My sophomore year college basketball club wasn’t a very good team.
I take some responsibility for the truth of our bad team. I hadn’t yet learned to practice hard every day, which led to my earning much less playing time than I should have been getting, which meant lesser players were playing in front of me, which hurt the overall product on the court.
That wasn’t the only problem.
Our team lost our only two useful big men early — one to eligibility issues, another first to injury and then to ineligibility — leaving us undersized. Even with my underperforming, Altoona could have still been at least mediocre had we had the two missing big men playing.
Our only senior was a 6’3” wing forward named Eric. Eric wasn’t quite center-sized, even for D3 basketball, and wasn’t athletic. I never saw Eric touch the rim or block a shot. But, Eric was built like a linebacker and assumed the center position for the season. He did excellent at it, too — making Second Team All-Conference.
Our coach Kenny Macklin was that same random guy who’d approached me in the cafeteria back at Abington, and he’d put together a solid team, at least on paper.
But on paper, we started the season 0-14.
A few of those losses were close. Many of them were not. Macklin was at as much of a loss for explanation as the rest of us.
After one particularly ugly road defeat, Macklin asked one of his assistant coaches what time he predicted we would arrive back at the Altoona campus. Still in the locker room post-loss, Macklin announced to the team that we would be holding practice that night when we got back.
That very night. After coming home from a road game.
The bus arrived back at campus around midnight (probably later) and Macklin told us to all go into the gym and grab a chair.
We didn’t practice, but we had a talk.
Macklin did most of the talking; the only thing I remember from the meeting was him openly asking if anyone wanted to quit. None of the players spoke a word.
The next day, after we actually did practice, Macklin handed each of a single sheet of paper to take home with us.
It was a survey. An anonymous survey.
Our instructions were to fill it out and bring it to Coach’s office the next day.
Some of the questions:
- Who are the 3 best players on the team?
- Who should be starting?
The above two, I’m sure were on the sheet. If memory serves correctly, there was also a question about what changes the survey-taker suggested.
There was space for additional comments.
There was no space for names.
Macklin wanted to survey to be anonymous, which I don’t know how that would work, since we each had to hand our survey form to him the next day anyhow.
I put myself at the first name in answers to both questions. And I put my name on the sheet that I handed to Macklin.
While I think our biggest problem as a team was that we simply lacked the necessary personnel to be great, there was no good basketball reason for us to be 0-and-damn-14. Even a truly bad team could have scrounged two or three wins out of the first half of our season.
The elephant in the room was that we had serious chemistry issues.
While there was no open hostility between any players (at least that I knew of), there were plenty of factions.
There was Eric (to whom Coach Macklin announced mid-season had another year of eligibility), and a couple other juniors who always hung together.
There were three quiet white boys who barely talked; they had their own clique.
Everyone else, most of us freshmen and sophomores, kind of drifted on our own.
No one really talked to each other. We definitely didn’t hang out off the court. We didn’t have any “glue guys.”
On the court, a glue guy is the selfless, self-sacrificing player who does a little bit of everything, putting the team first and his personal shine last.
Off the court, a glue guy is a team member who organizes team gatherings, engages the quiet people, and does his/her best to create a singular energy amongst the group.
I don’t know what would be the opposite of glue. Whatever that substance is, those are the kind of players we had my sophomore year.
Not playing as much as I’d expected, sitting and watching players who had half my skill level playing in front of me, I retreated into my own head. I didn’t want to talk to or hang with anyone on the team; that would only remind me of the fact that I wasn’t in the position that I wanted to be in.
While, as I said, we didn’t have any open hostilities between players, there was plenty of subtle animosity. Passive-aggressive comments, talking under the breath, fake support when someone made a good play, things of that sort.
Our elder players, all juniors, weren’t the speaking-up type. We didn’t have a player who’d be willing to stand in front of the team and speak his mind (our graduate assistant coach, Gene, had been that guy in the Altoona team just a season before — he showed it by cussing us all out after an embarrassing early-season home loss).
Well, I was that type of person, but I hadn’t earned the right to speak up and I knew it.
What my sophomore year team needed, more than two useful big men, more than my personal contributions, more than anything, was one of those clear-the-air, players-only meetings where everyone could get their feelings and opinions off their chests, the kind of meeting where players argue and yell and have to be physically separated, but afterward everyone knows exactly where he stands with everyone else and everyone is actually more comfortable after the meeting than before it.
That meeting never happened.
We finished that season 4-22.
Learn what I learned about speaking up — and earning the right to speak up — in my book Work On Your Game: Using The Pro Athlete Mindset To Dominate In Sports, Business and Life, coming February 22. Here’s the bonuses you get for preordering.