If Only I Could Make Open Layups

Today, I stepped outside of my comfort zone a bit.

I played basketball with a group of Baltimore City teachers on a Saturday morning, looking to build camaraderie with other teachers, get a good workout in, and simply play basketball.

I was a lot better than I expected for not having played basketball in over half a year. I defended well and for my size, I was able to rebound very well. I was a good team player and a prototypical runner basketball player: I was all-hustle, very little skill. I don't have a good jumpshot, and I relied on simply outrunning and outhustling my competition to help my team win.

There was one big thing holding me back: I couldn't finish. I would out-dribble my defenders all the way to the rim, have an open layup ahead of me that 99% of people could make effortlessly, and miss. This pattern happened on more than one occasion, and it was embarrassing that although I was good at all the things you don't see on the stat sheet, I just couldn't make easy, open layups. There was a very bad stretch where I got open five plays in a row and failed to make a single open layup.

Part of it is that I dribbled too fast into the basket and refused to slow down. After all, that mindset is what got me by my defenders in the first place. If there was a body anywhere near the basket, I couldn't make the shot.

Although my team won a couple times, the fact that I couldn't make easy, open layups was the biggest thing holding myself and my team back. A friend of mine had the same problem, and our mutual frustration resulted in a lot of screaming and a lot of beating ourselves up.

The biggest life lesson from our basketball experiences was that you have to focus on the basics. The layup is one of the most basic things in basketball. If you don't have the basics down, all the rest and auxiliary parts of the game won't matter. The same applies to our jobs as teachers: if you can't manage your classroom, you're not going to get much instruction done. In writing, if you don't know how to write a sentence or put together a paragraph, you're not going to be able to write well.

We can put in all the effort in the world and have illusions of grandeur. We can hustle all we want. But if we don't have the basics down in whatever is our craft and trade, it won't matter simply because we need to have certain skills down in order to succeed.

If only I could make open layups, I could be a somewhat decent basketball player. But I cannot, and the fact that I couldn't get the basics down was the biggest impediment for me being a good contributor.

The only way we improve at anything is practice and patience. You can't give up when things aren't going well, and you have to keep going and keep practicing. Back in the days when I used to play violin, I remember the first time I ever tried to play a new song. I tried to read sheet music, but couldn't. I was just terrible at it and couldn't keep up.

To compensate, I just memorized the songs. I would practice for hours on end to memorize Suzuki music and music we had to play for our orchestra. Although I know not everything works like the violin, to make open layups means practicing making open layups on drives, over and over and over again.

A mantra I often use in my head is "every day". As a runner, I know it's much better to get in routine-like and consistent effort than a couple grand, very fast and very long runs every week or month. Like it is better to lucky than good, it is better to be consistent than good. Of course, we need to be able to perform in high-pressure situations, but consistency is more important than talent.

I am starting to realize the simple value of showing up to work and doing your job on a given day. Although I'm faced with a lot of challenges and face a lot of roadblocks as a teacher in Baltimore, what I do know is that I am never giving up. Time passing will simply make me better at my craft as an educator that can barely manage a classroom, and that doesn't mean that I don't have to be intentional about where I focus my efforts, but that adapting and being patient mean that whatever goal I set is going to take a lot of time and a lot of luck.

I am not a life coach or guru. I am only 22 years old and know very little about life, no matter how much I've gone through. What I do know, however, is that when you want to achieve something, you have to get the basics down.

For me, that means making those open layups.

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