Don’t Waste Basketball
Early in my coaching career I was lucky enough to secure a coaching spot on the staff of the famous Five Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh. Five Star was an invitation only summer basketball camp that attracted many of the most talented and coveted high school players in the country. In the decades before AAU ascended, gifted players flocked there to compete against the best and to show off their skills to a hoard of major college coaches who came looking to stock their programs with elite level talent.
It was considered a coup for a college coach to get the opportunity to lecture during the camp. I sat and listened to many of the most successful coaches in college basketball deliver insightful and inspirational messages to those high school players but, for me, one coach stood out from all the rest.
George Raveling, a legendary coach and leader in that era, marched to center court holding a basketball and an air nozzle. He placed the nozzle in the basketball and began to squeeze the ball until it was completely deflated and then dropped it to the floor with a thud. Raveling then advised the gym full of talented players with big dreams that, regardless of how far the game of basketball would carry them, at some point in the future, their careers would end and the ball would go flat. “Don’t let trophies and memories be all that you have to show for your efforts,” he said. “Don’t waste basketball.”
The powerful message that coach Raveling was preaching to his audience of young athletes that day is still a valuable lesson for today’s athletes and encompasses all sports. There are two levels to his advice.
On one level, Raveling was preaching to those athletes talented enough to earn an athletic scholarship to play at the collegiate level. He advised the athletes that their four years of college were as much or more about the education they received as it was about playing the game they loved. “If you don’t graduate with a degree that you can use to earn a living and provide for your family, then you wasted basketball,” he lectured. “Because very few of you will earn a living playing professionally, regardless of how good you are right now and how big your dreams are.”
In the early 1990s, following criticism that an alarming number of collegiate athletes were finishing their eligibility without degrees, the NCAA began instituting guidelines that addressed the problem. Most of the measures were aimed at athletes who were unprepared to handle college level material and required student-athletes to meet certain benchmarks in order to be eligible for athletic scholarships.
A decade later the NCAA upped the ante by threatening to impose penalties on college athletic programs that failed to meet minimum standards designed to ensure student-athletes stay on track for graduation. They established the Academic Progress Rate, or APR, requiring collegiate athletes to follow a steady progression toward graduating and held athletic programs accountable if they failed to do so. The NCAA points to statistics demonstrating the policy has had a profound effect on graduation rates.
In 2002, only 74% of Division I student-athletes were obtaining a college degree. The latest statistics, from last year, show that 88% were earning a college diploma, a dramatic improvement. But these statistics can be misleading.
Critics of the NCAA point out that “clustering” is at least partially responsible for the rise in graduation rates. Clustering is the practice of funneling athletes into easy majors that require less time and academic effort. These athletes earn a college diploma but are they going to be competitive in today’s job market? Collegiate student-athletes need to ponder that question.
It’s no secret that an alarming number of college basketball players firmly believe they will earn a living playing professionally either in the NBA or overseas. The smart ones back that up with a meaningful degree, one that will provide them with a career that will sustain them and their families for a lifetime. They’re not wasting basketball.
There is a second level to the advice that coach Raveling was giving that day long ago. It was aimed at those athletes who are not going to be playing at the collegiate level but still love the game. Basketball can open doors and provide gifted players the opportunity to earn scholarships and recognition, but that is not the purpose of the game.
The game of basketball, like every other sport, offers all those who play it the chance to be a part of a team, to learn the value of accepting your role and learning the importance that hard work plays in success. Every athlete on every team can learn the values of discipline, resiliency and friendship. They also have the opportunity to learn the valuable lesson of being able to accept criticism in the form of coaching and not be offended by it or have their feelings hurt. Building character is a gift offered to every athlete willing to accept the demands of competition. Don’t waste the opportunity to gain those rewards simply because you are unhappy with your role or playing time.
In this day and age, way too many young athletes give up on a sport too early because they are not identified as gifted, or skilled enough to be chosen for select teams. Just as disappointing are those athletes who, at an early age, decide to focus on just one sport, believing that the decision will pave the way for an athletic scholarship down the road. Don’t fall into that trap. I can’t count how many times an older athlete has admitted to me they wished they had played more sports when they were younger.
George Raveling’s advice to athletes, at every level of play and every level of talent, is as important today as it was when he delivered it a generation ago.
Don’t waste basketball.
Reach Bob Seggerson at email@example.com