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Although it may seem like the end of the world at the time, getting cut from a team does not necessarily signal the end of your athletic career. In fact, this painful experience might actually serve as a catalyst for you to learn what it takes to prepare and compete to the best of your ability. I learned this vital lesson in high school, and although it took some time to set in, it made me a better athlete and a better person in college. Here is my story of setback and perseverance.
For a coach's take on what it's like to cut a player, read this article by David Jacobson.
My footsteps echoed off the linoleum as I walked down the hall, the sound bouncing off the vaulted ceiling and slicing through the hum of the electric lights overhead. A muffled clamor of squeaky sneakers and basketballs bouncing on hardwood seeped out of the gymnasium nearby. But as I drew closer to the double doors at the end of the hall, all those noises were drowned out by the sound of my heart hammering harder and harder in my chest.
It was the last day of basketball tryouts, and things had not gone well. I was realizing that, only one year after my sophomore season, when I was called “the King of the Second String,” I was still pretty bad. I was fairly sure this would be it—the end.
I opened the door, walked into my coach’s office and sat down. What happened next changed not only my athletic career but my entire high school and college experience—and, if I’m being honest it still influences me today.
But before I go into all of that, let me tell you how I ended up in this position.
I spent my first year of high school basketball as a non-factor on the freshman team. During the first half of the season, I caught pneumonia; then, during my first week back, I shredded my ankle. I spent the entire year riding the pine. When the season ended, I vowed to get off the bench.
Back then I didn’t have access to a resource like STACK. I was on my own when it came to learning how to get better. My solution was to head to the rusty, wobbly hoop at the head of my driveway and just play.
I shot for hours. I challenged myself to crossover up and down my street without looking at the ball. I shuffle-slid up and down the driveway. I didn’t know what I was doing, but as long as I was doing something, I figured it was good. My dad, a basketball nut, saw my interest and invested in a pricey ball, which he said would “last me years.” A few weeks later I handed the ball back to him. It was eggshell smooth. I had used and abused it so much the tack had worn off.
My solo practice sessions often lasted from the time I got off the school bus until until it became too dark to see the hoop.
The work paid off my sophomore year. I made the junior varsity team and held my own in practice, keeping up with the rotational players and eventually earning the nickname, “King of the Second String.” I did not get a ton of minutes on the floor, but I didn’t care. I was content to know I had made enormous strides, and I figured the same would be true after another off-season of hard work. I planned to spend the months leading up to my junior season back in my driveway.
But that didn’t happen. For an entire year, I simply (and in retrospect, somewhat bizarrely) forgot about basketball. I learned to play the drums and started playing music. I thought about what colleges I wanted to attend. I played video games. I read more books. I didn't touch the rock more than five times between the end of my sophomore season and tryouts my junior year.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Clearly, I took the sport for granted. I guess I thought I’d be able to pick up where I left off.
On the first day of tryouts during my junior year, it was clear that I’d thought wrong. After running a few suicides, I hurled up my lunch. Kids who were freshmen the year before had grown into young men, and they battered me around in the post. I took shots I shouldn’t have taken and missed shots I needed to sink.
“How do you expect to play for a varsity basketball team when you can’t even make a lefty layup?” The varsity coach screamed after I boned another play that should’ve been a gimme.
The next two sessions were just as bad. I dribbled the ball off my feet. I turned the ball over during routine in-bounds passes. And I got stuffed more times than a Turducken.
On the third and final day of tryouts, the coach summoned me to his office. He was frank and direct. He said he didn’t think I had practiced all summer (I hadn’t), I wasn’t in shape (I wasn’t) and I wasn’t talented enough to play with the rest of the guys on the team (he was right). He cut me from the team.
I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. Not because I disagreed with him, but because I realized the consequences of my nonchalance during the previous off-season. I was losing the chance to play a sport I loved.
I tried to stay composed, but I was in a haze as I shook his hand, thanked him for the opportunity and shuffled out the door. It wasn’t until I returned to the locker room that I realized the easy part was over. Getting cut by your coach is tough; telling your teammates is way harder.
Feeling a growing embarrassment, I kept my head down and tried to grab the gear out of my locker as quickly as possible. A senior who hadn’t seen me in the coach’s office asked me about an upcoming game.
“I got cut,” I mumbled as I threw dirty clothes into my duffel bag.
“What?” He asked, leaning closer.
“I got cut,” I said again with a lump in my throat.
“Oh. Sorry,” he replied. His tone crushed me. It was like he was telling me that he was sorry my pet died—yeah, he was sad to hear it, but he would never think about it again.
I packed the rest of my gear and reached the exit without running into any more teammates. In the parking lot, my mother was waiting to drive me home. I threw open the door, flopped down in the passenger seat and burst into tears.
You know how everyone says fitting in or making friends is the toughest part of high school? Well, being part of a team is the best way to do that. You and all your teammates have your own clothes (uniforms), your own language (your plays) and your own inside jokes. It becomes part of your identity. And when you’re cut, you’re literally told, “You’re not part of this group anymore.”
I joined a recreational league that year but didn’t attend any of my school’s varsity games. I couldn’t have fielded questions, like "Hey, why aren’t you playing this year?"
A Second Chance
Michael Jordan famously said that he was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore, and although that’s been disputed (Jordan was actually demoted to the junior varsity), the lesson was clear: respond to your failures by working harder. I wish I could say I did that immediately with high school basketball. But I didn’t even try out for the team as a senior. I graduated high school and simply tried to forget about it.
Of course, I didn’t forget.
I was still simmering when I got to college. When I learned the men’s crew team was recruiting athletes, I saw a shot at redemption and signed up. I had no experience with the sport, and to be honest, I came to it a bit flabby. I rowed that entire year, and although I wasn’t the most talented athlete on the roster, I held my own. I also built a new set of friends, and we developed a sense of community and team. It was everything I had missed about high school basketball.
By the summer of 2010, I was training maniacally. I performed nearly every “suggested” summer workout, plus a few extras. I spent hours on the rowing machine in my gym. I did yoga to stay limber. I tightened up my diet. And when I returned to campus that fall, I had closed the gap on my teammates.
I still wasn’t a great oarsman, but I had made major improvements in my game. My coach commented on it, as did a few of the guys on the team. It made all of the sweat worth it—and it made me hungrier.
A handful of teammates and I vowed to spend our winter break on campus training for the spring. A coach caught wind of our plan and drew up a challenging training regimen—nothing but two-a-days until spring classes started. It worked. I posted personal records in every time trial I had that season. The team didn’t perform as well as we would’ve liked, but I was able to walk out of the boathouse knowing I had done everything I could to make our team—and myself—better.
Learning To Put In The Work
In the nine years since I was cut from my high school basketball team, I came to appreciate that it may have been one of the best things that ever happened to me. It’s tough to realize that you’re not born with freakish athletic ability, but most of us aren’t. For most people, becoming good at anything (athletics or otherwise) requires lots of early mornings and late nights. You have to put in time that others won’t. You have to sacrifice some of the things you’d like to do for the things you have to do.
There will be moments when you think your efforts are useless or unnecessary, but when it’s "game time," you’ll know who put the work in and who didn’t.
Sometimes your best might not be good enough—you might bust your butt for weeks and still get snubbed. That’s part of life. Maybe you don’t get into that university you were gunning for, are passed over for a job, or get shot down by someone you want to date. Whatever it is, you—and everyone you know—will fail at something. What matters is how you respond, regardless of how long it takes you.