I see the fun in other sports, but basketball always the most appealing one to me. I loved it for so many reasons as a kid – the contact, the camaraderie, and the control in that I felt I had the ability to do so many things to help my team. I loved the game because it required smart reactions, a fiery will to outwork everyone, toughness to the hilt, and that was my game.
But I picked the wrong sport.
So did Heather Ertel Parker, a former teammate of mine at Northwestern who had incredible hands and was a great passer and rebounder at 6 feet, 5 inches. Heather was one of my favorite teammates who somehow made the most of her odd, yet effective running stride and her awkward shot, which she didn’t use much at all.
Heather called me after she had her first child – maybe even after the second – and she said, “Mo, I just realized that I picked the wrong sport.”
“What should you have picked?”
“Water polo. I would have been an Olympian.”
I agreed 100 percent.
Heather was a state champion swimmer, who, according to Steve Tucker of the Chicago Sun-Times, won the state championship barely getting all of her hair wet. She finished the races, put on her basketball shoes and went to a basketball tournament right after.
I would not have been as great of a swimmer or water polo player as Heather given her hands, height, swimming ability and tenacity, but I know for sure that like Heather, I was born to swim. And looking back, given how much action and toughness there is in water polo, that would not have been a bad pick had it been available to us.
How do I know? It’s because when I quit swimming, but wait…it wasn’t a true example of quitting because anyone who’s sat through those day-long meets knows that the season never ends. Anyway, Nancy, my coach and the director of the Troy Swim Club, told my mother that she wanted me to swim two hours a day in the mornings every morning six days a week. I was 11 years old. I didn’t see my potential, but apparently Nancy did. I’d say Nancy was the Mo version of swimming, but I honestly was afraid of her (so are some children of me) and I wasn’t sure if I was really any good or if I could see myself falling in love with a sport that just seemed so boring compared to team sports. Making matters worse was the fact that the boys I swam with were not friendly at all. They used to kick the mess out of me on the wall during flip turns and whenever possible. There was only one other girl I remember – a 17 year-old named Heather, who was a great swimmer. Nancy told my mother that I would be better than Heather. I didn’t know how she knew. But now I do. Nancy saw my drive, my stroke and she saw my mother’s body. She saw my dad’s body. She saw that I had the build needed to excel in the sport. She knew all of this without knowing that several cousins on the Holohans side were crushing it in the pool.
I remember the day my mother dragged me down to the club and told me to go in and tell Nancy that I quit. I sat in the car and reminded my mother with my silent protest that 1) I was 11 years old and 2) I loved other sports, including soccer, volleyball, and softball, so it wasn’t like I was stopping to go sit on the couch all day. Staring at the bottom of the pool for 12 hours a week was not my idea of a good time. Mom went in and did the dirty work. The one boy, Joe, who was so nice to me, stopped by the car while my mother was inside and asked why I wasn’t coming in to practice. I was mortified. I never saw sweet Joe again.
Fast-forward five years later after my basketball team won the state title and we’re all out at the Purple Pub celebrating. There’s Nancy. I went up to say hi and guess what? She was still disgusted at me for quitting her swim team. No lie. I stopped talking to her and went back to my friends. The funny part is most of those boys who were in the water with me at 11 were now swimming for state titles at my high school. They were also some of our biggest fans.
So what’s the point here? When a lifeguard saw me swim lately, and said to me, “You would have been a beast in the water.” I said, “Same beast, different sport. And I was lucky.”
I was lucky that I picked a sport that I somehow still managed to succeed in – thanks again to my parents being big, tough people and all the kids in my neighborhood who taught me about contact and toughness. Parents now call me and said, “What do I do? My kid talks about playing sports in college.”
I tell them how hard it is to be a basketball player these days – based on size, genes, number of kids vying for Division I spots or the limited amount of Division III spots at top academic schools. Billy O’Flanagan, one of our dynamite parent-coaches, said to be totally honest to parents who are not built for basketball. He said to tell them, “Well, the first step is to get new parents.”
I remind the parents of how much work, skill, toughness, drive and IQ goes into that effort. I say if your kid isn’t at the right high school and the team is very weak, that’s six months of almost wasted time every year. I say if your kid isn’t willing to walk from a certain level of comfort and still be willing to do it knowing that he or she may not be in the top 1-3 percent of high school performers, then this is not a good path to run.
What I do ask about is the full kid – what does he or she love to do? What other sports does she play? How does she fare in those sports? What is she built to play?
I even do this with kids who are realizing as they hit puberty or shortly thereafter that reality is setting in. Mom is 5’3” and dad is 5’9” and the kid doesn’t like contact. I talk to the parents and remind them of how hard it is for a kid who loves a sport to realize his or her body is betraying what his mind is saying he wants. I always say position your kid to straddle two sports just in case that hoops dream doesn’t work out.
Mine did. I was lucky. I went to a high school with kick-ass females who threw down every day at practice. Several had the ability to play different sports in college. I had a great AP program so I was getting what I needed academically or close enough. And every day, I was around girls who humbled me with their strength and courage as we played in skill-based system taught by great coaches. I blew out my knee one month after I signed at Northwestern. Again, anyone reading this knows that if my team stunk or I blew out my knee one month before signing, the story would have been changed quite a bit.
Now I play it safe and smart with parents and kids so that they don’t get turned off when things don’t bounce their way or so they can avoid burnout. It’s really tough for parents to present this to kids and for me to even present this to kids and/or parents for it feels like I am extinguishing their dream when I am trying to get them to find something to do that makes them feel fulfilled given all their time and energy being channeled into something that is supposed to make you feel better about yourself, not worse. Being a role a role player or bench-warmer in basketball is fine with me, as long as student-athletes are playing baseball or throwing the discuss and doing something where they can truly control their level of happiness.
Did you pick the wrong sport? Tell me your story and how it’s changed the way you view sports and possibly how you help your child navigate through this new, crazy world otherwise known by Under Armour as “The Athletic Generation.” (What does that make us?)