In middle school, I was neither the tallest nor most athletic person at our school—heck I probably wasn’t even in the top half of boys my age. I was scrawny, short, and an ill fit for basketball in just about every way imaginable. That said, basketball was my life during those years.
I grew up playing with my dad outside our house on our large flat aggregate driveway, which was also where I’d spend countless hours alone practicing in any weather. But once again—I was short and not particularly athletic.
So it’s not surprising that I didn’t make the middle school basketball team when I tried out in 7th grade. We went to a small middle school with less than a hundred kids in my grade so that meant two things: 1. The competition for the team wasn’t fierce and 2. All my friends made it. But Coach Jones did something wonderful for me through that experience.
For those of you who have never had the privilege of meeting coach Jones, let me illustrate this caricature of a man for you.
Coach Jones is a mid 40s African American man with a bald head, gold front tooth with a cross on it and the biggest biceps you’ve ever seen. He’s probably 6’1” or so and he ran 5 miles in the gym every morning before school. He is the epitome of everything you want in a sports coach. He is passionate, kind, firm, and his shirts barely fit on top of his abnormally fit physique.
Coach is a devout Christian and he will gladly sit and talk with any and all students whenever he is given the chance. Whenever I didn’t make the team he pulled me aside and spent some time talking to me.
“Listen Jordan, you’ve got the fundamentals down but you haven’t spent enough time playing real basketball. If you’re serious about making the team next year, I think you should join a league like the Optimist and play there this year” Coach said.
That advice was the second best thing Coach Jones ever did for me.
The Optimist club was Franklin’s version of the Boys and Girls Club (before it got shut down, or relocated). It was an old basketball gym on the “rough” side of Franklin (as rough as Franklin, TN gets at least).
My dad, being the wonderful man that he is, not only signed me up for the league, but also decided to become a coach. That story, I’m afraid is much too long to fit here. To summarize—it was a fantastic and tumultuous year where I experienced dirty, ugly racism and learned how to really play basketball. I’ll tell that part of the story another day.
That year I learned that basketball (and specifically defense) is not about going through the motions of having your hands up and shuffling your feet. Those things are important, but in order to really disrupt someone’s game—you have to want it more than they do.
Fast forward to 8th grade tryouts. The last couple spots on the team were up for grabs and it came down to me and another guy about my size named Caleb. I played harder than I’d ever played in my life and the next day I got a letter saying I made the team.
Despite his best efforts, Coach Jones could never make me into a great basketball player. I was too timid with the ball on offense to be a really good point guard and not a confident enough shooter to operate as a small shooting guard. But I could play defense. I was a frenzied defenseman who would annoy the crap out of every point guard I came across. I got some steals and some fouls, but mainly I just frustrated opposing point guards to death. I put hands in their faces and challenged every single pass—the kind of stuff most kids my age didn’t bother with.
You see, when you’re my size and playing basketball there’s this thing that happens whenever everyone walks on the court at the beginning of the game. Whether it’s a pick up game or a formal competition—everyone’s looking to see whom they’re paired up against.
The other guys would smile when they’d see me walking towards them.
“Oh, I got the little guy,” they’d say—thinking they were about to drop 50 points.
I loved those moments because I got to shut those guys up. The best thing Coach Jones ever said to me was to call out my desire to not be looked over.
One day he told me, “Jordan you’re always going to play against guys who are bigger than you, stronger than you, faster than you. But you will never play against anyone who fights harder than you” sounds like Rudy I know, but that’s what he told me.
I still never consistently made layups or went on to be some phenomenal basketball player—but it was all worth it for those two things Coach Jones taught me.