The first thing I did when I got home from school was put my books down, grab my basketball, and head out to the backyard.It was like a drug to me. I could escape every problem when playing. There was always something soothing about a bouncing basketball. I’d liken it to the appealing sound of waves crashing the shore, or the sweet sound of exotic birds chirping away in a rainforest. It’s no wonder I declared for myself a goal to make it to the NBA. To me, it was an obvious direction to take. For others, I was a lunatic.
I might not have been very good when I was younger, but I knew, very early on, that there was something different about me. My attraction to the game was abnormal. I had to have been the most unlikely person in the world to choose to play basketball. Short. Unathletic. Scrawny. Poor eyesight. I can’t forget to mention the fact that I was white. It never mattered to me of course, and I’m not even sure it mattered to anyone else either. It did, however, seem like it back then.Regardless of my talent level, I played with the passion of thousands. You’d think a coach would have picked up on this and gave me a proper opportunity to improve. One of the favorite things that I like to share with players is that working hard as a player is not the hard part of the journey as an aspiring professional basketball player. It isn’t easy by any stretch, but what’s harder is getting the opportunity to show the skills you’ve acquired by working hard. What’s hard is conjuring up the motivation to work hard without knowing if it will be in vein or not. My life is the perfect example of this. I’m not able to see all things, but as far as I could tell, no other player in my circle was putting in the time and effort I was on the basketball court. I wanted to get better. I just never got the proper coaching as a youngster.
My first experience trying out for a basketball team was in 7th grade. Coach Schaum…I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a mental abrasion in my mind of his face when I work out…even today! I can’t blame him. In fact, he was only doing what God ordained by cutting me from the Franklin Junior High School basketball team. At first glance, it was a no-brainer anyway. We had a very talented team: Gerald Adams, Jeff Landers, Matt Campbell, Nate Bishop, Gerald Adams, Roderick Hardison, Andre Graves, Tony Brown…all names that haunted me while at Franklin. All of those guys were easily 5’10” or taller, and I wasn’t even close to 5’0″ (4’9″ and 70 lbs. in 7th grade if I remember correctly).
Since I didn’t make the basketball team, I was pressured to join the wrestling team instead. It wasn’t because I was a good wrestler either. I recall taking plenty of beatings on that mat. It had more to do with me being able to wrestle a weight class that few teams had someone small enough to wrestle. If you look at the yearbook pictures of the Franklin wrestling teams from 89-91, you’ll see me, take a second and third look, and if you knew no better, you’d ask yourself what the heck a kindergartener was doing in a middle school wrestling picture. I remember my first match. My coach – Coach Thompson – pulled me aside before heading over to the match. He told me I was up against a wrestler who had been All-State every year, as if I wasn’t nervous enough. I was actually quite proud though. I lasted through the final round before getting pinned. That’s about as good as you can expect from an impoverished kid my size. It was, however, downhill for the rest of that 7th grade season. I never one a match.
I was tough, though. On or off the mat, I never went out like a punk. I couldn’t afford to. One of the most important pieces of advice that my father gave me was about standing up for myself. I used to get picked on all the time as a kid, even as early as elementary. I would run home David Hicks elementary, crying after being bullied by someone. My father pulled me aside one day and told me I was going to have to stand my ground instead of running home to “mommy and daddy” all the time, even if it meant taking a beating. Simple words from an ex-convict of course. He was right though. As I prepared myself for the scary life of middle school, I told myself I wasn’t going to let these knew peers push me around, and I didn’t.
One day during lunch period, we were all finishing up, laughing and having a good time. I didn’t have much to eat (that’s another story), but the next thing I knew, I had people pushing their trays in front of me expecting me to throw everyone’s garbage away. All I could think about was what my dad had told me. I decided it was time for me to stand my ground. I pushed the tray away from me, refusing to discard everyone’s garbage. After laughing and arguing about it, I asked everyone why they didn’t tell “him” to throw their garbage away. By him, I was referring to James Crews. Now I was 4’9″…Jim, as he was also called…Jim was probably 6’2″…easily 170 lbs.
Regardless of actual statistics, it was easily a David and Goliath comparison. Needless to say, James didn’t take to kindly to me pointing my finger at him, let alone telling people to make him throw away their garbage. I’m pretty sure James woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Perhaps he didn’t wake up on a bed at all. After slapping my finger down 2 or 3 times (I was stubbornly sticking to my dad’s new game plan for me), he was quick to get up out of his seat. He started walking around the long cafeteria table. I sat in my seat, laughing, without a clue of where he was going. Before I knew it, James grabbed my head and slammed it against the cafeteria table! I WAS SHOCKED! Ummm…OUCH!
As I bounced off the table and onto the ground, all I could think about was what my dad said. There was no way whatsoever I could get up from this crying. I’d be embarrassed for the rest of my school life. So I did the complete opposite…I got up laughing. I couldn’t have responded any better. From that moment, people looked at me as one of the toughest midgets in school. I never looked back from there. If anyone poked fun at me, teased me, or spread rumors about me to others that I found out about, I was quick to address the problem. I made it clear that if someone tried me, we’d just fight. It’s amazing how many people try to test people until they realize that it will end up in a fight. My dad was right. When people realized that I wouldn’t take any crap, they stopped messing with me as much. I still fought a lot. I got the crap kicked out of me quite a few times. Other times, I got the best of others. None of those fights hurt worse than getting cut from the basketball team each year. I could get up laughing after getting my head slammed into a table. When I saw my name on the tryout list with a line through it, the only response I could muster up was a painful, tearful whimper. It never seemed fair.
Despite my athletic challenges and my consistent track record of being cut, I had plenty of fodder to defend my decision to play basketball.I grew up in what I still consider the best era of NBA history – the 80’s. There was the Lakers and Celtics rivalry. The Detroit Pistons, led by my childhood hero Isaiah Thomas, on the rise, dismantling the Celtics, then the Lakers. We also did a pretty good job keeping Michael Jordan and the Bulls at bay for a short time, until they evolved into the dynasty of the 90’s. The NBA was quickly becoming the most popular league in all of sports. It was a special time for the game of basketball, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! It wasn’t just me, either. Every kid on my neighborhood loved basketball. With the Pistons winning ball games left and right, and the highlights of Joe, Isiah, and Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, it was hard not to.
Back to Isaiah Thomas. My childhood hero. There…I said it. He’s not the most popular guy in basketball these days, but he’ll always be an important part of my basketball existence. He was living proof that small guards could make an impact in the NBA. The heart he showed on the court was nothing short of amazing. The skill and creativity he played with was mesmerizing. He handled the basketball like no one else in the league at that time. I remember watching him try to push the Pistons past the Lakers for the Championship while playing with just one good ankle. I think he poured in 24 points in a quarter while hobbling around on one foot. His efforts fell short, but it was amazing to watch.
While I wasn’t the most athletic, I’ve always had an uncanny ability to handle the basketball. A lot of that came from watching Isiah’s every move. I found myself mimicking everything that he did. It took more hand quickness and trickery than athleticism to handle the ball well. In my backyard, I use to envision players trying to guard me, and I’d create dribbling moves to trick opponents into reaching as I went by. I was always the flashy type, putting the ball in between my legs and around my back whether I went anywhere with the move or not. I was crossing people over before it was even cool. I didn’t know how to use my dribbling moves effectively, but I sure looked good. I used to drive people bananas by dribbling the ball around during games without going anywhere.
I didn’t realize it then, but it’s probably likely that I also learned how to be tough on the basketball court from Isiah. Isiah played through so many injuries during his career. I didn’t have many injuries to distract me, but I definitely needed to be mentally tough to keep going. In fact, it was my confusing, obsessive motivation that prompted me to start asking some tough questions: why was I so driven to prove people wrong and make the team? Why didn’t I listen to everyone else and quit? Why did I love a game that I clearly wasn’t built to play? It took me a very long time to find the answers to those questions, yet I tarried on, working, pushing, and striving to be a better player than the day before.
I think my work ethic was a combination of things, including a natural response to my environment. Inkster, which was once a pleasant middle class neighborhood, quickly became one the most most feared, unfavorable areas to live in. Noticeably, crime in the area was rising swiftly. Drug trafficking became the norm, and even random shootings became a regular occurrence. One day, while my parents were out, I watched dozens of cop cars pull up to my neighbor’s house. It was a drug raid, complete with a swat team, heavy artillery, sniff dogs, a battle ram for the front door, etc. All I can remember is hitting the floor in fear of what I saw in the movies and on the TV: a no holds barred shootout. Not one single shot was fired, but several pounds of marijuana were discovered.
On the other side of Inkster, there was a section of town, just across Michigan Avenue, dubbed Little Saigon. For me, probably one of the most difficult challenges was being one of the few white kids left in the Inkster neighborhood. Several of the white families on our block moved out of town. For a long time, it was rumored that white people couldn’t step one foot into Little Saigon without getting shot at instantly. I’d later find that to be severely untrue. I don’t think the guns and bullets discriminated. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, there was a high likelihood that you could pay for that mistake with your wallet, clothes, and sometimes…your life!
Regardless of my “chip on my shoulder” mentality, people still tried me. I remember returning home with my family after a shopping trip, only to find our backyard filled with kids playing basketball on my court while we were gone. As they saw us pull up, everyone scrambled in different directions, hopping fences on every side of the yard to escape the wrath of my father. My dad parked the car, we went into the backyard, and what I saw shattered my heart. My dad had decided to put the rim at just 7 feet high. The problem was that this was a height that everyone else in the neighborhood could slam dunk. My basketball goal had been dunked on so aggressively while we were gone that the rim was bent all the way down. I remember pulling out the ladder and trying to bend it back. I couldn’t believe I was going to be without my basketball goal. It wasn’t like we could just go and get a new one. As it was, we could only afford the basketball goal itself. My father made the backboard himself. Everything I tried to repair it was no use. The goal had been rendered unusable.
It took months before I was able to get another goal, but it didn’t keep me from the game. I started dribbling my basketball everywhere that I went. When we were able to get a new rim, my father also decided to raise the rim as high as it could go (9′ 8″). This helped prevent everyone from being able to dunk. It also was better for me. Now I had something much closer to regulation to practice on. After a couple of, shall we say…”discussions” between my father and those coming over to play basketball, people started to get the picture. There were still occasions where we returned home only to find people playing in our backyard, but it was harmless. if anything, my parents were just happy to have something to keep me at home. Getting into trouble in Inkster became easier and easier with each passing day. It never effected me though. While others learned how to write graffiti, steal from stores, play with guns, experiment with drugs, etc., I was quite content playing basketball, whether it was with others, or all by myself.