Basketball dreams

With the best of intentions, we parents and teachers often attempt to inspire our children and students with some oft-repeated phrases:

“I don’t care about your grades as long as you try.”

“I don’t care what you do with your life as long as you are happy.”

“You’re a very bright student, you simply need to apply yourself.”

I’d like to take a moment to explore another very popular phrase:

“If you work hard, you can be and do anything you want in life.”

I’d like to begin by flying in the face of convention by emphatically stating that I don’t think that that popular statement is true and I even believe that it can do more harm than good.

I believe that the statement is valuable in that it encourages children to do their best. However, I believe that our best effort will lead us to some outcomes we wouldn’t have expected and many times the destiny meant for us to experience rather than the ones we wanted to experience. As an example, I’d like to tell the story of a former student of mine, one I taught in the early 80s.

Ken came to us from Washington, DC as part of a scholarship program we have conducted for many years with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Washington, DC. He was a very serious, polite and dedicated young man from the very first day of his freshman year. I would evaluate him as one of the hardest working students we had, but many would remember him as an outstanding athlete, particularly in basketball.

During his years with us, our team was one of the premier prep school teams in New England. A number of our students went on to play Division I basketball on full scholarships. This was Ken’s impassioned focus during his four years with us. He always did well enough academically to satisfy the scholastic requirements for competitive college admissions and there was no basketball player in our program who worked harder. To this day I might rank him as the most adept and skilled ball handler our school has ever had.

He had an uncanny court vision which I suspect was helped by the fact that he was also a first-rate quarterback on the football team and thereby grew accustomed to finding open teammates under pressure. He was a very unselfish player who looked to pass before he would shoot. He was a coach’s dream in that he had impeccable sportsmanship, never lost his cool, and could always be counted upon to maintain control of a game in the pressure-packed final minutes.

His problem was one of size. He was about 5’ 9” tall and if you know basketball you know that there aren’t many 5’ 9” players in major college basketball. In any case, Ken watched a number of his teammates go off and receive scholarship offers to colleges and he anxiously awaited his turn near the end of his senior year. Much to his chagrin, no offers came. One coach at a southern university did offer him the chance to enroll at his school and attempt to make the team as a “walk on “ (an invitation to take the risk of trying out for the team with the understanding that successfully making the team will result in financial assistance. However, if the individual fails to make the team, he or she is responsible for the full financial load). Having no other offers and having no means of financial support, Ken took the risk and made the team. However, he was one of the last spots on the bench, rarely playing.

Although disappointed, he hung with it throughout the year as was his work habit. Refusing to let go of his dream, he transferred to a California school where a coach had offered him the same “walk on” invitation. Once again he accepted the challenge, tried out for the team, and made the team. However, he once again found himself seated firmly on the bench. He stayed with it throughout the year and at the conclusion of the year took an honest inventory of his standing as a basketball player and as a student. He came to a simple conclusion in evaluating his dream:

“Maybe it simply wasn’t meant to be.”

This was a tough conclusion for him to accept as he had worked so hard to attain his goal.

Ken decided to put the same effort he had put into basketball into his studies; he made the commitment to become a top-flight student. He ended up graduating near the top of his class and went on to graduate school.

Can you be whatever you want to be so long as you’re willing to pay the price? Well, Ken truly wanted to be a college basketball player and undoubtedly paid the price to do it. Although he fell short of his dream he did end up doing some very exciting things with his life. In fact, I would imagine most American men his age would gladly change places with him.

I have told Ken’s story to many students over the years. To me its message is simple. If you go after your dreams with your very best effort there is no guarantee that you will attain them. However, you can trust that you will end up doing something that you will be very excited about. You will lead an exciting and fulfilling life.

Ken went through some very difficult times, and often thought about quitting. He simply transferred the work ethic from basketball over to his studies. He aimed high, he paid the price, and he had to let go of the desired outcome in order to have his date with destiny.