Before I wanted to "Be Like Mike" like everyone else who ever touched a basketball, he wanted to be like me.
"Bull" I heard you thinking. Hear me out.
In November of 1978 Michael Jordan and I were high school sophomores vying for a roster spot on our varsity basketball squads. Raw and undersized, Michael got cut from the varsity at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C. He played junior varsity. Polished and fully grown, I made the varsity team at St. John's High School in Washington, D.C.
At that moment I was probably a better basketball player than Michael if you factor in these two things: My high school team was probably better than his. We played in the best league in basketball-rich Washington, D.C., against national powers such as DeMatha High School. Laney High School sits in Wilmington, North Carolina. I suspect his league team wasn't as good as mine. Wilmington has never been known as a hotbed of basketball talent.
The truth is in eighth grade I wanted to be, and had legitimate reasons to think it possible, that I was going to be a great basketball player who would compete at the highest levels--yes I mean the NBA. Putting aside all modesty and being frank, I was by many important objective measures the best 8th grade basketball player in Washington, D.C. , earning Most Valuable Player awards in four tournaments and winning three of them en route to a season of 29 wins and only four losses. We went all the way to the D.C. city championship game.
The next year I remained on top of my game leading my high school's junior varsity team in scoring and rebounding and a 16 and 4 record.
Two years later I first heard the name Michael Jordan--well before he became a star at the University of North Carolina. Michael won the Most Valuable Player in the McDonalds Capital Classic All-Star Game at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland. I remember asking who won the MVP and was told "some guy named Michael Jordan." At the time didn't think much of it; I didn't know the guy.
That same night on the same court I competed in the McDonalds Capital Class All-Star preliminary game. This game included the best seniors from the Washington, D.C. Maryland, Northern Virginia and private schools. I played on the private school squad and scored 14 points and hauled in 5 rebounds, becoming one of the game's top players. To qualify for that game I scored 28 and 26 points in two previous all-star games--the highest totals among 48 all-star senior players. I didn't qualify for the 12-man D.C. All-Stars who vied against the Jordan-led national team because I wasn't quite good enough, but was very close and, as usual, it was political. Not being named to that team made me bitter because I thought it was reasonable of me to believe I should have been selected. It would have been cool playing against MJ before he was MJ.
Throughout this week ESPN has been paying homage to Jordan as he turns 50 years old on February 17. Like Mike, I turn 50 in February, only five days later on Feb. 22. He was born only five days before me. February 1963 turned out to be a good month for hoopers. I track my age and life by Michael's age and life.
Like Mike, I wanted to be the greatest basketball player I could be. But as we all know, he became that. He went on to star and become National Player of the Year for North Carolina. I would have treasured enormously a basketball scholarship from coach Dean Smith, who has since retired. He chose Michael over me, wisely. Whether unrealistically or not, that's what I wanted, envisioned and obsessed about all through high school: landing a scholarship to a big-time ACC or other Division I school such as UNC. I actually thought I was good enough.
Sadly for all of us, dreams sometimes don't pan out. Based on my strong performances in the three All Star games, I did receive one scholarship offer from the University of Massachusetts. I took the recruiting trip and was shocked at how big the campus was. Called "Zoo Mass," I had never seen so many people. There were college students everywhere I turned no matter where I went. It was like a zoo packed with countless animals. The players assigned to show me around were nice guys, one from Ohio as I recall. But when I saw them play, I knew this wasn't what I had envisioned. This wasn't the big-time. The team lost 24 of the 26 games the season before. This bothered me most of all. The only team that really wanted me was a horrible team. It hurt.
Peering out the airplane window flying back home, I remember thinking that I was tired of basketball. The dream I had visualized was not going to happen, and I was disappointed, probably depressed, certainly feeling negative and treated unfairly by coaches who couldn't see how good I was and how much passion I had for the game. I wasn't good enough in the eyes of Dean Smith, Left Driesell and other big time Division I college coaches, and those were the only eyes that mattered. They were probably right to a certain extent, but also wrong in that I was a pretty good player.
Morgan Wootten, the legendary DeMatha coach who had seen me play against his team several times, told me "there are a lot of places you can play college basketball."
But I had had enough. I took his statement negatively when, in fact, he was probably being honest. Everything went dark in my mind. I had lost my will.
Complicating my thoughts was my legitimate hope that I had a good shot at playing college baseball, having been named to the All D.C. team my junior year. Baseball was not my first love, basketball was. I had accepted that basketball as I wanted it to be in college was not going to happen so I focused on baseball.
Meanwhile, we all know what Michael did. He took over the basketball universe, became the greatest player who ever lived. He has often said what drove him to be so great was the pain he felt being cut from the varsity his sophomore year. Instead of quitting, he used the setback to fuel his fire, will and determination. Man that guy competed.
I used the setback of not landing a big time Division I scholarship to give up on my dream and try another sport. I stopped believing in myself, my basketball talent. I compromised. Basketball had become less fun as high school progressed due to a very negative coach and the fact that guys kept getting better while my progress didn't seem to be quite as fast. I was being caught by some guys. I worked very hard at my game but others did too, perhaps more so, and they were tracking me down.
Michael went to UNC and became the star, ignited by his game-winning shot in the national championship game. I sat and watched that game. He was living my dream. I was done, forlorn, and wondering what would have happened had I continued to play basketball even at lowly University of Massachusetts. I'll never know.
I went on to another ACC school, Wake Forest, to become a student and try out for the baseball team. The odds were stacked against me because all the scholarships had already been given. The coach didn't know who I was and I would have had to do something great to make the team. That didn't happen and I was cut. I contend to this day the coach made a mistake cutting me because I could hit a baseball a long way for home runs and for a high batting average. All I needed was the opportunity to practice and make the squad. Excuses, excuses, I know.
Now there was no baseball either.
Becoming a student at Wake Forest, without my athletic talents to stroke my ego, was the most difficult period in my life. I lacked confidence in my intellect, felt I was inferior academically to the other students, and didn't perform at the levels I had hoped for. I set high goals and missed them consistently. It was a four-year confidence drainer, one psychological blow after another. I was living with deep regret that I didn't become the basketball star I truly thought I was going to become.
As disparate the life journeys have been between MJ and me, there is one similarity. He used rejection, being cut from the high school team, to become great. Similarly, I used my tumultuous academic experience at Wake as a source of frustration and anger. My competitive basketball juices got transferred to the world of academics. I took 38 graduate school classes and earned two master's degrees. I did so in large part to flush the deep academic frustrations--dare I say poisons--out of my system. One master's degree wasn't enough. Ten classes weren't enough. I kept going and going until I had proven to myself that I could achieve high grades in school. Instead of practicing basketball like MJ did ceaselessly, I practicing writing, my chosen profession for the past 27 years. I'm getting better at this craft, but still have a long way to go. But it feels good to do what I love to do every day. I am blessed for this.
At the age of 50 it's an appropriate time to ask myself, I believe, would I still prefer to have lived Michael Jordan's life, the one I fantasized about and craved so intensely? Being totally honest, I would want both. I want to be the greatest basketball player and the greatest writer of all time. But if I had to choose, I would choose basketball. I would have more money. It would have been more fun. There wouldn't have been so many hours alone writing with no human interaction; not so much angst wondering whether people think I write well or not; not so much self-introspection; not so many articles like this to write that make people wonder how self-absorbed I can be and whether that's healthy or not.
Being the best basketball player would have been more fun than writing. It wouldn't have been as complicated, as mentally taxing. I wouldn't have had to figure out something else to do with my life, my second or third choice. It wouldn't have been a compromise. Writing for a living is in many ways, for me, a great living but still a compromise.
Had I become Michael Jordan, people would revere me when I walked into a room for my superhuman talents. That would be cool. I would have felt like somebody really special, the guy I wanted to be more than anyone else since I was 14 years old. I would have known that I hadn't compromised and hadn't quit.
Basketball--my first true love--would have been my blissful world.