Raised in the "Upper Hand", my March Madness began on a patch of ice over 20 years ago.
Last Friday night, my alma mater, the Houghton Lake Varsity Boys Basketball team, in the heart of Michigan’s “Upper Hand” area, within the familiar and friendly confines of their home gym, the Bobcats, executed a near perfect performance for the ages in the MHSAA Boy’s Basketball District Finals. The performance by the Bobcats was an entertaining, competitive game and the epitome of what March Madness signifies. As a matter of fact, Houghton Lake’s performance in that game, against a tough and top ranked foe, with the cards seemingly stacked against them, is what I want to share today.
If one were to take a closer look, what would be revealed is the significance of an impact a small change in attitude, a couple minor technique adjustments, and a simple change in belief pattern, the Bobcats were able to compete and nearly defeat a powerful, ranked, and seemingly unbeatable opponent.
Now, stay with me, but many will surely agree, that Northern Michigan, as with the entire state of Michigan, has struggled in the approximately 20 years since I left this area shortly after graduating from Houghton Lake High School and pursued my education at Central Michigan University. I left whole-heartedly believing that I would soon return to Roscommon County with degree in-hand and begin my career and eventually start a family. At that time, I never dreamed what would ensue over next couple decades.
Soon after graduation from Central, I was offered an opportunity to further purse my education at Florida State University, tuition free, but came with a significant price tag. That price was a two year commitment and would require me to relocate six long states, far away from the comfort zone of my family, educators, friends and the community that raised me. When initial doubt entered my mind, I determined this was an opportunity too good to turn down. I was able to convince myself, that even should this challenge prove to be too large for my will, and after what turned out to be just shy of two years, and I could safely return home and get back to my vision of career and family life in Northern Michigan.
However, my personal and professional life did not return me back to my safe haven in the burbs of St. Helen, a small berg, known locally as Maple Valley. It instead took me to the mountains of North Carolina for a two year stint where I worked and waited for my career to develop. I waited, sometimes impatiently, for my space on earth to once again be in the northern regions of The Great Lakes State.
What eventually happened, in the summer of 2004, landed me in the fast paced, non-comfort zone, metropolitan area of Oakland County, working as a volunteer on the basketball staff at a school I’d hardly heard of, Oakland University. Then, out of nowhere, March Madness happened.
Now, I must say, March Madness had been a large part of my youth and teen years in Northern Michigan. Whether it be playing basketball for the Bobcats, or being conveniently, uh-hum, too sick for school, on either Thursday or Friday of the first round of NCAA games, the madness always consumed me. Several times it was getting “the boys” together for a game at the old Prudenville school courts, relying on the fact that if there was an ice patch, it essentially became the out of bounds line. With a birthday in March, I would plan my birthday events around either the MHSAA Boys Basketball State Finals or, while turning the NCAA games on the television in the back ground, having friends over and played pick up ball in my mother’s newly build, but un-finished living room. Yes, I got grounded, but I digress.
Back to Oakland, March 2005. We stumbled into the final stretch of the season with the basketball program, and with a few miraculous wins in the conference tournament in Tulsa, OK, we had earned an “automatic berth” for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. We found ourselves in the middle of the well-known, March Madness, and in every major media outlet across the nation, from ESPN’s SportsCenter, to the New York Times and USA Today. We would soon appear on a national CBS broadcast, taking on, and at least covering the spread, eventual national champion, the University of North Carolina, who touted six eventual NBA players.
The next few years flew by, I was able to secure a full time, and actually fully paid coaching position with Rice University in Houston, Texas. I once again found myself moving across the country, a far distance away from the shores of Michigan’s largest inland lake, barely knowing the men who I’d recently interviewed with.
After four years traveling the country in high style, competing against the upper-echelon of college basketball’s legendary programs, yet being a small town boy living in the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country, my rural, comfort-zone roots came calling. I returned in 2012 and have worked in several jobs outside of my “career”, to make it work. I did coach basketball on an interim basis at the local community college, which just so happened to be about 15 miles from my mother’s makeshift living room court. I also had a stint working as athletic director and dean of students at a local K-12 school, as well as working part-time with a community non-profit organization. Eventually, when things got tough, I picked up a stop sign and a shovel and worked road construction and dug ditches for a sand and gravel company I had worked for in my early summer vacation years from Central Michigan.
March 2016, this is where I now sit. As I reflect on my life and career, while sitting in the first home I ever owned, which I purchased at the age of 35 in early 2013 nearby Ogemaw County, I have personally seen and heard the discontent many have, referring to the so called “State of the State”, in particular in Northern Michigan.” I have seen, heard and lived first-hand many of the struggles people have experienced here. With fewer quality jobs, substance abuse, self-serving leadership, and an overall depressed economy, the end result comes in the form of a disheartened image of ourselves.
Taking my experiences at face value, I literally have to challenge myself every day, on where I should go, on what I should do next. Shall I once again leave behind my family, childhood friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, and teammates, many of whom I literally shed blood, sweat, and tears along-side of? Shall I leave and “go west” to pursue bigger and better opportunities elsewhere? Shall I sit, stay, and struggle along-side those individuals near and dear to me? Shall I rest on the fact that we “had a good run” and that the glory days are long over? Do I really need to abandon my personal set of values and work ethic, leaving behind my sense of community pride and civic commitment? Do I rest on the fact that things will never be the same, or as good as it once was? Must I sit and wait to see if or when it will get any worse?
Or shall I do what the Bobcats did on Friday night? Maybe I can work to make a small change in my attitude, possibly a couple other minor technique adjustments, and maybe even a simple change in belief patterns. Can I battle against a tough opponent, who a short three weeks prior had beaten me by 42 points and yet hold a lead with a mere four minutes to go? If I fall nine points shy, do I simply revert back to my old ways, re-living the “good run” we had? Or shall I do the work necessary between now and the next time the ball is tipped and fight again for another day?
I, for one, will not let the words: leave behind, sit, stay, struggle, abandon, and rest, enter my vocabulary or mind. I am willing to make some changes, modifications, and adjustments to be prepared for the next battle. If you want to do the same, then, tell me, who’s with me?
Let the Madness begin,
HLHS Class of 1995