Reflections on Playing College Basketball
*This was originally written and published on Medium.com on August 27, 2019.
During my freshman season of college basketball, I was playing in an early season Thanksgiving tournament. At this point, I had three games under my belt as a collegian, and every game was an opportunity for me to gain the trust of my teammates, my coaches, and even myself.
Tournaments like this are a great opportunity for the fans to get a “first look” at teams: Are the veterans improved? How good are the new recruits? Teams are overly scrutinized early in the season because no one, including the team itself, has much of a pulse on how good it can be. There is a “feeling out” period and by the time conference play starts, most people have the team pegged: “This is a national title contender, an NCAA tournament team, or a team in serious rebuilding mode.”
The word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and early in your career as a college athlete, you’re taught how to respond to fans and media, especially as you hit the road. I bring up the word fanatic because no classroom training can truly prepare you for the fans that know every intimate detail about your life, your family, and anything else you could possibly care about.
Game 4 of my college career was sold out, and it was loud. Like “louder than I’ve ever experienced” loud. I wasn’t prepared for it; not because I mentally hadn’t envisioned what it would be like, but because I simply had never been in an environment quite like it.
About midway through the first half, my coach nodded at me and motioned me to the scorer’s table. I was thrilled in a weird way: My brain told me this was my opportunity to prove I belonged. The other half could feel the butterflies in my stomach.
As I stood crouched down by the scorer’s table, I could hear them. Folks yelling vulgarities directed at me and my family members. Two plays later, I positioned myself near midcourt for an in-bounds pass, and I continued to get harassed. As I tried to block them out, I drove to the basket and got fouled. 2 shots. As an 85% free throw shooter, this was exactly what I needed: time to refocus, see the ball go through the net, and pick up some confidence after a shaky start. I missed the first one short, and the crowd roared. Overcompensating on the second one, I missed that one too.
On the other end, I got beat to the hoop for a driving lay-up and then was pressed up the floor, where I proceeded to throw the ball out of bounds. I was rattled, shook up, and after two more turnovers, literally pulled out the game by our head coach. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!” was all I could comprehend, as his voice was drowned out by the screaming fans. At that point, I didn’t need to hear him to understand what he was trying to say. The look on his face was enough.
Following the tongue-lashing, I moved down the bench, and somehow, I could still hear the guys shouting things at me from the stands. I was angry and upset, and I could feel myself losing my cool, which was uncharacteristic for me but a sign of my immaturity at 18.
For the next hour and a half, I got chastised from the fans while I sat on the bench. It was humiliating to play poorly. It was even more humiliating to get benched. And yet, somehow, I think I had hit an even lower low as I sat there, a nonparticipant, and continued to get lambasted by the fans.
The following night, we had another game, and I was pretty sure that my weekend was over. I had been swallowed up by the pressure the night before in a major way. For our coach to even consider playing me would be an act of God, and quite frankly, my confidence was so low that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get in.
With 12 minutes to go in the first half, I sat there, cozy in my warm-ups, and cheered on my teammates. I hadn’t had time to process the night before. If somebody asked me what I was thinking, my honest answer was, “I wasn’t.”
“Willkom!” my coach yelled and motioned me to the scorer’s table. There were new fans tonight, and I could hear similar things from the night before. But although I could hear them, I almost unintentionally just walked on the floor. It was almost like I was in a bit of a daze.
What happened next was probably pure luck, but I played 6 minutes of great basketball, hitting a couple shots, getting a couple steals, and setting my teammates up for good shots. I played effectively for about the same amount of time in the second half.
After that second game, the tournament was over, and we headed straight to the airport for a flight home. As I sat in my seat, eyes half open, I finally took the time I needed to reflect on all of it: my absolute destruction on Friday night, followed by my best game as a college athlete the night after. Why did it happen? How did it happen?
My conclusion was this: I didn’t overanalyze what happened on Friday night. I had the ability to compete out there, and what I lacked physically as a skinny freshman, should’ve been made up for in skill. What I lacked was experience and perspective: I had never been there. One bad play led to another and another before I had exhausted my opportunity. And it all felt miserable. However, something in me, even as a freshman, knew that the sun would rise in the morning. My ability to play the game at a high level was absolutely there, and I thought about my upbringing in a small town in Wisconsin, where I had been on an airplane once in my entire life.
Taking a step back, I was able to appreciate the experience as a whole: I had flown to a big-time tournament out West, had stayed in a beautiful hotel, and had eaten great food, all as a part of a BASKETBALL GAME! I couldn’t change what happened on Friday night. But what changed that Saturday was simple: I reminded myself of the joy that comes with playing the game that I love. I thought about the teammates, who I worked all preseason with to prepare. And I even thought about those fans, who paid money to COME SEE ME PLAY! Basketball in front of 20,000 or basketball in front of 0 started to feel like the same thing.
To this day, I choose to associate fear and pressure with joy and gratitude because that’s what grounds me. The next time you feel that pressure, don’t overanalyze: trust yourself and your abilities. And if you work in a professional setting like me, always remember: PEOPLE ARE PAYING TO COME SEE YOU PLAY.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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