 9-year-old boy, I know I shouldn't. As long as we have peers, we will have pressure.
And you know, the truth is I have gotten a little soft. And I hate it. But I don't hate it enough to turn my back on everything I have worked so hard to achieve. So I, like so many of my brethren, will spend the rest of my days trying to find that peaceful balance between where I came from and where I am. Oh, I will always keep it real ... just as I will always struggle to accept what is "real" for me today.
Note: Less than 24 hours after writing this column, the author took an inadvertent elbow to the eye during a league basketball game. A short time later he iced the game at the free-throw line. Yet, for some reason, he's more proud of the shiner.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." He is currently working on his first book. LZ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.