Maybe Basketball Wasn’t Everything

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The best player in my middle school, the one who told me to Buy A Game, was a kid named Brandon.

Being the best performer in the basketball games was what made Brandon the best. He was also friendly, had lots of friends and always behaved in class. He was the one who would have been voted “Most Likely To Succeed In High School Sports” (if that category existed).

And, from what I know, he indeed was the most successful high school athlete from our graduating middle school class.

Brandon was NOT the most talented player in our middle school, though. That title went to a kid named Ibin.

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Ibin was preternaturally tall and long — probably 6’4” or so in the eighth grade. Although he was a couple inches taller than me, Ibin wasn’t lanky and not-quite-comfortable-in-his-body-for-sport-yet like me at 14. Ibin could dribble, shoot, rebound, and do everything else basketball called for, naturally, better than anyone in the eighth grade.

If there had been an NBA draft just for our middle school class, Ibin would have been the consensus #1 pick — you couldn’t pass on his package of physical tools and projected “ceiling.” While Brandon was the four-year starter and “proven winner,” Ibin was the one-and-done player who still had rough edges, but too much potential to pass on.

(I would have gone undrafted.)

I remember there being a gym period late in our eighth grade year where all the best basketball players were playing full court, and a bunch of male high school students (my middle school was also a high school), many of them athletes, had trickled in to watch the game, scouting their possible future teammates.

Late in that game, Ibin had the ball in the deep corner with two defender pressuring him hard. He did a couple nifty behind-the-back dribbles, evading the reaching defenders, and pulled up for a three from that corner, right in front of the main doors of the gym where the mass of spectators had gathered to watch.

The 3 point shot went in nothing but net.

The spectators — high schoolers, watching an eighth grader pickup game — went wild.

Ibin jogged back up the floor with his usual casual smile, a look that said he knew he could do stuff like that in his sleep.

I never saw or heard from Ibin again until my senior year of high school.

My school’s team had a home game against Benjamin Franklin Learning Center, or FLC. I was jogging to the end of the pregame layup line near half court, and there was Ibin, who was doing the same in FLC’s layup line. He was still the same size from four years earlier. We made eye contact and both laughed.

The game happened; I don’t remember who won. I did not log a single minute of game action. Ibin played only a few minutes more than me.

Ibin had a teammate, also a senior, who had been one of the top scorers in Philly’s Public League the year before. This player hadn’t been playing so well this season though; his scoring was way down and he hadn’t had much of a game against us that day either.

Our season was closer to its end than its beginning at that point; I was deeply disappointed in the fact that this season was turning out to be a bust for me. Doing something on the basketball team had been my only wish for senior year. I had barely played, let alone made any meaningful contributions.

After the game, I stopped to eat by myself at the McDonald’s our team regularly stopped at after practices. I ordered an Extra Value Meal and sat down to eat. A few tables away sat Ibin, that formerly high-scoring teammate, and one other FLC player.

When I saw Ibin, the can’t-miss talent from middle school, and that former top-scorer sitting together, I began projecting my own thoughts onto them.

I figured that Ibin would feel bad about the fact that he hadn’t “blown up” as a basketball player in four years of high school, given how good he had been amongst his middle school classmates.

I thought his FLC teammate, the scorer, would be worried about the college scholarships he might be losing, given his paltry scoring as a senior. He had averaged maybe 25 ppg as a junior and maybe 17 as a senior; I figured he was probably quite upset that he wasn’t averaging 30.

In my own thoughts, I watched the three of them — Ibin, the scorer, and the other FLC player, all much better players than I — eat their food, wondering how disappointed they might be. But the reality was different.

They were joking around.

Laughing.

Being silly about who-knows-what.

In other words, being high school kids, eating McDonald’s after a day of school.

Maybe I needed to realize that every game and shot was not life and death.

I still had work to do, though — read about it in Work On Your Game: Using The Pro Athlete Mindset To Dominate In Sports, Business and Life coming February 22.

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