It’s a three-point game with under ten seconds left. We’re playing one of the best teams in our conference at home and the crowd is buzzing.
Parents from my team’s sideline are yelling “PUT NICK IN” again, this time a little bit louder. “PUT NICK IIINNN!”
Our coach grabs the back of my jersey and takes me to the scorer’s table. I’m ready; I know that my team needs me. If anyone is going to hit a wild three-point shot to tie the game, it’s me.
It’s my time and I’ve been waiting for this moment. The coach tugs my jersey again, and this time directs me back to the bench. Amid the frustrated groans from our cheering section, the decision remains.
This sums up my high school basketball career.
As a kid, I always loved basketball. My family seemingly always had a hoop outside, and some of my first memories are throwing up “Granny Style” shots on that craggy wooden backboard.
As time progressed, my love for the game stayed true. Despite being cut from my middle school teams both years, I wouldn’t be denied my destiny.
With the dedication of my parents, who drove me across Seattle to various random gyms, and maybe a little nudging from my dad to convince one of my friends to put in a good work to the coach of a local select team, the dream continued. I ended up playing for my high school’s select feeder team, as well as another elite local program—albeit I was probably on their “C Team”.
However, my middle school years proved vital, as all the skills I had learned from the two select teams translated into a spot on the freshman squad, upon entering high school.
As tradition continued, I found myself riding the pine. Nevertheless, nothing would deny my passion. I still remember doing eight-minute abs blasting “Heart of a Champion” by Nelly, in that hot sticky room upstairs while dreaming of making varsity basketball.
As my high school years continued, I slowly made my way up to the pecking order from freshman to junior varsity, and then finally varsity.
But throughout the duration of this timeframe, I consistently suffered one or two knee injuries a year that would keep me out of action for four to six weeks at a time.
In fact, my junior year during my first practice with the varsity squad, I went up for a layup and fell flat on my back. My knee didn’t fully give out, and I didn’t suffer a catastrophic injury, but it was enough to indicate that something wasn’t right and I needed to get surgery.
I still remember the feeling of confusion as I walked across the gym. That was a cold and lonely moment as the seniors on the team laughed at me; they’d just figured I had fallen on my back.
At that point I had a decision to make. I could continue playing and risk continual short-term injuries, or I could face the hot knife and fix the problem once and for all in an attempt to return for my senior year at full strength. I chose the latter, and onto the cutting board I went.
By summer I was back and ready to go with a newly functioning knee, as well as that aloof confidence that most seniors in high school seem to have.
In fall ball, I had a nearly thirty-point game with my uncle watching in attendance (RIP), hitting eight three-pointers and leading our team to an upset victory. My Uncle probably thought I was the next Stephen Curry, deep range and all.
In a local newspaper, I was mentioned by our team captain that I was a player “to look out for next year.”
However, after my thirty-point game, something fishy happened. I found myself riding the bench again…
Like, braaaa—I just dropped thirty. Not twenty, thirty…
At this point my confidence was shaken. I had busted my butt at every offseason workout, lifted weights before I could even walk again, and always vocally supported the starters from the bench.
It felt like I had done everything right, and more.
But for whatever reason, coach decided that I was not going to get significant playing time.
And to be fair, there were holes in my game. I struggled to run an offensive play, my triple-threat stance resembled an awkward one-legged chicken, and I fired up many questionable shots.
But I knew who I was as a player, and I knew deep down I could help my team win. Or at least I thought I could. Maybe I did suck after all?
Whether I was consciously thinking this or not, insecurity probably seeped into my unconscious mind from years of keeping those cushions warm.
This same insecurity transformed into aspects of my everyday life, because without basketball, who am I?
Sports play a huge role in many young boy’s lives. For me, it helped shape my identity, gave me a close circle of friends, and it gave me an era of confidence that I probably wouldn’t have developed otherwise.
But when I started to watch my friend’s successes on the court, and what felt like my mediocrity, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s wrong with me?”
During practices, I always gave it my all: diving after every loose ball, sprinting every inch of every line, and playing hard-nosed defense that even frustrated our best players.
If I didn’t bust my butt during practice, I would have understood why I deserved the role of towel passer, but this didn’t feel right.
If I wasn’t in the coach’s game plan before the season, he could have at least let me known. But don’t give off that phony speech about how you can earn your playing time in practice unless it’s the truth.
Which brings me to something that is very near and dear to my heart, even today. If a coach has no intention of playing a kid, then let them know from the beginning.
Please say something along the lines of, “Look, I’d love to have you on the team, but you’re probably never going to play.”
A simple line like this allows the player to make a conscious decision, and not one based on perceived expectations.
In our final game of my senior year season, my team was going to make State. After pulling off a massive upset in front of a raucous “Hoosier-esqe” road crowd, our unit was only one win away from making the State Tourney. In our next matchup, we were facing a team that we had already beaten three times that season.
The team we played against ran a 2-3 zone, which is a shooter’s dream. Even though I’d already been demoted to the “scouting squad” for playoffs, I knew he had to play me.
Instead, I watched our team fall behind quickly by ten points. But it was all good in my mind; I was going to go into this game and make 10 three-pointers and lead us to victory. As the third quarter rolled around, we were still losing and my cheeks were still warm. In the fourth, we were trailing by ten and reality started to set in. We were actually going to lose this game and the dream was over.
I was thrown into the contest with 10 seconds left when the outcome had already been decided. Which has seriously got to be one of the most disrespectful things you can do to a senior. I essentially tackled an opposing player due to my boiled-up frustrations, but he didn’t care, he ran off to go celebrate in a sea of Black and Gold with his teammates.
Even though I’ve come to grips with my high-school basketball non-career, I’m truly grateful for that humbling experience. I still probably wonder from time-to-time what would’ve happened if he threw me in that game.
My friend, who was our star point guard and played varsity all four years, called me this past New Years. He had likely had more than a couple of drinks, and as usual, our high school team snuck its way into the conversation. After reminiscing about all the good times, and the times truly were amazing..
He reflectively took a deep breath, probably took a sip of beer, and said, “Yeah, I’ll never get why you didn’t play, at the least you would’ve made a couple of threes and pissed off the other team’s star player in the process.”
I simply answered, “I don’t know, man. And it used to eat me up inside, but everything happens for a reason.”
And I truly believe that. If it wasn’t for my slights on the basketball court, I probably wouldn’t still have the passion I have for the game today. I still and will forever love basketball, and I don’t know if that would’ve been the case had I lived out some form of high-school stardom.
As for the coach.
He’s a darn good guy. He isn’t mean, he’s not a bully, and he meant the best for all of his players, me included. As time progressed, I truly have learned to love and respect him as a person and for all he contributed to my life. Our team was close, tight-knit, and an amazingly fun group of players who were truly fricking weird, and he allowed our individualism to shine.
He also got the program involved in building houses in third-world countries, so he’s a winner in my book.
As life goes on, I am grateful for my high-school hoops experience. It is a big part of what made me the man I am today, a man I am truly proud of.
I’m currently a youth basketball coach, and I hope to instill some of the values he taught me into the culture of my own team.
As for who I was as a basketball player, I’ll end with a quote from my coach. At our postseason banquet, he said, “It’s funny because during the playoffs, we had Nick on the scouting team and he often seemed to torch our defense much more than the other team’s star player ever could.”
Somethings are better left unsaid.