As a sixth-grader at Trenton Elementary School (grades One through Eight in that day), I earned a spot as a starter on the B-team. As a seventh-grader, I earned a spot as a starter on the A-team. Naturally, I assumed I would continue that role as an eighth-grader.
Mr. Tribble, who served as both school principal and basketball coach, did not make that same assumption.
The fall of 1966 was the first year of mandated school integration in Todd County. Along with the opportunity to make new friends with those who’d been our unnoticed neighbors for years, we discovered that the talent pool suddenly doubled. On the very first day of tryouts, Coach Tribble announced that he didn’t care who had started at what school the year before, we would all have to earn our way onto the team.
After a couple of weeks of drills and skills practice, Coach Tribble cut several students. He then took the ten who survived that and divided us up into two teams. He pitched red jerseys to five kids and yellow jerseys to another five. Then we started half-court scrimmages, learning plays and going at it.
Since I was wearing a yellow jersey, I figured that the yellow jerseys were for the starters. I did notice that some of the other guys wearing yellow jerseys were not as good as most of the guys on the red team. I noticed it but did not follow that observation to what should have been an obvious and unflattering conclusion. Unburdened by that realization, I worked my butt off in practice.
Halfway through the second week of scrimmaging, I blocked out my guy, jumped up higher than anyone else and hauled down yet another rebound. Just like I’d been doing in all the scrimmages. Coach Tribble blew his whistle, looked at me and said firmly, “I’ve got a guy here in a yellow jersey who is practicing like he wants to be wearing a red jersey.” Then he looked around at each of the kids wearing red jerseys. “If you don’t want him taking your jersey, then you better start hustling like he is and show me you want to keep yours.”
I was astounded. All that time I thought I was a starter and now I suddenly realized I wasn’t. I was hurt, mad and embarrassed, even if I was the only one in the gym who hadn’t known for two weeks. I was hurt, mad, embarrassed—and all at once—inspired.
Coach Tribble only thought I was hustling before that. I turned into a dynamo on the court that day. Now that I knew what was really at stake, I was going to make sure that it would be an easy decision for him to make. Rebounding, passing, dribbling, defense, blocking out, setting screens, doing pick-and-rolls, whatever it was and whatever it took barely short of assaulting someone—I was going to do it.
In a lot of situations, we reach a point where we decide whether we’re going to resign ourselves to the most convenient disappointment or we’re doing to do something about it. And I believe that we do have to recognize that there are times when giving up is the wisest choice. But there is a huge and precious difference between wise surrender and dejected defeat.
In that particular case, I had all the excuses I needed to accept being a substitute: I was one of the shortest kids in the gym, I wasn’t very big, I wasn’t a great shot, I wasn’t the fastest player. Life will always give us all the excuses we need to fail; we have to find our own reasons to succeed.
In that old cracker-box gym just a few miles north of the Tennessee line, I wasn’t interested in the excuses, I wanted to be on the A-Team.
By the end of that week, I was wearing a red jersey and I never gave it back. Now that is the inner child I need to start channeling again.