Something definitely changed inside of me after that day. Michael Jordan often talks about how his shot at North Carolina lit a fire inside of him that helped drive him to be who he became – the best to ever play the game. Getting cut from the Franklin Hornets in 9th grade lit a fire in me. Most people (probably anyone else in the same situation) would have quit after something like this. Nope! Not me!
This moment is where I trace the early beginnings of my fierce competitive nature. This is where I fell in love with winning. Not because I tasted it. Actually, it was the opposite. It was because I wanted to taste it. Getting cut and hearing the stories after games was crushing. It was like watching someone eat a perfectly cooked steak in front of you and you haven’t eaten in weeks…yes…weeks. I wanted people to talk about me. I wanted to score 20 points in a game. I wanted to play in front of hundreds of my peers cheering me on.
Instead, my reality was quite different. I couldn’t get any attention from the girls that I liked. No attention from coaches. The only attention I ever got was always negative. People whom I thought were friends would make fun of me behind my back. There were days where I’d hear how a group of kids spent their time in class talking about how I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, and how foolish I was for professing a dream to play in the NBA. But just as they say any press is good press, even if negative, I was happy to have the negative attention. At least people were starting to notice me.
From them on, I had tunnel vision. Everything was basketball. While at work with Michigan Elite Teens, my mind was on basketball. It wasn’t uncommon for me to neglect work, put the box of merchandise that I was supposed to be selling down and jump into a game with kids playing on the street I was working. Everything I talked about circulated back to basketball somehow. The friends I hung out with were only those interested in hooping.
It was at this time that I met Buddy Clifton. Buddy was cool. He lived in Garden City, a suburb nearby. Garden City was much nicer than Inkster. A regular joke was that all the white people moved from Inkster to Garden City. Buddy and I both worked at MET. He and I would battle for the top seller bonus each night. Neither of us would take no for an answer at the door. People had to buy a box of candy from us before we would leave. He also loved playing basketball. He became a regular for the 3-on-3 matches in my backyard.
Buddy never knew the Mark that was a scared, passive, shy kid searching for approval. He only knew the Mark that was as tough as nails. He knew a Mark that was unafraid to stand up to anyone, that used the art form of cursing to show how tough he was. He was with me several times when someone would try to test me. On day, on the way home from work, another kid was mouthing off to me, and after neglecting to shut up, like I told him to, I took my shoe off and stuffed it in his mouth. Another time, while at a carnival, a much older drunk man didn’t like the way I looked at him, approached me with an attitude and tried pinning me up against the crane game by my throat. I pushed his hands down, despite being about a foot shorter and weighing 50 lbs. less, and put my fingers in his face, aiming to poke one of his eyes out. Somehow, the guy switched his demeanor. I think it might have realized he was drunk, and if a scene was created, and cops came, he would have went to jail not only for assaulting a minor, but also for public intoxication.
I became just as ruthless on the court. I talked a lot of trash during games, even if I was losing. In my mind, I had to start demanding respect in life, especially on the basketball court.If I lost a game, my effort went up 100% in the rematch. I started keeping track of my win-loss records each day on the basketball court. I usually found a way to win at least one game every day. In my workouts, my expectations grew. I worked on my dribbling and shooting every day. While doing drills, I’d set a goal, and if I missed it, even by 1, I’d start the drill completely over. If I didn’t make over 50% of my shots, I’d shoot until my percentage was above 50%, even when it was pitch black outside and my neighbors were complaining for me to go in.
I realized that although I wasn’t an extremely talented, athletic player, I had qualities that did make me standout: dribbling and passing. I started working on those traits to make them better than anyone. I was already doing the Pistol Pete ball handling drills daily. I started doing them blindfolded. I started doing them with a tennis ball instead of a basketball. When by myself shooting around, I’d imagine opponents reaching for the basketball and come up with unique, creative moves to maneuver around them. In games, I started using those visions to enhance my court vision. I found that I could feel player movement without seeing. I started experimenting with those feelings, which were sometimes completely wrong. I started throwing a lot of no look passes. Sure, some hit the garage, or went directly out of bounds. Yet, the more I experimented, the more passes that found a player that no one expected me to find (and sometimes not even the player).
I don’t want to leave the impression that I blossomed into this amazing, unstoppable point guard overnight. Most of my days on the court were still filled with mediocrity play, thanks to being a short, nonathletic wannabe basketball junkie. But there still were plays that made those watching lose their breath. Since I wasn’t allowed to experience what organized basketball was, I committed myself to this style of play. Those breathless moments started increasing, and before long, I started earning my respect around the neighborhood courts. It wasn’t much, but it was the start of something that would take me to places that no one ever thought I’d go.