Man-Made in America

Man-Made in America

April, 2013

As I looked out the window, it was getting dark.  A flock of black crows was flying toward the sun as it went behind the horizon… in the direction of the bridge.   ‘I’ll use the tow rope’   I thought, as I haphazardly planned my own execution.  ‘The old bridge, I’ll do it there, tonight’, I muttered out loud to myself as my thoughts outnumbered the sand, scrambled like a tornado, spinning completely out of control, trying to make sense of it all, of anything at all.  I had seen the last remnant of hope to save my ‘kingdom’ slip away that afternoon and the shame of failing brought everything to the surface.  

I was planning to take my own life by hanging myself from the old railroad bridge down the road.  My life and my identity were based on performance:  achievement, accomplishment, doing, & performing were all I knew.  Measurable actions and positive results were the scoreboard, shame was the referee, and public opinion was the fans. 

That night, my inner-self came to the surface and overcame the false, outer-self; as truth seeped through every pore of my skin, I couldn’t hide it anymore.  When the boy met the false man, there was nothing to grab, nothing to hold on to - just a scared little boy, alone, vulnerable, full of shame… and wanting to end his own life!          

Intro

 

It was December 28, 1988, and as I was getting dressed in the locker room before the game, I overheard a few maintenance guys say that the arena was sold out.  They said it was a San Diego State University attendance record - as if the butterflies weren’t big enough in my stomach already.  People in San Diego had better things to do, but today the San Diego Sports Arena was actually turning people away. 

The first time I saw him, I paid to see him.  He was playing against the UCLA bruins, while I was a freshman on an NAIA school struggling to get playing time.  J.R. Reid was a dominating power forward who went on to play on the U.S. Olympic team the summer before tonight’s game. 

Here I was, about to play against an All-American/U.S. Olympian in front of the largest college basketball crowd San Diego had ever seen, and as I found out later, in front of at least a dozen NBA scouts including the Los Angeles Laker’s Jerry West and Mitch Kupcheck.  My parents, grand-parents, brother and friends were at the game.  12,000 fans, and thousands more on radio & live television would watch me battle against arguably the best college big-man in the nation.  My legs were literally shaking when I walked out onto the court for the pre-game warm-up.  When I saw the North Carolina Tar Heel blue uniforms, and gazed upon the All-Americans shooting around at the other end of the court, I almost became paralyzed with fear. 

I was San Diego State’s starting center about to go into the game of my life.

 

 

After the national Anthem ended, they began to announce the starting line-ups.  The butterflies in my stomach were bigger than ever as I looked at the crowd even as they cheered for our opponents.  San Diego doesn’t normally see many All-Americans, and this was the top-ten ranked North Carolina tar heels, a college basketball legacy.  Coach Dean Smith had also coached Michael Jordan for Christ’s sake.  The place was packed, and electricity was in the air.  TV camera crews, cheerleaders, NBA scouts…this was big-time college basketball and I took in every sight and smell. 

The feeling was almost overwhelming.  The basketball court is an arena where men compete for all to see.  This was my moment; my chance to finally prove to everyone that I belonged here; that I was good enough; that I was a ‘real’ man.   

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Time-Out, let’s go back to the 2nd grade real quick…

 

It was 1973, and I remember being seven years old, in the second grade, and playing on the Peachland elementary school’s basketball team.  Although my dad was the coach, I was admittedly the worst kid on the team.  We were playing our cross-town rivals: old orchard elementary in the championship game.  I hadn’t scored a basket all year and my dad put me in (only because he had to).  All I remember is: I somehow found myself wide open under the basket with the ball in my hands.  Excited and confident, I shot the ball and to my surprise and amazement, the ball actually went in.  I was like whoooo – hooooo!!!  Jumping around, hands-up in the air thinking “dad, did ya see that?”   When I looked over at my dad for approval, I saw him looking down, shaking his head in embarrassment.  My teammates were yelling at me… mad as hell.  I heard laughter coming from the stands, and someone yelled “wrong basket!”   As my heart sank into my stomach, I found myself to be so embarrassed, exposed, alone, and afraid.  I was all alone on that cold hard wooden floor that day, totally exposed, so vulnerable, and so scared. 

I learned a lesson that day.  The approval or disapproval from others has a lasting impact as we seek approval at all costs.

I developed slow and late. I was tall, skinny and uncoordinated in High school.  I barely made the freshman team, and worked hard during the off seasons to get better.  There was a freshman named Steve Mehr who had started on the varsity all four years.  This same player was the star of my second grade team, which my dad coached.  I always compared myself to him and I fell short every time.  I was small, frail and timid.  He was big, strong and confident.  On a side note… Steve Mehr made me a better player.  He made me a better man.  Every day that he pummeled me in the paint, I slowly but surely got better and better.  I sometimes wonder if I would have reached the level I did, had it not been for Steve forcing me to figure out how to defeat such a superior foe.  I never really defeated him though, as I incrementally got better, he got better too.  We pushed each other and in the end, I feel, made each other better.  Steve went on to a full-ride football scholarship to U.C.L.A., which gave me relief as I would never have to face him on the court again.  Steve and I were the only two players on our team to be invited to a college recruiting camp at U.C. Santa Barbara and we roomed together at the camp.  He was a dominate big-man, and I was a 6’9” project… ‘Full of potential’.  I did alright against Los Angeles’s best that summer and gained the attention of several Division I college scouts. 

Another  very relevant side note: I became a Christian in the 6th grade and tried to live up to all their expectations.  Guilt and shame are tools the church has used on me ever since.  I grew up in the church.  My parents took me to church just about every week, and the ritual of going to church so I ‘feel’ like a ‘good’ person began.  Commitment to church, bible study, accountability groups, retreats, camps, etc.… became the way they differentiated the truly ‘committed’ from the ‘luke-warm’.  This was a time where my Christian friends would condemn me for hanging out with the ‘bad’ kids in school.  They judged and compared their alleged sinless lives with each other.  Self-righteousness is an epidemic in the church, and my so-called Christian friends befriended me.  As a teenager, I experimented with life and that caused my prodigal dissension from the church. 

Meanwhile, I was still growing in height and basketball ability, so college recruiters started paying attention.  For many reasons, one of which was in some ways repentance from my sins; before my senior season, I signed a full-ride scholarship to top-20 ranked Brigham Young University.  BYU is a Mormon school and at the time, I had no idea they weren’t real Christians.  I honestly felt that by signing with BYU, a strict religious school that doesn’t allow drinking or premarital sex, that I would somehow gain God’s approval.  This was a big-time basketball school that sold-out every game with 23,000 screaming fans.  It was a dream come true and acknowledgement for a long fought journey.  My high school coach didn’t like my decision (he wanted me to go to Pepperdine so he could become an assistant coach).  I turned down a recruiting trip to Pepperdine and my coach was really upset.  During basketball season, and once football season was over, he started the football players and benched me after I dunked during pre-game warm-ups.  I left the team and for the next three to four years I tried to prove I wasn’t a ‘lemon’ like one Utah paper proclaimed about me. 

Two weeks before my first college semester was to begin, believing I was doing what was right in God’s eyes; I turned down the scholarship to BYU.  While I was in Denmark on a travel team, a Christian woman told me that “God did not want me to attend a cult believing University”, and I believed her.  At the time, I think I thought she was a messenger from God.  Since God’s approval was at least as important as my dads’, I didn’t hesitate to turn the scholarship down.  As a consequence, I immediately lost my Division 1, NCAA basketball eligibility. 

I didn’t really know what to do, since this was a total ‘blind faith’ moment so I called the head coach at the University of New Mexico, who I knew was a Christian.  I told him the news and asked for his help in finding a small Christian school to attend and play basketball.  He recommended Abilene Christian University which I went to for only three months.  It was my first time away from home and half way across the country.  I left because I got really homesick.  My older brother had played at Point Loma College, so I transferred & ‘red-shirted’ there the second half of my freshman year.  My true freshman year was a challenge as I tried to make the starting line-up on this small, NAIA school.  After all, I had turned down a full-ride scholarship to a top-20, Division-1 University, and now I was competing for a spot on a no-name, small Christian school. 

After we won the NCCAA (Christian college) basketball championships that year, I decided I wanted to try to get back into bigger college basketball.  It had always been my dream.  I remember hanging out with my friend, Cliff Delgado in high school watching college basketball on TV, and he would tell me “Mitch, you could be out there, playing on TV one day if you work hard enough”.  The only way to do so would be to go back to a junior college and hope to get recruited again.  When I informed the Pt. Loma coaches of my decision, they told me I would never make it, and my teammates said the same mean things.  Going home to an even smaller Junior college was humbling - but necessary.  I had to take a step back if I wanted to move forward.  I transferred to College of the Canyons in my hometown.  The remnants of my high school experience haunted me as I played my way through that season on to become selected First Team All-State, and gaining a full-ride scholarship to San Diego State University.  SDSU is only a few miles away from Pt Loma where I was ostracized for leaving, and told I would never make it.  Being so close, they could see how I was doing, and judge me as they pleased as the same local media covered the team. 

My older brother succumbed to leukemia the summer before I started at San Diego State.  Corey was my hero, and his death rocked me to the core.  I dedicated my basketball career to him a few days before he took his last breath and every time I stepped on the court, on the track, or in the weight room; I thought of him and worked hard in his memory.  Whenever I was tired or discouraged, I thought of him, and pushed through.  In a lot of ways, those few short years that Corey had with us after his fatal diagnosis, taught me how to live.  Corey lived life to the absolute fullest, and I was able to see a glimpse of this through his adventures.  Corey played paint-ball, got a speed bike, went scuba-diving, and lived out his remaining days in style.  He was a good-looking man and always seemed to have a beautiful woman by his side.  He was positive, optimistic and happy.  He was my older brother, my hero. 

Corey played at hart high school, went on to Point Loma, then to C.O.C. where he was recruited to play at Arizona State University on a full-ride.  Corey played well, and earned himself a place in the Pac-10 record books for most block shots in a game, and in a season even though, as it turns out, the whole time, he suffered from a life threatening blood disease called leukemia.  They discovered his cancer after he passed out at his basketball banquet.  He was rushed to the hospital, and after many tests, he was given a two-year life sentence to live.  Two years!  He was only 21 at the time he was given his death sentence.  Corey took full advantage of those years; and I was with him when he took his last breath.  Corey’s number at ASU was #52, and after he died, I always wore #52 in his honor.            

 

Fast Forward back to the San Diego Sports Arena.  It’s 1988, and…

 

I had a lot to prove while at San Diego State.  Not only to myself, but to my family, friends, and so many others: the elementary school parents who laughed at me, the high school teammates and coaches who didn’t believe in me, the small colleges who told me I wasn’t good enough… This was a long journey to get here, and I felt all eyes on me. 

 

Two minutes into the game, I fought for offensive rebound position and when a teammate’s shot bounced off the rim, I timed the rebound perfectly.  I jumped up, grabbed the ball out of the air, and slammed it back into the basket all in one motion.  The crowd went absolutely crazy.  That dunk gave me the confidence I needed to believe in myself the rest of the game.  Up until that point, I was playing with fear and after that moment, I believed in myself.  As I ran to the defensive side of the court, and heard the roar of the crowd, I felt that my action also gave them the confidence they needed to overcome their fears (for the game) as well, and the crowd got real loud!  It was one of the best feelings of my entire life.  It was the ultimate approval.  It ended all doubts about me once and for all (so I thought).  I ended up with 29 points and 12 rebounds in a hard fought loss that our fair weather fans appreciated with applause for the effort.  Nobody expected us to be up at halftime, and nobody expected us to push this team as hard as we did.  It was a moment to be proud of. 

I had earned a standing ovation from friends, family, former teammates, coaches, scouts, and total strangers for putting forth my best effort.  That was  ultimate approval!  An entire stadium packed with thousands of people standing up and clapping their hands… for me… out of respect for my effort.  To be honest, applause is addictive.  Once you get it, you seek it again and again.  Applause is like the ultimate scoreboard… it’s immediate, it’s dramatic, and it’s assuring.  Whenever TV, radio and newspapers spoke well of me, It was a close second to live applause, but still very reassuring for someone who came to depend on outside assurance as a measurement of his own worth.  My value as a man, was always determined by the score, whether basketball or life, the score (the measurable results), determined my worth as a man, which determined my happiness.      


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