A Childhood Dream
From the start of November until the madness of March, my life becomes obsessed with college basketball.
As a kid growing up, I had one and only one dream — that I would become a basketball player.
This desire was sparked, one by my undying love of the University of North Carolina (I was raised by ardent Tarheel fans). And the fact that my favorite basketball player — like all 90s kids — was Michael Jordan
Everyone wanted to be like Mike; I was no exception.
I picked up a basketball at the age of four while staying with my grandparents. Then, after successfully dribbling it for more than two seconds, my grandfather planted the seeds of a decade-long dream:
“You keep practicing Rob, and you could play for the Tarheels one day”
Visions of hitting shots like Jordan, beating Duke, winning a National title, and then playing in the NBA rolled through my mind like a tsunami.
The thought of being a Tarheel made my heart race — I could play for the team I loved more than anything.
Here’s the problem.
At five years old, I was barely three feet tall and a regulation-sized basketball goal was colossal.
Chucking a ball larger than my tiny head seven more feet in the air and into the hoop felt impossible.
When faced with insurmountable obstacles as a kid, there’s no better place to retreat than your imagination.
Enter the adjustable Little Tikes basketball hoop.
You could raise or lower it from four feet to six feet. Which meant only one thing, with enough effort (or a small foot stool) I could dunk.
I could pretend to be Michael Jordan shooting jump shots, three-pointers, or perform one man alley-oops. My dreams could now become a reality.
The plan was to play on this small plastic goal until I was old enough, and strong enough, to get the ball into an actual basketball goal.
Except, when you get really good at making shots on a small goal, why in the hell would I want to move to a taller hoop where I’m gonna suck?
Thanks to my vivid imagination, I’d already created an entire imaginary basketball league where I was the star.
A league where I was Michael Jordan: hitting game-winning shots and posterizing imaginary opposing players.
Of course, my grandfather kept nudging me to “move up to the big boy goal.”
“Robbie, you’ll never play for the Tarheels if you don’t move up to an actual basketball goal.”
He had a point.
So I moved on from the tiny plastic hoop where I’d been a superstar to the regulation goal my dad erected at home.
Basketball became my life.
For the Love of the Game
After school, you’d find my friends and I playing HORSE, 21, or 3-on-3 pick-up games.
On the weekends, after little league games, we’d play late at night under a pale blue street light, unsure at points where our shots were going until we heard the swish of the chain-link net.
During the summer of 2000, I had the chance to attend UNC Basketball Camp. I lived on the UNC campus for a week and somehow found myself lucky enough to have my drills and practice in the Dean Smith Center.
On the final day of camp, as I walked out the doors of the Dean Smith Center, I whispered, “I’ll be back in a few years.”
After camp, I knew my dream would become a reality because no one wanted it more than me–no one.
I got up every day and practiced free throw after free throw, layup after layup, jump shot after jump shot, until called for breakfast.
Rain or shine you could find me outside shooting hoops, running sprints — putting in the work that needed to be done to make my dream a reality.
I wanted it more than anyone. I shot the ball until I couldn’t lift my arms, damn near caught pneumonia, and challenged my weak points day in and day out.
How It Played Out
Or, at least, that’s how it should have been.
What really happened played out more like this.
When my friends wanted to play another game of 21, I tried to find a way to go back inside to play another game of Madden or eat more pizza.
Rainy days were spent in front of my television binging on Star Wars or playing Knights of the Old Republic.
I scoffed at my coaches notion that I needed to practice at home. Instead, I fired up my Nintendo or Xbox.
There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a basketball star. What I didn’t want was the work.
The hustle, the grind, the blood, sweat, tears, and the sacrifices — none of that I thought I needed.
I thought if I wished for it, prayed for it, craved it more than anyone else alive — after all, I was a good kid who had great grades, ate his veggies, went to church, listened to his parents—I’d see my dream come true, right?
The jersey, the shoes, the chance to smile a sadistic smile at Coach K as I hit a 3 to beat Duke, I wanted all of that. I wanted it more than anyone.
But putting in the work to become “great?” Nah, I didn’t want that.
Like Jordan, I didn’t make my high school team in the winter of 2000. Unlike Mike, I wasn’t good enough to make the JV team either.
On the court, I played with passion and heart.
Passion and heart can only get you so far; they can’t make up for poor conditioning or a lack of strength and toughness.
As I sat in my bedroom, the night I found out I hadn’t made the cut for JV. All I could think was: “if only I’d made that one layup during the scrimmage” or “if only I was a friend of the coach’s son” or “if only I had worn my lucky T-shirt.”
I was searching for a way out. A way to not accept the fact that: “if only I had actually given a shit about basketball and not wanted to play my Nintendo more,” I might have made the team.
Seth Godin, in his book Linchpin, talks about the phrases “if only.”
“If only is a great way to eliminate your excuse du jour. If only is an obligator, because once you get rid of that item, you’ve got no excuse left, only the obligation.
From the day the dream of playing for UNC had been sown into my mind, I’d been telling myself, “if only:”
- I could be a great basketball player if only my dad would pave the area around the goal.
- I could get better as a player if we lived closer to my friends.
- If only I had more time to practice
- If only my dad would come out and shoot hoops with me
- If only I could go to UNC basketball camp
- If only I could make the team, then I’d show the world
All those years, I was looking for a serendipitous moment that would fall from the heavens. And when that happened, I would be able to show the world what I could do
What I Know Now
Since I started podcasting, writing, and coaching I’ve had friends, family, and colleagues tell me that they’re impressed with my work ethic — my “hustle.”
Fueled by the failed dream of becoming the next Michael Jordan, I knew that this time had to be different. This time I had to put in the work. I had to dive in 100%.
There are no half saved princesses in life.
To this day, everyone who has ever coached at UNC will tell you that no one worked as hard as young Michael Jordan.
I still want to be like Mike. But, now, what ten-year-old Robbie thought would be given to him because he desired it more than anything, is only accomplished by putting in the work.
I try to live with no regrets. What actions or inactions I’ve performed in life have brought me to where I am today. But there are still small regrets that ache deep within my soul.
Knowing that my lack of willingness to put in the work kept me from achieving my dreams, now provides an ample amount of fuel for my drive.
A drive that is fueled by these words:
Dreams aren’t granted — they’re made.