Basketball changed my life

This is a re-post from an old blog.

I originally posted it during my first-ever week at this school, August 2014. Basketball season started a month ago, and I’ve been working 12-15 hour weekdays since that first day of tryouts — starting two new teams each week (which includes on-boarding coaches, tryouts, parent meetings, registration/ paperwork, scheduling and rescheduling practices and games, acquiring/inventorying/distributing uniforms, reserving officials, managing ticket sales, monitoring home games, and, of course, coaching my Varsity team). This year we had more interest than ever before, and we’re now up to eight basketball teams in the upper school (6th through 12th) for a campus that has ~50 students per grade, one gym, two baskets (okay so we also have a large-ish open space with concrete floors and another two baskets but it can’t really be called a “gym”). Do we have an assistant athletic director? No. Do I also teach three classes? Yes. So I’m fighting to keep my head above water as is, forget writing any new material. So here’s some old material…

Basketball changed my life. (Part I: my experience)

I went to a basketball camp in sixth grade-ish. I don’t remember anything except that I went because my friend was going, I had never played before, and I was repeatedly embarrassed by not being strong enough to get the ball to the rim from the free throw line. I’d only played soccer up to that point; my arms didn’t have what it takes. The next year I joined the basketball team, again because of a friend (no, a NEW one!). I was the last player on the bench. I didn’t get much better over the course of the year, either. I rarely got playing time and had few successes, but it awakened something in me. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be good at basketball.

I don’t need to go into the details, but basketball dominated my life for the next five years.  Looking back now, it was an unhealthy obsession. And, oddly enough, it was all mine. My parents supported me whole-heartedly (my dad bought me a hoop and paved part of our gravel driveway, paid for summer camps, etc), but it was almost as if I were possessed. My family didn’t follow sports at all, and for several years it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to explain the basic rules of the game. Yet, they took me to practices, helped drive the team to our games, and were proud of my achievements. I can’t imagine how that feels as a parent. Your kid just takes off in a direction you’ve never prompted? Is entirely self-motivated by something you don’t fully understand?

When my high school playing “career” ended, it nearly broke me. I had nothing left to guide me. In the previous five years, I had never looked beyond that last game. I wasn’t ready. I had a few college opportunities, but as I evaluated my options and slowly accepted it didn’t make sense for me to chase a college roster spot out of desperation, I faced depression.  What had I spent the bulk of my teenage life thinking, dreaming about? How many hours had I spent with only an inflated rubber sphere for company? To what end had I practiced daily? The craziest part is I was playing for a small Christian school. We weren’t competing for a state title or getting press of any sort. We were struggling to compete against other small private schools in rural southern Illinois. Yet, it was all I thought about and found infinitely motivating. That was a good lesson for me, looking back: it doesn’t matter how much you should care, or how much others think you should care. It only matters how much you do care, in that moment. There’s not necessarily a rational connection between your emotions and what is at stake. It’s easy for an outsider, or even current me, to look back and say “why was winning the HCC basketball championship the most important goal in your life” but ultimately the “why” doesn’t change anything. I had never wanted anything more; I knew nothing else.

Now, I recognize that I would be a far lesser person without that experience (and I’m also thankful I wasn’t a scholarship athlete in college, but that’s a #separateblogpost). Basketball, and sports as a whole, introduced me to the world. I was about the shyest kid you could imagine. Homeschooled, quiet, with a handful of friends from church or other homeschooled families, mainly both. I played for the community soccer league but I was a complete outsider. My teammates went to school together and played club together. I showed up to practice, hardly said a word, and went home, no less silently. The hospital my dad worked for once made a documentary about our family (he’s an emergency room doctor), and when the video team was trying to interview us individually, and I refused to say a word to them.  My older sister spoke for me a majority of my childhood.

Then, basketball. I was getting better. Sophomore year I was a co-captain, along w/ my friend David (the reason I had joined in seventh grade) and a star senior point guard, Caleb. I had never wanted to be a leader, I just wanted to be good. You can’t really separate the two in a team sport, though, especially in a constrained environment where ability is hard to come by. Being good meant being a leader.

Like most kids who fall in love with basketball, I loved to score. The higher the level of difficulty, the better. Early on, basketball was mainly about the obvious glory — points, and maybe steals (because those led to points). It wasn’t until I became a skilled player, and was looked to as a leader, that I started to understand the rest of the game. The responsibility of leadership forced me to recognize the importance of the little things. Boxing out. Communication. Taking charges. Ultimately, what I wanted to do was win, and as captain and (eventually) the best player I had to find the best way to do that. When we lost, I blamed myself. It was not uncommon for me to cry in the locker room after a loss, feeling the weight of the final outcome on my shoulders. By my senior year, I had reached a point where I took more joy from managing a game than I did from making a difficult basket. I still took most of the shots, but if we had a better strategy, I was willing to employ it.

So, basketball not only turned me into a leader, it turned me into a competitor. I loved to compete and played every sport our school offered, meaning I ended up a relatively well-rounded athlete, even though I specialized as much as I could in basketball. This gave me practice applying diverse strategies across many sports, and starting to think more like a coach. It also meant I was a captain essentially year-round, giving me plenty of time to learn how to lead (and also inflate my ego to nearly irreparable levels).

Being a go-to player develops a certain mindset, and I didn’t resist it. I thought I was hot stuff for a while. Part of me recognizes a significant part of my post-high school life was spent recovering from the hubris I succumbed to as a big fish in a minuscule pond. It does weird things to your head, being worshiped.  Ask Alexander the Great, or Matt Munsil. Basil Inman. Or literally any 21st century celebrity who was in the spotlight at a young age… That being said, I’m convinced having a healthy amount of confidence is about the hardest thing for an individual to attain, and a tightrope that requires constant focus. If your choices are being insecure or prideful, I’d rather have to talk myself down than talk myself up. Now that I’m rationally detached from the person I was in high school, we’ve arrived at a mutual understanding of sorts (me and myself). Last Christmas I dug up a few old high school tapes, and, honestly, they were tough to watch. Current-coach me is not a fan of high-school-player me. But, I did the best I could with what I knew at the time, so. What can you do.

All that I set out to say is that I can look back at that experience as a whole and I’m awestruck by the impact it has had on my life. The good outweighs the bad, and it’s not even close. How many of our current basketball players and student-athletes as a group will be able to do the same? How many kids that I’ve coached will be able to look back at their playing experience and identify watershed moments that helped define the person they’ve become? Sports reveal character, and allow you to build on it. Competition is a test, and there is no substitute.

So, decades after the first time I touched a basketball at that 6th-grade camp, I’m still all-in. Our school has limited resources, and I have finite time, but I’m going to use it all to provide quality opportunities to as many students as possible. If the team was on in 7th-grade had cuts, I may never have played. If I had never played? Well, let’s just say that’s the darkest timeline. I don’t want to be anywhere else but right here, doing this.

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