"Anybody can make a free throw..." - Coach Collins (Northside Youth Association; St. Louis, circa '83)
The gym went silent. And there I was with the ball. Alone at the free throw line. Tied ballgame. (BOUNCE!) Ten years old. No. 32, like Magic. (BOUNCE!) White leather Converse, like Doc. (BOUNCE!) No time on the clock. I make it, we win. (BOUNCE!) I miss, overtime. (BOUNCE!) I spun the ball in my hands. Bent my knees. Stared at the goal. (RELEASE!) The minute I let it go, I knew. Even though I was ten, I knew. I knew right after the one point some odd seconds it took that ball to travel from my hands, to that hoop, I'd be a completely different person. Needless to say, I was.
To this day, I have never cried as hard for anything as I did losing that game. After going to two overtimes, we lost when my friend Michael missed a free throw that would have sent us to a third one. I don't really remember shaking hands with the opposing team. All I know is, when we finally made it back to the bench, our hearts just exploded – simultaneously as we sprawled out all over the floor. It wasn't that slow pitiful cry either. It was that loud hurtful cry. The one where your insides convulse repeatedly every few seconds and you catch chills but can't catch your breath. It was a sad sight. At first, all the parents gathered around smiling, saying "awwwww", like they thought it was cute that we were crying that hard – halfway amazed kids that young actually cared about something. But after fifteen minutes had passed, we were still there, crying tears that would flow all the way home.
My forehead rested on the cold frosty window of our car on the ride home. We ended up stopping for a cheeseburger, but I couldn't eat. Hell, I could barely breathe. I spent the rest of the weekend walking around the house with a blanket wrapped around me like I was sick. Actually, I think I pretended to be sick after that. It was the perfect excuse not to talk much, plus it made it easier to hide the heartbreak. My family loved to tease and joke around. Showing too much emotion over something as simple as a game would have made me an easy target. So I stayed in bed a lot over the next few days, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. I replayed the moment over and over. I imagined how good it would have felt had I hit that free throw. Everybody would have been screaming my name, lifting me in the air. "Go Corey, go Corey!" Every time that dream got too good, it would evaporate right before my eyes, until all I saw was our white ceiling. Then Coach Collins's voice from practice would echo in my head. "Bend your knees. Take your time. Anybody can make a free throw." He always said he wouldn't blame us for things we couldn't control, but free throws? Free throws were the one thing we had total control over, so we had to come through. And I hadn't. That weekend, I promised myself two things. One, I would never cry that hard over anything for the rest of my life. And two, if I was ever put in a similar position, I would not miss my free throw.
Thirty years later and that missed free throw is still a huge source of inspiration for me. See, free throws are bigger than basketball for me, they always were. Free throws are simply opportunities in life when the ball is in our hands, when we alone have total control to decide the outcome. Every morning I get my ass out the bed and go to work, that's a made free throw. Every time I tell someone "I love you", that's a made free throw. Every day I'm an honest, trustworthy friend, that's a made free throw. There are so many things in life we have absolutely no control over. So the few times in life we have an opportunity to make good on small things, it's important we take our time, bend our knees and make our free throws. In basketball, when you miss a free throw, you lose a game. In life, a missed free throw leads to lost love, lost income, losing our good reputation and unfortunately, sometimes our life. I was lucky enough to learn this lesson at ten. By the way, as far as basketball, I never again found myself at the free throw line with no time left with a chance to win the game. And no, I've never cried that hard since. But as far as life goes, I find myself on the free throw line every day, knocking'em down one after another. Like Coach Collins said, anybody can do it, in fact, everybody should. I can't help but think, that every day, I'm making my former coach proud. One luv.