A coaching change took place in the basketball program between my sophomore and junior years of college.
The school’s coaching search began soon after basketball season ended in early March, and it wasn’t until June that the new coach was announced. His name was Armen Gilliam, who didn’t have a lot of coaching experience, but had been an NBA player for many years.
I just happened to be taking classes at Penn State Altoona that summer, and I walked over to the gym after class to try and catch the tail end of Gilliam’s introductory press conference.
I missed the press conference, but I did get there just in time to run into the Assistant Athletic Director walking out of the gym with the new coach Gilliam by his side.
“Hey, Dre. Meet Coach Gilliam.”
Armen looked at through me as if I wasn’t even standing there. His disinterest was visceral.
Gilliam politely engaged me by asking about one of my teammates, a 6’7” guy whom Gilliam had penciled in as his starting center.
Our whole conversation lasted for about 20 seconds.
With that “conversation” fresh in my mind, I walked back to my off-campus apartment with one clear understanding: I no longer had a spot on the basketball team.
If I were to play another game at this school, I would need to approach the upcoming fall semester as a brand new, unknown walk-on player. I practiced that summer with a mindset of showing and proving.
I had a set of teammates that previous season who were headed into their senior years. These players had been the “favorites” of the previous coach, and they carried themselves in such a way that you knew that they knew this.
I didn’t have any direct conflict with these teammates — we weren’t enemies — but we weren’t friends either. I wouldn’t have been upset over not being teammates with them again, if you know what I mean.
With a new coach coming in, I was sure that he wasn’t going to just bring back everyone from the previous season. There would be a roster shake-up, for sure — I just wanted to survive it and maybe, possibly, see some other players not survive it.
By the Fall, despite my uncertainty of going into the new school year with this new coach at the helm, I had one advantage over those senior teammates: that initial conversation I had with Gilliam.
I’d seen and felt how uninterested he was in me, a player from the prior coach’s regime, and I knew that I was approaching basketball season as a brand new player who had proved nothing. I expected Gilliam to expect nothing of me. I was starting at the bottom, absolute ZERO.
My senior teammates, on the other hand, were not only devoid of my advantage — they had a distinct disadvantage of their own: they’d been the favorites of the previous coach.
They’d gotten away with things that the other players did not. They were held accountable less often. From my perspective, they’d even grown to feel as if the team’s problems were because of everyone else, not them. They felt entitled.
But… maybe this was just my ego confirming what I wanted to believe?
One chance observation made everything clear.
I was leaving class and walking towards the gym one day early in the new Fall semester (before basketball had begun). I was still a football-field’s length away from the gym entrance when I saw Gilliam walk out of the building. My infamous senior teammate crew walked right into him on their way in.
I couldn’t hear that conversation, but I saw it. The seniors did most of the talking while Gilliam listened. In subsequent preseason pickup games, the seniors carried themselves with an air of confidence/arrogance that told me that they felt their roster spots were secured. They’d talk to basketball-team hopefuls in pickup games as if the seniors’ stamp of approval was the golden ticket to acceptance.
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to make of it all.
I mean, the new coach hadn’t been very revealing about who or what he was looking for. The seniors were seniors, and solid players at that. Shit, maybe I should have been more political myself and tried sidling up to the new coach the way they had done.
Had I blown my chance???
The conclusion of the story:
- I made the basketball that year, under the new coach who’d been uninterested in me.
- None of those seniors played their senior seasons.
For Your Game
- Politics — relationships, knowing the right people, leveraging both when you need to — matter. A lot. But politics, like power and like basketball, is a game. Once you learn how to play a game, learn when to use your skills and when to not use them. In a game, sometimes you can out-think yourself, overplay your hand and not realize it until it’s too late.
- When politics are not an option, skills and performance are a solid Plan B. Don’t leave home without them.
- Whether you’re strong skill-wise, well-connected politically, or some mix of both, don’t get comfortable. And don’t play today’s game as if your opponent is the same person from yesterday. Things can change on you fast.