The Struggle to Reach Success

Sweat was dripping from my face. I was exhausted, but my team needed me if we wanted to win.

1 minute left, we were up by three. I chased after my man as I watched the ball, held tight in the hands of the other team’s point guard. I watched in horror as he scorched our defender, blowing by him like a strong gust of wind, and drive straight to the hoop. I sprinted over from my man, watching the player leap for the layup. I zipped right by him, swatting the ball right off his leg as I did. My teammate snagged to ball out of the air with a look of shock, and flipped it to me.

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I went soaring up the court, my legs moving as quickly as they could. I drove in to score and got hammered, absolutely crushed by a 6 foot 6 human manchild. In that split second I determined no foul would be called, the end of the game was too close for the referee to be willing to blow his whistle. Moments before my side smashed back into the ground, I whipped a pass to my teammate in the corner. I watched from the chilling ground as he caught the pass and shot the ball. SWOOSH.

Three-pointer. We now led by 6 with twenty seconds in the game. I forced myself up, aching all over, but knowing I had to sprint back down the court. A player launched a deep three for the other team, wide right. ERHHHHHH, went the horn.

It was over. We had just advanced to the elite eight of the 14u national tournament. Smiles were beaming, especially mine. I had come a long way to finally aid my team to this point. Each spring and summer, I play basketball for the Cincinnati Royals. Every July, we attend the AAU (Ameatur Athletic Union) National Tournament.

The competition is fierce, and it takes nothing short of hard work and skill to be at the top. Our team is ranked in the top 5 in the state, so we always enjoy going to the tournament to see how well we can compete against the best in the country. The tournament is always exhilarating, and playing in an entertaining city like Hampton, Virginia or Charlotte, North Carolina makes it even better.Add in the serious competition, and this tournament is superb. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned from my experiences at the tournament, and it has developed my playing style and my demeanor in the big games that I play in today. My attitude is to play aggressive, focused, and without worry.

Of course, I still play smart and will do anything to allow my team to be as successful as possible, but that doesn’t change my mindset. If I’m focused, then I’ll play with a high basketball IQ. I haven’t always had this state of mind however.In fact, I have been quite the opposite, playing nervous and scared or unfocused and out of control.Fortunately, my mindset has developed ever since my first nationals in 2013.

Experiences from the past have shaped the player I am now. My first two national tournament trips were in 2013 and 2014. These two tournaments went basically the same for me. In 2013, I came into my first game with a boatload of confidence. Our teamed stretched and warmed up, feeling good and ready to breeze to a national championship.

But every changed from the moment the game began. I had been told not to assume we would win, but I still had. I came out of our huddle and strolled to the jump circle. I looked around at the other team. Piece of cake. These kids weren’t as good as us.

The whistle screeched and the ball was tipped right to a tall and athletic kid. He ripped down the ball and took off, splitting every one of us, moving as fast as lightning. He went in and easily scored. Wow. Down 2-0 already.

We brought the ball down the floor and I reached for a pass. After one dribble to my left, my teammate cut open on the wing. I threw a soft pass, and out of nowhere, another kid launched himself towards the pass and intercepted it, cruising down to the other end. 4-0, and it was fifteen seconds in. The game continued like this and we lost by 16, never really truly being competitive enough to win.

I shook it off. One game right? In my mind that could be the best team in the tournament. Nope, I was wrong. We came out the next day, and got smacked for the second day in the row, and I played just as poorly as the day before. By the end of the tournament, we finished 2-4 and placed around 30th. We came in expecting a breeze of a tournament, and left defeated.

The 2014 tournament went very similar to the one in 2013. I was not focused on the task at hand, getting distracted by technology, staying up late, and eating bad food. Like the year before, I assumed I would play better than the year before. I completely took the other teams for granted, and the result was the same as earlier. I played a little better, but not by much, and I still struggled. I had many turnovers and I was not a difference maker at all.

Our team won a couple of games, but ultimately, we did not do as well as we should have yet again, and we went home unsatisfied. In 2015, I had no confidence coming into the tournament, none. The tournaments from the previous two years were stuck in my mind, and I wasn’t looking forward to playing at all. I was nervous going into the first game, and that was what defined my tournament. I played scared and passive throughout the whole week, and without any confidence, I played as badly as I could, not playing even close to the level my team needed me to.

This was our worst tournament yet, and we went back to Cincy, upset and let down. 2016 was when the tides started to turn. At first, it didn’t look like it, 1 week before our first game I badly sprained my ankle. We were playing our final tune up game for the tournament, against a team we were 20 points better than.Our goal was no injuries and to clean up our mistakes, but the in the first quarter things went south.

I was hustling down the court during a fast break for the other team. I sprinted and finally caught up to the kid with the ball. I went to step hard and jump up to block it but stepped on the ankle of my teammate right next to me. It quickly bent out sideways and I felt the sharpest and most excruciating pain I have ever experienced. The jolt of pain shot through me like electricity and I immediately dropped down and yelled in pain. There was about a minute of the most absolute unbearable pain, it was just straight awful.

It got a little more tolerable however, pain I could deal with. It still hurt terribly, but with help, I was able to get over to the bench. I received some ice, and sat there for the rest of the quarter. When I had iced long enough, I immediately left to get home and rest. The next morning, I went the doctor to see how damaged the ankle was. I got X-rays, and the doctor came back with the news.

My heart pounded out of my chest. I braced for the worst, but what he said was that it was a bad sprain. Confused how this would effect me, I asked what that would mean. I was still scared I wouldn’t be able to play. He replied by saying I could still play, because playing wouldn’t damage it any more than it was, but as soon as I got back from the trip, I would miss about a month. My fear went away and I relaxed.

Yeah, I would miss a month, but I would be able to play. I rehabbed like a madman and worked tirelessly to get it better, and when our first game came around my coaches told me I looked solid enough to start. I was nothing close to 100%, don’t get me wrong, but I still could play. This injury changed my mindset however. I knew that I wasn’t healthy and so did everyone else, so now if I played poorly, it was because of the injury, nothing else.

I decided I would play free and without worrying, and if I didn’t play well, I didn’t play well. I played aggressive and with energy that tournament despite the injury, and I had a really strong tournament. The injury limited me, but I played as well as I could have with it. Our team had a really successful tournament, and I was thrilled with our performance. 2016 was the year that built my mindset, and 2017 was the year it was put into action. This past summer I had my greatest national tournament yet, playing my best basketball of the year.

My first game however, I was a little nervous. I remember it perfectly, every detail. When we arrived to the gym, I felt a sluggish. I knew that all spring and summer I had played excellent, but I still felt like hundreds of butterflies were floating in my stomach. What if I played poorly? What if I was too weary to play well? After warming up, we broke our huddle and headed for the opening tip.

The whistle blew and the ball was smacked right to me. I snatched it and without thinking took off with full head esteem. I sprung off the court, right in for a layup. 2-0. We went to the other end and I squatted in the paint. I read the pass perfectly and jumped it, tipping it towards the sideline.

I hustled after it and swooped it up, tearing down the court once again. I stopped and pulled up at the three point line. No one was there, everyone was retreating towards the hoop. I set my feet and let it fly. Swoosh. 5-0.

My nerves were immediately gone, I was locked in. Those butterflies didn’t exist for a single moment after. I played with the mindset to be aggressive, focused, and without worry, and the rest of the week went great. I average 20 points per game and my team finished ranked as a top 10 in the country. In basketball, the mental side of the game is as important as the skill and physical side of it. After years and years of playing I’ve finally figured it out.

Through the good and the bad, l learned from each and every experience I’ve had, and it finally payed off this summer. My week in Charlotte was one my most thrilling basketball experiences. At the end of it all,I could not have been prouder of the tournament, how I played, and the success our team.