“If we’re gonna play mini-basketball, we’ve gotta set up the court,” Quin O’Hara, the Westwood High School freshman, said calmly as he began to push the couch of his family’s media room off into the corner. In seconds, the room transformed from a cozy living space to an NBA half court in miniature. To Quin, this was a functional Madison Square Garden, regardless of its homely aesthetic. Across from the TV stood a flimsy, seven-foot-high basketball hoop. On the carpet, three-point and free-throw lines had been carefully constructed using blue duct tape. The walls were lined with a mosaic of 8.5×11 printouts of NBA basketball stars such as Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Portland’s Damian Lillard. Apart from the rest, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook gleamed on prominent display, dunking fiercely over two frightened defenders.
“I put together this stadium over the fall going into the winter while I was sick with mono,” Quin said. “I didn’t have much to do over that time, and I couldn’t do much because I was so tired, so I decided I would come up here, make a basketball court, and shoot on the little hoop because I wasn’t allowed to on the big hoop.”
He paused, and added with some frustration, “I mean, I just shot around, like, I didn’t even do dunks, that’s how tired I was.” In the spring heat, he pulled off his University of Kentucky sweatshirt to reveal a Boston Celtics t-shirt underneath.
“Westbrook!” he yelled, jacking up a deep three pointer and banking it in.
To Quin O’Hara, life is basketball, and basketball is life. When he’s not practicing his skills on the court, he’s working out in the gym, playing mini-basketball with friends, or following his favorite NBA stars on TV.
It seems as well that basketball creeps its way into all areas of his life.
On Instagram, his post history consists of pictures of himself playing basketball in addition to heavily filtered, obliquely sardonic motivational pictures inspired by the online posts of famous players. In graphic design class, his teacher commends him as a particularly talented student, yet his focus in this realm of life is greatly dominated by basketball as well.
He explained to me an image of his own creation made in this class, also hanging in the mini-basketball stadium. A craftily and elaborately constructed image, it stands on its own on the wall.
“In this piece of art,” he proudly explained, laughing a little, “You have a crying, sad Kevin Durant sitting in a circle of ex-teammates looking at him a little angrily, and Steve Kerr, his coach, is looking at him… is offering a hand. It’s just a social commentary on what Kevin Durant decided to do to the NBA, the effect that had on people.”
When I talked to Quin, he had just finished his first ever season playing for Westwood High School. On the school’s freshman team, Quin was among the tallest and strongest players, even within the league that he played in. At six-foot-one, he towered over many of the freshmen he covered during the season.
“Elevate?” reads the caption to one of Quin’s Instagram posts, a photo taken during the winter season. In a Westwood jersey, he hangs in the air, holding the ball strong above his head to take a shot over two defenders. Here on Instagram, Quin looked as promising and powerful as ever.
In reality, though, he said he was collapsing.
“I remember it was the fall, and I had missed three or four days of school,” Quin recounted. “I was sick, and we didn’t know what I had. I remember that one day I sucked it up and went to school, and when I was walking home that day I got a phone call from my mom. And she said ‘Hey, you have mono. The blood work came back.’”
Immediately, he understood the implications.
“That was the most sad I can remember being. She told me, ‘You can’t play basketball for four weeks.’ And it sucked. Literally the day before I had gone out and scored twenty points in a game. That’s all I could think about.”
This fall at Westwood High, there was an outbreak of mononucleosis. An illness resulting from the common Epstein-Barr Virus, mononucleosis (or “mono”) can leave a person feeling weak and fatigued for several weeks, even months. It can leave people suffering from recurring fevers or sore throats and tonsillitis. In the case of Quin, it can even cause enlargement of the spleen, an internal organ responsible for the filtering of blood.
To ensure that his spleen did not rupture and cause great harm to his body, he was not allowed to exercise, at all, for several weeks.
“It was just, your body, just deteriorating,” he said. “That’s what it felt like. Just constant deterioration over a long period of time, just not being able to exercise, just feeling slow.”
From that day on, Quin’s days began to look very different. In place of scrimmages and drills, there were doctors appointments and medications. In place of tournaments and glory, there was rest, and he was gloomy. Instead of being out on the court in his free time, he laid on the couch in front of the TV, watching his hero Russell Westbrook amass triple-doubles and viewing commercials asserting that the success of the Boston Celtics was Not Luck. To him, it was like a form of house arrest for a crime he never meant to commit.
One day, it all changed for the worse. After a week of symptoms not getting any better, Quin went to the doctor again, and learned that he had contracted pneumonia on top of mono. Pneumonia, a viral infection of the lungs, further impeded his breathing and caused him to suffer from fever and chills along with a laundry list of other debilitating effects.
“At that point I smiled and I laughed,” he recounted. “And that probably added a week on to the sentence. It didn’t feel good, it didn’t feel good. It was not fun.”
As weeks passed, Quin began to feel better and better, and he was able to exercise again right in time for basketball tryouts. Formerly contemplating the possibility of an early junior varsity role, Quin now had to work as hard as he can remember during tryouts, but to below-average personal results. He was placed on the freshman team, where his numbers did not stack up to those of his fall season.
“There were some games where I was putting up pretty similar numbers, but in the fall it was consistent, and in the winter it was really inconsistent,” he said. He believes that he was much faster and more well conditioned before he contracted mono, and that he must still put in work to regain that physical shape.
His father and the coach of his AAU basketball team, Michael O’Hara, commented on his recovery. “He used the winter season to get back into condition, and by the time the season ended, he was back to the same position he was in in the fall. So as we begin the spring AAU season, he’s once again in great shape. The kind of shape he was in before he got sick.”
“The goal is to put in enough work to be able to slam it home by the end of the summer,” Quin noted. “But honestly I just want to slam it home as soon as possible, the summer’s just a realistic goal. Otherwise I just want to keep improving.”
At the gym, practice, and at home, Quin has been attempting to work his way back from an ailment that has debilitated him, set him back, and stripped him of the one thing he loved more than anything else. Through it all, he’s never complained, faltered, or second guessed himself.
“He prides himself in being physically tough,” Coach O’Hara said of Quin. “Now that he’s feeling a hundred percent recovered, and as he’s matured as a player and as a person, he is beginning to work harder, gaining skills. Even though he’s tall and thin for Westwood, he’s trying to become a guard, and will work on his ballhandling and his outside shooting. Hopefully, now that he’s over his illness, he should be able to accomplish those goals.”
“Quin’s a real considerate kid who’s got competitive fire entrenched in his DNA at all times,” said Colin Fay, a freshman and close friend of Quin’s. “He always enjoys a good laugh, but when it’s game time, his game face is on and it’s all seriousness.”
Commenting on his own toughness, Quin proclaimed, “I’m motivated by this ghost. This ghost played in Chicago.” He laughed, saying, “No, that’s a LeBron quote. A lot of things motivate me. One, just wanting to be better than everyone else I see. I’ve always wanted to be the best, and I just wanna beat everyone that I see, just crush them. And honestly, you see that Westbrook poster over there? I just wanna be like Westbrook. I wanna be able to have that team changing ability, you know, maybe I can score forty points a night but I also wanna get those ten assists.”
In March, Quin is feeling much more confident in his game and in his recovery. After he first contracted mono, he was plagued with missing school-work and incompletes. His GPA at the time was a 2.7. At the end of the third quarter, it was a 4.3. With this kind of work-ethic and perseverance, he is determined to get back to where he was, and keep improving from there.
“I’m just gonna keep getting stronger every day. I’m comin’ for you,” he smirked. “Oh, wait, no. I would like to end with a Russell Westbrook quote: ‘I’m coming.’”