By Emma Gade
It’s about 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and you’ve already been up for about two hours. You’re laying sprawled out on your dorm room floor calculating how many minutes you can stay there before you need to get up and get ready for class. It’s just the third week of your freshman year, and you’re tired, no, more like exhausted. You are exhausted. Just about 45 minutes ago, you ran a mile in a time you never thought you’d be able to run. This is the third week in a row that your alarm has gone off at 5 a.m. in the morning to go run that dreaded mile, and on this morning, as you’re lying on the floor, you begin to wonder if you’ll be able to make it through. Surely this will be the hardest test you must endure. Spoiler alert: You make it. But it definitely isn’t the hardest test. How naïve of you to even think that… It was just the first.
Your journey through college basketball will be anything but smooth. It’ll be more like a roller coaster ride – times where you feel like you’re flying, and other times where you feel like you’re falling. There will be twists and turns and jolts and thrills. It will go NOTHING like you have pictured and planned all pretty in your head. It’ll be messy and unexpected, but so fulfilling. And you’ll learn so much about life and yourself.
Freshman year will be all about adjustment. Adjustment to college life. Adjustment to college basketball. Adjustment to new teammates, new friends, new coaches, new challenges, new everything. Even adjustment to not being able to play the game you love so much. It’ll be Dec. 15, you’re playing Grambling State at home, and you’re pumped. You finally have your feet under you, this is the second game you’ll start, and you have friends from home coming to watch. Everything starts great. Then, just three minutes into the game, it’s not so great anymore. You were back on defense and your teammate on the front line got a steal, so you streak down the floor. She sees you and throws a beautiful lob pass, but when you jump up to get it, you notice how close you are to the baseline and the opponent running at you, so you try to contort your body as you come down. Nothing will hurt, but you’ll know something is wrong. You’ll sit on the floor, dazed, not sure what to do next. Back in the training room, they’ll make you plant and cut, and you’ll keep telling yourself that everything is fine. You’ll go back out and sit on the bench after being told that you’re done for the day. Little do you know, this incident just altered your ENTIRE career. We lose that game – in overtime.
The next morning you’ll go get your MRI. You wake up and pack your basketball shoes, because you truly believe that you will be practicing today. The results come. Torn ACL and meniscus, sprained MCL, and a bone bruise that splintered. What? No. This stuff doesn’t happen to you. In all your years playing, you have NEVER sat out because of an injury. And now you’re out for the entire season. Time to adjust. This year will be hard. Because not only do you have to sit on the sidelines rehabbing an uncomfortable injury that you never even fathomed dealing with, but you also have to learn how to see yourself as more than just a basketball player, and allow yourself to rely on a support system. You have an incredible support system in your family, of course, but also in a few of your teammates who will invest in you and encourage you while you adjust. Because of your family and those teammates, you’ll be able to adjust to your new reality and take on the new challenges in front of you. Make sure you thank them.
Sophomore will be about perspective. You’re coming off an injury, and not quite yet the same player. Anyone who has “acl-ed” can probably relate to that. It just doesn’t feel right (and it’s not – but more on that later). You’ll be frustrated, but everyone tells you it takes a while to feel like yourself again. As a result, you don’t play much. You’ll spend a lot of time on the bench. Your roommate that year will be in a similar situation. You’ll sit on the bench together. It will be a humbling experience that you’ve never had to deal with. You’ve never had the role of “benchwarmer” before, and it will be difficult to swallow at first.
One day in late fall, you’ll be walking to class with your roommate, having one of your good talks. Both of you were probably grumbling about something at first, but it turned into one of the most productive and lasting conversations you will ever have. Your roommate will casually comment that “it’s just all about perspective,” but it sticks with you. And it’s so true. SO TRUE. It is all about perspective. Nearly everything you deal with can either be seen as positive or negative depending on the lens you look through. In that moment, you and your roommate both decide that your perspective will be a positive one. Sure, there are going to be plenty of moments when you’ll need reminders, and times when you’ll need to be picked up, but you will realize that it is all about your perspective.
That year, you will be part of a team that wins their conference tournament. You will get to put on the championship t-shirts and cut down the nets. You will watch your team pop up on the ESPN Selection Show. You will get a glitzy ring. You will go dancing in March. Not only will you and your teammates go dancing, but you will get to play Tennessee on Pat Summitt court. I know this is quite literally your dream, and you’ll get there. But remember, it’s all about perspective. This will be one of the greatest memories you will make, thanks to your realization about perspective. I mean come on… you’re going dancing! March Madness, baby!!!
Junior year will be about relationships. Yes, of course there is basketball. There will actually be a lot of basketball. But the friendships you make this year will be the kind of friendships you dream about. And the memories you make with those friends will forever be some of your dearest and favorite memories. If you ask me today, I will still tell you that this year was my absolute favorite year, and it was all because of the people around you. There’s a quote you’ve probably heard before about how it’s hard to remember the wins and losses, but you never forget your teammates and the way they make you feel, and that couldn’t be more true. This year quite literally embodies that quote. The best times aren’t going to be the big and flashy times, but the times when you’ll be together learning dances, sharing meals, trying new ab workouts, pulling ingenious pranks, “studying” (LOL) in the library, playing cards, cooking, laughing until you can’t breathe, or just talking about life into the ungodly hours of the morning.
The quality of friendships you will make this year will be something you will endlessly be thankful for. It will be hard to believe that this was just one year when you look back and realize how you jam-packed it full of great times. You will make lifelong best friends this year, and make memories together that you will hold on to forever. And yes, you will get to go to Hawaii with your best friends. I could write pages and pages about the paddle-boards, the beaches, the picnics on the beaches, the hikes, the plane rides, the sunsets, etc. but I’ll just let you experience it. You’ll have so much fun. Just writing about this year makes me smile. Make sure you take it all in.
Senior year will be about acceptance. You’ll have to accept the fact that some things are just out of your control. You’ll have to accept that your acl was not fixed properly, and that was the reason you’ve been having ANNUAL (that’s not a joke) surgeries. You’ll have to accept that another reconstruction is your best option. You’ll have to accept another year of rehab and watching from the sidelines. You’ll have to accept the fact that this is a part of your journey. Oh boy, will you ever resent everything about it. You’ll be so upset, angry, annoyed, disappointed, and exasperated. But, sometimes life just is what it is. It is what it is, deal with it.
It sounds grim, I know, but some things are just out of your control, so the best you can do is accept reality and deal with it. Sometimes you’ll run into situations where you have zero control, and those situations can be the toughest ones to deal with, but instead of fighting with something that won’t budge, you’ll have to accept what life gives you, and move forward from there. So, you’ll grit your teeth, have another surgery, and go through another season of rehab and cheering for your teammates from the sideline in sweats. There will be times that you’ll do your best to not accept it. You’ll rage against it in more ways than one, but that will never get you anywhere nor will it be productive. So, you will finally acknowledge the hand you’re dealt, and play it as well as you can. Like the first time, the support system you will have around is incredible. Your family is so great. Make sure you thank the people who help you through – whether it is words of encouragement, a ride to class, or taking delirious phone calls in the middle of the night because you think your legs are falling off (yes that really happened). Thank those people.
Your fifth year will be about resilience. Similar to sophomore year, coming off a season ending surgery, you won’t be the player that you’re dreaming about right now. And you’re going to struggle with that. You will really struggle with that. Also, similar to sophomore year, you will spend much of your time on the bench, which will be even harder to deal with than the first time. I won’t sugarcoat anything; it will be rough. You’ll be mad at yourself for not being the player you had always wanted to be, you’ll be made at your whole career, and you’ll believe that it is actually letting you down… Let’s be real, you’ll be mad at nearly everything having anything to do with basketball. As crazy as it sounds, you’ll feel betrayed by the game you love so much and give so much to. However, you will realize that you can either wallow in your misery, or be resilient and just keep moving forward, no matter how small the steps are.
This year will humble you more than any other year before. You will have to do so much re-evaluating, soul-searching, and gut-checking that you will be a pro at it. This year will force you to be honest with yourself in a way that you never have done before, and you will learn so much about who you are. You will be dangerously close to calling it quits after this year, and no one will even know except for those who are closest to you. But, you don’t. Honestly, a lot of that decision had to do with you, younger self. I kept thinking about you, and I know it would’ve broken your heart walking away from the game like that. So, you’ll choose to be resilient, and you’ll be so thankful that you did.
Your last year, (year SIX for those who are counting) will be about joy. Joy is a personal choice, and a choice that you will have to make. You will make the decision to take matters into your own hands, and promise yourself to find the positives, find the good, and have fun with it. You will decide to not let anything or anyone take away your joy or your love for the game. And that’s exactly what you will do. Nothing and no one will rule over your happiness and your joy except for YOU. As a result, you will really enjoy this year. Funny how that works.
You will have more fun playing this year than you have in years. When the end of your career is staring you in the face, it’s a little easier to not take things for granted. Six years seems like a long time, but man, it went so fast. The looming end will cause you to have a deeper appreciation for even the smallest things, and the realization that it goes by too quickly to pout or feel sorry for yourself. You’ll realize that there is no point to playing besides playing because you love the game. You’ll realize that game days are not only special because you have an opportunity to play the game you love, but because you’ll also get to see and spend time with your family. Remember this, there is no sense in getting hung-up on poor shooting nights or abbreviated minutes, life is so much bigger than that. You just do what you can, and then make the best of what comes. Make the choice. Have fun. Be thankful. Find joy.
When it’s over, it’ll knock the breath out of you. There’s really no way to prepare for that feeling. It’s an overwhelming rush of emotions. But you’ll be okay, I promise. Because you recognize everything this journey has done, and all the doors it’s opened. Make sure you go hug mom and dad super tight. They’ve been on this journey with you, constantly loving and supporting you every step of the way. They’ve helped you through the trying times and celebrated the good times right by your side. I’m sure you’re probably already aware of how incredible they are. You’ll meet incredible people, go amazing places, experience new things, all while playing a game you love and improving yourself in more ways than one. You’ll hit the highest highs and the lowest lows. I know you’ve noticed before how when some runners finish their race, they break down when they cross the finish line because they were so emotionally invested and gave everything they had to their race. That’s the best I can describe it. It’s such a full and consuming feeling. I know you can’t imagine anything past playing the game you love, and that’s okay, right now you need that focus and that dedication, but also be assured that our journey in this game has just started.
There is so much more to your journey than what I have written on these pages. There is so much life in even the normal day-to-day happenings. I could easily write fifty more pages, starting with the people who have touched your life in a positive way. From your family, to your grand total of fifty-five teammates, to your coaches, to the friends you make outside of basketball, and even your incredible athletic trainers. Trying to fit these past six years on a few pages is no easy task, because they are so full, so bursting with life. Like I said before, make sure you take it all in.
I know that as you read this, it will be nothing like what you’re dreaming up. There will be no UConn or Tennessee. No runs to the Final Four. No packed arenas. No ESPN features. Really, if we’re being honest, nothing showy or flashy at all. And yes, letting that dream go hurts. But I want you to know, younger self, while even though all that stuff is missing, I’m still proud of you. You looked adversity in the face, adjusted, and found the right perspective. You surrounded yourself with incredible people, and cultivated quality relationships. You accepted reality, but at the same time stayed resilient. You found joy. You owned your journey. Soak in every moment. Invest in the people around you. Understand how incredible your family is. Will you plan or expect any of this? No. But you sure will be thankful for all of it.