Saturday, February 24, 2018

Small College Basketball Life

In 1990 I was a 20 year old NAIA basketball student athlete at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, I gained what I felt was a college education while concurrently experiencing the school hard knocks. The back story on this experience began as a senior in high school when the major to mid major Division 1 programs gave me the walk on option. It didn’t seem appealing so I walked away instead of on. Kalamazoo College, a Division III program showed tremendous interest. Also, a rival high school’s coach talked to me about his new job as a head coach at Aquinas College but I hesitantly stated that I felt attending Michigan State University as a student would be more beneficial.

At Michigan State, I continued basketball by playing pickup games at the IM East and won the intramural championship on campus. After my first year, the University decided to switch their semester set up from what I remembered to be quad-mesters to two separate semesters. It shortened the summer break where I needed to work 3rd shift in the factory at the Amway Corporation. I went back to MSU tired and extremely run down and very low on funds. I made the decision with my parents to withdraw and work two jobs.

It was during this time that my academic and athletic life took a turn. An alumnus of my high school, who played 4 years at Aquinas College, came to visit me at Structure. It was a retail clothing store that I worked during the year I took off of college. I was also working at the factory again. He said he wanted me to come to a workout/tryout at AQ. I walked into the gym late in the summer prior to the school year. We played 2 on 2 versus 2 current players. I didn’t really know how I did but I was asked to come to school. Coach stated that the NAIA was on a grant system and not a scholarship system, and his roster and grants were maxed out at this point in the process. As a twist, the track team needed a high jumper and I was an accomplished high jumper in the state of Michigan two years removed. They did offer me a small grant to participate with the Track team.

I enrolled with a premed major and started classes. The Track team held conditioning at 6AM, and the basketball team held conditioning at 3pm. At night during the weekdays I closed the retail store, and on the weekends I worked split shifts either opening or closing the store. 16 hours a day during the weekday were dedicated to conditioning and eventually practices for two sports, a full premed class load, and working part-time in retail sales. Sometimes, during tests and exams I would pull all-nighters.

I lived in a house apartment in an old part of Grand Rapids called Eastown. The famous Yesterdog, Wolfgangs, Brandywine, and Eastside Deli were around the corner. The American Pie movie franchise featured the same areas and haunts I used to frequent. It wasn’t the safest of areas but it served a college student’s needs of cheap living. I had a great friend and musician living with me as
well as another roommate. Derek and I went back to my freshman year of high school. He is a self-taught guitarist who played many hot spots with a couple of bands he collaborated with. He ended up achieving great success with his band Riviera and still remains my friend and a friend of the family.

On the basketball front, I couldn’t crack the Varsity roster and played a very competitive JV schedule that included GRCC; Hope College’s, Calvin College’s, Olivet College’s, Cornerstone’s and Kalamazoo College’s JV teams. The track schedule didn’t interfere greatly with the basketball schedule but often I would leave track meets to meet up with the basketball team. At the midway point of the season I suffered a serious ankle injury playing in a pick-up game. I had already experienced 2 severe concussions that left me unconscious for 5 to 10 minutes with blackout periods to follow walking around after the injuries. After I regained consciousness I continued competing. In the early 90’s that practice was commonplace. Concussion protocols were not in place and I often wonder if that has had any lasting effects. I was sidelined for a month which forced Coach’s hand in stating that he could try and help me get somewhere else. He was stocked up for a few years and the incoming class for the next year would provide AQ with some great options. I had moments of brilliance scoring over 30 and there were other games you would think I never played the game before. To this day at the age of 45 my contemporaries that played Division 1 ball watch me play pickup games and state that I should have played somewhere. Aside from basketball, I achieved runner up in high jump at the WHAC Championships in Track. I had a major concussion on the last successful jump and couldn’t clear the next height and I lost by one miss even though the champion and I tied for height cleared.

As the season came to an end, my interests turned towards Physical Therapy and a young woman from Escanaba, MI. I transferred to Grand Valley State University which had a nationally revered Physical Therapy graduate program. My basketball playing career ended at 21 and I actually joined the Rowing Team at GVSU which had a pretty good NCAA Div. II basketball program. My interests turned to coaching but my old high school didn’t consider my application. They had a good reason because they were looking for certified teachers to fill the role. As a basketball player in high school I helped the school get to the Final Four in the State Championships only to lose to a tough Detroit Country Day team that had a junior named Chris Webber that became a #1 overall NBA Draft pick
after being a part of the legendary Fab Five at the University of Michigan. My high school in over 25 years has never matched that success in the state tournament. I was offered to play professionally overseas in Norway right after high school graduation, but that wasn’t a very popular choice for players in my area and time.

As a current college basketball recruiter I learned from my experience in college about what player fits certain levels of play. Of course you have ability and athleticism which I had but my 6’2” 155lbs. frame did not make me a good candidate for the higher divisions. Players my age were duped by a small player
named Jay Burson who played for The Ohio State University. He was around 5’8” to 5’10” and close to 160lbs. We all had hope of duplicating his achievements. Having that experience I have researched and observed players of skill levels and success but have to consider the frame of the player. If we do have a player that comes in below what we feel is the proper frame there is a growth process which often takes patience from the player which becomes hard to instill.

The philosophical reasoning I took when I was very young wasn’t how I had to work much harder to continue playing. Truthfully I felt that it was what I had to do to continue playing the sport in an organized setting and others had their own crosses to bear. Although I felt my cross was not that special my peers didn’t experience the same sacrifices. My decisions at a young age dictated my struggle/path. There wasn’t a lot of guidance or mentors that would talk me through the process so conscious decisions were never afforded to me at a young age. The same type of sacrifice is upon me today as I attempt to create a coaching career in the college ranks. Back then, I chose a health care/business career due to what I now feel was burnout on the game. However, one of the most
resurrecting feelings I encountered to reengage my passion was walking into a Charlotte YMCA and asking to volunteer as a coach in 1998. Those practices and games were the brightest part of my day and year. The altruistic nature implied in volunteerism is there but what I got out of it was a rekindled passion which created a goal to be a part of the game for many reasons.

My life mission and path was spurred by an accomplished coach and great person when I wrote a letter to him asking for a job and advice. Coach Bobby Lutz, the coach at UNCC at the time, told me to get into education and sacrifice to follow my dreams. It was the first real advice I had received in the game and it took from 2003 until 2011 to achieve a teaching certificate and coach a 5A school’s JV basketball team where I met another great mentor in the game named Bobby Stevens.

Where am I now? I am a volunteer assistant men’s basketball coach at Clinton College in Rock Hill,
SC. I am a full time science teacher in high school. My days are still 6am to 10pm on most days. I am married to a native of this great town of
Rock Hill and have inherited two stepsons. My passion for the game is only waned by the need to maintain my health and by making family a priority or I would never be home nor get any sleep. The current head coach at Clinton College keeps telling me that he has to protect me from me or else I would never stop working. I know I am addicted to basketball and work but I have seen much worse things to be addicted to than health, family, love, work, and basketball.