1995 proved to be a very big year in more ways than one! I could discuss my younger brother Nathan being born at home or how two of the greatest video games of all-time (Chrono Trigger and Donkey Kong Country 2) were released that fall but, for the purposes of this story, 1995 was the year we moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to the small town of Middletown, Indiana. This was exciting on one hand because of the unknown but at the same time, it was incredibly difficult leaving all of my friends and old stomping grounds behind in the Buckeye state. Moving from the Queen City to one giant cornfield didn't make a whole lot of sense but I have to give my Dad credit...he never shied away from making bold decisions when it came to moving somewhere new. There is something to be said for taking chances as it gives you a real sense of adventure if nothing else. And, despite Indiana being a bust for all of us in many ways, perhaps the Lord was smiling on me because I was about to experience one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Perhaps we needed to move to the "Basketball State" in order to make it happen!
Enter the Homeschool Sons basketball organization. Through Carey Jones and his family (who just "happened" to live next door to my Aunt and Uncle. Coincidence? I think not.), we heard of a local basketball camp that was taking place literally days after we moved into our new home. After experiencing the memorable Athletes in Action camp just the year before, I figured why not? As I entered the Millcreek Civic Center in Anderson, Indiana for the first time, I was greeted by Coach Griffith and Coach Swan. I still remember that moment like it was just yesterday too. It was simply another one of those moments in time when time seems to stop. Little did I know at the time that both men would become an integral part of my life over the next several years.
Regarding the camp itself, it wasn't a real life-changing event like the aforementioned Athletes in Action camp but it was still immensely fun! We did dribbling relays, sprints, scrimmages...everything you could possibly hope for as a young fourteen year-old kid. The funny thing is that I went into this camp hoping for nothing more than a few days of quality exercise and fun basketball games. I expected nothing more than that. However, on the final day of camp, I discovered that most of the guys I had been playing basketball with these past several days actually played for a team called the Homeschool Sons! This team included other homeschoolers who played against various public/private schools in addition to other homeschool teams ranging from the local area to Indianapolis (not "in the Annapolis" like Charles Barkley thought in that one Capital One commercial...ha, ha!).
Since I was homeschooled at this point (after my 7th grade experience, I embraced the opportunity to get homeschooled), I was eligible to play for the team! And when I was offered a spot on the team's roster, you can bet that I joined on the spot! Since the coaches did not have try-outs and they did not believe in cutting players, I would be given a fair opportunity which is all a guy can ask for really. Considering what I had gone through in 7th grade, this sure felt like a breath of fresh air. And some twenty-one years after the fact, I can assure you that opportunities like this one don't knock on your door every day.
So despite my "promise" to stay away from organized basketball, I was back in the saddle after a mere one year hiatus. Go figure, right? And since I would be a Freshman that fall, I was officially a member of the Varsity team to boot!
Or was I? Due to the Varsity squad being simply loaded with veteran talent that year, Coach Griffith strongly encouraged me to get my feet wet playing for the Junior High team instead. Despite my desire to play for the Varsity, I appreciated my coach's honesty about the "playing time" issue. Granted, being the knucklehead I was at times, I did feel that I could hold my own with the other players on the Varsity (you can thank the AIA camp for instilling that much confidence in my head) but, in the end, I sided with my coach and I agreed to play primarily for the Junior High team. And let me tell you...this turned out to be a very wise decision because my new coach (Mark Swan) and I were a perfect fit. Coach Swan would incessant encourage all of us and he allowed us to play to our strengths and not be afraid of making the occasional mistakes. Playing for him was like a dream...particularly after my difficult basketball experience from a couple of years ago.
The first game of the 1995-96 season was like something out of a dream too. I got to play for almost the entire game and I even scored 4 points to boot! It may not seem like much but just seeing the ball go through the basket a couple of times and getting involved on the glass by snagging some rebounds (I was one of our forwards that year.) was huge from a confidence standpoint.
From that game on, I just kept myself focused in the moment and I didn't look back. I finished with a whopping 125 points that season (a 7.3 point per game average...my high score that season was 15 points for those of you keeping track) along with a plethora of rebounds. As an added bonus, I even scored around 10 points for the Varsity team (some of us JH players got to dress for the Varsity) which was awesome! Although I was somewhat oblivious at first, I began to understand that there was real prestige with getting to play Varsity basketball in the great state of Indiana. Battling with the "big boys" and hearing your name called was like pure magic. I feel simply electric as I write this all these years later. Talk about a lasting impact, right?
I even recall scoring one particular basket during a Varsity game that was simply unforgettable too! We were way away and the coach threw me into the game so there was really no pressure on us. I remember receiving a pass on a fast break, jumping, and somehow making this near-impossible layup/running jumper between three players on the opposing team who all attempted to block my shot. When my "miracle" shot somehow went in, even I had to do a double-take and ask myself how in the heck that happened?! I had absolutely no idea how I had made that shot and I still vividly recall watching the video of the game afterwards and my Dad literally rewinding the tape and watching that particular moment over...and over...and over. I remember one of our big guys (I think his name was David if memory serves.) congratulating me and Ben Griffith (one of our best players and Coach Griffith's son) pumping his fist and the fans just going nuts. And trust me when I say that, if you ever get/got to hear fans cheering for you like that, it is something that will stick with you to your dying day. It was a surreal, unforgettable moment and you can only imagine my happiness and pure joy at getting the opportunity to shine like this. I was still a bit raw in some areas but, with the right coaching and experience, I felt that I could become the player that I had only imagined! The sky was the limit!
With all that being said, do you know what was really strange about my first season with the Sons? I am not sure that everyone knows this but I was silly enough to play all of the games that year without my glasses! Because of some nasty experiences in the past with my glass frames/nose pieces getting all mangled and/or broken while playing basketball, I simply made a choice to play while being half-blind! That is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole either because I could hardly see the basket and yet I was still making most of my shots! I still remember the 10-foot jumper from the corner being my patented shot that season mainly because my teammate Jared Swan would remark about how amazing it was I could hit that shot so consistently. Oh...if you only knew that I could hardly see the basket, Jared! ;)
Now granted, this wacky decision of mine prevented me from becoming a real three-point threat as those attempts would have really been a "shot in the dark" but perhaps this at least allowed me to become a reasonably good low-post player. It does make me laugh to think about the times when I would put my glasses on (after a game), look at the basketball hoops, and mumble to myself "So that is what they look like!" To this day, it remains a mystery to me how I was able to make so many shots. Then again, when you consider that the Lord has always been my true source of strength, perhaps it is not a mystery after all.
The good news is that nonsense only lasted for a season as I wised up and started wearing contacts heading into the 1996-97 campaign. Now that I could actually see what I was shooting at, I could add a 3-point shot to complement my mid-range game. However, there was a slight problem. Since I was now a Sophomore, I could no longer play for the Junior High team which put me in a bit of a tight spot. Since almost all of our Varsity starters were returning, by default, I knew that I would probably receive very little playing time. And despite my first season with the Sons being so much fun, the prospect of sitting on the bench was a dreadful one as it would undoubtedly rekindle memories of my horrific 7th grade experience.
This might sound random but let me just say that I have never liked comparing myself to others. As a lifelong encourager, it gives me great joy to lift others up and to offer any cheerful words of hope that pop into my head. Conversely, when you start comparing yourself to others, you try to nit-pick and focus on their flaws/blemishes/weaknesses. This gives us encouraging types a real icky feeling to be honest. Now you of course want to search for any weaknesses in an opponent and exploit them but I never viewed my teammates as opponents but as friends/comrades. So without thinking of myself as "better" than my teammates, I simply worked as hard as I could in the offseason in the hopes of helping the team where I could do so. My confidence continued to grow and, despite our Varsity team being truly great, I believed in my heart that I was good enough to play on this team. Why not me? Sure, I might not have been the tallest or strongest basketball player on paper, but one thing I knew from being a huge sports fan was that championships were never won on paper. It always comes down to desire, sheer determination, and a little tap from lady luck for good measure. At least in those areas, I felt like I had something going for me. And it is a good thing that my confidence was at a healthy level too because I was going to need to survive the adversity that the next season would bring.
The good news is that the coaches foresaw this issue (i.e. too many players not receiving playing time) because the Junior Varsity (JV) team was added for my Sophomore season! Several of us who could no longer play on the Junior High team nor get the playing time we needed at the Varsity level now had an out. It was like a wave of relief too because I just wanted to play basketball as we all did! I saw the JV as a real opportunity to grow as a player. Coach Bowen took the reigns of the JV squad and, while was good friend's with Coach Griffith, Coach Bowen's style was quite different. He was a relatively soft-spoken man in contrast to Coach Griffith's more fiery, Type A personality.
Although my second season with the Sons would be a mostly fun one (Part 4 will explain...), opening night couldn't have been more erratic as I didn't even start! I still remember one of my teammates telling me that was a bogus decision which justified my being legitimately upset. Other than that ridiculous snafu, I did get to play a lot for the JV and Coach Bowen seemed to be mostly fair in terms of playing time for everyone on the team. At times, I did get this weird feeling that Coach Bowen was in some ways Coach's Griffith puppet but I won't divulge any further than that...
In any case, there was one particular game my Sophomore season that stands as a real defining moment for me personally. We were playing a team that had a bad Junior High team, a bad Varsity team, yet their JV team was actually quite good! Go figure, right? They were called New Horizons and I just remember them being very athletic and showing insane hussle on every single possession. Now us Sons had a decent JV squad to be sure but New Horizons might have been the better overall team. I recall us being down pretty much the entire game when seemingly out of the blue, I found "the zone." I just came to life in the fourth quarter and hit some huge threes to keep us within striking distance. My confidence just grew with each made shot and it culminated with me swishing a 3-point shot several feet behind the line! I remember that moment too because my head just said "To heck with it!" and I shot from ultra-long range. It was a special moment because of our fans. The greatest, most supportive fans in the world and they were going bonkers after that particular shot! It made me feel like a superhero to be honest! The unfortunate part of this story is that we still lost the game in the end but yet...it was an incredibly fun basketball game. I still remember going into our locker room, gazing at myself in the mirror, and smiling from ear to ear. It was one of those surreal moments where I could only wonder in amazement. Did I really make those shots and excite my teammates and fans like that? Did that really happen? It was a very special moment that will remain locked in my memory banks until the end of time.
It may not sound all that impressive after my excerpt above but I was able to average around 8 points a game during my Sophomore season and pushed that figure up to 11 points per game during my Junior campaign. Both years were enjoyable at times and miserable during others (once again...Part 4 will tell all). I steadily improved, my confidence grew, and I became very close with most of my teammates. I still remember Ben Griffith and other teammates and I all playing basketball at Ben's house for hours on end. We would play all sorts of different games like "21," "Horse," and of course 5-on-5 then relax to a simply scrumptious meal of hamburgers, hot dogs, and bratwursts. Ben was a fantastic post player with a difficult shot to block and the ability to make a spectacular play at any time. He and Noah Porch were quite the duo in terms of scoring inside as well as anchoring our defense. I still remember Noah hitting an incredible shot at the buzzer against Indiana Academy in a double overtime classic that still stands as one of the finest games I have ever witnessed. And off the court, Ben and Noah were pretty funny dudes who could make anyone with a pulse laugh. :)
In addition to the enjoyable times at Ben's, I also had a blast meeting up with Jared Swan and Brandon Brown and playing basketball for hours on Brandon's epic driveway (it was literally long enough to be a basketball court). Sometimes, just getting together with friends and playing the greatest game of them all for fun was like a wave of relief. My teammates truly were the best and I still treasure the times we spent together on lazy summer evenings. Those special moments would help me to fight through some real trials as well. In the midst of my personal "Glory Years" was a raging storm and this storm would make my 7th grade experience seem like mere child's play...
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