I Was A Bad College Basketball Player (For One Afternoon)

Throughout my life, I have learned humility the old-fashioned way: by being humiliated.

I was an OK high school basketball player. I wasn’t good, but I wasn’t terrible, either (though I still recall overhearing my coach telling someone that I “was convinced that I was Magic Johnson.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment). I was a very average point guard (my friend Jared was the star), but I remained a student of the game, and in college I became friends with some of the players on the Division 2 men’s basketball team at my school.

It was a down year for the program, and as you watched the team suffer loss after loss on TV it became easy to convince yourself that you could do better. Every sports fan in history has had this feeling, by the way. We’ve all yelled it at the television without regard to the ludicrous nature of it (“I could throw a pass better than that!”), but the difference is that I actually got a chance to prove it. One day in class, the basketball players told me that they could use an extra body for a scrimmage and that I could play if I wanted to.

I will never, ever forget that afternoon. The first thing I recall is how small I felt. Not just because the players around me were at least six inches taller (even the guards), but because we played our little pick-up game in the college arena on the game day floor, and it was like shooting hoops in the Roman Coliseum at night (without the fans or the lions or Joaquin Phoenix). I am a confident guy, but I knew immediately that I was in over my head.

As the game began, I could not believe how fast it moved. I made a mental note to have somebody look at my TV set because it was clearly not representing the speed of play realistically. It was the only logical explanation for why these men who outweighed me by 100 pounds were outrunning me like I had peanut butter stuck to the bottom of my shoes. I distinctly recall trailing virtually every play. I would get down the court just in time for the shot to go up so that I had to turn around and sprint the other direction. It was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno had been co-written by Jim Rome.

When I finally did get to shoot, I remember the ball feeling like it weighed 22 pounds. I jacked up a few threes but they were never even close. Clang. I started turning around halfway through my jump shots because I knew they weren’t going in anyway. I felt like I was starring in an episode of The George Michael Sports Machine without a single highlight. I was a one man blooper reel, and all that was missing was the music from Benny Hill.

I tried to focus on defense, but I failed at that too. The guy I was guarding would go down in the university’s history as one of the most mediocre shooting guards of all time, but he made me look like the sixth man for the Washington Generals, furiously trying to locate him before getting a bucket of confetti poured over my head. He went around me like I was Shawn Bradley. He shot over me like I was Spud Webb. He crushed me because I wasn’t 1/10 the player that either one of those guys was, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t even sweating.

But I was. I remember my lungs feeling like the back end of a SpaceX rocket and my vision actually getting blurry. As I staggered away from the gym, I thought to myself “I am never going to tell anybody about this.” But you know what? Only a few days later I did. And I still tell that story today, even though it makes me look like a clown. Why?

Because I learned a lesson that afternoon, and sometimes I need to remind myself of it. Sharing my adventure in college basketball is a good reality check when I start to feel like I have it all figured out.

This time of year we get to see a lot of incredible basketball, and it always makes me appreciate just how hard those young men and women work. They’ve been practicing their whole lives, and from a distance it’s hard to tell just how good they are at their jobs. But up close you can tell, I guarantee it. Respect the efforts of others until you’ve had the opportunity to play a game in their shoes. It’s something we should all remember.