TryoutsPosted: November 5, 2014
Whether it’s high school basketball or cheerleading or the school play or the dance recital, there’s something scary and equally exciting about a tryout. Even the word “tryout” sparks a bit of anxiety. It’s the youthful version of the audition. It places people in a position of authority and can crush dreams, inspire greatness and introduce politics simultaneously.
Now that I am assistant coaching high school basketball I have a different appreciation for tryouts. I am on the other side of the curtain. I can respect the fear in the young players’ eyes, the worry they have about doing well and the power that the coaches have when making decisions about who makes the team.
When I flashback to my first tryout I was in 8th grade and I had just started playing basketball. I was pretty terrible but for some reason I thought I could dribble. I got cut.
And the funny thing about it is that I wasn’t upset. I was so driven to make the team and it had very little to do with basketball. All of my boys were on the team. In fact, anyone that was popular was on the team. It was like a rite of passage for any dude in Philippa Schuyler middle school with some type of social status to play on the basketball team. We only played about three games, with the student-faculty game being the biggest event of our season. Making the team was truly imperative for me.
With that said, I marched in Coach Davis’ office and demanded that I be on the team. I tried out as a forward and I told him I may be better suited to play guard. So he let me try out again and ultimately I made it. I did it. I didn’t accept no for an answer when I was probably not good enough to make it.
A year later I tried out again but this time I was a freshman at Brooklyn Technical High School attempting to make the J.V team. I didn’t even imagine trying out for varsity. I played all summer in preparation for that moment, but to be honest I just didn’t know how to play. I watched guys play in the park and I emulated them but no one taught me how to shoot, I never did a dribbling drill, and I had no idea how to play defense. I was 5’7” and frail. The only people I knew that were trying out with me was my boy Kijana who lived around my way and he was much better than me. And my other boy Steve who went to junior high with me was also at the tryouts. Steve was taller and bigger than me, he was also better than I was and he didn’t seem scared at all. To make matters worse I was unsure about what to wear to the tryout. I remember Coach Davis saying that he knew Mr. Rock, the JV coach at Brooklyn Tech so maybe it made sense for me to wear my Schuyler jersey at tryouts. Nah that’s thirsty…I thought to myself. I decided to wear the t-shirt from a tournament I played in over the summer thinking that would show that I had some experience.
When the tryout began and I saw the competition I was up against, I got more and more nervous.
The freshmen didn’t look that great but there were huge and talented sophomores. My future music career manager Kevin Johnson looked like he belonged on varsity, but he was a returning JV player at the tryout killing us. He was a year ahead of me and we went to Schuyler and elementary school together. He was about 6’2” and he had hops.
So anyway, I got the ball stolen from me numerous times, I got extremely tired and I may have made only one basket the entire time. I looked horrible out there and I didn’t blame myself. I pointed the finger at Terrell who kept on fouling me, Coach Rock for putting these sophomores on JV, and then there was Steve. Steve had the nerve to wear his Schuyler shirt like a lame. It didn’t even fit the same. And then it happened…Coach Rock walked right over to both of us and asked Steve if he played for Schuyler middle school. He answered yes with a calm confidence as the coach asked for his name. I stood there looking solemn, confused, and instantly struck with overwhelming sadness and a desire to speak up and say, “me too!!” But no words escaped.
I walked out of there knowing I was cut. And when it got confirmed the next day I was only comforted by the fact that most of the guys that would be a part of the starting five along with me the following year were also victims of the scissors. Our JV leading scorer the next year, Sekou got ousted, along with Kijana and me. To make matters worse, I didn’t march in anyone’s office this time. I accepted my fate. I didn’t even learn from my own lesson. One year prior I was determined, and here I was giving up…or maybe I just knew what I had to do.
Steve made it. I was happy for him and motivated to become better. I was so motivated that every single day that the New York temperature was above 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I was in the park. I mean that literally. I would call Kijana, who lived 2 blocks away and we would hit the park and play. We didn’t do drills or anything like that. We just played and played and I had a long way to go to even get to his level. Luckily I grew four or five inches, and the next year I made the team, started at small forward, and kind of underachieved as a sophomore with no outstanding ability.
Fast forward over two decades later and I’m in the coaches’ office deciding the fate of some students’ lives. I am in the power position that will determine some youngins’ happiness and affect a few households as well. Parents want their kids to make the team, then they want them to get playing time, and lastly they want the team to win. So I have to say it’s tough letting kids go that we become fond of, and it’s difficult to select players that will benefit the team on the court and exhibit outstanding character. Sometimes I think back to that fragile kid I was and wish I could inject some will, knowledge and desire into him. And that’s when I feel at ease knowing my purpose here is greater than just being a coach attempting to win games, I am here to assist in the personal growth of these young men. At some points I will fail them. We may not win a game, they may fail a class or two and not be able to participate in athletics, or they could totally tune us out as coaches. It doesn’t negate our effort and intention. We are chosen to be a part of the educational process that extends beyond the classroom.
“I wasn’t on the team, but I kept trying out,
Then one day I just took the word “trying” out…
Of my vocabulary, now I’m scared to die without,
Changing the globe, I’m breaking the mold…”
Those are my words but I don’t know how often I heed them. It’s interesting how many times I face obstacles or I receive a “no” and I react like the freshman I was in high school who was defeated and turned inward. Then there are instances where I have moved similar to the driven 8th grader I used to be that would not be turned away. Both reactions serve their purpose. I remember auditioning for a basketball role on a television show last year. We had numbers taped to our shirts, we did some drills and shot around and when my number was called and the casting director thanked me for my time and sent me home, I felt like one of those youngsters with his spirit torn. The difference is I learned to understand what is not for me, is not for me. I didn’t get bothered and I didn’t pester anyone to let me stick around.
I can empathize with every kid that shows up believing he or she has the talent and has put in the work to be a part of something great.
There are not many times in life where you are slated to perform and compete for a spot or a job but when the opportunity arises, how will you respond? I find myself making short speeches with the mission to get teenagers to run harder or focus more but the ironic thing is that when I am speaking to them, for the most part I am addressing the mirror.