The Glory Years: Part 6 - Completing the Journey

Naturally, it was bittersweet seeing my Senior year with the Sons reach its inevitable conclusion. We had all come so far and grown so close and, on a personal level, I had finally beaten my personal "basketball" demons and proven to myself that I belonged with the big boys...on a legitimately great team no less! However, like with all the great moments in life, time waits for no one and, before you know it, one phase of your life ends and another begins. Were my "Glory Days" over just like that?

Well, while I was technically a Senior, I still had the option of remaining in high school while taking college classes simultaneously. You see, I had already completed a couple of computer courses at our local Ivy Tech State College and, being a homeschooler, I still needed to take my GED along with my SAT/PSAT/ACT tests. Doing well on the latter tests could really help me to win some scholarships/grants so that I could attend a nice four-year university. That was the hope anyway.

While I had some legitimate reasons to stay an extra year in high school, it was admittedly all about the Sons. There is nothing in the entire world I wanted more than the opportunity to play with the Sons for one more year. I still remember my dad encouraging me to think about it and that nothing was wrong with graduating from high school as a 19-year old. Why rush into college and the "real world," right? I knew full well that if I graduated and simply moved on with my life, I would likely find myself looking back and regretting that I didn't play an additional year with the Sons when the opportunity practically smacked me in the face! And besides...graduating in the year 2000 sounds a lot better than 1999, right? ;)

Naturally, I discussed everything with my family and they left the final decision completely up to me which was really cool. Some parents would simply toss their kids into college without a second thought but my parents knew how important the Sons were to me. They had witnessed my journey from benchwarmer to starter and they knew I was practically salivating over the opportunity to experience another year like the one that had just ended. Needless to say, I decided to "take my talents" to the Sons one more time. Sorry for the LeBron plug there but I simply couldn't resist. ;)

Now with all that being said, my excitement surrounding my true Senior year took a major hit when I learned that Coach Swan was stepping down as Varsity coach. On top of that, his son Jared decided not to play for the Sons that season as well. This was admittedly a crushing disappointment because Jared was such a great team player and a good friend as well. His presence would be greatly missed for sure. And you already know how I felt about Coach Swan. Seeing the man who believed in me and gave me a chance to shine step down was bittersweet to say the least.

As disappointing as that news was, the uncertainty surrounding the Sons organization as a whole was particularly unsettling. Both Coach Griffith and Coach Swan had really jumpstarted the Sons program and, without either of them in the fold, would the Sons even have a team in 1999-00? Thankfully, several amazing people would step in to prevent the Sons organization from meeting an untimely demise.

Coach Henson was the one who stepped in and took over the reins as coach of the Varsity squad with my dad once again being one of the assistants. Coach Henson's son Nathan had been with the Sons for at least as long as me and Coach Henson was our Junior High coach the year before so he was the logical choice. And while I did miss Coach Swan for sure, I really enjoyed playing for Coach Henson as well. Coach Henson always struck me as a calm, chillaxed sort of guy and, like his predecessor, Coach Henson was definitely a players coach.

Now despite my enthusiasm about the upcoming season, I knew going in that this was going to be a rebuilding year of sorts. When you lose four starters and not only the 55-60 pts. per game but the leadership and team chemistry that comes with that, you know that you have a real challenge on your hands!

The good news was that several players who had thrived at the JV level (and been valuable assets off the bench for the Varsity) were finally getting their opportunities to start for the Varsity and I was very happy for them!

If you have read my story up to this point (and you should receive a Gold Star if so...I know how long my story is!) then you can understand my unique position. Just a couple of seasons earlier, I had been the last guy on the bench and now, I was suddenly thrust into the position of having to lead this team since I was the only returning starter! My good friends Wade Chalfant (a strong low-post player) and J.r Ramsey (we had played junior high/JV ball together) finally got to start on the Varsity team which was very cool! J.r was always a lot of fun to be around and he and Stephen Plumb (our supersub for sure...he could have easily started for us) would always do something goofy to make the rest of us laugh. Speaking of goofy, Chris Morris was the unofficial "class clown" of our team and, while this was his first year with the Sons (he always called me "All-Star" and yes...I loved being called that!), he made a lasting impression on all of us when he would pull his practice jersey over his head and run around the court. It was simply hilarious and I can still remember it so vividly! I do you forget someone like Chris?

And not to be forgotten was our point guard Nathan, Isaiah, and the Hartman brothers (Paul and Brad). And while he didn't play due to an unfortunate injury, I will never forget Chris Coleman and how he came to every game and encouraged us and cheered us on like there was no tomorrow. You remember a person like Chris and I know that it killed him to not be out there on the court with us. But Chris made a very real impact and he was as much a Son as anyone that season.

Regarding the on-court chemistry, Wade and I clicked immediately. We had played a lot of JV ball together so we knew each other's tendencies and while Wade was a very calm, go-with-the-flow type of guy, he could dominate the boards and have a real presence in the low-post when he pushed himself. Wade's excellent shot-blocking ability and inside presence complimented my speed and outside shooting perfectly.

The 1999-00 Sons was definitely the most casual team I have ever played on and we really embraced the whole "underdog" role as well. We certainly had our moments when we would really gel as a team and have those brief flashes of brilliance but, truth be told, many of my teammates were still a year or two away from really hitting their stride. So while it was certainly an enjoyable season, the expectations were markedly lower than the previous season.

The famous saying "Be careful what you wish for" admittedly played through my head at times because, while I had always dreamed of being the star of the team and carrying us to countless victories, losing the Carey/Jesse tandem hurt us in so many ways. The previous season, there was this one particular game where I simply couldn't hit anything (I think I scored 4 pts. that night.) yet we still managed to win the game thanks to Carey, Jesse, and others picking up the slack. Conversely, my Senior+ season, I had multiple games where I would rack up 22+ points and yet we would lose!

Still, my Senior+ season showed a lot of promise early on as we played very well during our initial three games at home. Our opener in particular was one of the most enjoyable games for me personally because that was when I proved to myself that I could be the leader of this Sons team. It's one thing for others to believe in you but there always comes a point when you have to truly believe in yourself!

In any case, we once again opened against the Homeschool Lions (Why was it always the Lions?) and the one play I remember the most involved me getting absolutely drilled on a three-point shot. However, the shot swished through the net and the fans went wild! It was one of those special moments that you never forget as a player. Unfortunately, we lost the game by 3-5 points but it certainly wasn't a lack of effort!

Our next game pitted us against the Wildcats (Homeschool team from Indianapolis). In terms of simply scoring points, this would be my finest hour as I would wind up with a career high of 29 points thanks in part to me making all 14 of my free throws! What made this game intriguing was that we were down by 10 points with around a minute to go and, while this would normally be an insurmountable lead, the Wildcats continued to play very aggressive full-court defense and they kept hacking and fouling despite them having a comfortable lead. I don't know why in the world they were being so aggressive but we were in the bonus so I was able to score a ton of points with the clock stopped. Now I would usually pass the ball when cornered by the press but for some reason, I kept trying to beat the press single-handedly which drove Coach Henson (and my dad!) nuts. I was feeling it at the line though and, if the Wildcats were truly silly enough to continue fouling like this, I would sink as many free throws as it took to pull off the upset! With all of my free throws falling, we somehow managed to make it a one possession game! With only five seconds remaining and it being a mere two-point game, we got possession and amazingly had a chance to tie or even win the game! We brought the ball up the court and it ended up in Chris' hands. He made a nice cut to the basket and put up a good-looking 10-foot jumper. Unfortunately, the ball rolled around the entire rim and it simply refused to go in the basket. It was so disappointing too because I had actually gotten open for a split second at the left wing and I couldn't help but wonder if I would have made a three-point basket at the buzzer. Still, I certainly can't fault Chris for taking a high-percentage shot like that. Hey, it's not like we didn't try. We could have easily been started the season 2-0 but sometimes, the bounces just don't go your way.

Thankfully, we came out strong and fought hard for our first win of the season in our very next game. Unfortunately, that would be one of the lone bright moments from that least in terms of wins and losses. Many of our games weren't all that close and we had to endure a brutal six-game losing streak about halfway through the season. Let me tell you...a losing streak like that will reveal everyone's true colors because it was really rough! For some reason, we just didn't click as a team and you didn't see much improvement like in the course of a normal season. I tried my best to lead by example and encourage my teammates but my Senior+ team just didn't seem to have the same fiery passion of the 1998-99 squad. There was a lot of one-on-one basketball going on and not nearly enough passing and screening and the lack of confidence was simply astounding. And naturally, the longer it went, the more frustrated we all became. Part of me wishes that I could have been that intense, in-your-face type of leader that Jesse was. Heaven knows we could have used a Jesse on our team that season but the burden fell to me. As the only returning starter and co-captain of the Sons, it was up to me to lead us the best way I knew example.

Perhaps all we needed was another matchup with our crosstown rival. After surviving the difficult six-game stretch of L's, we hosted ICA. As you might recall, we had swept ICA the previous season despite both games coming down to the wire. And somehow, my Senior+ squad had managed to upset ICA in their gym earlier in the season! Why not, right?

Well, it certainly wasn't a pretty game as both teams struggled offensively but we really hung in there with our defense. You see, ICA had a fantastic player named Paul Schooley (amazing that I still remember his name) who could go off at any moment and he had one of the highest jump shots I have ever seen. I don't know how we did it but somehow, we contained him just enough to hang around and keep it a one possession game deep into the fourth quarter. We were in the game! Down three with only a minute left in regulation, I remember getting free and just drilling a three from the left corner! The corners were never my preferred spots (with the exception of my initial season with the Sons) but end the losing streak, I would do whatever it took!

Suddenly, we were deadlocked at 57 apiece and it was anyone's game! ICA had the ball, however, and they wisely ran down the clock so that they could take the final shot. Jiminy Christmas....we weren't going to lose like this were we? Everyone in the building knew that Paul Schooley was going to take the shot and would take a pseudo-miracle for us to stop him. His jump shot amazingly clanked off the rim right into the waiting arms of Wade. I was ecstatic! We had survived a real gut-check and I would get to play in my first overtime game to decide the winner! I literally leapt into the air and pumped my fist because we still had a chance.

What I didn't realize was that a last second foul had been called...on ICA! Wade had managed to block out for the rebound and drew an over-the-back call some 90 feet from the basket! Since we were in the bonus, it suddenly hit me. Wade was going to have two chances to win the game right then and there! I was so excited for him because he had earned this chance. On top of that, Wade had a history of really coming through in the clutch (I still recall a JV game where Wade made a layup as time expired.) Even though Wade wasn't an outstanding free throw shooter, we all believed in him and he delivered by absolutely drilling both free throws! We all jumped for joy because we had just won our first game in what seemed like ages and was against our rival to boot! It was like a breath of fresh air and the rest of the season would prove to be much sweeter because of it.

Although it wasn't a nail biter like the ICA contest, my final road game with the Sons was another special night. We played at the Homeschool Lions and, after enduring a tough opening night loss for the second year in a row, there was nothing I wanted more than to exact a little revenge. ;) Apparently, my teammates felt the same way because we played our most complete game of the season that night. Although I would lead the way with 22 points, we couldn't have won the game without everyone else chipping in as well. I recall us having an 8-10 point lead when I suddenly found...the zone. I was able to knock down some huge threes for us late in the third quarter and I remember one in particular that didn't necessarily almost seemed to go straight through the basket untouched.

It was awesome to see another team taking a timeout out of desperation and you could see the frustration and anger in their eyes. Reggie Miller of the Pacers was my basketball hero during this time and I could see why he loved going on the road (to New York in particular) and quieting the crowd. And boy...we must have brought out the worst in the Lions because they started taking cheap, downright dirty shots at us down the stretch. I glared at some of their players and even their coach and it was probably wise for Coach Henson to pull me out of the game. We had a comfortable lead but man...I seriously wanted to fight back because it was nasty out there. I still remember Stephen getting undercut on a layup and the offending player getting ejected on the spot!

In any case, we obliterated the Lions by 25 points and it felt amazing! Especially considering the dirty play in the second half, it was oh-so-sweet to come out of that game with a well-deserved victory (and no permanent injuries to boot). I even got to chat with Jason Wolfgang after the game (he graduated in 1999) which was very cool. He was always a really good friend...and a great rival on the basketball court.

The victory over the Lions was the prelude to what would become one of the most memorable days of my entire life: My final game with the Homeschool Sons. An incredible chapter of my life that had started on a muggy summer day in 1995 was about to come to a close on a cool February afternoon. I still remember everything about that particular day too. My grandparents and most of my relatives came to support me which made this day even more special.

And believe you me...I wanted nothing more than to ride off into the sunset with one final victory. I wanted to do it not only for myself but also for my fellow seniors J.r. and Chris, my other teammates, and our wonderful fans who had supported us through thick and thin. Whatever happened that day, I vowed to leave it all on the court. When it was all said and done, I would leave with no regrets. :)

I still remember leading our team onto the court and hearing classic Steve Camp/Sixpence music playing in the background. And I vividly remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was really it. I was fighting back tears during warm-ups because I so didn't want these basketball days to ever end. I now understood why alumni and good friends like Ben Griffith, Noah Porch, Carey Jones, and Jesse Garner played their final games with such intensity and desire. It all made sense now. This was the end of the line...the final chapter of an amazing story. And like my predecessors before me, I allowed myself to soak in every moment and to savor the experience to the fullest.

Our opponent that day was Northwest (another Homeschool team from the Indy area) and they were very good. We had lost to them earlier in the season and I remember hearing from someone that their record was 19-2 which was downright scary. We were sitting at 7-10 so we had no chance, right? Well, the way this game started, the respective records sounded about right. I was admittedly too revved up as I found myself pressing and having a difficult time knocking down any shots in the first half. On top of my struggles, Wade went down with an ankle injury and had to get treated on the bench.

With Wade's status in doubt and my shot failing me, things looked pretty bleak. But it was right then and there that my resolve kicked in. I simply prayed to God for strength like I always did because I really needed it at that moment. And I simply couldn't go out like this either. I had come so far and overcome so much to reach this point and by golly, I didn't want to let down my friends and family and fans who had come to support us.

It might not have seemed like much, but I was finally able to knock down a huge three late in the first half to give me some much-needed confidence. I can even remember throwing a few jabs followed by an uppercut at...nothing in particular after making the shot (I think that I saw Nick Van Exel do that seemed like a fun thing to do!) Win or lose, I was not going to go out quietly.

The second half was like something out of a dream too. All of my shots started to fall, I found myself diving for any loose balls that even threatened to come into my vicinity, and I played the best defense I could play. My teammates did everything they could as well! Stephen hit a tough layup, Isaiah nailed a shot from the corner, and Wade, who battled back from his ankle injury, gave his all in the low-post. I was able to make two difficult, well-defended threes along with a layup that I can only describe as pure determination. I just about coughed up a spleen on that particular play but hearing the roar of our fans gave me the energy I needed to finish strong! I literally left everything on the court that day and my teammates were right there with me trying to pull off the upset. Not to sound like a broken record but our fans were so loud! It was something I will never forget.

We somehow managed to carry a four point lead into the late stretches of the game and yet...Northwest proved their mettle as well. They also hit some tough threes as well as some layups underneath. Despite us giving everything we had, Northwest held on to a late lead and I had no choice but to quickly foul which resulted in me fouling out in the process. :( It was such a difficult pill to swallow because, against all odds, we darn near won the game thanks to an incredible second half performance. Even though we would lose the game by a mere four points, I was so proud of our effort and that we had hung in there and gave our all...right to the very end.

Despite a rather pedestrian first half, I managed to finish the game with a whopping 27 points and more importantly, I was able to walk off the court with zero regrets. Sure I was teary-eyed and I wanted to win that game more than anything but it was still one of the most special days of my life. When you love something as much as I loved playing basketball for the Sons, you don't ever want to let go. The cameraderie with my wonderful teammates, the roar of the crowd, that excitement and almost "electric" sensation before a big game...those were the things I would miss the most.

Amazingly, my final performance with the Sons had been enough for me to complete my career with a grand total of 1,015 points stretching from late 1995 to early 2000! I had even led the team in assists my Senior+ year which was another real feather in my cap. When you can lead the team in scoring and assists, you are definitely doing something right!

As I walked up to Coach Henson during our annual Awards Banquet and I accepted the 1999-2000 MVP trophy, I simply shook my head in disbelief and marvelled at the journey I had taken to reach this point. It certainly wasn't easy but in a way, all of the adversity I had faced to reach this point was truly a blessing in disguise. I could fully appreciate this moment because of what I had gone through to get here. I learned about grace, forgiveness, humility, and the drive to never quit and never give up. The life experiences I obtained during my Sons days are invaluable and, without a doubt, they will continue to stick with me until my dying day. :)

The Glory Years: Part 7 - One Final Taste

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