From that moment on, basketball slowly took over my life, in just about every sense. I slept with my basketball most nights. It was all I could think about. I came home from school and went straight to the backyard. After I caught the “basketball jones”, nothing much else mattered to me. All I wanted to do is play basketball. It was an escape for me…an escape from a life no one would really want to live. Everyone wants to be somebody…to be important…to matter…especially as a kid. I didn’t think I mattered to anyone.
Before basketball, my life had already started to feel pretty insignificant. There were times when we had our electricity and water cut off due to non-payment, we switched phone numbers more than the number of outfits I had to wear to school, and we made due most days on a steady diet of pot pies for dinner. My wardrobe was hurt! I recall several days where I was made fun of because of what I was wearing. I didn’t know what it was like to have a pair of name brand shoes. I wore these wooden frame glasses for a while, and I had no comprehension of matching my clothes or developing any sort of fashion sense. Getting dressed for school consisted of me putting on one of the two pairs of pants that I had and picking a shirt I didn’t wear that week (I think I had maybe 5 or 6 different ones).
To top it all off, I wasn’t the most handsome guy in the world either. I had this mole on the corner of my left eye, my teeth were crooked (still are actually), and developed an acne problem, too. I got my hair cut maybe once every 4-5 months, and I had no idea what I was doing with it. Needless to say, going to school got pretty rough. Who wants to get made fun of every day? Who wants to go through puberty seeing all of the pretty girls and know you don’t have a shot in the world at getting a girlfriend? I sure didn’t. Too bad I didn’t have much of a choice.
For a long time, I blocked everything out and tried to focus on my studies. The one thing my parents did try to teach me is that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I got good grades. That lesson would come back to bite them (more on that later). Strangely, it’s a lesson they didn’t really practice themselves. My father had a middle school education level before finding his way to prison, and although my mother did graduate from high school, she never pursued her passion for cosmetology. Usually, a person embraces lessons from people who actually practice what they preach. For some reason, although my parents were speaking on something they clearly knew nothing about, this lesson stuck with me. I figured with the life I was living, I had better be as smart as possible to make something of myself. Otherwise, I’d be doomed to the same fate as my parents.
As I write this, I realize now that my competitive tendencies started at a very young age. In 5th grade, I recall watching with envy as several 6th grade students walked up to receive the “Presidential Award for Academics”. It was an award signed by the President of the United States given to students who maintained honor roll status throughout the 3rd through the 6th grade. You couldn’t have any C’s, only A’s and B’s, and most of them had to be A’s (I can’t remember the exact criteria).
That’s actually my first memory of setting a significant goal and achieving it. Upon finishing the 5th grade, I was already almost to the finish line, being on the honor roll every report card period. As underwhelming as my life was, this was something prestigious that I could achieve that didn’t cost money. Receiving something signed by our president seemed like something of a fairy tale for a kid like me. I spoke to Ms. Hislop, my 6th grade teacher, at the beginning of the school year. She asked me what my goals were. What a fantastic elementary teacher, instilling the concept of goal-setting at an early age. I asked her about that award, and she told me to go after it…so I did.
The worst part of it all was that on award day, my parents didn’t even come. I believe my father was in the hospital again, and at that point, my mother didn’t have her drivers license. I was the only student to receive the award that year, and Ms. Hislop was sure to make it a big deal when she presented it to me. I got up, feeling so proud to walk up there and receive it, and all I can remember was hearing younger students heckle me for what I was wearing. I had some corduroy pants (not at all cool at the time) and a poor excuse for a dress shirt. Oh, and I had a pair of Kmart sneakers on. We couldn’t afford more than one pair of shoes, so dress shoes were out of the question. Yep – dress pants, button-up shirt, and tennis shoes…not an appropriate combination. I was laughed at all the way up to the stage. It’s even hard for me to believe that I still remember such specifics of that moment. It helped seeing Ronald Reagan’s signature on the award, and the fact that Ms. Hislop showed enough pride in me to measure up toe-to-toe with any proud parent. That and the fact that I achieved something I put my mind to made it feel a little bit better.
The shame of it all is that up until 7th grade, I was a very good student. After discovering all that basketball had to offer, all of that went out the window. Maybe it was the heckling I received after receiving that award. Maybe it was the inferiority complex that I struggled with, wondering if I could actually keep this up. Or, maybe it was the fact that once I got to junior high school, I had more books to carry home, and the closest thing that I had to a backpack was a plastic Farmer Jack bag from the grocery story that always seemed to bring much laughter to others when it ripped on the way home? It was undoubtedly a combination of many things, but I believe it was primarily being able to play basketball any time that I wanted. Education suddenly took a back seat to basketball. For an athletically-challenged kid of my size and weight, that seemed like a travesty to everyone! Well…everyone except me!