I was born in the late 1980s. At four years old, I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle. But I realized I had a low tolerance for pain and my dad no longer wanted me to hit my cousins with plastic nunchucks. So instead, my dad pointed out Michael Jordan to me on TV. He told me he was the basketball player in the world and I was fascinated with the way he glides down the court and how he effortlessly flies to dunk a basketball.
My aftercare program was in a catholic school gym that had a standard size basketball court with ten foot rims and eight foot rims to the side for younger people to play with. Instead of playing tag or doing arts and crafts like all the other kids, I wanted to be like Mike. (Such a catchy jingle) I would immediately separate myself from others, grab a ball, and try to make a basket on the eight foot rim. Making my first basket was actually easier than I thought. At the time, I had an incredible adrenaline rush watching that ball go through the net. I didn't want to stop shooting. Everyday I would shoot countless shots for hours and eventually I would wander to the ten foot rims. I would shoot from a foot away and progressively move back. I would look back at that foul line like I was a mountain climber looking at the peak to climb Mount Everest. Eventually, I would reach the foul line. Just like Mike, I dribbled three times, bent my knees, and with two hands push that ball up towards the rim and SWISH! From that point on, I have determined that "BASKETBALL IS LIFE."
As I grew older through grade school, I started to make new friends through my love of basketball and watching Michael Jordan on TV. Being from New Jersey, when the Knicks would play the Bulls it would get really intense. I used to throw fits at my friends who were Knicks fans and my teachers would often put me in timeout because my tantrums were that bad. I learned to settle it on the court. I would gather my fellow Bulls Fans and challenge the Knicks Fans to an intense basketball duel. These games would end up just like a typical Bulls vs Knicks game would end in the 90s. ;)
The summer before I entered junior high, I grew about seven inches, and at 11 years old I was about 5'7". I was head and shoulders taller than most boys my age. Being taller, I had this new found confidence in my basketball game and decided to take it to the next level and tried out for my town select travel team. At tryouts, my coaches were very impressed with my game, loved the fact that I was so tall, and I made the team as a center. I was very fortunate to have good coaches that taught me basketball in a way I never looked at it before. They taught the principles of spacing, ball movement, defensive rotation, pick and rolls, how to break certain zones, and how to create higher percentage shots, among many other nuances. They taught me basketball the right way, in such a way, where the common person wouldn't understand. In Junior High, there was concern I wouldn't pass classes because I would refuse to do homework as I thought in got in the way of basketball. I also would day dream in class, coming up with plays in certain scenarios, creating a fantasy game. Although Michael Jordan retired during this time frame, enter Kobe Bryant. When I watched Kobe, I couldn't help but see Michael so Kobe easily filled that void.
As I entered my high school years, maybe I grew an inch since my growth spurt, and I don't think I would grow since then. Looking back it at now, I think I shrunk. I was no longer one of the taller boys in my class. All my teammates caught up to me. After three years of training with my back to the basket working on my drop step and focusing being a good rebounder in junior high, by the time I reached high school, I now was asked to be a guard that needs to be a more consistent shooter and needs to work on ball handling better. Throughout this time period as my physical growth stalled and I was going through those awkward teenage phases, my priorities changed and I had to accept that my days of a competitive basketball player is coming to an end and it's time to focus on other things. But hey, at least my idol, Kobe Bryant is around for me to still enjoy basketball.
I graduated high school and went to college majoring in accounting. I would strive to become what I am today being the stereotypical failed aspiring athlete to take on the corporate world and currently doing well in doing so. Watching Kobe Bryant made me feel like a kid again and he would always bring me back to the "good 'ol days" when basketball was life. When Kobe retired, no one was able to fill that void. I thought the NBA was more about making money then it was about basketball. I was disgusted with players who are perfectly healthy, but would sit out for load management. The "sports media" would write about the NBA like it was TV drama rather than a sport. I would try to watch an NBA game, but the effort appears to lacking, especially on defense. They seem to not care so why should I.
There are plenty of other factors that contribute to this, like being an older adult with different priorities, but there was a time where I DID NOT CARE FOR BASKETBALL AT ALL.
Then I discovered...Ron Harper Jr.
My nephew, Chris, grew up basketball obsessed just like me. We had a close bond because seeing him grow up reminded me of my childhood which I look back fondly of as I write this. On Christmas Eve, I was chatting with Chris on how he was doing playing basketball at Don Bosco Prep in his junior year. He said that he loves it, but he is struggling to get playing time. I was confused because I knew how good he was and how hard he worked and with a confused look, I asked "Why?" He simply stated..."I'm playing with Ron Harper Jr." He knew I knew who his father was and figured I would put the pieces together. Even then, I was like "So? He probably has that spot just because of his name and just because his dad was great doesn't mean he is."
I finally had the time to go to a Don Bosco game to see what the hype was about with Ron Harper Jr. I was sitting in the bleachers and out came the team to warm up for their state sectional final. This tall kid with broad shoulders, thick back, and an afro caught my attention. I turned to my cousin and asked, "is that Ron?" and he said "Yup." I reacted, so he looks the part, but can he play?
In his very first possession, Ron shoots a three in perfect form with the ball rotating perfectly..SWISH!!! It was so smooth. Not only did he have smooth stroke, he was playing above the rim. Don Bosco Prep was playing so efficiently with the ball moving fast, perfect spacing, and efficient defensive rotation. This was the sport I loved growing up. I got to witness what an exceptional talent Ron was and what a good teammate and friend he was to my nephew, and I accepted the fact that Chris didn't fit in the regular lineup as the team was so efficient and talented. So on that day I became a fan of Ron Harper Jr and I was so happy to see basketball played in such a way I got accustomed to watch being so young.
That summer before Ron's senior year, I started to research the top NJ recruits. I was expecting to see Ron in there, but he was hardly mentioned. I just kept seeing "Naz Reid this..Naz Reid that..oh yea, this is Jahvon Quinerly" I just figured the information on the internet was grossly limited. During Fall 2017, during a family gathering, I asked Chris if Ron decided on what college he was going to go to. I expected a school like Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, a celebrated basketball program most casual fans know as a basketball school. Chris told me "Rutgers." I reacted, "Rutgers? That's it? Don't they suck? He couldn't do better?" I kept up with Ron's high school career. He was always left out of the conversation of All-State. I kept on thinking, "This player is amazing! Do I not understand basketball that well?" After a county championship and another state sectional championship, the state of New Jersey could not deny him as an all-state player.
November 2018 came, I wondered how Ron would do at the collegiate level. I discovered that I had the Big Ten Network as part of my cable package and manage to watch Rutgers on TV. I was not expecting much as Rutgers wasn't known for their basketball program. As I watched, I got a flashback of the "good 'ol days" It was the version of basketball I learned and fell in love with. A big man in Myles Johnson, actually playing like a big man with his back to the basket and focus on rebounding and defense. I saw a team sharing the ball efficiently with a point guard that passes and shoots well in Geo Baker. I saw hard nose, team defense working together grinding it out. To me, even with their growing pains issues, THIS WAS BASKETBALL AT ITS PUREST. Seeing these student athletes play together as a cohesive unit at such a high level was awe-inspiring. Sure they experienced lows, but like Steve Pikiell said, "You have to have these type of experiences in order to grow." It was a pleasure for me to witness these student athletes grow experiencing struggles, agony of defeat, the sweetness of victory, and a brotherly bond. I became personally invested every single game and now I am sharing my story with this community.
When Michael Jordan retired, at least I had Kobe Bryant. As much as Kobe's passing completely gut punched me...at least I have Rutgers Basketball.