Champions

I’ll cut to the chase: yesterday was one of the most incredible days. Less than 24 hours after our team punched their ticket to the Big Dance, and won its 22nd straight game, I’m still trying to digest everything that was March 12, 2017.

I’ve never felt disconnected, by any means, to our program since I graduated. But actually being back for – we’ll call it ‘round two’ – and having a front row seat to history, has almost left me shell-shocked.

I never played at the state tournament in high school. I played in two championship games during my time at Drake but we lost both times. So half of the “head-spinning-this-has-to-be-a-dream” stems from that – but the other half?

It’s watching something you’ve believed in for so long come to fruition.

And it doesn’t even matter I wasn’t the one storming the floor or the one hoisting up the championship trophy. What matters is that I got to watch it unfold. All those times I dreamed about winning a championship, going to the NCAA Tournament and cutting down the nets came true yesterday. I take no credit for what led up to it, but it came true.

I’ve come to realize that witnessing someone else fulfill your dream is one of the most humbling experiences in the world. So humbling, I wish everyone could hop into the ESPN3 replay of our championship game and be a wallflower to see for themselves exactly what it feels like.

It’s also one of the most rewarding experiences. I struggle to even articulate exactly how and why it feels this way, but I am certain there are few things sweeter than watching your second family, some of whom are former teammates, do what you never got to do.

As crazy or backwards as that might sound, it just means they carried on your belief. It means that belief and dream that I once had as a player needed some extra time to blossom – but even deeper than that, it took exactly the right amount of time.

Nothing about this season has been too early or too late. It’s been right on time.

It is impossible not to get reflective after a year like this one: a regular season championship, tournament championship, the longest win streak in Missouri Valley history, the second longest active win streak in the NCAA behind Connecticut, the first time any team in the MVC has ever finished the conference season unscathed.

I could go on and on. The amount of joy I’ve gotten to see in other people this season lights a fire in me. And the joy reaches beyond our team and staff – but to administration, family, friends and our one-in-a-million fan base.

Championships… Banners… Cutting nets…. Championship rings… This is the level of success we hope finds us as competitors. But I know damn well what we wear, hold, hang and cut rings empty without the right people to share it with.

From One Retired College Athlete To Another

Have you ever undergone an extreme amount of happiness while also experiencing a hint of heartache? Have you ever felt so thankful but also wish you could rewind the last four years of your life? Have you ever been so encouraged and simultaneously felt frustrated that what’s left behind is exactly that: left behind?

If you’re a ‘retired’ college athlete, I’m sure you answered yes to all the above, or at least to some degree, have been engulfed in this series of emotions of which you are left to untangle. It’s a strange dichotomy between latching on to every once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you were afforded while in uniform, and developing the inherent belief that, even though the show goes on without you, your pride and happiness must remain unscathed.

For the retired college athlete population as a whole, jealousy is not an anomaly. Toss all negative connotations associated with the word aside and what do you have? A population whose experiences meant so much to them that they wish they could do it again. A population whose experiences are replete with life-altering moments that they wish they could replicate one more time. A population whose experiences, as now witnessed from the stands, walk away jealous they can’t spend their whole lives anticipating something unlike any other day: game day.

It’s a type of innocuous jealousy- if there is such a thing. It’s a type of jealousy that yields the absolute best in our ‘retired athlete’ selves because it stirs up sentiments of which we are forced to come to terms with. Although these feelings may hit us like a ton of bricks from time to time, it’s more so a wink and a nod to what truly matters: not you, but your team, your coaches, your university, your fans, and whoever else played a role in making your college-athlete experience so special.

It’s nearly impossible not to experience every emotion in the book once your playing days are over. But where every ‘retired athlete’ far and wide should channel their energy into are the people who continue to carry out whatever legacy they left behind. We are not swept under the rug nor are we forgotten. Rather, we are one piece of a jumbo puzzle neatly tucked into place, while the rest lay scattered on the table until it is known where they fit into the enigma.

What it comes down to is this: our past should not thwart our ability to completely immerse ourselves in the now. Frankly, something probably went wrong in your four years if you aren’t just as anxious on game day, just as excited to pump up your teammates when facing a good team, or just as eager to congratulate them after a win. All is not lost. These are the cards we are now dealt- why not jump in with two feet? Why not dilute any salt in our wounds by radiating a pride so thick that absolutely nothing gets in our way?

Besides, we owe it to our people. We did something only a very small percentage of athletes get to do, and we surely did not do it alone. Once we are able to sort through these feelings, intertwined with a wide array of contradictions, the rest seems to take care of itself. We quickly learn that although one very important chapter in our lives has closed in one sense, it is also welcoming us back with open arms in the other sense. Our playing days are over, yes. But our pride and happiness simply cannot and will not ever be replaced.

Our new normal isn’t so bad.

More Than a Game

You accept a job, move away from home and what do you get? A new state, a new apartment, new people, new surroundings and new responsibilities. But in the midst of a fresh start, one thing remains constant: relationships.

Not just any relationships, however.

I’m talking about the ones you’d REALLY have to mess up for them not to be there. The ones that don’t always require constant attention, yet you know nothing has changed for better or for worse. The ones that make you feel lucky enough to be on the other end. The ones that exist and never diminish because of the experiences you’ve shared together.

My Drake family, yes, I’m talking about you.

Although my time as a college athlete is complete, those relationships are with me everywhere I go. I was going through some student-athlete questionnaires just the other day and one of the questions was ‘what is the greatest gift you’ve ever received?’ Answer: my team. In two words, that player had goosebumps up and down my spine.

Too many 20-somethings dread life after college when we have our whole lives ahead of us. To me, there is no reason to dread it because of the people rallying behind me, because of the people who have provided me so much more than a ball, a hoop and someone to pass to.

I’ve realized that a chapter embedded with genuine relationships never truly closes. It’s impossible to close, actually. The intangibles live on and so too do the memories and inside jokes. The only thing that really changes is me not putting on a uniform. At first it was bittersweet, but I can handle that.

Five years came and went way too fast, I laced up one final time, but I walked away with lifelong relationships. Tell me life from here on out doesn’t get much better.

 

“It Happens Everywhere”

In light of the Jody Adam’s allegations to hit headlines this past week, I can’t help but ponder what is true, what is not true and what is being exaggerated.

Here is a quick synopsis: four women’s basketball players, two of which were starters, transferred from the Wichita State Women’s basketball team. Under Adams’ reign, two or more players have transferred or left the team each year. Players are unhappy, it isn’t the right fit, or they are on the verge of burnout- I get it. But what stumps me is the tremendous success Wichita State has had over the last three years and players are still choosing to leave. Players who play 30 plus minutes a game are still choosing to leave. Players who have won three straight championships are still choosing to leave. What gives?

These players are claiming they left due to “mental abuse.” I will not delve into the specifics as I have read articles defending both parties. It is not my intent to take a side and say who is right and who is wrong. Rather, I will shine a new light on my experience as a college basketball player from a mental standpoint.

I personally have had coaches on both ends of the spectrum. I have had in-your-face-type coaches, coaches who scream and curse and coaches who run you all practice. I’ve also had coaches who filled my tank, who knocked me down but picked me right back up and coaches who still serve as my mentors today. I’ve had coaches who are a combination of the two extremes.

What bugs me about the mental abuse claims are the excuses that follow. “It happens everywhere,” or “it happens all the time.” That is arguably the worst justification of a matter more serious than most would like to admit. Why? Because it doesn’t happen everywhere. I am a huge advocate for being challenged, yelled at and pushed to my limits. In fact, without these means of motivation in a coaches arsenal, winning games may be hard to come by. But there is a fine line between being a hard-ass and straight up breaking your players to the point they feel the need to escape a coaches wrath.

Now do I think there are fragile and sensitive personalities to consider when players decide to transfer? Absolutely. I think there are far too many players, men and women, who have unrealistic expectations of their coaches. When in reality, we don’t always get what we want. I believe mental toughness is absolutely essential in surviving the demands of college basketball. But I do not believe in mental toughness being stretched thin- something we see far too often- but is masked with win columns, championships and “great” coaches.

Mental abuse “happening everywhere,” and therefore it is okay, is a disgusting rationalization. Truth be told, the subject will forever linger and exist in the college basketball stratosphere. Why? Because it works. Because coaches can say what they want and win basketball games doing it. To me, it is more than that. Basketball players are human and therefore crave the gratification and appreciation any other human striving to be the best would.

Can everyone take the heat? Highly doubt it. But wanting an occasional pat on the back isn’t “soft.” Just as expecting praise from time-to-time is not unrealistic. The bottom line, in my mind, is that if a player does not feel appreciated, they will not last. There must be a balance between the two extremes. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Maya Angelou). And boy is that the truth.

One Last Time (Senior Speech)

To think that 5 whole years have come and gone is something I’m still trying to comprehend. From the day I visited Drake’s campus for the first time, to everything in between, and now getting one last chance to explain what this incredible chapter in my life has meant to me.

This journey all started in my driveway- with mostly just my dad wearing multiple hats as coach and rebounder. Unfortunately back in the day, my older brother would never play with me because he knew I would win, and my sister Dana was pursuing things I wanted nothing to do with like dance or piano lessons. My dad and I have always had a special bond through basketball. In fact, I would be remised if I didn’t give him a shout-out for breaking a middle-school basketball habit of mine: that is picking up my dribble at the absolute worst possible times. I can still hear his voice echoing throughout the gym & needless to say, I dropped that habit pretty quickly.

I will forever be in debt to my mom and dad for their tough love of this sort and the many sacrifices they have made to help me get to where I am now. In a way, I began to build my identity as a basketball player these past couple years as the spark plug, the energy off the bench. I know the love and enthusiasm I have for this game all started with them. My siblings, too, deserve every bit of credit. From day one, it has never mattered to them whether we played great or had an off night, whether we won or lost. No matter what, they have walked with me every step of the way.

When people ask why I decided to come to Drake, it is always because it just felt like I belonged here. Duke University, who my grandma still thinks I play for, can’t even compete with Drake. This place continues to exceed my expectations in so many ways because it is embedded with people who care deeply for every single person who walks through their doors. And how could I possibly say no to that?

Since coming here, I have experienced firsthand a level of growth and maturity purely as a byproduct of the people I have been surrounded with. The first on that list being my coaches and teammates. It is tough to put into words how much this group of people means to me- not even because of the experiences they have afforded me, but because of the type of people they are. This coaching staff has played an integral role in why I have enjoyed these past few years as much as I have. You don’t just walk away from a journey like this and go your separate ways- these are the types of relationships you hope to have the rest of your life.

And to my teammates: what we felt were the triumphs, defeats, or conundrums of the season can almost be interpreted as another opportunity to lean on one another. One of my all-time favorite quotes says if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Thanks to this group of women, I can say this year was one of my favorites because of how far we came and went together.

As a senior especially, I have had the chance to impact each of them in different ways- even if it is wowing them with my dance moves in the locker or weight room or laughing hysterically at one of Liza’s peanut gallery comments (and by hysterically I mean so obnoxiously that you have to laugh too). PS I got that trait from my mother.

Nothing will ever match the memories I have made with you all, but know I cannot wait to be apart of your journey from the stands. In what it feels to be the blink of an eye, you will be standing up here just like I am reaching for the right words to end on. The best piece of advice I can offer to you today is to savor everything it is that you have in front of you. Because the sooner you recognize its immense value, the better off you will be.

It is pretty crazy to think that my days as a college basketball player are over, and in a way, part of me is being left behind. When basketball has been your life for so long, it can be a tough pill to swallow. But even in accepting these realities, my heart has never been so full. What I hope for every person here to remember is that my Drake experience would have been nothing without all of you. You are the reason I am so incredibly proud to wear Drake on my chest and will continue to give back to this university and program in whatever ways I can.

I have never felt so confident, prepared, and excited to take on the next chapter because of the people in this room and the experiences I have been exposed to. I will not remember the tough losses or times of frustration themselves, but rather what I have gained them. I will remember the upsets, playing in the Knapp Center, and the history we made this season among others. I am completely humbled to have been a part of this place for five whole years, and for that I cannot thank you enough. All my best to the place that will always be home and people who will forever be family.

parents seniors

Dear High School Athletes…

As my collegiate career winds down, and as I watch my younger sister navigate her way through her high school career, I can’t help but look back on the days where I was once in her shoes. Although it feels like eons ago, there is a lot to be said for that four-year stretch. For any high school kid with dreams of continuing their athletic career, this is for you.

Too many times I see people wishing away their high school years (guilty). The idea of being on your own, moving away from mom and dad and living a less micromanaged lifestyle sounds glorious. College is a fresh start. College years are the best years of your life. College is freedom—college this, college that. I am not disagreeing with any of the things you might hear about college, but let’s not forget how great you have it now.

Whether your sport is great, average or straight up awful, enjoy it. Enjoy it because you are likely one of the best athletes on the floor. Enjoy it because there are little kids watching your every move, wanting to be you, when you’re basically a kid yourself. How cool is that? Enjoy it because there will never be another time where you can go from playing softball, to basketball, to soccer, then do it all over again for the next three years.

College is truly wonderful. But guess what else? College is hard. College while playing a sport is even harder. Not only is high school about enjoying every experience you’re thrown into, it’s also about understanding what it means to be on a team. You probably get annoyed with your teammates who don’t practice hard, who can’t catch your passes, who don’t really care about winning and who couldn’t care less about getting better (guilty). But there is one common denominator between you and those kind of teammates: wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself. You are playing every minute possible while they ride the bench. Don’t complain about these teammates, learn something from them.

You know what else? Being gifted enough to play at the next level is something special— don’t take that for granted in high school either. Don’t be satisfied with being a four-year starter. Don’t be content with being the best player on your team. Don’t let the local newspaper hype get to your head. Instead, be the last person to leave practice everyday. You may have a scholarship on lock, or will eventually, but don’t spend high school basking in your own glory. It will catch up to you.

You make some of the absolute best memories with some of your best friends through high school sports. You learn how to win, you experience defeat (at a higher and more serious level than middle school), you start to see the beauty of a team and you begin to understand the necessities of a competitor. In the midst of all that, you grow a little. You have it far from figured out, but you know the basics. High school is your head start in learning these lessons.  College is your time to take these lessons and run with them.

It isn’t “just high school sports.” Cherish every moment because I can promise you one thing: the next four years will go even faster.

Paying Our Dues

I sat in an interview the other day with a fellow teammate and classmate Liza Heap about how our season has been thus far, the tremendous success of our underclassmen, and what it means to be a senior on a history-making team. Although I walked out of that room more sentimental than I did walking in, it was just what I needed as those few minutes shifted my mindset to a different way of looking at things.

As seniors, we hear time and time again to “leave a legacy.”  While I fully believe in the powerful intentions behind such a phrase, it is not necessarily about leaving a legacy for the ones whose days as college-athletes are numbered. That probably sounds a bit ludicrous. Shouldn’t everyone want to leave a legacy? Doesn’t everyone want to be remembered in some way? Of course. Every human being craves satisfaction of this capacity- and it isn’t a bad thing. But to me it is less about the legacy and more about doing the things that even allow legacies to happen. If we are focused on the legacy- the end result- we turn a blind eye to what is right in front of us. We forget about the people who helped us get there. And at the end of the day, we have completely eliminated our ability to see the big picture clearly.

This big picture I speak of is what brought us here and what has kept us here over the last four to five years: Drake University. We are not to be motivated by leaving a legacy, but by paying it forward to the place and the people who believe in us with everything they have. As seniors especially, it is our last chance to pay our dues. We could easily go through the motions, be satisfied with a free education, be content with our teams success, believe our legacy has been made and move on. And even though there are somewhat negative connotations attached to “paying our dues,” it is far from negative. We don’t HAVE to pay our dues- we get to, and we want to. These dues are paid through a game we love and for a university we are privileged to represent.  It’s pretty simple, really.

I firmly believe that legacies transpire through unwavering belief in who you represent. That is how legacies are made and I would go so far as to say that is also how they are defined. Drake University is the one thing that brings us all together- the wins, the points, the history, the legacy- that all seems to fall into place.

Dear Parents…

“But no one escapes this world unhurt, emotionally if not physically.”

Not to put a damper on your day, but this quote in a recent Boston Globe article jumped out at me. It talks about parents, youth athletics and reasons why “kids aren’t playing.” I’ll admit. It is a touchy subject. But I absolutely love and appreciate the argument it raises. As someone who has grown up around sports, I simply cannot imagine my life without them. However, they are not the end all be all. And for parents: sports do not define your children.

Sports shouldn’t define any athlete: young, old, athletic, not athletic, naturally talented, hard working, driven, or participating just to participate. Not to disregard the kids themselves as a source of blame- but parents are often the ones who lose sight of this notion. From a player perspective, whether it was middle school, high school, or college, I never quite understood why parents would insert themselves in situations when their kids weren’t playing.

Since when does every single player get playing time? In what sense do parents think their kids are entitled to playing time? It drives me nuts when the coaches or other players are automatically victimized. I am not a parent and will not be one for a while. But, honestly, what message are you sending? It seems like a lesson of placing the blame on other people when things aren’t going your way.

This is where I would say ownership comes in. Ask your kid what’s going on. Ask how practice is going. Ask their opinions of why they think they aren’t playing. Don’t just assume they deserve to be playing and get upset about it. Take ownership yourself and expect the same from your kids. It could solve a lot of problems.

I say this because, yes, even as a college basketball player, I have rode the bench plenty. I’m not embarrassed to admit that. Why? Because I had parents and mentors who told me to get over it, to work harder, to not give up on something I really care about. It is absolutely true: no one escapes this world unhurt. Things don’t go your way. Coaches miss what you bring to the table. So what! Show them differently.

The earlier we realize that, the less parents will have to say. Sports can be an incredible outlet for growth when approached with a truly competitive mindset. Maybe it’s just me, but thinking everyone should play is far from a competitive mindset. The best players play. The hardest working players play. The most gifted players play. Anything less than that is a harsh reality: they probably don’t play.

Where many parents are mistaken is 1) thinking their kid should be playing without any grasp, or unrealistic expectations, of the situation and 2) pointing the fingers elsewhere. Just because your kid doesn’t play doesn’t mean it will always be that way. But if it is constantly the coach’s fault, and never a matter of ownership, chances are your kid will never understand what it means to compete. And to me, competing means to find what is wrong and doing everything you can to fix it.

Food for thought.

I Smell Basketball Season

At last, basketball season is upon us. I could go on for days about reasons why we do what we do and why we work day in and day out nearly all year-round. For fans, the excitement is a different type of excitement. It is being able to follow their teams, cheer for their teams, and anticipate the madness that March often brings. But for players, there is a little more to it than that. Here is a Top 10, in no particular order, about some of the best parts of being a basketball player at Drake University.

  1. The student section: you make game day so much fun no matter how many of you there are. Absolutely no better feeling when the students can be a part of our success or have our backs when things aren’t going as well.
  2. The game lights: the Knapp Center is hands down my favorite place on campus. I will miss playing in the Knapp Center more than anything. That place is electric even when it’s empty.
  3. The community: the students, the fans, the city of Des Moines, the Drake faculty, and anyone else I’m missing that associates with Drake basketball. I have a hard time believing the support at other Division I schools is as amazing as it is here.
  4. The relationships: the people I have met playing basketball here are people I will stay in touch with the rest of my life. It is hard to explain what happens when you spend every waking second with your teammates. We’ve been through the best of times and the worst of times. Let’s just say that type of bond is an unbreakable one.
  5. The traveling: even with poor weather conditions, a stalled charter bus, or a delayed flight, traveling to and from games is so much fun (but more fun when we win). I would not trade the memories I have made on road trips for anything.
  6. The pride: there is just something about wearing a Drake jersey that gives me pride in every sense of the word. Especially after going on five years, you recognize the value of what this university stands for and has to offer.
  7. The city: I am not surprised so many Drake graduates end up sticking around Des Moines after graduation. Although I’m biased, it is the place to be.
  8. The off-season: I probably should put quotation marks around the word off-season. We are always at work whether it’s in the weight room, watching film, or mastering our craft. It can be exhausting, yes. But you look back on every minute spent getting better with no regrets.
  9. The process: even when things are not so glamorous, it is the process that gets you to the top. One day at a time, one practice at a time, and one game at a time have to be the focus.
  10. The blood, sweat and tears: the good, the bad, and the ugly make success that much more fun. You learn to take failure with a grain of salt, as hard as it may be, and find ways to move on. Even when I have the worst day, I remind myself how lucky I am to be doing something I have loved forever and for a school I have undoubtedly fallen in love with.

Tough Love

As the famous Tina Turner once asked, what’s love got to do, got to do with it? If I had to answer that question in respect to life and college basketball, love has almost everything to do with it. Tough love has everything to do with it.

Tough love is something- regardless of our backgrounds and many walks of life- we all experience. Some of us fail to appreciate the value in it simply because we don’t know any better. Some of us deem it as mean or unfair. But others recognize the act of tough love as the trigger to the growing pains that often decide our fate.

I can honestly say I have viewed tough love through the eyes of a pessimist, a “victim,” and someone who truly sees the beauty in being challenged. However, it took me a long time to recognize the latter concept. Tough love is something that has molded me, and continues to mold me, in everything I want to be one day.

It is one of those necessary evils at times. If we don’t have anyone to get in our face, to tell us what we are doing is not good enough, or to give us feedback that isn’t always positive, what would we have to shoot for? Essentially nothing. Tough love comes in many forms, but the end result is always the same for those who recognize its value. These people respond to tough love in a way where sympathy is far from the answer.

Does tough love hurt? Can it get your panties in a wad? Absolutely. But before you react, listen. Tough love is so easily lost in translation. Chances are the person dishing it out is someone who cares deeply for and believes in you more than you think is possible. Whether it is coming from your parents, your friends, your siblings, your teammates, or your coaches, tough love is a privilege.

And when we realize exactly that, we begin to respond less negatively and more positively. We begin to listen and not react. We begin to embrace what is being said and not resist or deny it. And most importantly, we begin to think more of the people who show us what tough love is and not less.