Saturday, April 14, 2007

The boy who couldn't score

Here now, my ill-fated tryout for the high school basketball season as a senior. I'll begin with the sidebar -- which technically ran in the middle of the page -- and follow with the story. Enjoy.

How good is(n't) he?
The Star asked an NBA scout whose parents chose to keep nameless to evaluate Mullen's strengths and weaknesses.
Height: 6-1
Weight: 180
Vertical leap: 23 (might be metric)
Conditioning: No (has added two minutes to mile time since fifth grade)
Shooting: Atrocious. Shows no confidence, and with good reason. Uncanny ability to miss easy shots, especially late in games. Has not hit a jumper of distance since elementary school.
Ball-handling: Workable, but on steady decline since point guard days of youth. "I was closer to the ground then," Mullen explains.
Passing: Surprisingly proficient, probably due to the fact that most defenders decide to play 5-10 feet off him.
Rebounding: Hounds both offensive and defensive glass, but quickness and vertical problems keep numbers low.
If Mullen entered the NBA draft: I don't think anyone in the league wants a player anything like this at all. Unless his Terrets problem gets worse, in which case he might go first round to the Blazers.

It came up at 8:23 a.m. in the locker room before Gym one Tuesday. And again later at 2:26 p.m. in Government on Friday. Then at 10:45 p.m. on a Saturday night.
Each time the questions and answers were the same.
Yes, I’m trying out for the basketball team. And yes, it’s for the newspaper. That’s what I told them.
I lied.

In fifth and sixth grade, I was on two of the worst basketball teams ever assembled. I will not name names, because some players still live in the Bismarck area. Others have since joined the witness protection program and/or been deported.
I’m not kidding. We were awful. We won about three games in two years. Two of them came against Richolt, a team whose point guard literally played with one hand.
And we had to grind those two out.
Buried somewhere are videotapes of this team dropping passes, airballing layups, and wandering aimlessly up and down the court, often unaware of which team had the ball.
As a hugely unselfish point guard with a good handle, I became the closest thing the teams had to a leader.
And I could really play.
I swear.
I could take other players off the dribble with simple lookaways and ball fakes. And I did. Once I got past my defender, I usually looked for an open teammate.
The only problem was, my teammates divided most of their court time between looking for their parents in the crowd and retying their shoelaces. The open man rarely knew he was open.
Like I said, we lost a lot.
The coaches begged me to shoot more. In sixth grade my coach told me the only way he could see us winning was if I scored 20 points a game.
I wish I’d listened. Back then, I could score.
And now?
In the last two Y-ball seasons, I’ve score nine points. Total.

It’s called the look.
When a player is on the edge of making the team, he knows. So when he does something good—or bad—during open gym or the tryouts, his first instinct is to find head coach Rich Hovland.
Did he see that?
Did he just say something to [Ron] Wingenbach about it? About me?
For three weeks, Kenyon Wingenach, Mike Land, Jordan Engel and Adam Gabbert combine to not look once.
On fastbreaks, Winger tries to whip bounce passes through crowded defenses. Gabbert hoists 3-pointers at a dangerous clip, admitting later he knew he could get away with it because he was a senior. And Engel is his usual goofy, affable self on the court, often holding conversations with players during games, regardless of the score.
Land, the exception, plays every pick-up game like his family's groceries relied on it.
Land doesn’t lose a lot.
Not that those guys should have been looking. By the end of last year, each was in the starting lineup and playing big minutes. Each of them is a lock.
But it feels like someone threw water in my face when I see my friend Dana Roller looking. Once after cutting through the lane, getting a pass and finishing with a layup. Then again when he appears to get by his man, but dribbles off his foot out of bounds.
Both times, Hovland is not looking. But I am.
Through a series of driveway basketball one-on-one games, Dana has proved he is probably literally twice as good as me. And now he is fighting for a position on the team.
Shit, I think. If Dana’s on the edge, where does that put me?

How did it come to this?
What happened to me that turned me from an elementary school baller to dead meat at high school tryouts?
I’ll tell you what happened: middle school.
I’ll spare you the details, but I left Simle five inches taller, three years older and infinitely less valuable with the ball in my hands then when I came in.
Instead of a tall guard, I’d been used as a makeshift post player—on the B team. Results varied, but I was consistently the low scorer, even when I played a lot of minutes. Consequently, the number of touches I got dropped, too. I got a reputation as useless on the offensive end.
This theme pinnacled in ninth grade, when, during a practice scrimmage I found myself wide open from a foot behind the three-point line. My shot ricocheted off both sides of the rim and bounced out.
“Michael Mullen!” my coach shouted, loud enough to stop the scrimmage.
I’ve probably blocked out what he went on to say to me, but I figured out what the message was:
Don’t shoot from out there. Ever.
So I didn’t.

As usual, I was late getting to the Y. I don’t really face consequences getting there late, so I usually take my time.
But on a Saturday afternoon in August, I paid the price for my tardiness.
As soon as I got my shoes on, I was thrust into a line of guys already shooting for teams. Usually, shooting around only hurts my confidence. But I hadn’t touched a ball or set foot on a court in about four months.
Hadn’t hit a 3-pointer in over a year.
And I was next.
It felt like I was holding a baby. My hands change motions and positions on nearly every shot I take. And on this occasion, I could just feel how bad the shot was as I was taking it.
I did not just miss. I did not just miss the rim.
The airball I let go had dimension—I was about six inches short and off by a foot to the left. It looked like I was playing Battleship, just guessing at where the hoop was.
My next attempt was worse.
At open gym, when it came time to shoot for teams, I just went on the team with the last of the first six guys to make it.
“I’m just going to assume I was the last one,” I’d explain.
I never got any argument on this.

To prepare for the tryouts, I spent a long weekend in Washington D.C. sleeping about five hours a night.
This made me miss coach Hovland’s conditioning test—a brutal point-based assessment of your speed, strength, and stamina.
This was not good, especially considering I’d already missed the mandatory basketball meeting. After that, Hovland had said to Roller, “Mike isn’t taking this too seriously, is he?”
I found Hovland on Monday before tryouts started and apologized for missing his test. Then I asked if I could make it up. This is similar to requesting electric torture.
“Actually, Mike, I won’t consider you if you don’t do it,” he said.
It was decided I’d make it up with a couple of other guys whenever possible during the tryouts. Before I went to dress, I decided to clear something up.
“I just want you to know that I am taking this seriously,” I said. “I do want to make this team.”
This was not a lie. I was not trying out so I could write a newspaper story.
I wanted to play.
“All right, then,” Hovland said. “Let’s lace ‘em up and get out there.”

Earlier that day, I’d eaten lunch across the street at the gas station. There I found Roller, Wingenbach, and Luke Holden.
After we got pizzas and sat down, the conversation turned to basketball.
The three of them informed me that the tryouts were the hardest three days of practice all year.
“That’s so some guys who can’t take it quit,” Roller said.
I’ve spent most of my teenage years looking for that first roadblock—the first excuse to give up on something. But I wasn’t going to do it this time. I needed to make a commitment.
I was going to keep coming to basketball practice until Rich Hovland told me not to.
“So, what do we do today?” I asked. “How do tryouts work?”
“You get cut tomorrow,” Roller deadpanned.
At the time, this was laugh out loud, almost-spit-out-your-Mountain Dew funny. But two hours later, when Hovland opened up practice by saying four players would be cut the next day, I realized it could also be true.

Coach Hovland looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“You should see your face, Mike,” he said.
I realized the ghost was me.
Thanks to Wingenbach and Gabbert, who led the pack during conditioning, I’d just gone an extra sprint.
Extra, ha!—like I needed the six before it, or the twelve before those.
I was trying to convince Hovland to let me do the bench press part of my conditioning test. He told me I should take five minutes. It felt like five days wouldn’t have restored my strength.
But Hovland had said during practice that you needed to do something to make yourself stand out if you wanted to play.
And after an hour and a half of screwing up Hovland’s offense and defense, this was the best I could come up with.
You needed to put up 100 lbs. 30 times on a bench press. This sounded reasonable to me.
With Roller spotting and Kenyon and Hovland looking on, I did it—the 30th one coming up slow and uneven, but still making it. If Dana hadn’t helped me set the bar down, it might have separated my head from the rest of me.
I couldn’t have done 30 and one-eighth. But I did 30.
Hovland got a pencil and hand-wrote my name and score onto the chart.
At home I took somewhere between three and 10 Ibuprofen, wondering which part of my body they would go to first.

I sat two feet off the ground on the legless floral print couch in the basketball coaches’ office. Next to me was junior Tyler Kurtz. I remembered hearing someone say at open gym that he’d worked really hard during the offseason.
Rich Hovland sat across from us, rocking uneasily in his swivel chair.
“I wish this were easier,” he said. “I wish I could make this decision based on your personality or character. But with you two, that’s just not the case, because I know you’re both great guys.”
Here it comes.
“But I think that from comfortability and skills standpoint…”
I got cut at 5:36 on a Tuesday.
I felt numb.
Hovland’s gentle speech was a mere formality. In my case it wasn’t even necessary.
In my mind, I’d already cut myself.

Hovland started tryouts saying to leave everything you had on the court.
“Whether you make it or not, walk with your head high,” Hovland said. “Take a chance.”
That’s exactly what I didn’t do. I shot maybe five times throughout open gym and tryouts. Got less than 10 rebounds. Usually as soon as I touched it I was looking to pass.
I never put myself all the way out there.
Because what if I did? What if I had played all-out, tried to score, and acted like I belonged…
What if I did all that, and still got cut? (And I would have.)
Then being cut might have hurt. And I couldn’t do that. I was too much of a coward.
I turned what was supposed to be an exercise in courage into another of my lame copouts.
This is not an excuse. This is an apology.
I’m sorry.

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