Although I had led quite the charmed life as a child, I got my first real taste of adversity when I was twelve years old. After living in the most amazing house ever (my childhood friends can attest to this), going to a wonderful Christian school (Community Christian School in Hamilton, Ohio for those of you keeping track!), having the best friends a guy can have (many who I still call "friend" today), and playing soccer/basketball locally, it all came to a head in late 1993. We sold our home in September, moved closer to Cincinnati, and I attended a new school (Trinity Christian School) a month into the Fall Semester. After being well-respected by my teachers and classmates at my previous school, I was suddenly being called "The New Kid" by virtually everyone (the name is Matt dang it!) and some of my peers would pick on me for no real reason. I still had a love for video games, Saturday morning cartoons, and Hot Wheels cars and I couldn't care less about "checking out girls" or having perverted, X-rated conversations. I had the innocence of youth back then and believe me...there are times when I wish that I still had that innocence. The guys would joke about how bad my shooting form was in basketball or how small I was or how I was too geeky and not "cool" enough. You know how kids are; They will hone in and try to find any possible weakness in another person. And these guys were pretty good. Granted, it wasn't like any full-fledged bullying was going on but my classmates were still pretty cruel at times.
On the sports front, I did sign up to play basketball for the TCS junior high team. I discovered very quickly that this was nothing like the more casual YMCA leagues I had played in...these people were serious! Although the practices seemed to go fine, I was about to enter a cesspool of negativity. I felt that I had played pretty well all things considered. It was nothing earth-shattering mind you but I felt pretty confident that I would get plenty of playing time with the team. Unfortunately, what I thought versus what my coach thought were two completely different things. I was absolutely stunned on opening night when I learned that I wouldn't start. And that wasn't the worst of it, either. Not only did I not start but I hardly got to play at all! I was reduced to one of those "garbage time" players who got to play only if we were way ahead or too far behind to come back (usually it was the latter because our team was as mediocre as a team can get). Unfortunately, riding the pine really hurt my confidence because I made the mistake of allowing what others thought affect how I felt about myself. I wish I could have been like Rudy and kept my chin up and fought but, sometimes...you have to go through the fire before you can become the person you want to be.
As a result of my not being tough enough mentally, I did not play very well when I was lucky enough to get in a game. I would have some embarrassing turnovers or miss my shots badly. The sad part is that I actually found myself playing like the last guy off the bench. However, there is a positive in all of this. There was a slight glimmer of hope that appeared during the final two games of this otherwise dreadful season. Despite my poor treatment and equally egregious play, there was still a small, barely noticeable fire in my soul that enabled me to gain a little bit of confidence. For some reason, my coach was suddenly throwing me into the game and, amazingly, I even scored my first points of the season in the final game! This is significant too because I still remember us playing against a very good team that was led by Barry Larkin's (the famous Cincinnati Reds player) cousin! This kid was literally the opposing team's point guard! He simply dominanted the game and pretty much had his way in terms of scoring and passing to the open man. However, there was one moment...one fleeting moment...when this amazing point guard let down his guard just a little. It was a pass to the left wing...a simple pass that occurs a hundred times every game. However, what he didn't see was that I had gambled and jumped the route right as he let go of the ball. I quickly stole the pass, quickly dribbled the length of the floor, and made a simple lay-up! It was such a surreal moment too because everything just happened in slow motion and the look of disbelief on everyone's faces was simply priceless. You have to remember that I was having a lousy season and yet...in the final game, I had experienced one of those special moments where things actually go right! It was such a great feeling too because, despite the fact that we lost the game by a fairly wide margin, I can say that I took Barry Larkin's cousin to the cleaners...at least on one play. ;)
For someone whose confidence had taken a significant hit, this was the sort of moment I needed to hopefully turn things around. Granted, the 1993-94 school year/basketball season will always be remembered as a stiff test for me personally but, as I learned, you can either choose to learn from it and grow stronger as a man or you can allow what others think to dictate how well (or not so well) you perform in life. That is what I learned anyway.
Now despite finishing the season on a real positive note, it's not like everything changed overnight and I suddenly became this basketball juggernaut who scored 20 points a game. The season had left a real sour taste in my mouth and I was not even sure I wanted to play organized basketball again anytime soon. There was still some frustration at how the season had gone and I resolved to never put myself in an uncomfortable situation like that ever again. And yes...I am absolutely certain that the Lord got a good chuckle or two from my resolution because, as only He knew, my adversity on the basketball court was far from over. The good news, however, is that I was about to experience something that would give me the ability to overcome adversity should I face it again.
I do remember praying a lot during this time. I really missed my childhood home and the fact that I had to give away my cat Puffy (I had owned her for eight long years...since she was a kitten!) since my younger sister Cari was deathly allergic to cats did not help matters. My charmed life was officially a thing of the past and I really need the Lord's guidance and strength to pull me through the nadir of my life. My 1993-94 school/basketball experience only compounded the problem too because, as I mentioned, it was a mostly negative one. I suppose that we can't live in that safe, "Kumbaya" bubble forever can we?
Well, as He has done many, many times, the Lord really touched my life and He gave me the ability to press on. There was no mystical experience or elaborate vision...I just remember sensing the Holy Spirit and feeling a wave a peace in my heart. I was optimistic and hopeful of what the future would bring. Sometimes, not knowing what to expect can be quite exciting you know?
The next step in my journey would involve a simple basketball camp. No bells and whistles or anything extravagant...just your normal, run-of-the-mill Athletes in Action basketball camp in Cincinnati, Ohio. All I can say is that I was meant to attend this camp because it would wind up being one of the best weeks of my entire life! I still remember how fun and magical the whole experience was and the aura of positivity that simply flowed from the leaders/coaches throughout the week. Everyone was so upbeat, friendly, and encouraging which was precisely what I needed during this time of my life. Now to be fair, there was a certain element of toughness too (nothing makes you dislike someone faster than being told to do 25 push-ups) but it was constructive and not destructive which is a huge difference.
In any case, I was actually having a blast playing basketball again! Even a scrawny white kid like myself had a chance to succeed in the eyes of my coaches. Even some 22+ years later, I can still recall some of the coaches' names. Rod Foster was a former NBA player and I still remember him teaching us how to dribble the ball between our legs for strategic purposes (versus simply showing off), Ed Uzinski was a beacon of encouragement who was probably the one who helped me to truly believe in myself, and Casey was my small group leader who was just a really swell guy. These men showed through their actions that they actually cared about us as young men and that there was more to this camp than simply becoming better at shooting a basketball. As the camp drew to an end, I felt a real fire growing within my soul. I didn't really have a concrete dream per se but I did know that my lack of confidence had been completely replaced by a fiery determination to prove any naysayers wrong from here on out. Anyone who ever doubted me or dismissed me as "too small" was not going to affect me anymore. On the contrary, my doubters would unknowingly supply me with the fuel I needed to press on and discover success...whether it was in sports or anything else.
Now to be fair, I did come to the realization that, if I was going to succeed in the basketball arena, I would have to become stronger both physically and mentally. I was admittedly a very skinny/scrawny white kid and I would have to find a way to capture the attention of others somehow. But what would work best? Hmm...
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