The first basketball team I ever made was my neighborhood 14-and-under club at Finley Playground. Our coach was a guy named Steve.
I don’t know why, but every game we had that season, Steve would inform us at the last possible minute.
We’d have a practice scheduled for 6:30 PM at Finley, for example, and Steve would walk into the gym and blow the whistle. We’d line up along the baseline for practice and Steve would let us know that there would be no practice — because we had a game that evening.
We’re all 14-year-old kids, and Steve had no assistant coaches. So we needed cars to get to the games (always on the road; we had no home games). I called my father once or twice and he came through to drive us to games, but he wasn’t always available.
One night we had (another) unannounced game, and one of the other neighborhood coaches who had been at the gym offered to drive some of us to the game. I was one of five players who piled into this other coach’s car.
Marv was the coach’s name, and he listened as us players talked amongst ourselves on the ride. As we debated who was better than whom amongst players in our league and age group, Marv spoke up with a definitive statement to shut down the conversation.
“Ain’t none of them better than Phil. He only 14 — and the best around here.”
Phil was a guy I knew of from seeing him play in the playground pickup games every summer. Like almost everyone else in the neighborhood, the only place I ever saw him was at the basketball courts.
Phil always played pickup games on “A” court against the grown men, while at age 14 I was still trying to establish myself on “B” court. At 14, Phil was 6’2” and stocky with a full beard. I never saw Phil hanging with or talking to any of the kids our age; he was always around the older guys.
With all this that I’d observed, I pegged Phil to about around 18 or 19 years old.
So when I heard Marv’s statement, I couldn’t believe it. There was no way this dude could be fucking 14.
Phil wasn’t very athletic, but he was stocky. He didn’t run fast or jump high. He wasn’t a creative ball handler. Phil’s money skill was shooting, and he was the best shooter I’d ever seen to that point.
Mostly off the catch of off of one dribble, Phil’s shot was damn automatic. Though shooting was pretty much the only thing he did above-average, he did it so well that it made him a very valuable player to any team he was on. He was starting on his high school varsity as a freshman, and on the roster of the Sonny Hill League teams I would blindly walk on to the summer after my senior year.
The main reason that I couldn’t process that Phil was the same age as me was that this knowledge reset the barometer for how far I still had to go.
I was playing on my first organized team at age 14, after trying out and getting cut from my own high school’s varsity on the first day of tryouts freshman year. Coincidentally, I too had only one useful skill at the time, and it was shooting, like Phil — but while my shot was a solid bet if left open, his shot was automatic.
My ability to make open outside shots made me valuable in my organized games and on the playground, and as I continued to practice, I could see myself eventually catching up to and surpassing most of my basketball-playing peers. They were all still better than me overall, but I was playing with and against these kids every day — and the familiarity and proximity made me believe I wasn’t far from them.
The thing about Phil was, he never played with us. He wasn’t on our 14-and-under team because he had games at his high school, the varsity team he was starting on as a freshman. He never played pickup games on “B” court. Phil wasn’t merely better than me — though it was the same sport, he was playing a completely different game than I was.
Riding in that car to our 14-and-under game that night, I realized that I was small-time.
There were players out there who were my age and existing ten levels above me. There had to be at least another 100 14-year-old Phils scattered across America.
I needed to catch up, and fast.
Phil came to know me and asked me an interesting question a couple of years later — read about it in Work On Your Game: Using The Pro Athlete Mindset To Dominate In Sports, Business and Life, coming February 22. Check out the preorder bonuses here.