Taking Initiative – Why I was never a star athelete

If you’re a star athlete, you won’t win the “Most Tenacious Defender” award.

You’ll win MVP, or Highest Goal Percentage, or Most Rebounds. Stats will be your friend because they make you look good. Or perhaps you make the stats look good. I was not a standout athlete.

The stats gave me buckteeth.

My first YMCA basketball team was Frogs, and I was the recipient of the “Most Tenacious Defender” award. I don’t think I was competing against anybody for it.

After the coaches dole out the good awards, they have to find something nice to say, some convincing title or label to put on the certificate so that every kid goes home feeling like he contributed to the team. He was irreplaceable.

In my case, irreplaceable meant a constant struggle to sink baskets, bring down rebounds, and make steals. I couldn’t dribble between my legs without causing a turnover. I had to find other ways to help.

I could make jokes. I could encourage the star players with rousing compliments like “Great job!” and “Nice layup!”

I could hustle.

The tenacity of my defensive zeal knew no bounds. I could stick so closer to my opponent than body odor, and I was really good at getting in the way. Growing up with two sisters and no brothers has unforeseen benefits.

I worked with what I had: average height, a skin-and-bones build, no speed or quickness worth mentioning, and a peppy attitude. I certainly heard enough jokes in middle school about “blinding” people with my remarkably fair and hairless skin, so perhaps I reflected light into my opponents’ eyes and disoriented them. While they rubbed their eyes, perhaps one of my swift and talented teammates could swipe the ball.

The summers before my sixth and seventh grade year, I spent a week at Lipscomb University basketball camp. I found one place to shine in that whole mess of Triple Threats, fundamentals drills, and cafeteria food: pushups.

Anytime somebody did something wrong, we hit the floor and did pushups until the coach or college player in charge stopped barking, “Up! Down! Don’t touch the floor! Up! Down!”

I excelled at the punishments. Fantastic. Next stop, prison warden.

During one scrimmage at basketball camp, I did manage to score seven points: a layup, a couple of bank shots, and a free throw. For my entire basketball career, I had been a utility player without the utility: John Stockton without the assists; Pete Maravich without the legendary discipline and cool 44.2 points per NCAA game.

During that one scrimmage, I saw looks of admiration on my teammates’ faces.

Oh! That’s what that feels like!

I had one triumph other than this one departure from obscurity. It happened off the court. In sixth grade, I was a ping-pong ball swatted between well-intentioned teachers and bullies with their own issues to camouflage while my temporary girlfriends watched. One of my sometimes friends, sometimes tormentors was also a basketball camp. He got so homesick he cried. He must have been 5’10” of gangly limbs and square joints, but he cried. Ha!

I didn’t have the heart to rub it in the way he probably would have if I were in his shoes, but I relished this sign of weakness nonetheless.

My parents came to all my games and even to a few scrimmages at basketball camp. Years later, they told me that they held their breath every time I got the ball. They also held their breath when I played right field in Little League and a pint-sized slugger on the other team hit a fly ball.

I’m surprised they didn’t asphyxiate.

The best thing that could happen to me inside the basketball gym was getting fouled or taking a charge. I never could hit two free throws in a row, but I could at least change the momentum of the game.

If you’re not naturally gifted at a sport, you have to practice to become competitive. The problem was, I hated practice. Even my naturally gifted friends would go out and practice free throws on the driveway basketball goals. They’d shoot a hundred jump shots or do a hundred layups until the movements were second nature, imprinted on their tactile memories. They hit threes without being pleasantly surprised.

We don’t mind practicing things we’re good at, so I was more interested in reading Hardy Boys books or casting a Rooster Tail into the deeper, greener pools in the Little Harpeth River. On game days, I worried about air balls.

Better not to hurt the team. Better to pass the ball than take the shot. Better not to embarrass myself than take initiative. Better to put the responsibility for the win on more capable shoulders. Better to not try than to try and fail and cause other people to suffer for my lack of skill.

“Initiative” is the operative word, and it’s the subject of my next post.

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  1. […] how” because I haven’t always faced my fear of failure. In my first post in this series, “Taking Initiative – Why I Was Never a Star Athlete,” I talked about my lack of athletic accomplishments during my middle and high school years. I […]