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Boyhoods brimming with hoop dreams ended in tears yesterday for a half dozen or so freshman. They had tried out for a high school freshman team, as my son had, and were notified they had not made the first round of cuts, which narrowed the team to 17 players. Within the next week five more will have to go to reach the 12 player roster. This stuff is going on all around America during this basketball tryout season.

My son didn't get cut yesterday. I don't know if he'll make the team but I do know this: Those boys were told yesterday they weren't good enough. Whatever lofty childhood aspirations and fantasies they had about becoming star high school, college, or pro players--and yes, some had probably dared to think they could make it to NBA--ended like a crash into asphalt from the sky.

It was sad for me to ponder this and contemplate the deep hurt. Today they go to school and have to face other kids who survived yesterday's cuts, probably with some jealousy and maybe deep resentment that they thought they were better than the 17 even though the coach didn't see it that way. Maybe one of the 17 has a Dad who donates big bucks to the school and will make the final roster regardless of whether he deserves to based on talent.

Today these cut players also have to face other students who know they were cut. They're likely a little or a lot embarrassed, don't want to talk about it. They tried and in some sense failed. They were told they weren't good enough. They will move on today and in the days ahead, focus on another sport maybe, or look into joining the theater or music or forensics club. They will adjust. They have no choice. But this dreary day will not be forgotten fast, maybe not for a year or two years or their whole lives.

Someone flat out told they were not good enough.  Worse, they were explicitly informed they were not welcome on a team to play a sport that gave them enjoyment. They may join some other team, but not their school team. That's not going to happen. Maybe all they ever wanted in life was to play for their high school basketball team. The door is shut.

Throughout high school I was  never cut from any sports teams and I played three sports, including basketball and baseball for four years. Fortunately for me--although I've never appreciated the blessing enough--I never walked out of the gym embarrassed, crying, stricken with the punch in the stomach: "Hey, kid, you're not good enough. Sorry." Man how that must have hurt so many other guys.

Then one day it happened to me.

I tried out for the Wake Forest University baseball team as a walk on. After two days and one at bat, the coach posted the names of the players he wanted to return for the next day of practice. My name wasn't on it. I couldn't believe it. Really, you don't think I'm good enough? Really? I was a pretty good high school baseball player and, to this day I believe, frankly, I should have made the team because I could hit a baseball 400 feet and hit 13 home runs in high school with a solid batting average and all-city honors. I was a natural hitter. But the coach already had his scholarship guys and I wasn't one of them. He didn't know me and, obviously, didn't care. I respect that. He had a job to do and made the best decision he could.

The first thing I did after processing this psychological thunderbolt was walk away from everybody. I didn't want anyone to see me knowing I had just been told I wasn't good enough. I had a lot of pride in my athletic ability. Like my DNA, it was ingrained in who I was, a big chunk of my ego. I was embarrassed at my obvious shortcomings in the eyes of the coach. Countless kids had felt this bruise; now someone had swung hard at me and busted my psyche.

Head staring at the road below me, I walked into residential neighborhoods in the opposite direction of campus away from anyone I would know. I cried. The walk lasted about two hours. I still remember that walk. It was awful, like a death, an end of a life.

Yet this is the way it should be and has to be. The best players should make the team because they give a team the best chance to win. And the pursuit of excellence comes with the rules that those who have pursued excellence the best, or are born with the most talent, get to keep pursuing it. Ideally everyone could get to participate. But a baseball team can't keep 100 players, only about 25. There are practical limits. Some guys must get cut.

Extrapolating beyond sports, this is the way it should be and has to be in the academic arena. Students who get the highest grades should get into the best universities. The workers with the most talent and who offer the most value to companies should get paid the most and have the most decision-making power. The concept should play out in all walks of life.

But when it doesn't, when a person gets admitted to a college based on factors other than their talent and work ethic, for example, the whole fabric of our society breaks down. The purity of this system in which the best get the best is harsh. People get hurt, fired, cut, demoted. I've done all that. While a rough game, it's the best game because of its beautiful clarity.

When this crucial clarity in systems whether a basketball team, company or political campaign--whatever--diminishes, society suffers and that means human beings. People get more confused, cynical, angry, and despairing. That leads to less effort and more corner-cutting. "If that guy's going to cheat or not try hard, why shouldn't I cheat or not try so hard?" What difference does it make?"

When people start thinking and acting this way, with less clarity about increasingly doubtful that their effort and talent will translate to success and attaining their goals, they meander, stiffen, and too often start to give less effort. They produce less for society and themselves.

Then everybody, in effect, gets cut from the team.

 

 

 

 

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