High School Basketball

High School Basketball

Ah, high school athletics.  It’s so inaccurately portrayed in movies, TV shows, and pretty much all forms of entertainment.  You could write a book on that subject I think.  For me, I’m simply focusing on what it meant for me, and in some ways, still means to me.

I was always tall for my age, and hit a big growth spurt when I was 10.  I shot up from 5’ to 5’8” in 3 months, and in another 12 months grew another 6 inches, so I was 6’2” when I was 12, and 6’4” by the time I was 13.  I first dunked a basketball when I was 12.  I wasn’t the best ball handler, though, as to be expected by an uncoordinated 6’2”, 160 pound 12 year old.

Before tryouts started, I met a kid named BJ while playing basketball on Discovery Middle School’s court.  I think I was meeting my little sister after school because I can’t think of any other reason I’d have been at the middle school court instead of the high school court.  It was the same BJ who taught me to rap.  We often walked to the University of Central Florida to play basketball with the college kids because we were a little arrogant about our abilities, but also because we wanted to get better so we played against better opponents.

Tryouts were in October, and being from Ohio I was used to 60 degree days.  It was 88 and really humid in Orlando during tryouts, which were outside.  I honestly don’t remember much about playing basketball my freshman year.   It’s mostly just random memories.  In practice one day, I shot a set shot instead of a jumper and the coach yelled at me for it and then took the opportunity to teach to everyone that set shots were not acceptable at the high school level.  I also blocked a shot during practice, and my teammates got excited.  The coach called a foul, even though the block itself was clean.   I fouled him with my body after blocking the shot.  He once told me that I was 8’14”.  He also said he was concerned that my legs weren’t sturdy enough to handle landing after I jumped pretty high on a tipoff.

I also remember going to an opposing school, and when we got off the bus some kids yelled “look at them girls with the daisy dukes on,” because we wore the old fashioned shorts that no male should wear.  I mean, wear what you want, I won’t discriminate.  I used to wear jeans shorts, until I was about 25 years old.  That story will come sometime too.  But not now.

Even though we weren’t great at UHS, I remember feeling like I was actually part of a team there.  I definitely became decent friends with a couple of teammates, and there was one kid in particular I became closer to than the rest, but unfortunately many of my Orlando memories are pretty vague so I don’t remember his name.  I think it was Jamie.  The vagueness of my memories has nothing to do with drugs, as I’ve never smoked pot nor done any other drugs.  Other than a dark beer I tried when I was 8 years old, I didn’t drink for the first time until I was 22.  Also, more on that later.

One day, I asked Jamie, “Do you want a pop?”  He said “No.” After pausing, he said “Wait, what is that?”  I said “A Coke.”  He said, “Oh, yeah, I’d love one.”  Ever since then, I’ve always said soda instead of pop.  You can go anywhere in the country and say soda and they’ll understand you.   I don’t care if you say pop.  I understand.

My sophomore year in high school, I didn’t play basketball.  When the JV coached asked me why I told him I was thinking about playing tennis.  “Tennis?!?” he responded.  I didn’t play tennis either.  I can’t tell you why I didn’t play sophomore year.  It would all be hearsay, but it’s probably because I was focusing more on school, as I was taking a pretty challenging schedule, including a college algebra and trig course taught by a Valencia Community College teacher.  My parents told me she was concerned about teaching me because everyone else in the class was either 17 or 18 year old seniors.  After the first day, she loved me.

My junior year in high school, we moved back to Ohio after my mom was diagnosed with cancer.  She was almost finished with her classes, and just had to take her exams and finish her thesis, and she would have had her PhD in Accounting.  She was, and still is, the greatest role model I’ve ever had.  She always supported me in everything in did, whether in school, basketball, music, or any other aspect of my life.

I played for Talawanda High School my junior year.  The whole year is very much a blur between my mom passing away, me taking the hardest schedule at the school, working at McDonald’s, and playing for the team.  There were times that the only money coming in was from my McJob, at $4.25 an hour, which was minimum wage in 1994.  I worked 8 hours a week because I was only 15.  They felt like 40 hours.  My experiences working there helped motivate me to make sure I finished my education, so I’d never have to work fast food again.

I also had the hardest class I’ve ever taken.  Mrs. Elzey’s AP American Literature class was much more difficult than any college class I ever took, and I actually had more work in her class in one semester than I did my first two years of college combined in all of my classes.  We had 40 books to read in 36 weeks, the shortest of which was over 300 pages.  Every third week rotated, generally.  One week we’d have an exam, which caused me to be late to basketball practice once as her exams were longer than the class period sometimes.  The next, we’d have an 8 page handwritten essay to do in class about the book we read, and the third, we’d have a 6 page typed paper to turn in.  I didn’t sleep the Sunday nights before those papers were due.

Our team that year was bad.  We had some good talent, but 8 players were suspended for drinking alcohol at a party after an exhibition game against a team that came down from Canada.  I wasn’t at the party, so I wasn’t suspended.  I dressed every game, varsity and JV that year.  I practiced for both teams.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get my varsity letter, even though all 8 of the suspended players did.  The coach could have given me bonus points for all of my extra effort, but he didn’t.  My playing time in Orlando didn’t count.  I asked the athletic director why, and she said “other program’s athletic departments are inferior to Talawanda’s.”  If my year in general hadn’t drained everything out of me, I would have laughed in her face.   We were 4-17 that year, in addition to the aforementioned suspensions.

We made the playoffs that year because I think everyone did, and our first game was at Millett Hall at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  We were losing by about 25 points at half-time, and I hadn’t played a single moment in the first half.  I did get to shoot a couple of layups during warm-ups and at half-time, but didn’t get any game action.  At some point in the second half, I heard several kids behind me chanting “we want 44,” and then clapping and repeating.  I saw my coach look at them, look at me, and look back at the game.  He never put me on the court.

My senior year at Talawanda was also my freshman year at Miami.   I was technically a high school student, but I took 26 hours at Miami that year (16 first semester, 10 second) through a post-secondary enrollment options program offered through the state.  Ohio paid my tuition and paid for my books, and I was able to sell my books back at the end of the semester so I was essentially getting paid to go to school.  The rest of college wasn’t so easy financially.

I worked harder than anyone in the offseason between my junior and senior year, and actually became pretty good.  I had a 37” vertical at that point, and with that vertical could hit about 11’3”, so I was playing well above the rim.  I actually dunked on two people at the same time in a pick-up game.  There really is no way to describe that feeling.  It’s one of my most emotionally vivid positive moments ever.

I wasn’t good enough to go pro, or even start at a major university, but had I continued working that hard during my entire senior year, I probably would’ve had scholarship offers to smaller schools with strong academic programs.  Unfortunately, I broke my ankle playing a pick-up game.  Nothing glorious.  No 360 degree Tomahawk Jam with an awkward landing.  I was simply back pedaling on defense, and tripped over a teammate’s foot.

When my ankle was 80 percent or so healed, I started playing again.  Actually, I was briefly playing while my ankle was still in a boot.  I couldn’t jump, but I didn’t care.  I just loved playing the game.  When I was about 80 percent, I played in the open gym with my teammates.  My hard work in the offseason became apparent.  I was very well conditioned.  I was doing things my teammates had never seen me do before.  I was a much better rebounder, defender and shooter.  I had a much greater grasp on team concepts.  I had hit several straight shots in the game that day, and made a pretty turn-around jumper that no one under 7’ tall could’ve blocked when I landed on my defender’s foot.  I sprained my other ankle pretty badly.

For the next several months, my ankles kept compensating for each other, and I had lost about 8” off of my vertical.  I could still dunk, but barely and not consistently.  One of my coaches matched me up with a freshman during ball handling drills because he said we were “matching up by talent.”  I still wasn’t a great ball handler, and my ankle injuries probably made it a valid statement at the time, but I believe that a large part of coaching is building up your team’s confidence, as confidence is probably the most important factor in any sport.  It’s very difficult to win when you don’t believe in yourself, and that applies to much more than sports.  Another coach said “I know and I think you know you’re limited,” after making an example of me in practice.  Hence the line “used to call me limited” in the song “Weightliftin’ Jam.”   Again, I don’t think that was the right approach.  It’s odd, even in the years since, where my philosophies have changed, and I have grown tremendously as a person, and even though my skin is thicker than almost anyone’s, those moments (including not getting my letter, and not playing in the playoff game) have stuck with me my entire life.  Those moments, along with the fact that I wasn’t taking a single class at the high school and my ankle injuries, are also why I didn’t play my senior year and ultimately never lettered.

I hope that somewhere a basketball coach reads this and understands that coaching is about much more than winning.  It’s about teaching.  It’s about making their players better people, not just better athletes.  It’s about understanding each child’s life circumstances, which I don’t believe any of my coaches ever did.

I do have some positive memories of playing a little high school basketball, mostly revolving around having fun with friends, but unfortunately the negative ones definitely stand out.  Basketball was my first dream, though it was much shorter and not nearly as powerful as my current one.  I also think that I was never supposed to live that dream.  I believe I was never supposed to play in the NBA, or even at a major university.  I believe I was put here to do what I’m doing now.   Making music and inspiring other people.  I have been through quite a bit, and am thankful every day for my life.  The next chapter in my life is college.  Part 1 of that chapter is where I’ll pick up next time.


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