Published Mon, Dec 5, 2011 2:51 pm Dateline
We were on a roll, winning six games in a row. We had back to back games on Friday and Saturday for the second week in a row. We knew that Plymouth would provide the greatest challenge that weekend to ending the winning streak that we had put together. Our record was 1-1 against the Raiders with each team winning on the other's home court. Since our last meeting they had acquired an explosive scorer, Jeremy Bell. A 5'10" scoring machine that was considered around the league to be a top-10 player. We could not afford to play the way we had against Durham and expect to come out of the match with a win.
That Monday, Prezzie, Richie, and I decided to finally venture outside the friendly confines of Worcester. We caught the four o'clock train to Birmingham, which is similar in size to Dayton. On the train ride I stared out of the window at the passing English countryside until the sun set and I could no longer see out of the train car. The train was clean and well maintained. We were joined by school children returning from their classes at Primary (elementary) and Secondary school (high). There were no school buses in England. Children either walked to school or took the train as their main form of transportation. The ride to Birmingham took about an hour and just 20 minutes into the trip I dozed off while listening to my iPod shuffle through songs. I woke up to a crowded train with people standing in the aisles, grabbing onto the rails overhead to keep their balance as the train swayed side to side. Our stop was next and we stepped down from the train onto the platform eager to see what was to come next.
We had traveled to Birmingham with hopes of finding new basketball shoes. Ours had taken a beating in the 2 months that we had spent practicing and playing games in them. We walked up the stairs from the train platform, looked to the right, and there it was, The Bullring. It was a three-level mall with every shop imaginable. In the blocks surrounding the mall there were also sporting goods stores, bakeries, restaurants, and clothing stores. I had not been in a big city since I had left the states. The hustle and bustle of the people and reckless driving of taxis reminded me of the times I had been in downtown Indianapolis or Chicago. We walked towards the mall and entered, quickly finding the nearest sporting goods store. Prezzie was enthralled with the selection of snap-back hats that the store offered. He was quickly drawn to a navy blue Cowboys hat with an old-school design. Upon walking out of the store looked to the left and I saw it, heaven on earth, my guilty pleasure, Krispy Creme doughnuts. We had not yet eaten dinner and decided that it was a must before we took one step closer and saw the hot and ready dough balls being coated with a layer of icing. Our mouths were now watering and anything would do. It would suffice for dinner so we then could get what we really wanted: Krispy Cremes for dessert. We finished our burgers and fries and continued exploring the mall. We stopped in each shoe store and found the same result in each. What limited selection of basketball shoes the stores had, they did not carry in our sizes. We held out hope but when the Adidas outlet did not pan out either, we knew that a new pair of shoes to play in were out of the question. Continuing to walk through the mall and then down the surrounding streets, we were surrounded by Christmas lights and decorations. It was the third week of November and stores had already started to promote gift ideas for the holiday that was still more than a month away. As we walked we were stopped by a girl who was still in her work attire. Our height caught her eye and she asked each of the three of us how tall we were. Richie and I let out a little laugh when Prezzie answered 5-foot-11. From our accents she gathered that we were Americans. She asked where each of us were from and we spent the next few minutes asking her about surrounding stores. As we departed from the conversation she snapped a quick picture with us and directed us to a nearby store that sold American products. We quickly walked in the direction she had pointed us and in no time we found the store that she had recommended. Hopping on the escalator and heading down one level from the ground floor Prezzie was the first to see he display. He took off, taking two escalator steps at a time. Against a wall stood a shelf full of boxes of Lucky Charms, Reese's Puffs, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Betty Crocker brownie mix, A1 steak sauce, Craft macaroni and cheese, Nerds, Jelly Bellys, Hersheys chocolate bars, and M&Ms just to name a few of the items. Our excitement quickly was crushed. The prices were outrageous. £7.50 ($12.30) for a box of Lucky Charms. I decided to purchase some Hersheys chocolates, Reese's cups, and a 5th Avenue candy bar. As I made my purchase I acquired my bearings and realized where we were. Across the store was the Krispy Creme shop. We walked towards it and were greeted by a gentleman behind the counter. We sorted out what our order would be. Prezzie and Richie split an assorted box of a dozen. I went with a dozen original glazed all to myself. Not only were these a little slice of heaven, they brought me back to the days of visiting Chicago with my brothers and mom. We always found time on our visits to stop at a Krispy Creme shop and sit there for a good hour watching the freshly made doughnuts roll off the line. We completed our purchase and walked back to the train station. The 9:10 train back to Worcester arrived in the station and we boarded it. Arriving in Worcester a little after 10 we had a 30 minute walk back to the house. We were exhausted by the time we got back and sat down. We had been on the go since practice ended at 2:30 that afternoon. We sat around discussing the trip and enjoying our doughnuts.
Practices were once again chippy and guys played to win. This is why I believed we were playing at the level we were for the last few games. We made each day of practice our game day. It hurt guys to lose. That is a great feeling as a competitor knowing that you have guys in your corner that will go to battle everyday. Off the court we were a family. When we were between the lines in practice we were mortal enemies. I attacked guys' weaknesses and attempted to get in their heads with the things that I said. At one point I even got to Prezzie. He was my best friend off the court but that day he was on the opposite team. If he was not with me than he was against me and I came at him with everything that I had. Sometimes I do go about it the wrong way and get under the skin of even my teammates. However, I try and be realistic and tell them what they need to hear instead of the things that they want to. I expect the same in return. There is nothing that bothers me more than to know someone is capable of doing something but chooses not to. Instead, they choose just to get through practice and not compete at their highest level. I think this is one of the factors that has allowed me to get as far as I have. I don't take any days off. Sure, I have days that aren't as good as others. But I play with effort everyday. That is something that is non-negotiable. Everyday is a new opportunity to improve my game, hone my craft, and to get better. My grit and nastiness to do whatever is necessary to get the job done is something that brings a certain value to my team that cannot be measured on a stat sheet. Every good team has a player like this. The glue guy that does the little things. I know and understand where my weaknesses are. I am not the most athletic, cannot jump the highest, cannot run the fastest, or see the floor like some players that I have had the opportunity to play with. However, effort and a willingness to get better gave me the opportunity to reach the point that I have now. Doing what I love to do and what I've dreamed of doing since the time I picked up a ball in the 2nd grade. I love this game. My workplace is a gymnasium. A 94 x 50 foot sanctuary with a basket hung at each end. I've seen my dreams realized. This is why I never give up, never settle, no matter what obstacle is thrown in my path.
Once again we piled on the minibus and traveled to Liverpool to take on the Mersey Tigers who we had beaten soundly one week prior. For the third game in a row we came out slow. This week they decided to try a 2-3 zone against us. We turned the ball over and went into the break with a nine point lead. Again the third quarter was the determining factor. Just as we did a week before we put together a run that ended any hope for a Tiger victory. I ended the game one rebound away from my first double double. 27 points, nine rebounds, and 5-8 from 3. Not a bad day at the office. More importantly it was another victory for the Wolves. The next day we would face an entirely different animal. Plymouth had not suffered a defeat since our last meeting. The addition of Bell had allowed them to only further distance themselves from the opponents they had faced since our last meeting. What would make a victory over Plymouth even sweeter would be that it would happen on my birthday.
Game day as usual, shoot around in the morning, nap, pre-game meal at the house, then back to the gym for a 7 p.m. tipoff. FInally we came out ready to go and built a lead on the Raiders who were favored around the league to win that match. Our near capacity crowd cheered with every basket and jeered with every blow of the referee's whistle. Prezzie had been hot in the first half and led all scorers at intermission. Our lead was nine and we were 20 minutes away from making it eight straight and tying the BBL Championship leaders, Newcastle and Leicester at four wins. Plymouth went on a run right out of the gates in the second half to tighten the margin. It would be a back and forth affair for the remainder of the contest. Alternating baskets, each team traded the lead. It would come down to which team could execute the best down the stretch. I had landed awkwardly on my knee in the second quarter and also been kneed in the quad on the same leg/ I battled through the pain and although my offensive game was struggling I took a big charge in the final 2 minutes of the game as my man attempted to drive past me on the baseline. Prezzie continued his hot night as the final minutes ticked down. He was scoring at will against the Raider defense. Bell was living up to the hype for Plymouth and sinking fade aways with a hand in his face. Coach called a time out with eight seconds left on the game clock. He set up our final play. We were down by one and would keep it in Prezzie's hot hand. He dribbled from the left wing to the free throw line and fired the jumper in the face of their center. Off the backboard and through the net with just four seconds remaining. They inbounded to Bell and he dribbled the length of the court and fired another jumper as time expired. I watched the flight of the ball and prayed for a miss. It hit off the back rim and bounced off the iron. We had done it and our bench player rushed the court as the crowd was ecstatic with the result. We were off to the best start that our team had recorded in their six seasons in the BBL. We were 9-1 and on an eight-game winning streak.
It was my 23rd birthday and it was time to celebrate. Not only was it my birthday but we were off to a terrific start as a team. We let our hair down for the first time as a team in over a month. The night was a blur and we spent most of our Sunday afternoon piecing together what had occurred the previous night. I spent most of that day watching NFL games and reflecting on my 23 years of life. The things I had seen, places I'd gone, but most of all the people that I'd met. I've had plenty of ups in my life but there has been hardship along the way. Between breaking my nose, tearing my bicep, experiencing sickness that wiped out entire off season weight gaining regiments, and losing people that were close to me - all of these events made me the person that I am today. Life is easy when everything is going well and you are succeeding and moving forward. It is how you bounce back when you get knocked down or are faced with a setback that defines who you are. What do you do when the cards are stacked against you? The people who excel are the ones that refuse to stay down. They surround themselves with people that affect them positively. They pick themselves up and take responsibility in solving their current dilemma. They use these experiences as learning tools for their futures. Without the bad times, the good times wouldn't be nearly as good. As I reflected I was thankful for the people I was surrounded by. Without them it would have been much easier for me to give up and feel sorry for myself. The thought of disappointing my friends and family allowed me to push through barriers that I never thought I could.
The next week flew by. It was Thursday before I knew it and my first Thanksgiving away from my biological or OU family. I reflected again on what I was thankful for. The opportunity to pursue my dreams, my health, and once again the people that made this transition is my life possible. Whether it was one of my coaches, past or present teammates, family, friends, or even the ones who don't realize how much they have affected and helped me. It was by far the worst Thanksgiving meal I had ever had. Two chicken patties, a ready to bake spaghetti dinner, and some curly fries. My morale was shot. An ocean away from my family eating a cold spaghetti oven dinner. I turned to someone that was in my same situation and she just seemed to make everything better. It's truly amazing the impact that human interaction can have on someone. We search for happiness and the people that will bring that to us each and every day. Being overseas has helped me find myself. I see the people who are really there for me and I see more clearly the things in life that I truly value. I see what I want in the future and the type of person that will help me be a better person everyday. Each day has helped me to realize my strengths and weaknesses. Not on the court, but in life. The idea is to find someone that fills in the gaps. Someone that pushes you everyday to be a better individual than the prior day. By doing this the individuals form a stronger bond. It could be my youth and being nieve that makes me feel the way that I do. However, I believe that people are meant for each other. Just as each person faces struggles, so do relationships. Working through problems makes the good times that much better. It is a saying that is often used but love truly does conquer all. Regardless the difference in opinion, alternating stances on issues, or distance, if each person believes with every fiber of their body that they can work through these things then it can and will be done.
Friday, game day! Sheffield Sharks were our next target. We stuck to our routine and arrived at the Worcester Uni Sports Hall an hour prior to when the bus would be departing. We shot jumpers and free throws and mentally prepared for the business trip we were about to embark on. The arena ranked right near the top with Plymouth's facility. We were the aggressors early on and took a double digit lead into the half. Richie had established himself inside and their bigs were having a tough time dealing with his physical style of play. They were also struggling to score against our defense. The thirst quarter saw the same pattern as we continued to run in transition and get easy baskets. We maintained our double digit lead with just 10 minutes to go. The fourth was sloppy and we fell apart as a unit. It was contagious. Turnover after turnover and six missed free throws in the final three minutes allowed the Sharks to close the gap that we had worked so hard to gain. The British national team guard, Nate Reinking, put the Sharks on his back in the fourth and capitalized on every mistake that we made. He had a knack to score and put Sheffield up one with just 1.8 seconds remaining. Our final heave fell short and as quickly as it had started the streak was over. We fell to 9-2 and our hearts were heavy. I have never been the type to place blame and won't begin to now. We had our chances to seal the game and did not take advantage. What hurt more is that I had not been able to help the team. I ended the night with five points on poor shooting and allowing my man to almost single handedly bring them back from a double digit deficit in 10 minutes. A fire ignited with me. It was time to get serious. This was my job and I was not performing it. We sped home with the the thought of our next game in four days on SKY sports. We would have the next two days off to heal our bodies, catch up on sleep, and fuel ourselves properly in order to bring it on Tuesday. The time had come to start putting teams away when we had them down. No more letting up until the final horn sounded. Play an entire 40 minutes of perfect basketball.
That's all for this month. Hope once again that you've enjoyed reading about my experiences across the pond. I am really looking forward to the month of December. It will tell me a lot about our team as we prepare to go into our New Year's break. Thanks for taking the time to read through my latest blog. Until next time, take care of yourselves.