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COMMUNION WITH THE GAME: The day I broke out.

By: Mark McLaughlin, Publisher Iowa Prep Report
and President,
Ambassador Sports International

I remember the day I broke out as a player, the day in which everything I touched turned to gold, the day that everything seemed to just come easy, the day that I achieved communion with the game of basketball.

I was 23, out of eligibility, and recovering from the first of three knee surgeries that would reduce my legs to blocks of wood and predispose me to the pulmonary embolism that ended my playing days forever two years ago December 14.

The game of basketball is unforgiving to the human body, creating all manner of poundings, muscle pulls and tears, ankle sprains and cartilege tears. But a young body is extremely resilient, able to bounce back from the worst kinds of abuse, and from the mostdebilitating injuries.

I was always an average player at best, and on most days, I was so far away from communion with the game, that easy catches slipped off my fingers, or got kicked off my knee or ended up in the hands of more accomplished players going entirely the wrong way down the floor.

I worked hard on the court, but it was a whirl of blurry images (mostly leaving me behind), incomprehensible twists, turns and bounces of the game and of bodies that went so much faster than I did that my few moments on the floor didn't last long. I got myself so nervous when I went to the scorer's table that those few precious moments I had on the court were more about avoiding embarrassment than they were about questing for glory.

Oh, I had my moments . The fifteen foot jump hook in a Jamboree against Mason City in 1977, a twisting layup to the basket that somehow went in against Garrigan. The two wide open layups that I kicked off my foot in two subsequent trips down the floor.

As I explain in my book, The Edge, I had two urges when I went to the court in high school --- first to pee, then to puke.

But on this day six years later, I was in another world. It was one of the numerous pickup games that I got to play in college, the raw, physical, exhilarating experience of "balling" with guys that liked to play together, could play up on the rim, and for that rare moment in time . the moment in which I was in peak physical condition, could run up and down endlessly without getting tired , and could body the big guys, outsmart the quick guys, play defense like crazy, take charges with impunity and . at 6-4 and 220 pounds, play point guard.

No kidding.

I think I must have been a frustrated point guard, trapped in the underachieving body of a three man in high school. As was my luck, I'd begun to understand the game after I got out of high school, began to see things and anticipate them before they happened on the court, and I could, by god, put the ball on a time where it absolutely had to go.

So, on this day, five days post arthroscope, taped and braced, determined as ever to ignore the doctors and the pain I felt in my leg, I hit the court. While I didn't slash, or flash or dance, I led the break, defended like crazy, and then it happened.

For just a few moments, about twenty-five minutes of a thirteen year competitive career, the game slowed down enough in my head that I simply flowed within it. I hit threes, pull-up jumpers, executed pick and rolls to perfection, made laser passes through a forest of defenders for spectacular layups, and made one alley-oop pass from about thirty feet out to a streaking buddy who caught the ball at the rim and crushed it, sending the rim and the backboard reverberating with the sound of thunder.

Whoooooooooaaaaaaaaa! came the sound of the gym coming to a stop on other courts, and they began to watch us play. This was just pickup but it was something else to me, something special --- I never, ever enjoyed four hours of playing basketball as much as I did that day --- not anytime before, or anytime since.

When it was over, my friends and I went to the local watering hole and did what college kids of age do. Notice I said, of age. Do not try this at home.

As we sat together reveling in the joy of the game of basketball, a peace settled over me that I'd never felt before. For the first time, the game of basketball and I had come to an understanding.

Some people would call that experience, that fantastic but meaningless day the day that Marky found "the zone". As I watch other young men and women enjoy that moment of awakening on the floor, the time that the light just comes on for them, I understand something out of age and experience that many of them don't from the exhuberance and enthusiasm of youth.

You don't find the zone. It finds you, connecting with you and your game, calming you as it thrills you, giving you a sense and belief that for those few brief moments that it finds you that you can do anything with a basketball.

What I've learned about "the zone" is that it really isn't a "zone", not some metaphysical thing you find on the Outer Limits, or some heavenly derivation of the Twilight Zone. It's what I call "break out", the moment of communion with the game when you become a part of the game and it truly becomes a part of you.

I enjoy and delight in the games I see kids play that this happens to them. While I was on the wrong side of a 1998 state championship game between Harlan and Cedar Rapids Prairie, I could feel and sense the awakening of Josh Kimm who reached the highest levels of competition in a 12-point third quarter that even Billy Cundiff, Brody Deren and his boys couldn't come back from. Luke Erickson's 43- point substate performance for Lewis Central against Carroll Kuemper was another example . Absolute, complete, reflections of perfection.

I saw PCM's Todd Lorensen come of age at the state tournament level a year ago --- it all came together for him. Deb Remmerde's state championship game against Hinton. Ben Jacobson's performance against Council Bluffs AL in the 2001 substate final for Sioux City East . the day I knew that kid was headed for absolute greatness.

That fellowship with the game, that communion, the integration of spirit, soul and physicality doesn't happen to everyone and it doesn't always stay after it comes.

In my case, it didn't come back for ten years, but it manifested itself again at the age of 35, playing in city three on three with a team that composed itself of North Linn coach Mike Hilmer and current Panorama High School principal, Cherokee all-stater and Northwestern All-American Dean Schnoes. We were engaged in a three on three city tournament, and once again, I found that sense of peace coming and I embraced it, and I went crazy. Playing deep into the night and going all the way to the city finals, somehow it was there.But the difference between being 23 and being 33 is that the legs were starting to go, I'd added another 30-pounds of good cooking to my middle, and the pace and duration of the competition just wore me down. We lost, but that was the last time I played with real passion, and real connectedness with the game.

The legs are wooden now, they swell if I'm on my feet for a long time. While I'm working on weight reduction, I'm still out of condition and out of shape. My attempts to quit smoking and drinking coffee are weak and lack follow through. I'm still all over the game of basketball, writing about it, coaching it (my great joy) and observing it with relish.

I've found that feeling of communion on the bench at times, and feel it when I have one of my players break out. Perhaps Damon's greatest gift as a coach (that he may not even realize) is his ability to magnify this experience over a whole team. Better than me, better than anyone we have in our program, he's able to bring this out in players better than any coach I have ever seen at any level of competition --- high school, college or pro.

The game of basketball is highly technical, it's emotional, and it's in fact, a very spiritual thing when you open yourself up to it. More than any other form of human endeavor, perhaps short of writing with "an itch", basketball positions the focused athlete to achieve an altered state of conciousness, a greater joy and a greater contentment than perhaps anything else in existence. When you achieve "break out", you'll know it. It's like finding your voice, finding your place in the competitive world. It's total immersion in competition, and complete joy.

I wish that for you. You don't need to go looking for it.It will find you.

Our thanks to Human Kinetics for sending us some excellent coaching books. You can't beat the discounted price, less than $20 including shipping.

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Excellent video with thoughts and drills on organizing your practices. Learn from one of the greatest coaches of the game, Coach "K".
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"My son's high school coach gave him a copy of the book and he read it in two days. Now he is leading the effort to get himself a scholarship. The book is inspiring and effective for high school athletes."
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