When I was in high school, I played on the basketball team. I use “played” loosely because I rarely spent time on the hardwood in games, but for three years, I had a jersey and could count myself as one of the lucky individuals who was able to participate in our program’s fundraising drives. Selling discount cards had to be the best part of being on the team. Or not.
I was optimistic despite my lack of opportunities to check into games. I’d bust my ass in practice, read tons of books on shooting, passing, and dribbling, then spend extra hours on the weekend doing exactly what the books said, drill after countless drill.
And every day, I would envision myself climbing the ranks, eventually getting the chance to prove my mirth, silencing the critics and making believers out of the doubters.
As I would walk by the bathroom mirror, I’d picture it vividly, and it was the same dream every time:
I’d be double-teamed by the opposing team, both opponents doing whatever they could to keep me from getting the ball: pulling my jersey, holding my arms, hand-checking. In my head, I’d push off the two defenders à la Michael Jordan, run towards the ball, and grab it. Just as my pursuers would recover enough to run at me with hands outstretched, I’d put up a perfect shot, sinking it as time ended to win the game. I’d bask in eternal glory, and my jersey would hang from the rafters, forever inspiring future generations of scrawny, five-foot-six Kobe wannabes.
One day, after the hours and hours of practice, my chance would come. I just knew it. I fancied myself a pretty intelligent guy, and eventually my brains would overcome the brawn God forgot to bless me with. It would be revenge for all the days my bigger, stronger, more talented teammates would embarrass me at practice, blocking my shots, intercepting my passes, or breaking my ankles on a dribble drive.
And so for three years, I worked tirelessly. For three years, I lifted, sprinted,and shot, anticipating the day when I would be hoisted onto the shoulders of my friends, a hero who went the distance, a David who finally sank Goliath.
It never came. My junior year, I was appointed to be one of the captains of the junior varsity team, but probably more due to the fact that I was the only junior on the team and the only player returning from the year before; my teammates from the year before had either been brought up to the varsity level or had stopped playing to enjoy their senior years. I didn’t even start despite my leadership position on the team.
The whole year, I continued to do what I had done in the past: working my ass off, learning about the game, and improving the best I could given my limited abilities. I was a good teammate, encouraging others to get better and to work as a unit (I was always better at giving the pep talks than hitting the jump shots). I continued to give it my best shot because I had a dream and I had to protect it.
When my senior year came, I did what I felt someone with my dream should have done: I quit. With my newly-found free time, I worked on student government and I wrote editorials for the school newspaper. Through these experiences, I found the two things that I have been most passionate about since then: service and writing, and I’m much better at these things than I ever was at basketball (although I set the bar pretty low for basketball players everywhere, so that’s not saying much).
I write a lot about following your dreams and doing whatever it takes (within moral reason) to achieve them, and I believe in doing so wholeheartedly. But I’m also an advocate for finding out what your dreams really are, rather than letting outside influences dictate them for you. I enjoyed playing basketball, but mainly because I grew up watching Laker games with my grandfather and because all my closest friends from elementary to high school played. And I wanted to be the best for the wrong reasons: I wanted glory and retribution, as opposed to seeking improvement because I loved the game so much. In short, I wasn’t doing it for myself, but rather to impress people, and that’s not a good enough reason to do anything, and it’s sure as hell not the road to being the best.
Do things because you love them, regardless of how good you become relative to someone else; strive for improvement because doing so will allow you to enjoy something more fully and will let you to make a bigger contribution to the world.
If you do, you’re guaranteed to win every time you step onto the court.
Photo courtesy of Adrian Dayton.