March Madness: What I Learned From A Shattered Dream

In March of 1964, I boarded a school bus with other basketball players to attend the Illinois High School Boys Basketball Championship in Champaign, Illinois. I was fourteen, a few weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday. We watched as some of the best high school basketball players fought to win the state championship. In my heart a dream was born: I wanted to win the state high school basketball tournament.

The odds, though, were against us. We were only freshmen from a small farming community of 1800 people. The big city schools always dominated the tournament. The smaller Cinderella schools rarely won. But I had a dream.

Being shy, I shared my dream with no one — not my coach or my team-mates or my family. Dreams were better kept to oneself so if you failed no one would know.

I first played basketball when I was in the sixth grade and made the school basketball team every year until I finished high school. I remember that our junior high coach made us run laps in the gym in heavy winter boots so that we would be in shape. My freshman year, I ran on the cross country team to get in shape.

Even though I rarely started, I was on the team and I was at every practice. That was all that mattered because each successive year some players did not make it. My junior year was very competitive and I won the 11th slot on the team. Unfortunately, I came down with the mumps and was unable to play for the first several games.

I remember midway through the season that my coach gave me a lot of playing time. In one game I committed a foul and I must have made an angry face because my coach called time and yelled at me for making the face. He thought I was upset at the referee. I was actually upset at myself. After that incident, I played a lot less.

When the my senior year rolled around, my dream of playing in the state tournament was still alive and well. But I had still not told anyone. We had a great team — the best in the county. I was eighth man on the team and probably would have been a starter at any other school in the county.

A Dream Shattered

We had a fantastic season winning every game including two tournaments. When the state tournament arrived, I hoped and prayed that we would make it. We were undefeated. We won the district tournament and won the first game of the regional tournament but lost the second. Our record for the year was 27–1. I was devastated. I stood on the gym floor for several minutes after the final buzzer had rung and stared at the scoreboard. I could not believe that my dream was destroyed. I was not prepared for failure.

Reflecting back now some 48 years later to that March in 1967, I can identify some key mistakes and valuable lessons that have helped to shape my life and business career.

Mistakes Made

  1. Failure to Set Goals: I knew nothing about goal setting at the time. I could have set goals for physical training and for practicing the fundamentals of playing basketball. If I had an opportunity to relive that period of my life, I would set some concrete, specific goals with time frames. I would have told my teammates about my dream and engaged them in striving for the same goals.
  2. Failure to Practice Enough: Sure, I was at practice every day. Sure I worked hard. But I did not practice outside of organized practice. I could have risen earlier each day and shot a 100 free throws or ran laps or lifted weights, but I didn’t. Extra workouts never crossed my mind.
  3. Lack of Confidence: I lacked the confidence needed to be on the starting team. I did not believe in my skills and talents and I did not believe enough in my dream.

Five Lessons Learned

  1. How to Be a Team Player: I learned that every person on the team has value. Even the second-string players have value. Without the second-string players, the starters would have nobody to practice against. Everybody contributes to the victories, not just the players in the game. I learned that I don’t always have to be the leader. I can be a follower. In the world of business, every person brings value to the team and you do not always need to be the leader.
  2. The Importance of Finding the Next Goal: The star of our team was a boy named Don and he was also the tallest member of the team. After high school, he played for the University of Louisville. After college, he had a chance to play professional basketball in Europe but did not take it because of his father. He spent the remainder of his days in Louisville, Kentucky remembering his glory days. I have watched people who succeed early in life never grow beyond their initial success. We can’t live in the past. When one goal is achieved, we need to move onto the next. We need to find new mountains to climb.
  3. Accepting the Fact That You Are No Longer The Star: Athletes, actors and others sometimes have a difficult time transitioning from being the star to being an average working person. One moment you are the center of attention and the next you are a nobody. This year you may be the top sales person and the next you are in the bottom. We all have highs and lows. We need to accept the lows and learn from them. This has been valuable to me as a speaker. For sixty minutes, speakers are the star of the show. Everyone is watching them. Five minutes after the speech is over, the audience is gone and the speaker is alone with his thoughts, no longer the center of attention.
  4. Not a spectator: I have learned that I am not a spectator. I love playing sports. I played Little League baseball and high school basketball. I played intramural basketball in college. I also played volleyball and softball. I was active in sports well into my forties, but I never developed the habit of being a spectator. I rarely watch sports on television or attend a game. I want to play, not watch. And I carry that philosophy over into business. I want to be involved in what is happening, not watching from the sidelines.
  5. Defeat is never final: Basketball and other sports taught me that defeat is never final and neither is victory. There is always another game tomorrow and the slate is wiped clean. A loss today does not mean a loss tomorrow. And a victory today does not mean a victory tomorrow.

Dreams Reborn

Even when dreams are shattered, life continues. We go on living. My freshman year in college, I tried out for the basketball team and I didn’t make the team. I went on living and found new dreams. Some dreams I turned into goals and achieved them. Others are still waiting to be born. What makes us special as human beings is our ability to dream — to find hope in the future.

Dreams Reborn: Finding Hope in the Future

Note: March Madness today refers to the basketball tournaments played in March by college basketball teams. The term was first used in 1939 in reference to the Illinois High School Boys Basketball Championship long before it was used with colleges.

About the Author: Harley King has been speaking and training professionally for more than 30 years before groups ranging from 10 to 600. He has trained more than 7,500 people to speak and train. He has been writing and publishing his work for more than 50 years. In the team photo, he wears number 54.

Disclaimer: This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily any of the organizations which he represents.

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Harley King

Harley King

Poet, Novelist, Artist. Follow me on my novel writing journey: Editor: The Torchbearer.