Have you ever wanted to be a professional athlete? Not just that – a star? What sport did your imaginary athletic divinity take place in? I was the craftiest running back, the defensive player of the year on the basketball court, the fastest, most accurate striker on the pitch (and the cleverest keeper), and I was Jo-Willie Tsonga – in my head, as an adult. These illusions were the fluff of a dreaming child, or perhaps, the start to a much more problematic string of grand delusions about my own capabilities. I’d visit each of these star personas in my head when consuming or playing these sports, but they never drove my progress. I simply lacked the abilities to carry out the athletic visions I had of myself. 1-athletic-kokearah-ezibota-tcttl

Having many grand delusions with a similar identity (in this case, star athlete) is similar to having invites to a bunch of amazing parties all on the same night. You can feel free to switch between them if you don’t make a commitment, but little will come from your fleeting glimpse.

The sport I settled on for my own professional pursuits was basketball. After the explosion of the Sacramento Kings into relevancy in the late 90s, my decision was made for me. The teams play-style, the intelligence behind it, and the consistent execution attracted me. In my head, I was a hybrid of Doug Christie, Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, and Kevin Garnett. In reality, my career high in turnovers was much higher than my career high in points during recorded competition. On top of having very little natural ability to understand the physicality of the sport, I grew 5 cm or 2 inches during the entirety of my high school career. Couple those virtues with my horrible, recurring intestinal issues, I was called to retire from the dream of professional athletics at a young age.

I remained an extremely engaged participant with the Sacramento Kings and NBA culture in general. 2-non-athletic-kokearah-ezibota-tcttlIn 2011, while studying at University of California: Santa Cruz, the then-owners of the Sacramento Kings appeared to have settled on relocating the team to the Los Angeles area. In economic terms, decision-makers who were responsible for a multi-million dollar economy wanted to extract that economy from an area that desperately needed it and move it to an area that desperately didn’t. The community of Sacramento led a charge to keep their beloved team – and now-billion-dollar economic structure – in place. It truly was an awe-inspiring community effort against different manifestations of well-financed villanry, and one that led me to be truly in love with the culture of Sacramento.

After struggling to care about my existence in the vapid, indulgent culture of Hollywood, I moved to Sacramento in 2013 in an effort to capture the same community spirit I witnessed from my hometown nearby and from places much farther. Through social media and various high-level work experiences, I built up my profile, skill expertise, and spirit. I soon came across an opportunity to extend my work as a producer and photographer for a sports blog called Cowbell Kingdom, which is part of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. Suddenly, my childhood dream of being in the NBA, a task I truly thought to be impossible, was achieved.

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I wasn’t looking for it. I hadn’t expanded my mind. Any structure of art or entertainment that you enjoy, be it athletics, cosmetology, films, painting, music, literature, dance, architecture, printing, crafting, astrology, herbology, etc – there is a way to participate at the level you desire and sustain it. I had to see my dream from an economic perspective. The NBA, the body that is the NBA, is an economic structure built on selling incredible performance in the game of basketball – in all aspects.

The body that is the NBA – the players, coaches, executives, fans, referees, media, merchandisers, marketers, and laborers – is a vast economy with many avenues of participation. A 1.8m or 5’11” boy missing 46 cm or 1.5’ of large intestine (does that make me 1m or 3’5”?) with no sentient concept of left and right body unity was never going to play basketball in college, let alone the NBA. The feeling I had walking to the court for the first time with my camera in hand will never be replaced. My heart had ascended to my jaw and stayed there, harassing my tongue with a steady beat for the entire experience.

4-secondgame-kokearah-ezibota-tcttlHeaded into the 2014-2015 season, I thought my position was compromised. See, a portion of my ascending colon was attacked by some scar tissue, as if some kind of tiny Spiderman with scar tissue webbing had a function to get to in my jejunum. The dumbass colon twisted while I was picking up some groceries, and the tiny Spiderman got to the jejunum party right on time while I struggle-walked the two blocks from the Grocery Outlet to my apartment. The twist only worsened as the night progressed, so I assumed tiny Spiderman had forgotten something at home (in my heart, where all Marvel characters live). Emergency services were called, and I had an overnight surgery to remove the twisted bowel obstruction.

Apparently, tiny Spiderman got lit with tiny Venom and tiny Carnage and drunk-scar-webbed my entire abdomen. My surgeon said that it was like removing cobwebs from a garden hose. I was in the hospital for the entire month of October in 2014, waiting for my intestines to start back up.

The day after I got out of the hospital, it was the Kings 2014-15 season opener. I went. I photographed the game. I produced the post-game segment. I went home. The feeling I had at that game was pure love. Having spent the previous month grappling with deep thoughts about existence, my mortality, and my identity, I was shrouded in fear for my body and mind. To step out of that vapor into a throb of fans, screaming, music, Slamson, the thudding of basketball on the court, the snap of the net, the squeaks of the shoes sliding against the wood, the patience….. the look in the player’s eyes, the move, the flash, the click, the dunk, the perfect frame…

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I couldn’t walk. I shouldn’t have been there. That injury and surgery destroyed me. I managed to get around the building carefully and efficiently due to a staff of healing I was given by a dear friend. Despite my pain, condition, and mild delirium, the idea that love was physically providing me with the balance and support I needed drove my professionalism in that moment, and the games in the months after.

I was gifted a new appreciation for the work I do and how I contribute to the NBA. It feels amazing to add to the NBA economy in such a visual manner. This past season, I switched affiliates to Sactown Royalty, a sports blog member of SB Nation which is a Vox Media platform. I took this opportunity to refocus my approach and adapt.

There’s always a chance to capture the flashy play and the best players. This 2015-16 season, I really zeroed in on the specific stories I saw in each game. One of my favorite moments was the first time Steph Curry played against little brother Seth Curry in the NBA. The first time they were on the court against each other in an NBA uniform, and the MVP cracked the littlest of smiles.

7-curryinthepot-kokearah-ezibota-tcttlThe best stories with the camera come when you look for the right moments. Many times, it goes beyond what’s happening with the basketball. Look beyond the provided path to your dream if our ancestors asks you to do so, and you’ll live it.

Working at the highest level in sports media in the USA as a producer and photographer has prepared me for challenges I’d normally never expect. It has taught me the importance of patience, silence, and self-worth. Just as the players are expected to perform to their maximum capability, I expect myself to perform to mine in my role.

Thank you, as always, for engaging with my words and my mind. If you have any questions regarding my profession, or have any desire to see more of my work, let’s engage more personally.

Kimani Okearah

Kimani is digital griote in the African diaspora. A visual storyteller and African authenticity advocate, he strives to represent an appreciation for the depth of diversity in Global Black identity in his art and writing.


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3 Comments on "This Close to the League"

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Clementine Burnley

I read this again just now and thought how much there is layered in together, life, work, purpose and determination to keep doing whatever you are doing as long as it remains significant and to make create significance every day.

James Graham

I loved this, Kim! Well done. Great detail and spoken from the heart.

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