I never cared enough to have a favorite basketball player growing up. I could never understand why people bought their jerseys. The idea of wearing another person’s name on my own back was bothersome. The only jersey I would ever wear would have my own name on it: DALTON. Turns out, I was my favorite player. I knew how to win. And I made others better in the process. I don’t think you ever lose the feeling of winning, once you learn how to impose your will to do so. “Once you feel it, everything becomes you. And you become everything,” Kobe Bryant said in a Showtime documentary released this weekend.
When I was about 10-years-old, my AAU coach had stopped practice one day, blowing the whistle right in the middle of a 5v5 scrimmage. I was wearing a red penny.
“How many of you think you’re a starter on this team?” he asked.
Since I had been starting every single game right up until that very moment, I raised my hand without question. I had assumed that all of the other starters (who were also wearing red pennies that day) had raised their hands too. But when the pause extended to beyond comfortable, I turned around to the rest of my teammates and saw that no one else had their hand raised. I lowered mine and looked back at the coach, who finally said:
“No one is a starter on this team. You have to earn it every single day, in every single practice.”
I didn’t start another game the rest of the season after that. It was one of my earliest experiences with complete and utter bullshit.
“It’s a scar. It’s a pain. It’s a battle wound that some people are probably afraid to tap into but its such a powerful thing,” Kobe continued to say in his documentary. “Once they own it and it settles, then the sky is the limit because they are going to drive themselves and pull from who they are and all of their life experiences and everything that’s motivated them. Just start driving, needling, pushing.”
Shortly after, I set out to prove to myself that I could still do things other people thought not possible or too hard to try. At the very least, not worth their time to find out. I started out with a simple challenge, on my own time: make 10 foul shots in a row before dinner. I came home from school, threw my backpack on the front lawn and began shooting.
I’d pick up the ball and punt it across the street for the infinite time. I would scream. And say FUCK THIS SHIT. I would cry. I would compose myself and start over. I’d get to 9 a million times only to miss on my 10th shot. I could see my Dad watching through the window before finally coming outside to drag me in for dinner. I refused. I’d curse him out, too. My brother would come outside after eating and watch. He’d calm me down and help me think straight. Until I missed and yelled at him to go inside. I didn’t need his help. Then I could see the two of them in the window laughing in bewilderment. I didn’t blame them. I knew I was a real sight.
“Kristen, you don’t have to get 10 in a row,” my Dad said.
“I know I don’t. But I want to. And I will.”
“It’s getting late, you can try again tomorrow.”
“No. I can try again tonight.”
I was out there until nearly midnight. It was pitch black save the lone light shining above the garage. When I finally made 10 in a row, through teary eyes and a snotty nose, I picked up the ball and put it in the garage. I walked into the house without a word. I marched up the stairs and took a hot shower. I put on my PJ’s and had a bowl of cereal for dinner. I gave my Dad a hug and shared a laugh with my brother. My mom kissed me on the forehead and tucked me in good night.
“The most important thing is you must put everybody on notice that you are here and you’re for real. I’m not a player that’s just going to come and go. I’m not a player that’s gonna make the All Star team one time, two times. I’m here to be an all-time great,” Kobe said.
By the time I got to high school, I had endured a lot. By the time I got to college, I had endured even more. “At what point are you holding on, holding on, holding on to something that’s just not there? At what point does your determination and your drive become unreasonable, so that it’s just not possible?” But by the time I left college, I was still out there trying to make 10 foul shots in a row–this time in the metaphorical sense. Stubborn as ever.
“You make a choice: come hell or high water, I am going to be this. And you should not be surprised when you are that. It should not be something that’s intoxicating or out of character because you have seen this moment for so long. You have played it in your mind for so long that when this moment comes, of course it’s here. Because it’s been here the whole time.”