Friday, February 11, 2011

Choose Your Words Carefully.

Midway through my Junior year of high school, I quit playing baseball. In hindsight, it was the best decision I could have made. But at the time, I agonized over it. My childhood dream was to play football for my high school, and later the University of Tennessee. When a neck injury forced me to quit my Freshman year, I turned my attention (and my dreams) to baseball.

I wanted so badly to play well. I never had the personality or drive to be the best, but I just wanted to be an important part of our team. Regardless of how much I wanted it, though, I couldn’t hit a pitch no matter how badly my team needed it. Each game became an increasingly frustrating experience, and my coach’s berating left me defeated and emasculated. I was miserable.

Shortly after my decision to quit, though, I began seeing everything I had been missing by forcing myself to play baseball. I grew an avid interest in the outdoors and started backpacking, skiing, and rock climbing. I discovered my love for live music and found friends who wanted to see concerts as much as I did. My life found more direction and clarity once I discovered my true talents and interests.

When I read about North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II’s decision to transfer to another university and the criticism thrown his way, it immediately took me back to sitting in front of my coach as I told him I was quitting.

According to ESPN, Drew had lost his starting position to freshman Kendall Marshall and watched his playing time drop from 28 to 22 minutes a game. As he tried to fill the shoes of Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson (whose teams brought two national titles to Chapel HIll), Drew was berated by fans last year when the Tar Heels failed to make the tournament. To add insult to injury, UNC won four in row after Marshall took the starting position in mid-January. Still, ESPN writer Andy Katz wrote in his February fourth blog post, “Drew essentially quit on his team.”

My heart immediately went out to the guy. Mid-way through his Junior year, this young man has lost his position on the team, survived merciless criticism from local and national media while playing with one of the most revered programs in the country, and is now being labeled a quitter. He is not projected to move onto the NBA, leaving only this season and the next to fulfill whatever dreams he may have of playing competitive basketball at the highest level. What would you do? Sit on the bench and be a “good soldier”, or play with another team where you can contribute your skills? There is nothing wrong with knowing your limits. If a smaller, less glamorous school provides the opportunity to play, the answer is a no brainer.

This happens in professional sports so much we don’t even notice. Throughout last season, this same scenario was playing out in Philadelphia between Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick. When Vick decided he wanted to channel his inner “what I used to be at Virginia Tech”, Kolb expressed his desire to go to a team where he can start at QB... sound familiar? Are Chris Mortenson or Sal Paolantonio writing about what a quitter he is?

For an overwhelming dose of irony, though, look no further than Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. He left basketball power Kansas after 15 seasons, leaving the Jayhawks without winning a national title. But rather than haul Williams over the coals for “qutting” on his team, Sports Illustrated published articles with, “In the end, Roy Williams knew it was time to return to his roots, to the storied program in powder blue where he learned his craft as an assistant at his beloved alma mater,” (April 14, 2003). Ask anyone from Kansas if they would write such poetic language about their coach “returning home”.

Katz writes in his blog to suggest Drew could have taken his diminished role and been a team player. “He could have accepted his role as a second-unit player to settle things down,” he wrote. “... the loser in this decision will likely be Drew, not Carolina.” I can almost hear my high school baseball coach telling me the same thing when I was unhappy with my experience with the team.

The relationship between teammates and coaches is one of the most appealing aspects of athletics. The need for community is as much a part of ourselves as the hair on our heads, and the bonds within a team provide a compelling example of what can happen when individuals create something greater than themselves. However, what happens when a member of that unit is unhappy? If Drew wanted to take pride in wearing Carolina Blue, then playing for the team would have taken priority. Beating Duke would have taken precedent over missed playing time.

Drew’s strongest competitor, though, isn’t Duke or NC State or any other ACC school. It’s every player’s most feared opponent because it’s always, sooner of later, going to win. Time will eventually strip Drew of his opportunities to play, and basketball will take a back seat to the next phase of his life. Wouldn’t a true competitor want to be where his skills could best contribute to the program? To the team?

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