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Just call me Michael Jordan.
My high school basketball coach chiseled a chip on my shoulder 20 years ago and I’ve been wearing that shit like a badge of honor ever since.
One evening at practice, Coach sent us to the baseline. A usual occurrence which meant only one thing — sprints. As she let us know how disgusted she was with us for not passing the ball harder, I felt myself nodding in agreement. She was right. This was ridiculous! We needed to be better.
Weeks earlier in a 1-on-1 meeting, I confronted Coach about the unfairness of the way she treated me. She was harder on me than anyone else. Coach told me, “You can handle it. They can’t.” Damn right I could handle it. I was mentally tougher than anyone on this team. I walked out of that meeting a little taller.
So there I stood on the baseline, vehemently agreeing with our brilliant coach, when she singled me out for giving her an attitude. My enthusiastic support was interpreted as disrespect. She decided then that everyone else would continue with practice, while I was sent to the side of the court to run suicide sprints by myself.
After the third suicide, I collapsed against the wall, my sobs muffled by the echoey gym and loud squeaking of hightop sneakers. The assistant coach stood next me — he’d been making sure I touched all the lines — and I told him through gasps that I wasn’t giving her an attitude. He told me he knew. He told me it was okay.
But I wasn’t okay.
In the movie Whiplash, Andrew is a promising young drummer attending an elite music school. His teacher, Fletcher, torments him. He hurls a chair at Andrew’s head, announces to the class it’s no wonder his mother left him as a child, and says things like, “If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig.”
The abuse continues until the final scene. Andrew storms back onto the same stage Fletcher just humiliated him off of, and starts playing his drums. Fletcher spins around, stunned, as Andrew mouths the words, “Fuck you,” and continues to play the most epic drum solo for the best final scene of a movie, ever.
Every time I watch this scene I can hardly contain myself. I want to cheer, I want to jump up and down and punch the air with my fists. Hell yes! Andrew wins.
But doesn’t Fletcher win, too? Fletcher is unapologetic for the way he treats students. At one point after he’s been fired from teaching, he tells Andrew he was never there to teach: “I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them.”
That’s exactly what he did with Andrew, and Andrew became the thing he wanted so desperately to become.
He became great.
I never became great at basketball. After the night Coach made me run sprints by myself, I vowed to prove her wrong for the rest of my high school career. And while I was conditioned, disciplined, skilled, and one of the best defenders in the league, I was afraid to shoot the ball. Rather than just play and trust my instincts, I played in fear of disappointing her.
There was a time when I hated Coach. How could she treat me so poorly when I did everything she asked of me? There was a time when I loved her. I’m mentally tough because of her. I can do anything I set my mind to.
I don’t even know where I stand anymore. I’m still working through this shit.
These days I don’t play sports. I write. They might seem like completely different endeavors but they’re not. I want to win. I want to be my best. I want to prove everyone wrong, and I might even be like Mike and make up that people don’t believe in me.
I loved basketball. But writing is more than love. It’s a conviction deep inside that this is what I’m meant to do.
So if someone tells me I suck at writing or says I don’t have what it takes, it won’t feel good, but it won’t make me lose confidence. It won’t make me slow down. It won’t find me crying on a baseline.
When you have a drive to be great, nothing can stop you.
Until next week,