Matt Giles | Longreads | March 2019 | 28 minutes (6,730 words)
Dry heaves racked Dan Stoddard’s body as he bent his 6-foot-8, 325-plus-pound frame awkwardly over a toilet, shaking as he vomited up the Gatorade and other fluids he had consumed in an attempt to stave off dehydration. The 39-year-old hadn’t slept well in days, and even when he did manage some shut-eye, it was only for a few hours at a time before beginning the first of his two six-hour shifts driving a bus for Ottawa’s OC Transpo public transit system. Stoddard had never felt this exhausted, but he couldn’t rest — down seven points at halftime, his team needed him.
It only took the first 20 minutes of this early February 2018 game against Seneca, one of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association’s top teams, for Stoddard to realize his body was fully gassed. Algonquin had lost 10 of its first 14 games, so the final outcome — an 80-71 defeat — was immaterial, but Stoddard had joined the team to finally act on the lifetime of regrets he had accumulated, and he didn’t want to add another disappointment to the ledger.
In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”
He knew others would think this experiment was crazy — during the Thunders’ preseason schedule, Stoddard heard the laughter from opposing coaches and players — and he even realized that his endeavor reeked of desperation, but he never felt the pull of quitting. “If I’m not talented enough, I can live with that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to put in the effort to be the best player I can be,” he told me. “I don’t want to be wasting time hemming and hawing thinking about it.”
Most of Stoddard’s teammates are at least two decades younger than he is; at first, they thought of him as something of a sideshow, but Stoddard’s commitment to training earned him respect: “They see me on Instagram at the gym at 5 a.m., and they see me in practice every day, and they understand how dedicated I am to the team.”
According to Trevor Costello, Algonquin’s head coach, “All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain. He sprained his ankle before last Christmas, and after a twelve-hour shift driving a bus, his foot down on the ground the whole time, his foot was the size of a watermelon. He’s just so dedicated. Fuck, if he was a real stud, he’d get us thirty points a game. But he’s working — he’ll be better next year.”
Yusuf Ali, Seneca’s guard, didn’t initially understand Stoddard’s passion. He was taken aback when the two teams first met in November — “[Stoddard] looked so old, it was very confusing,” he told me — but before the February rematch, he congratulated Stoddard: “I told him it was an honor to play against him. I know people out there are scared of the risks to pursue their dreams, so he is a hero in my eyes. This doesn’t happen every day.”
At the start of his freshman season, Stoddard experienced something of a 15-minute burst of fame in the Canadian press; several outlets featured his journey for the same reason — his story touches the very base emotions of our human core — but then the novelty of his quest wore off. Now, he’s just a player with immense hustle in a changing body still growing accustomed to the grueling athletic demands of a college athlete.
‘All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain.’
The now 40-year-old is more than a publicity stunt, and although he’s taken it to the extreme, Stoddard’s career is part of a trend of competitive athletics taking hold among adults well into and beyond their 30s: Of the 2,500 or so adults surveyed for a 2015 study commissioned by Harvard, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, only a quarter said they’d played or participated in some sport in the past year. But of that quarter, a large majority played once a week or more. The majority play mostly because they enjoy doing so, but 23 percent said they played mainly for health reasons. Stoddard’s quest is emblematic of this shift. Not only does he plan to keep attending and playing for Algonquin for the next three years, after which point he will be 42 years old, but he has also already lost nearly 150 pounds pounds in a 12-month period and hopes to drop nearly 200 pounds total by the time he graduates.
Where Stoddard differs from those other midlife warriors, though, is that he would actually like to continue playing beyond Algonquin — to explore the possibility of becoming a pro athlete. Stoddard claims ex-pros have been encouraging, and his stats, were they those of a 19-year-old are promising: Through 21 games of his sophomore season, the center averaged 6.4 points and nearly five rebounds per game, and his field goal percentage (54.7) was fourth-best in the conference. During a November win against Georgian College, Stoddard barely missed a double-double (10 points, nine rebounds), hustling up the court in a high-paced (77 possessions) game, which he could never have done when he joined the team.
But still, the facts are glaring. Stoddard has spent decades willing his body across eastern Ontario; stabilizing badly sprained ankles with tightly bound boots while working a 100-hour week at a construction site; falling 22 feet from a ladder and breaking his hand, only to cut the cast off to avoid unemployment. Stoddard estimates he has had about 60 jobs since graduating high school; construction, sewer maintenance, a bouncer who once fought off a knife-wielding assailant — you name it. The work has put an untold amount of stress on his body. It has, in other words, been through the wear and tear that everyday life requires.
“To jump in at the top rung without developing one’s body fully is a recipe for disaster,” said Andre Deloya, a retired sports trainer with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The predictive formula is not rosy. Our bodies are developing, evolving, and positively growing until the age of twenty-five, which is the peak of the mountain. After that, we all start to deteriorate.”
Stoddard is aware of the risks, but to his mind, they make his current moon shot all the more enticing: Who could have possibly conjured up a tale of a bus driver to the Algonquin hardwood (and potentially beyond)? “The reality is that when growing up, you see the NBA, and that’s where you want to be,” he said to me when I met him in February 2018. “It’s the best, and you strive for the best. You don’t just want to be the guy no one remembers. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
He added, “So what if it happened at forty-two? Who gives a shit. I’ve always said age is a number, but that’s bullshit. We all know it’s old, especially when it comes to basketball. But if you can play, you can play, and I just want to have the definitive answer, to have someone tell me I don’t have the talent to make it at the highest level. It’s just to know.”
According to his Ottawa-Carleton (OC) Transpo colleagues, Stoddard’s a “big teddy bear,” someone who “shoots the shit” in the locker room between his daily bus routes. “I’m always honest and I don’t beat around the bush,” he told me, detailing his childhood in what he calls the boondocks of Ontario, helping his father to build houses for a burgeoning community on what previously had been acres and acres of farmland. Stoddard had a sheltered upbringing: If he wanted to visit friends, he biked several miles to the next town, which explains why he didn’t take to basketball until high school. “I was a teenage kid doing nothing,” he explained, adding that until the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors expanded north of the border in the mid ’90s, he had never watched a basketball game on television.
Stoddard started playing a bit early in high school, but in 11th grade he sprouted and added several inches to his frame. While he lacked coordination and his understanding of the game was limited, a player with his size — by then 6-foot-8 — was very much in demand. “My center of gravity was thrown off,” he said, “and after six months of being messed up, I had to retrain my body’s balance. I was just a tall guy.” Stoddard flunked out of high school before he could improve upon his burgeoning basketball skillset, and his biggest regret, he told his family, was that he didn’t play organized basketball beyond high school. That failure gave way to a chip on his shoulder, one fueled by a sole thought: Why didn’t he succeed on the court? No matter the highs in his life, the nagging perception remained. “I spent a long part of my life not knowing what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to be perceived, or the legacy I want to leave behind,” he said.
“Once I achieve a limitation or a goal or an understanding of what I’m doing, I get bored quickly,” he continued. “I tend to drive myself a thousand miles a minute.” And off the court, that chip was a hindrance — dropping out of college after a semester or two, he rebuffed his father’s offer to take over the family’s construction business. “It felt like he was encroaching on me, and I couldn’t be bothered,” said Stoddard.
Stoddard forced himself to do things for the health of his own family — working those 100-hour work weeks to not only provide for his son and daughter but also to help pay for his wife, Amanda, to get a nursing degree in palliative care. Basketball was his one outlet that provided unfettered joy; it was his lone constant and getaway from the demands of life. “You fend for yourself, and you take care of yourself,” he said. But on the court or at the playground, he wasn’t a construction worker, a sewer company employee, a garbageman, a nightclub bouncer, or a husband married at 20 years old and father of two teenagers.
He could be found on the playgrounds of eastern Ontario at least four nights a week, finally “doing something for me, and not for the family.” All those reps had an added bonus, transforming Stoddard into an immovable center with an unguardable skillset. His hulking frame — “I told people that I weighed 386 pounds, but that’s only because it was the last number on our scale, so the notion I weighed somewhere around 400 pounds isn’t far-fetched” — belied a pick-and-pop nimbleness with a soft touch around the basket. By 2017, he was “crushing” guys with backgrounds more advantageous than his.
Each summer, Stoddard participates in a high school alumni tournament. It’s very low-key: #BallIsLife during the two-day round-robin setting, burgers and beers at night. Stoddard’s team — a roster of mid-’90s graduates, the group’s name is “We’re So Old It Doesn’t Even Matter” — was typically good enough for a win or two but unable to compete with others in their athletic prime. But few teams had a player Stoddard’s size, and even fewer had a player of Stoddard’s size who, prior to the tournament’s tip, was balling a dozen-plus hours a week.
As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, ‘Look at the size of you! You could play for my team.’
When he isn’t coaching the Thunder, Costello supports himself through refereeing (he also works at an elementary school as an educational assistant and spends his nights overseeing a group home), and he was refereeing Stoddard’s alumni tournament that summer of 2017 when he first spotted the ultimate diamond on the blacktop. Stoddard’s play was a revelation to the coach, who was about to coach his 18th season at a school that had once been the crown jewel of the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association but recently tumbled down the rankings. “The best Canadians who don’t cross the border to play college basketball play in the OUA,” said Costello. “That’s the dream for most kids”.
He added, “The last few years haven’t been good. I don’t want to demean it, but Algonquin is a last chance resort. It’s tough to get kids.” Three players Costello expected to join the team bailed before ever arriving on the Ottawa campus, and his lead recruiter had taken a new job, which prevented him from working Algonquin’s sidelines.
As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, “Look at the size of you!” recalled Stoddard. “You could play for my team.” The more he thought about it, the more the coach began to formulate a different sort of recruiting pitch. Yes, Stoddard was clearly overweight, but few teams in Algonquin’s conference had a taller player. On a team whose prospects were already dim for the upcoming season, inviting Stoddard to try out didn’t seem much of a gamble. “I’m all about winning games,” explained Costello. “Dan was far from a sideshow. I’m hardly getting paid enough to do this as a goof. Did I know he would ultimately end up starting for us? That might be pushing it. His upside is far from that of a twenty-two-year-old, but his brain is working so much harder.”
What will happen when Stoddard’s rapidly changing body matches his cognitive ability? And is professional basketball a realistic prospect? Ask Costello, who initially believed that he “wouldn’t last until Christmas,” and the coach, who is only a decade older than Stoddard, will tell you the sophomore has limitless potential. Ask Stoddard, and you’ll hear that he believes Europe or the G League — the NBA’s minor-league system — are both real possibilities: “How good can I really be? You have to be stupid to not see the negatives, but I don’t want to dwell on that.” Ask a trainer who studies stress on the body, though, and you might hear a different answer: Stoddard’s physical limitations may be too great to withstand another season — or seasons, if Stoddard does indeed latch on with a professional organizational. Ask an expert with training like Deloya’s, and you might hear that it’s almost inconceivable that Stoddard lasted 30 games (and countless hours in the gym) without a significant injury.
Someone like Stoddard is an anomaly to Deloya, the former Timberwolves trainer, whose clientele includes ex-pros. “From what you are describing, Dan has a very unique profile,” he said. “I always caution people not to have unrealistic expectations and stay within themselves.”
According to Deloya, the slightest tweak can ruinously affect an older athlete’s framework and structural system, leading to a never-ending rehab process. The end result? Deloya predicted “more missed games and more time sitting on the sidelines. … The amount of wear and tear is cumulative. Every time the body suffers and heals itself, a signature of that injury, and all other previous injuries, is left behind. Those add up.”
He continued: “Aging athletes have more time to accumulate injuries, and the compensations to their body are greater.” Because the players are using altered mechanics longer, the rate at which the cumulative trauma is occurring is amplified, and as a result the rate of deterioration is accelerated.
In early June 1977, Bill Walton celebrated the Portland Trail Blazers’ first NBA title with the more than 250,000 citizens of Rip City. The finals MVP had won two NCAA titles at UCLA on his way to becoming the first pick in the NBA draft just three years prior. It should have been the prime of the 6-foot-11 center’s career, but he was playing on borrowed time: As a teenager, he “tore up” his knee and, as he recounted in his 2016 memoir, Back From the Dead, he “broke [his] spine” while a Bruin. Each injury was further compounded by structural congenital birth defects in his feet. Midway through the 1978 season, in which Portland had the NBA’s top record, a bone in Walton’s left foot “split in half.” He was never the same, undergoing nearly 40 orthopedic operations since retiring in 1987. His career was waylaid by his body’s structural flaws and the relentless pounding it took on a daily basis. He wrote in his memoir, “I spent the next eight years of my life chasing the dream … while I’m standing there on the court, I’m just so alone. And it’s just so desolate, and it’s dark and things are spiraling helplessly out of control and there’s nothing that you can do.”
‘The amount of wear and tear is cumulative. Every time the body suffers and heals itself, a signature of that injury, and all other previous injuries, is left behind. Those add up.’
Walton played decades ago, and while medicine, rehab treatment, and player fitness have all improved since then, the matters of the healing response’s impact and wear on an athlete’s psyche haven’t altogether changed much. During the summer of 2000, Kerry Kittles — a former first-round NBA draft pick and star guard on the New Jersey Nets — underwent right knee surgery that involved cartilage resurfacing (that is, stimulating the growth of new cartilage by drilling holes into the joint’s subchondral bone). “It’s worse than anybody thought,” the then 26-year-old told the New York Post.
He spent almost a year in rehab, and when I spoke with Kittles, who had recently been an assistant men’s basketball coach at Princeton, he mentioned the time away from the game was a wake-up call. “I was rehabbing in Los Angeles, and my bikram yoga instructor keep telling me that my body is a temple and to listen to it,” he recalled. “And it hit me: I am such a competitive athlete, have I been ignoring the signs? Ignoring the nicks, ignoring the fatigue?”
Still, Kittles will always miss the rush of competing at the highest level. “Ask any former athlete,” he told me, “if their bodies still allowed them to play, and they’d instantly be back in the game.”
That mindset helps explain why athletes like LeBron James (34 years old) and Tom Brady (41 years old) and Tiger Woods (43) and Marc Andre Fleury (34) continue to play at ages in which superstars of past decades had long faded, but not entirely. “The physicality of someone at the age of forty is not the physicality of that same person twenty years ago,” said Dan Zeman, an exercise physiologist currently working on a book about aging athletes. In particular, contemporary athletes have a greater understanding of how to use the recovery period to not only improve their games but also their longevity.
“No one understood the recovery mentality decades ago,” Zeman explained. “Very few people realized the importance of sleep or alternating workout routines that promoted plyometric and stability work rather than emphasizing strength.”
Zeman told me that while certain athletes are naturally more athletic, there has been a sportwide shift in body conditioning that — discounting injuries — has transformed the phrase “approaching retirement age” into an abstract concept. “In the NBA right now [players] are all relatively lean, with body fat percentages that rarely exceed 12 percent, and that is markedly different from twenty years ago, where players were bigger and stockier,” he said. The game itself is changing, too. That long and lean body type will only continue to grow more prevalent as athletes play to speed and agility and away from overpowering opponents — and prolong careers.
In his book Play On, which investigates the increased longevity of elite athletes, Jeff Bercovici talks to kinesiologist Charles Swanik, who stumbled upon an interesting theory: There is a connection between neurological processing and injuries one could potentially incur while playing a sport. Swanik told Bercovici, “You can have the biggest muscles and whatever, but if you neurologically have a breakdown … you’re going to injure yourself. All this time we’ve been measuring biomechanics, which is really an outcome. What we should be looking at more is the processing, the underneath neurological strategy that resulted in the biomechanics we saw.”
“I have spoken to young kids, that the highway of hope for pro sports is littered with talented kids who couldn’t handle the duress of training,” Deloya said. “Those on the court are the survivors. They’re not the best athletes, but are the best to survive the rigors that being a pro athlete entails.”
He’s talking about athletes like Renaldo Major. At age 36, Major is a basketball journeyman, a 6-foot-7 wing who is one of the oldest professional players stateside not in the NBA. Only one other player has played more G League games (400) than Major, and he holds several league records, including one for most points scored. Major contemplated retiring this past season, but instead of transitioning into coaching, he “adapted”, as he explained to me. “Whatever the team needs — scoring, defense, a leader — I can do it. I feel like I have no weaknesses,” he said. “Age doesn’t matter. I have got skills and I’m good at what I do.”
He added, “I wish I could have reached this level when I was twenty-six.”
Following open heart surgery a decade ago, Major claimed not to have a desire anymore to play in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean he’s done with basketball: “I feel so flawless on the court. … I’m thirty-six years old, but I don’t want guys to think that I am thirty-six. I still feel young. I could play another five or six years.”
There has been a sportwide shift in body conditioning that — discounting injuries — has transformed the phrase ‘approaching retirement age’ into an abstract concept.
OK, but what about Stoddard? Deloya was pessimistic about his longevity as a player: “I worry about whether his frame can handle his body mass.”
But Marcus Elliott, the founder and director of the P3 Peak Performance Project, which provides detailed training and conditioning protocols to professional athletes, sees it differently, and doesn’t consider Stoddard’s dream recklessly Sisyphean. The center doesn’t possess the athleticism or tendencies found in an athlete who has been training since adolescence, and as such, he hasn’t been sculpted in a “Darwinian fitness environment.” Those athletes, Elliott explained, can maintain their dominance on the field well into their 30s and 40s — and when the edge does wane, “it’s subtle.”
Plus, it’s much easier for Stoddard to compete at that age than it is for a peer who has spent a lifetime optimizing oneself for a particular sport. “I work with Team USA, so we see all the country’s top teenage basketball players, and they all have issues,” said Elliott. “It’s common to find a guy his size in the NBA at age twenty-five with no remaining cartilage in either knee. I am not that concerned about Dan’s body breaking down, so there is a flicker of hope.”
When I met with Stoddard last February, his progress had stalled. The center didn’t know if he had the energy to even finish his freshman season. The realities of his physical build had had an impact on his playing; after losing roughly 75 pounds in the fall, an Algonquin coach informed Stoddard one day that he appeared off-balance while running — the rapid weight loss had impacted his posture and gait.
“The past two decades of my life, I’ve been so front heavy because of my stomach,” he explained, “and the muscles in my legs have never had to work this much. I have a huge weakness in my glutes and hamstrings.” Not having to carry all that weight caused Stoddard’s back to straighten, and he could take longer strides as he ran, which his body hadn’t experienced since he was a teenager. Though the 5:30 a.m. workouts with a personal trainer helped reactivate those muscles, Stoddard still was in considerable pain — he continued to be hampered by a pulled glut. That injury was further impacted by a torn stomach muscle, the byproduct of doing 350 sit-ups in a three-day period. “I’ve had to wrap each every game, but as I run up the court, my stomach bounces,” he said “The tear can’t heal because of the constant activity.”
On a sleeting Saturday last February, Stoddard told me his body was “depleted.” Following a loss the night before, he drove a teammate and the teammate’s brother, who is a highly skilled guard for a team in the Ontario University Athletics, to their house. The brother suffered a sprained knee in his own game, yet he was making plans to go straight to the bar. “He said, ‘I’m not about to stop drinking!’” Stoddard exclaimed. “That’s because he can just wrap his knee and keep playing. It takes a long time to recover when you’re my age.”
Stoddard couldn’t fathom being so cavalier — plus, drinking causes him too much stress. “I feel like people are watching me and assume I am shirking my responsibilities,” he said. Stoddard is always hustling, his life is consumed with caring for himself and his family. For two years, Stoddard worked three jobs at the same time, laying brick during the day, delivering beer at night, and bartending on the weekends — all so his family could keep moving forward. He was once stabbed in the right shoulder while bouncing at a bar, only to fight off the attacker, get treated by paramedics, then go to work at a construction site the next morning. Of course, there have been low points: when he broke his hand but refused unemployment, believing the move would hamper his ability to find another job. Or when times got real bad. In spite of his multifaceted CV, he just couldn’t find any openings a decade ago. “I couldn’t even get hired for a shit job,” he explained, eventually signing up for welfare and its $800 weekly check. But, he continued, “I needed work, and I couldn’t call and ensure [the welfare office] every day that I was looking for work.”
He added, “My wife couldn’t believe it. We needed the money, but I’ve spent my entire life forcing myself to do things that may be terrible for me. But if you have no choice, and you have no back-up plan or funds, you have a responsibility to take care of what matters most to you.” Stoddard is generally good at calculating risk; whether physically or mentally, he knows the depths of what he can endure. As such, Stoddard is an online poker savant, and prior to the global recession, he won more than $300,000 playing cards. Those winnings were supposed to be a cushion for his family, so he did the “smart thing” and invested in Canadian bank stocks. He may know how to manage risk, but his timing was shit, and he lost more than 80 percent of that windfall. “That’s one of my only regrets in life,” he claimed, which implies that any hang-ups he may have around pursuing a pro basketball career in his 40s are minimal.
‘I’ve spent my entire life forcing myself to do things that may be terrible for me. But if you have no choice, and you have no back-up plan or funds, you have a responsibility to take care of what matters most to you.’
That includes bodily harm. When I spoke with Stoddard several months ago, he described a numbness overtaking his legs — he had lost so much body fat that his nerves were overburdened. It hurts him to sit for long stretches, a problem when one’s job is driving a bus. With his torn stomach muscles and blown glutes, not to mention the daily muscle cramps and soreness, Stoddard spends much of his day hobbling around Ottawa. But that’s no matter. “If you are required to work, you numb the pain and just move on,” he says. His wife understands the drive — or, at least she tells him that she does. “What if I did all of this when I was twenty and it changed my life? Where would I be today?” he asked her. “I can live knowing that, but it would still suck.”
The question of what might happen if he keeps pushing his body past the point where he can work — let alone play — does cross his mind. After all, he has a family. He knows that if there may be something down the line that changes her mind — an injury, a setback — but the family is at a point where her paycheck can cover the bills should any incident occur. “I just want to be completely involved in the game where it becomes my profession,” he said.
I went to go see Stoddard play toward the end of last season. While it seemed like everyone in the city knew of Stoddard — my Uber driver even mentioned he had watched a Bleacher Report clip of Stoddard’s play, and his salt-and-peppered bearded face is plastered throughout the college’s campus — few want to spend their Saturday night watching what will likely be yet another Algonquin loss. The stands had been filled to capacity for the preceding Algonquin women’s game, but by the time the men started to warm-up, only about 40 fans remained to watch the team play Centennial College.
Stoddard started, as he did for the entire season, and he was fired up from the opening tip. Earlier in the evening he’d told me, “If I can play fifteen minutes a night, I’m good. I’m still heavy and trying to keep up with twenty-year-olds. Going forward, it’s a matter of where I take it from here. How much effort I want to put into it, and right now, it seems to be endless effort, but at some point, that drive will cease to be there. Is it really worth putting all of this work into basketball for what result? There has to be something that continues to push me.”
The previous night, the Seneca coach told him that his counterpart, a freshman who also stands 6-foot-8 and averaged more than 15 points per game, barely practices. “All the talent in the world, and he is not committed. C’mon man!” Stoddard said. “There is a huge gap between where I want to be and where he is, and it kills me that he doesn’t put in any effort.” Stoddard had only managed to play eight minutes in that game, an Algonquin loss, but in spite of the fatigue, the lingering cold, and his physical ailments, that seemingly throwaway comment ignited Stoddard. Though he missed his first three shots, the last being a right hook on a paint touch, his step had an inherent lightness; he didn’t look like someone who weighed more than 300 pounds. After playing about five minutes, he checked out and immediately chewed out a teammate, drowning out the sound of the Thunder sticks and chanting fans with an emphatic directive: “Fucking cut!”
By halftime, Stoddard had two fouls and was clearly frustrated — at himself, at his teammates, and at his coach. He attempted to contest a three-pointer, only to watch his opponent head-fake and drive past him for an open lay-up. When the Thunder got the ball, Stoddard sealed his defender in the low post and immediately threw an arm in the air, signaling for a lob or a dump-down pass, but he seldom got a paint touch, and in a game where the lead seesawed each quarter, Stoddard fumed. He didn’t start the fourth quarter, and midway through the final ten minutes, he exploded, yelling at Costello and an Algonquin assistant coach during a timeout. The reason? A play that Stoddard didn’t think Algonquin executed properly. “Trevor and I have had an understanding from day one,” Stoddard told me. “He can rip me, and if I disagree with him, I will wholeheartedly and loudly ague and explain myself.” After this exchange, though, it was clear Costello was tired of Stoddard, and the freshman stewed on the bench, draping the team’s warm-up shirt over his frame while Algonquin mounted a comeback.
Down one point with a minute remaining, an Algonquin guard hit a deep three, giving the team its first lead of the entire game. Then, the Thunder unraveled: after a Centennial two-point field goal tied the game, Algonquin turned the ball over, leading to a fast-break layup that resulted in a Colt being shoved hard from behind into the baseline wall. A Thunder player was whistled for the flagrant foul. Just a few seconds remained, and the Colts had the ball and the lead. The remaining fans erupted, several hovering just beyond the court’s boundaries, while others jeered at Costello and his team for playing dirty. The air was electric; tensions were high, and it felt as if we were only moments away from the game devolving into a brawl.
“Y’all lost, shut up!”
“T him up!”
“It’s simple math!”
“This is ridiculous, this game needs to be over.”
After the referees delayed for 15 minutes to decide whether or not to eject Stoddard’s teammate that committed the foul, the game abruptly ended, an 80-78 Algonquin loss.
By late February, Stoddard’s freshman season was over, as the team stumbled to a 6-14 record. Stoddard had mixed feelings on his grand experiment. “I’m heavy and I’m slow, I get it,” he said. “People think it’s a big show. I’m going to try to defy that. To change that view. For those that love the game, they understand in a way what I am trying to do. For those that don’t, they are snickering and laughing, and maybe next year we beat them and the snickers stop. That’s the plan.”
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After a month and a half of rest, Stoddard resumed training in late April of last year, his schedule delayed to allow his lingering gut pull more time to heal. He told me that he wanted to post a double-double per game as well as be chosen for an all-Canadian his sophomore season, so he had two goals last summer: “I need to be around 275 pounds come training camp, and I have to be able to run a 5K in under twenty-six minutes. This will allow me to have the cardio to achieve this season’s goals.” Now he’s dunking again, getting his hands eight inches over the rim, and he recently has begun a Keto diet to help him drop weight while he’s away from the workout grind.
As a sophomore, he averaged nearly three more minutes per game, a statistical success for a player for whom going baseline to baseline previously used to use up almost the entire shot clock. And even though the team won nine games in 2018-19, an uptick from the previous season, Stoddard was in the midst of a crisis in confidence when I spoke with him several weeks ago. He had forged past the lingering health issues that hampered his freshman year, but his body still ached: He broke his nose during the first half of a December game, resetting it during a timeout. Then there was the dislocated finger that he also reset (the team’s physician wasn’t licensed to treat such an injury). The worst was a dislocated kneecap in late January against Georgian College — Stoddard’s knee buckled after he came down with a rebound. Down 16, the center should have rested; instead, he wrapped his knee in a brace, downed some Advil, and grabbed three more rebounds in the loss. After the game, he learned what he thought was a ligament tear was just a dislocation. “If my dream was done, I want to go out my way,” he said.
But the injuries had a profound effect on his drive. His shoulder’s chip had always enabled him to push doubts to the wayside — “I do everything I can to pretend like I am ten years younger,” he says. “When I work out, I keep saying to myself, ‘You’re only thirty years old, you have plenty of time’” — but several off-the-court setbacks left Stoddard shaken. OC Transpo fired him last fall (the result, he says, of a disagreement over a sick day) and the impending sale of the family home fell through, which would have allowed him and Amanda to downsize and free some of the couple’s financial constraints — a necessity for Stoddard to continue his dream of becoming a professional basketball player. “I still have to support my family,” he said. “Is this too much for my wife and kids for me to chase something that’ll last a year or two, only to come back with no future? There has to be a financial gain.”
He continued “The reality of my age is kicking in. It probably happened at some point last year, but I didn’t pay attention. I have to focus my attention on the next twenty-five years until I retire.”
Amanda, though, doesn’t believe her husband is finished. “There is no way he’ll stop,” she told me in February 2019. “After last season, he said he was going to quit, and then he was back in the gym the next day. I want him to keep playing ball until he can no longer physically get his feet into his sneakers.” There is a far darker side to Amanda’s motivation — before the alumni tournament, before the invitation to join Algonquin’s team, and before he lost 130 pounds, Stoddard consistently joked that he’d be lucky if he lived to 45. He’d say, “It is what it is. What am I going to do. I’ll make sure you guys are taken care of and then whatever.” Subconsciously, she knew Stoddard was right: “Not that he would sabotage himself, but that’s just Dan — once he made a decision, he was off.” She’s a year older than Stoddard, and she realized that in just four years, she might be a widow. “He was living a shitty lifestyle, taking little bits of everything around him that pissed him off and holding it in,” she said. “He was miserable.”
Once he began playing for Costello at Algonquin, his mood “did a complete 180.” He was perkier and more energetic. She always believed her husband was Superman, but basketball had given him a purpose. He had goals; he stopped joking about heart attacks. So even if Stoddard claims to be winding down his dream, Amanda knows he’ll keep playing. If he were to receive a 30-day contract, she said, “He’d have his bags packed before getting off the phone. He has worked his ass off for the last two years to get here, and he’s earned it.”
Following our call, Stoddard emailed me: “There is no question that my drive and dedication is bigger then [sic] last year. I will continue to train and be better, use the momentum that I have created to be the best ball player I can be … Frustration grows as I feel I have a lot more to offer and potentially won’t get the chance to show it.”
In earlier conversations, Stoddard had expanded on this point. “I’d love to see where my body can take me,” he said. “But I’m also a realist. Trevor has told me I have a spot on the roster until I don’t want it anymore, but I know the toll it is taking on my body. I know the pain that will come, the possibility of knee and other problems. I just want to know if I am this close [to playing professionally] or this good now, how good would I have been at the age of twenty, if I was training every day? I can keep up with guys half my age — after another six months of training, am I going to be faster? Stronger? I want to keep seeing.”
He plans to rest for a week before resuming his training, and aims to drop another 35 pounds (to 245) before he decides whether to play for his junior season. “I’m trying to make [a professional team] notice, so in the meantime, I want my body to be ready to compete if that call does come,” he said. “NBA players have trained for so long to be the absolute best, but a body can only maintain that for so long. Fortunately for me, I’ve had lazy jobs. Maybe my body can withstand it. Or maybe I turn it around, lose all this weight, and my knee goes the first day. Who knows. I want to be complete involved in the game where it is my profession. Pay me enough money to send money to my family, and I can do that.”
I asked whether just knowing he can play the sport at the professional level is enough, should teams opt out of signing a 42-year-old with weakened glutes. “I think so,” he said, pausing for a beat. “There will be depression and regret, sure, and a wish I had done this earlier. But I won’t be unhappy.”
For an audio companion piece to this story and to hear more from Matt about how he reported this story, download this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast here.
Matt Giles is the head of fact-checking at Longreads. He is also a freelance writer, who has written for several publications, including Deadspin, the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, and the New York Times (among others).