In all honesty, I wish I could say that my second and third years with the Homeschool Sons were as magical and fun as that wonderful first season. It would give me great joy to say that. Now as I discussed in Part 3, there were some memorable moments that I got to experience during those two years like that JV game against New Horizons. But there was another side to these two years as well...a dark, ominous side that only my closest family and friends could seem to see.
I don't know exactly when it started or why it even started in the first place but, for some reason, our Varsity coach turned a complete 180 on me. I was still good friends with Coach Swan (who stepped down from coaching for a couple of seasons) but the same Varsity coach who had encouraged me and believed in me during my initial season with the Sons grew to really dislike me more and more over time. It wasn't too bad during my Sophomore year but by my Junior year? It was no longer dislike but pure enmity that this man felt towards me.
It started with little things like me taking outside shots during scrimmage. Even if I made some of my shots, it apparently ruffled my coach's feathers because he would get on me to stop taking those shots and to pass the ball instead (This guy would not have liked Steph Curry...LOL). Considering that I passed the ball more than I shot it and that I was a dang good shooter to boot, you can probably understand why I was confused by this. I even remember once when my scrimmage team had a comfortable lead and I took a wide open shot with 15-20 seconds left in said scrimmage. Of course, my coach told me that was an ill-advised shot and that decisions like that one to shoot were why he was concerned about me as a player. Okayyyyyyyyyyyyyy...
There were also times in practice when us guards would focus on passing to our big guys in the post. I remember one instance when we would have to run laps if we didn't give our big men a perfect pass. And of course, coach was guarding our big men like he (coach) was Deion Sanders or something which made it nearly impossible to execute the play.
Despite my growing frustration with my coach, I could still live with these issues if they were the extent of the problem. However, things continued to grow worse over time. There came a point when I was getting chastised for pumping my fist and showing a little emotion after making a big shot in a game. Apparently, my coach never watched Reggie Miller or Michael Jordan because those guys were fiery competitors! What was wrong with me showing a little swagger?
One thing that really irked me was when I would get chewed out for giving 100 percent during practice and making the first team's life as miserable as possible. Hey, that's what Rudy did at Notre Dame, right? Since he didn't get to play for the team, he gave everything he had in practice when facing off against the first team because it was all he could do and, in the process, it probably made the first team better as well. It's a win-win, right? I can only assume that our coach thought I was trying to show everyone up when in fact I only knew how to play one way...with everything in my soul. They taught us to have fiery determination and to give everything at all times during the AIA basketball camp and I embraced that mindset. Now to be fair, I did understand how at times, you want the defense to relax so the offense can work through some kinks and execute a play. I totally got that. I think it was the fact that I was being singled out for playing too hard that bothered me the most. That and, silly as it may sound, I could almost sense my coach seething anytime I made a great play...particularly if it was against the first team. I mean...really? If I was truly one of the weaker players on the team and nothing more than a benchwarmer, why in the world was coach going way out of his way to put me down like this? Perhaps it was because I was more than a simple pine man after all...despite coach's attempts to take away my confidence.
Another incident that sticks out in my mind was the game at Liberty Christian School. Now allow me to be perfectly honest here. As a Varsity bench player, I would naturally think about life and daydream during games at times. Now I absolutely supported my teammates and cheered them on as much as I could but, at the same time, I am a dreamer and as such, I like to think about life and all sorts of things. That is who I am. Considering that I never got into the game unless we had a huge lead, can you really blame me for allowing my mind to wander?
With all that being said, our coach called my name and asked me to go into the game...in the first half of a real nip-and-tuck affair! Now can you imagine my shock? I hurriedly rushed beside coach and he asked me if I knew the number of the player that I was going to guard. Wha...?! I was watching the game for sure but I wasn't exactly focusing on the Liberty players. Now in retrospect, I probably should have acted cool and nonchalant about it but, being the honest (and somewhat naïve) teenager I was, I simply said "I don't know." I know, I know...that was a pretty lousy response (my 16-year old self was not as savvy as I wish he would have been) but how in the heck was I supposed to know that I was going in the game for that particular player and to know the right number on the spot like that? Peyton Manning might have known the answer but he is more OCD than me! The sad part of this story is that I might have had a real opportunity here and, as soon as I went into the game, coach had another player replace me with lightning-quick precision to make an example of my poor response. Was I partly to blame for this? Sure I was. But still...I should not have been immediately taken out of the game like that. Give me a chance to show what I can do, coach!
As if that incident wasn't embarrassing enough, our wonderful coach even brought it up during practice the following week. The whole thing was just so asinine and drawn out in my humble opinion. I mean...why couldn't I have simply asked my teammate who he was guarding? Is that such a crime? College and NBA players do that all the time! I will just say this...if I ever wind up coaching a basketball team, I will offer them as much encouragement as humanly possible all while helping them to work on any potential weaknesses. The problem my coach had was that he tried to find every possible flaw in my game and make an example of me whenever possible. If you balance that out with a kind word and some encouragement here and there, it's doable. Not my preference for sure but doable nonetheless.
Are you enjoying my "rant parade?" Hey...like I said at the very beginning, this is my story and the truth is that it wasn't all rainbows and unicorns. I loved playing for the Sons and those times were special to say the least but I went through some real dark times as well. Life isn't always easy. You discover that very quickly when you begin to dread going to practice and even dressing for Varsity. Getting singled out time and time again was what made these two years a living hell in some ways. When other players would make similar mistakes, nothing was said but when I made a mistake, it was the freaking "end of the universe" apparently. Several of my teammates could see what was going on too and they would even comment to me that coach was being unfair.
I just wondered what I did to deserve this treatment. I never missed a practice, I always gave everything I had, and my attitude was positive and upbeat! I would even attend the optional Saturday practices and make every effort to absorb everything that coach said. And that is what made all of this injustice so painful and frustrating. It is one thing to be an egotistical, arrogant player who shows little to no respect but when you do everything the right way and you try your best to carry yourself with grace and humility, shouldn't you be treated in kind?
Despite my best efforts to do everything the right way, nothing changed as far as my relationship (or whatever the heck it was) with coach was concerned. Even though our awesome fans would give me plenty of love and cheer loudly for me whenever I was announced as one of the Varsity players, my playing time at that level dwindled to virtually nothing. I loved my fellow JV teammates but having to watch them get into the game while I wasted away on the bench really ignited a fire within me.
Allow me to just touch on one more incident. And believe you me...this one made everything perfectly clear if it wasn't clear enough already. It was during the final game of a 3-day tournament that took place in Indianapolis. For whatever reason, our Varsity starters just didn't have it that day...at all. We had already blown any chance of winning the tournament due to a tough loss the previous day and I think our starters just had a natural letdown of sorts. It even got so bad that our coach, furious with the starters, threw all of us JV starters into the game. It was difficult watching my teammates play so poorly and all but at the same time, I saw this as perhaps another golden opportunity to get out there and to show coach what I could do! Well...that moment was short-lived because, for some reason I will never understand, I was taken out of the game after a whopping one minute of action. It would be one thing for the entire JV team to be replaced but no...I was the only player taken out of the game! And considering that I was one of the stars on the JV squad, this move made absolutely zero sense whatsoever. Despite everything I had endured, that moment right there took the first place ribbon as the biggest BS move that coach ever made towards me. And that is saying something when you consider everything else I had to deal with. Despite my nature to shy away from conflict/confrontation, I was very tempted to have it out with coach and give him a piece of my mind right then and there. It wasn't just unfair...it was embarrassing! Even my dad, who happened to be sitting next to Coach Swan in the bleachers, said a few choice words in coach's direction.
All I can say is that, by God's Grace, cooler heads prevailed and I refrained from saying anything that I might have regretted. I didn't know it at the time but by simply taking a step back and biding my time, I was making the most of a frustrating situation. And make no mistake about it...I was extremely pissed!
There was something different about this moment though. At the lowest point...the nadir of my Sons career if you will, I felt much different than back when I was in 7th grade and I had to endure another difficult coach. Instead of my confidence taking another big hit and me wallowing and feeling sorry for myself, I felt something else entirely. I was angry...really down and dirty PO'ed but it wasn't malicious or anything sinister. It was that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you have been legitimately wronged and experienced true injustice. I felt a righteous anger and my resolve could not be any stronger than it was that day. Nobody was going to stop me from playing the game I loved and no matter what it took, I was going to prove any of my remaining doubters dead wrong. Doubt me at your peril...that was my mindset.
Not to throw a video game plug into this blog (then again...why not?) but the funny thing is that, after we arrived home, I immediately fired up Double Dragon 2 for the NES and I played by far the greatest game I had ever played before or since. Seriously...I absolutely annihilated everyone in that game and executed the difficult knee jump maneuver effortlessly on that day! Most people play video games poorly when they are angry but on that day, the Shadow Boss didn't stand a chance. ;)
What makes that day so special is that, despite the injustice, the frustration, and the incessant anger I felt, I was still able to control my emotions and channel them the right way. It wasn't just playing a fun game of Double Dragon II either. Sometimes, you have to go through the fire and survive the whole ordeal to really appreciate what you do have. If I ever got a chance to start or even play basketball for the Varsity team, I was going to embrace the opportunity and absolutely savor each and every moment of it. The big question was would that day ever come?
In the meantime, I still had to make it through the rest of my Junior season without allowing negative emotions to get the best of me. It sure wasn't easy but I made a choice to handle whatever remaining adversity came at me with grace and humility which is something that I am proud of even today. I just needed to make a conscious effort to not base my confidence or happiness on what coach thought. And this mindset worked wonders. Coach's criticism no longer mattered to me. What he said or thought meant nothing either. But I did show him as much respect as I possibly could which was admittedly tough!
With all that being said, I have to give coach credit for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he brought out a tough, feisty side of me that I didn't even know that I had! Sometimes, adversity can bring out some real positive aspects in a person which I feel happened in my case. So for that, thank you coach!
Secondly, the last meaningful encounter that I would have with either my JV coach or Varsity coach would be at the Awards Banquet that year. I think that it was perfectly fitting that I was given the "Determination" award. It was fitting because it took every single ounce of determination for me to survive that brutal season! And the word does fit me like a glove. I was not a very tall or big person but my will was a championship-caliber one. And that is why people who don't look the part can play the part. If you want something bad enough, you just go out and there and take it! And don't take "No" for an answer either!
To cap off this intense section of my "Glory Years" story, I do want to say one last thing. It honestly took me years but, after a lot of prayer, I was finally able to forgive my coach for treating me so unfairly and for embarrassing me in front of my teammates and for holding me back by criticizing everything I did on so many occasions. I just gave it up to God and forgave my coach which is a very important part of my tale. You see...if you allow bitterness and hatred to seep in, you essentially become just like that person who might have hurt you. And trust me...it isn't easy to forgive others. It really isn't. But it is the best decision you will ever make because you will feel that wave of anger lift right off of you and you, in essence, will be free.
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