One of the best things that happened for my basketball career was a seemingly random tryout I attended.
It was the spring of my senior year of high school. Basketball season was over; we’d lost in the first round of the Philadelphia Public League playoffs in February. I hadn’t gotten in that game, watching my high school career end from a front row seat on the bench.
Sometime in April, I saw a flyer for a basketball team tryout on a bulletin board at my local rec center. The tryout was to be held at Gustine Lake Gym, which was a good 30 minutes from my home, 45 minutes on public transportation— and I didn’t have a car.
I went for two reasons:
1) I had some confidence now that I had at least made the varsity team at school, even though I hadn’t done anything in the games. I could use this new team as a way to get more game experience before trying to walk on at college in the fall.
2) The other reason was because I recognized the name of the league the team would be playing in: the Sonny Hill League.
If you’re not from Philly, just know this: the Sonny Hill league is THE place to play when you’re a high school player from anywhere in the area of South Jersey, Greater Philadelphia Metro, or Delaware. Any star player you’ve heard of who’s from the areas has played Sonny Hill. Guaranteed.
Wilt Chamberlain. Kobe Bryant. Rip Hamilton. Eddie Griffin. DaJuan Wagner. A host of star players who didn’t make the NBA but had full D1 college basketball scholarships. Sonny Hill is where it’s at.
After my year on varsity, I knew I needed both game experience in general, and experience playing against the best players I could find. Sonny Hill provided both.
Showing up at Gustine Lake, I quickly realized that this random tryout wasn’t so random after all. The gym was filled with all the most talented and name-famous high school players in the fucking city.
Most of them, I had never met or even seen in person before. I knew who they were because their photos were always in the Philly Daily News for winning awards, breaking scoring records and plain being damn good at basketball. Even the coach, the late John Hardnett, was the most famous youth coach in the city.
Was I nervous? No. I was excited.
The first thing that excited me was what I’d learned every day in practice during my varsity season. I’d actually learned it before practice.
Me and our best player Darien Chavis would play one-on-one before practice every day. Darien, unlike me, would not have been out of place in the gym at Gustine Lake. I’d watched him averaged 20-plus points during the season, made all the All-Whatever teams in Philadelphia and went on to play D1 ball.
At 6’1”, quick but not very explosive and not a great shooter, Darien wasn’t incredibly talented. He’d about reached the peak of his ability in high school while I was just barely sniffing mine. But Darien was two things on the court at age 18 that I wasn’t until probably 20 or 21: Confident and Fearless. That is what made him so good.
We didn’t keep score in our running 1-on-1 game, and Darien surely won anyway. But every time I’d score on Darien on offense or stop him on defense gave me hope: with a bit more seasoning, I could — maybe — be just as good as him, maybe better.
The second thing that excited me when I saw the star-studded lineup at Gustine Lake: I was the only “nobody” in the gym.
All the other 25 or so players were name-brand guys. These were the type of guys who didn’t scout bulletin boards looking for tryout opportunities; coaches called them when recruiting their building blocks of their clubs.
This excited me because I had absolutely nothing to lose. There weren’t any other “nobody” players who I needed to outplay. My only competition were these star guys.
I was literally the WORST player in the gym. Which meant, as long as I gave an effort, showed that I could at least somewhat hang with them, and did anything at all positive (score, grab a rebound, etc.), everyone would be pleasantly surprised. Including me.
My overalls experience on the Sonny Hill team wasn’t much different from my varsity season at school. I sat on the bench and watched the best players in the city put on a show a couple times every week.
They split this elite group into two teams, both sponsored by NBA vet and Philly native Aaron McKie. I was on the same team as Eddie Griffin, the #1 nationally ranked player in the Class of 2000 who would go one to be a Top-10 NBA Draft pick a year later. [Eddie was so good that we had a college player (Kevin Freeman from UCONN) in practice whose only job was to guard Eddie because none of the high school players could.]
That team is still the most talented team I ever played on in my career. And the experience catapulted me towards successfully walking on and then getting recruited to a different school for basketball, all within the next year.
Why? Because I was the only one who showed up for an opportunity that seemed to only be for a select few.
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