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Talent Does Not alwys Equal Success
In early February, talk of putting together an AAU basketball team began between my dad and Dave Pitruzello, director of the Rage AAU basketball program. The hunt for players began after a travel game against Wethersfield, the most dominant team in our league. Before the game, my dad was talking with a friend of his, and head coach of Wethersfield, Guy Carbone. The topic of AAU came up and Guy had mentioned that he had a few players looking for a team, three guards; Twin brothers, Devon and Cody and a friend of theirs, Kyle. My dad approached their respective families after the game and 10 minutes later Rage Basketball had three new players.
After gaining these three, we had four guards and a forward in me; I was just about 6’2 at the time. Seeing the palpable and recognizing that we needed height, we began to search for forwards and bigs. This led us to Evan, a 5’10 forward from Portland. Next, my dad and Dave P. struggled over the topic of coaching. Although he would have loved to be the head coach, my dad could not give that much of a commitment seeing that he travels Monday through Thursday for his job. Dave P. knew of a young kid looking to coach a team, Jeff Madej, and after meeting with him and discussing their goals for the year, they thought it was a good fit and gave him the head coaching job. Being a coach at East Hampton, Coach Madej knew of a big in eighth grade there that was a very good player and would help us instrumentally.
It was decided to have a tryout in early March to see what we had on our hands. Surprisingly, over 20 kids showed up. The team was chosen, and the coaches believed that they had a National-Caliber team on their hands. Practices were to start the immediate week after tryouts and Dave P. went to work creating a schedule that was very fitting to the talent we had; we would be playing against the best teams New England had to offer. In addition to the players already mentioned, the team was rounded out by three more capable guards.
Looking back on the constructing of our team, I have realized that while yes, we were a very good team, for us to compete with the best New England had to offer, we would have to play as a team and make up for what we lacked in height in effort and unselfishness. The only problem was, most guys on our team would rather take a contested layup then set a teammate up with a wide open layup, and this is just one example of the selfishness displayed on a normal team. The desired camaraderie between us all did not come as expected throughout the season.
This would turn out to really hurt us later in the year when we really had to play as a team. Most evenly-matched games were lost because of the other teams’ better cohesiveness and chemistry. This was the most frustrating aspect of the season for me, because I knew we could be so much better.
When practices rolled around, the coach’s expectations and hopes were reflected in the rigor and pace of practice. I remember how each player would try and prove themselves better than the counterpart, especially the two bigs in myself and Cody. There were only two of us so we were always going head to head to try and prove ourselves better than the other, although we would never admit it. For each missed layup throughout practice, contested or not, there would be 20+ sprints. As you may imagine, the kids didn’t like this and really got on the guy who missed. A few weeks in this much was evident, the Rage team was filled with talent; yet it was also filled with egos and there was no room for 10 different egos if we wanted to have the success we strived for. After seeing what happened due to these little competitions during practice and what they would bring later on, I wish the coaches had stopped us and reiterated it to us that while yes, competitiveness was acceptable and need to an extent, this was out of hand and we were all on the same team.
By then, the schedule had been released and it was discovered that my dad and I would miss the first tournament due to a family vacation. Going into the Under Armour Round-ball Classic with only one player above 6’0, the expectations were not as high as they would be for the remainder of the season when I returned. Despite missing a starter, my dad and I found out that we had won every game leading up to the championship where we lost.
Looking back, we should have realized that we were not playing very strong competition yet, and the season was not going to be a breeze like some kids had thought after the first tournament.
The following weekend, my first days back from vacation, we were playing in the CT Wildcats Spring Tip-Off. Little did we know we were playing one of the top teams in CT, the Proverb Purple Knights out of New Haven. Later in the season they placed 3rd in the Regional tournament with teams from all over New England vying for a spot in Nationals.
The game was intense as any we would play all year. Only one minute into the game, after a three by Kyle for us, a player on their team got an and-one; this sent the gym into a frenzy and it was the loudest environment I have ever played in to this day. Being the last game of the day, people from all over were here to watch and they got what they bargained for. The first half was a dog fight, neither team pulling a head considerably, and we found ourselves with a three point halftime lead. Our coach told us at half, “these first three minutes are crucial, if they beat us up, who knows how the game will end, finish them!” Turns out, while we heard our coach at half, we may have not really listened to what he had said; this showed when we found ourselves down 15 four minutes into the second half. Then we awoke and started playing to our potential and started to climb back. In the final seconds, it was a tie game. I received a pass from our point guard, Devon, under the hoop with three seconds left. Drop step. Up fake. Bucket. Whistle and one!! We had won the game at the buzzer; or at least we had thought so. Turns out, the referee had called a travel and the game was headed into overtime. I do not know what the referee saw that moment, but my coaches had seen what they thought was a clear bucket without a travel, and they let the ref hear it, which fired us up before overtime. Overtime was just as balanced as regulation, and we found ourselves up three with 10 seconds left, their ball. After nine seconds of great defense, they chucked up a half court shot, no good, we had won! But once again we heard a whistle from the referee, he had called a foul. This meant their player would get three shots, just enough to tie the game. After hitting the first two free-throws, and making us sweat a little bit; he missed the last shot, and we had won yet again.
After winning that tournament, everyone including myself was on top of the world. But looking back, we should not have been with states coming up the next week. We were going to play the best teams in CT, with the top three teams earning a spot in nationals down in Florida. I wish we had recognized this earlier so the week of practices leading up to it would have done a better job of preparing us for this test.
On that Saturday, we walked into the gym at New Britain High at 8 AM to find that we were playing CT Elite, one of the programs two 14u teams. After speaking with some kids from other teams, we heard that this team had placed 6th in the country last year at nationals. Despite their warnings, I had thought this was just talk and that we could beat them. This confidence lasted until they walked in. Leading them in was a 6’10 kid, followed by twin towers of 6’6 and a 6’3 kid behind them. This is when it hit me that this was not going to be like the other games leading up to this tournament. Despite this, five minutes into the game we were tied 20-20. This is when I picked up my second foul which got me a spot on the bench for the rest of the half. At halftime we were down 50-27. Fueled by the helplessness I felt during the first half, I started the second half and didn’t come back out, scoring 20 points in the second half. Although he was 6’10, the kid that was guarding me was not very hard to score on due to the fact that he left his feet almost every play, which let me drive past him whenever I touched the ball. Devon also played very well in this half, and we played each other even in this half, actually, we may have even outscored them by a few buckets. We ended up losing by a score of 100-80, and we found ourselves in the loser’s bracket before 10 AM on the first day of the tournament. Despite the setback in our plans, we won two games in the loser’s bracket, and found ourselves in a game with the second CT Elite team, with the winner going to the semi-finals of the tournament, which earned you an automatic bid to nationals. I don’t know what it was with us that game, but we were blown out from start to finish, and we ended up losing by over 25.
This game brought out what I had feared would come out at one point, players fighting with one another and really getting down on their teammates. Cody and Devon were fighting with each other on the court, which was not too surprising seeing that they’re brothers. But then, when Cody was taken out, he had something to say about almost everyone on the team. ‘He sucks, he can’t shoot, why is he playing? Coach take him out he sucks” were the only thing that seemed to be coming out of his mouth. This tournament ended on a very sour note for us, and this sour patch continued into practices the next week.
These actions by Cody were out of line, but it was not his fault. Up to this point no one had said anything to us when we would get down on one another, and it was just a matter of time until something like this happened.
After a temper filled practice on Thursday, Coach Coleman, a temporary assistant coach who had been helping out at practice laid into us for all of the selfish behavior going on. This really woke us up and got us all on the same page again. Apologies were said and everyone was happy again.
After the intervention by Coach Coleman, we had rattled of 10 wins in 12 games in three tournaments in a row. The only losses were to a decent team when we were missing two starters and then to a very talented team from Massachusetts that was just simply better than us.
After these three tournaments, we showed ourselves what kind of team we could be if we all played together. To get to this desired spot, we had to realize that a team would not be successful with 10 separate egos and goals on the court together; instead we had to be each other’s friends and have each other’s backs, all while striving for one common goal. We had a few weeks of practice before our final tournament, the Hall of Fame Spring Classic in Springfield MA. Knowing that this tournament hosts the best teams from around the country, and knowing that it was our last tournament, tension was high at these practices and tempers flared. During one of our fast break drills, a hard foul sent Kyle to the hardwood, which did not make him too happy. He let Devon know this and words were said. This ended up with both guys being separated and what seemed like endless running for all of us while our coach yelled at us. This did not make the guys happy and we all dogged it at the next few practices, to show our unhappiness with our coach. This was not what we needed before heading into a tournament of this caliber.
We entered the gym at Springfield College and were immediately deafened by the noise of 10+ games going on. Eventually, we found our court and started warming up. In layup lines, players were throwing hard passes to one another, just trying to get under another guy’s skin. This type of behavior was unacceptable between kids on the same team. Finally, someone interjected. Coach called us all in and got our heads on straight and we were all on the same page again, at least for half the game. We were playing a team from New Jersey called KBR. They were good but we should have won, we were at least 10 points better than them. At half, we were up 6. Then the referees started to make a few questionable calls. But instead of pushing through it like we should have, we started to get angry with them and in turn started to get angry with each other. We started to miss layups, yell at each other, and some kids were even yelling at the coaches. We really hit rock bottom when Cody was called for a cheap foul that he did not agree with at all. Because of this he proceeded to swear at the referee take of his jersey, undershirt, shooting-sleeve and shoes all while he was still on the court. After that display, we had no chance to win and ended up losing by over 10 points. In the final game of the tournament we played one of New York’s top teams, the Albany City Rocks. The last game of the weekend was no different from the first one; at least the way we acted was not different. But in this game, we were down 20 for about the entire game. In this game, two players received a technical foul; one for arguing with the referee, and for throwing the ball at an opposing player. I was embarrassed to say I was on the same team as these kids entirely due to these actions. The season ended on a very bad note, and no one left the season with a good feeling for the team in their head, well I know at least I did not.
Last spring, I had the opportunity to be on a very good basketball team, one of the best Connecticut had to offer. The only issue was, some of the kids had much more skill than they did heart and dignity. I left the season with a bad taste of several players in my mouth. I had the opportunities to grow and harvest relationships with many kids from different towns, all of whom loved basketball as much as I. The only problem was some of these kids turned out to come from a bad seed, and they ended up hurting everyone around them and preventing this from being a great example of a team. This season showed me that talent is not all that is required to be a great team. And like I said earlier, a team cannot have 10 clashing egos and personalities and expect to be successful, or at least as successful as they could have been. Talent does not always equal success.