My twin sister and I started playing basketball when we were 10 years old. My father was elated as basketball was his favorite sport. He taught us all the basic skills and worked with us every weekend at the gym to improve our game, then he signed us up for a local community basketball league where we got our first taste of teamwork, sports, and competition. We were so into playing basketball that during the summer when the community league was on hiatus, he signed us up for the Jewish summer league where we had to be on teams with boys. That toughened us up considerably. We were basically playing basketball with a league and a team year round.
Our first team was named the Cowboys and we represented the West Valley. We were up against the East Valley, North Valley, and a few other teams in the area. We were a great team and were doing quite well … that is, until we played North Valley.
North Valley was another story entirely. The girls on the North Valley team were from an economically depressed area of the valley. They were amazing athletes – tall, fast, and fierce in their dedication to the game. When we played North Valley we got trounced every time. I don’t just mean trounced like a score of 50-42. I mean buried alive. Usually we were lucky to score 1 or 2 baskets against these girls while they would easily rack up 60-80 points. It was pretty demoralizing to play a game whose score was often 80 to 2. Our coaches, including my father, tried to negotiate with the North Valley coach to get his girls to ease up a little so we could all enjoy the game, but no quarter were we given. There was no “easy” to be had. We were told that many of these girls’ only chance to go to college would be to win a sports scholarship, and their dedication really showed. They were in it to win it. We started to really dread our games against North Valley because we knew we were in for a beating. But we persevered.
I remember one particularly brutal season where the North Valley players decided that it wasn’t enough to win the games, they had to also make us wish we had never showed up to play at all. They played very aggressively and often our players were intentionally injured during fouls. I remember one game we had to forfeit because we ran out of able-bodied players! Luckily that year our coach was a paramedic so he used to bring his little black bag and fix us up as we got sidelined with injuries. A plea was once again made to the North Valley coaches to ease up, but again we were told if we couldn’t take the heat to get out of the kitchen.
For five years we played North Valley with no hope of winning. Not once did we ever come close to winning or even making it challenging for them. It was like a mouse trying to defeat a lion. Then we all went to high school.
My sister and I immediately joined the high school basketball team. My father was invited to act as our assistant coach. Life was good until we had to play Kennedy High School, which is where all the North Valley girls ended up. It was like Wolf 359 (or for you non-trekkies, it was a slaughterhouse). Now our rivals were taller, fiercer, and even more athletically gifted. Kennedy was undefeated and had a history of going to the city championships. We had no hope of ever beating these girls or this team. Or did we?
One day our coaches took us aside and gave us the pep talk of all pep talks.
“Do you girls want to beat Kennedy?”
“Uh yeah, sure… maybe. That would be nice,” we replied half-heartedly.
Coach said, “No, I mean it. Do you want to beat them? Yes or no?”
“Yes, we want to beat them. But it’s been years. How are we supposed to do that?”
“First you’re going to change your attitude. You go in with a defeated attitude and you’ve lost before you ever get out onto the court. Second, we’re going to change up how we run our plays, and we’re going to play to our strengths, keep them totally off guard about what we’re doing. We’ve been studying Kennedy and we’ve found some areas where they’re weak and we’re going to exploit those weaknesses. Third, I’m going to ask each of you to work harder than you ever have on your basic skills like shooting, dribbling, and passing. And fourth, you’re going to spend an hour every day improving your fitness, endurance, and strength. I’ll tell you this right now, you CAN beat Kennedy. But you have to want to win and you have to believe you can.” We were in!
For the next several weeks we were totally focused on our goal of beating Kennedy. We worked harder on our skills, stayed later at practice, took it upon ourselves to practice on the weekend when we could have been out partying, and went jogging voluntarily to build our endurance. We designed all new plays. We worked harder at rebounding and assisting. We were dedicated to our goal. We started to imagine what it would be like to actually beat our biggest rivals. And we started to believe it was possible.
When the day of the big game arrived we walked onto their court not with an air of expected defeat, but with intensity, focus, and concentration. We decided that every time we had the ball we were going to score a basket. And every time they had the ball we were going to work our hardest to make sure they never made their shots. We were going to stay present and in the moment and make every second count.
Basketball games start with a jump ball to determine who gets possession. I stood face to face with my biggest rival and decided I was going to jump higher and stronger than I ever had in my life. When the ball went up, I leaped into the air like Superman and tipped the ball to my point guard. I don’t think we had ever won a jump ball in any of our games. We were off to a great start.
We played exactly like we practiced. We snapped the ball super fast, passing at least 6 times before even attempting to take our shots. We positioned ourselves strongly under the basket and pushed out our opponents with our butts in order to get the rebounds (totally legal as long as you don’t use your hands.) We cherry-picked the ball down the court to our point guard who positioned herself under the basket early in case we got the opponent’s rebounds. Our fast breaks were lightning fast and well coordinated. We ran our new plays, used double screens when we could, double-teamed their ball handlers, kept our hands in their faces to make it harder for them to shoot the ball, and moved powerfully under the basket. Our shooting averages were up, our foul shots were going in, our passes were connecting where they needed to be. We kept the pace fast, never letting up, which we could do now that we were all in better shape physically.
The game turned super intense. Kennedy’s coach actually got up out of his chair and started yelling at his players to get on the ball. Time outs were called as the other team tried to adjust to our new strategy. But it was too late for them. They didn’t know what we were going to do and didn’t have a defense ready. They started playing more fiercely and aggressively, and we endured the pain but didn’t crumble or go down.
I have never felt more in control, confident, and focused as I did on the court that day. We could taste victory. Throughout the entire game there was never more than a 4 point spread. As we neared the end of the game, we were tied. When the buzzer rang, we were tied. We went into overtime, tired, but still completely driven. The crowd in the bleachers was going wild. They had never seen the Kennedy girls so challenged. We played through overtime and were tied again when the buzzer rang. So close! We went into sudden death. Whichever team made the next shot would win.
And so it was, in the final moments, as we pushed and pressed and passed and took shots that… Kennedy made the game winning basket.
But something very strange and unexpected happened when the final shot was made. Our team started hooping, hollering, and high-fiving like we’d just won the NBA Championship game, and the Kennedy girls looked… defeated. That’s right. We didn’t win the game that day, we won something more important. We won a moral victory. We proved to them that we could take them, that we were a real threat, and that they couldn’t walk all over us anymore. More importantly, we proved to ourselves that with determination, teamwork, concentration, and focus, we could achieve anything! What we used to think was impossible was now totally possible. We walked off the court that day as winners in heart, body, mind, and soul. The Kennedy coach shook my father’s hand and said, “I’m not going to wish you guys luck anymore. You don’t need it.” We sang “We are the Champions” on the bus all the way home. And we celebrated our victory long into the night.
You see, in life it’s not about the score. It’s about how you play the game. Are you giving it your best effort? Are you improving your ability to succeed? Are you challenging your limiting beliefs? Are you adopting beliefs that serve you better? Are you improving your “game?”
If you want it, you can have it. Believe it is possible, adopt a positive attitude, set your goal, take action, persevere, and don’t give up until you achieve victory.
So… what do you want? And how are you willing to improve your skills to get it?