In my basketball career, from the time I was 17, I was never given anything. I was always the underdog who had to fight for every thing that came my way. I was always a question mark in my signings and most times not the first choice to be signed. While that used to bother me, I realised it shouldn’t because regardless if I was the first choice, second choice or last choice, I was still the one chosen.
Now with being the underdog comes a lot of things that people don’t think about having to deal with. You have to deal with the doubters of the “supporters” and “fans.” You have to constantly feel the pressure of coaches and general managers. You deal with the media (I have A LOT to say on that subject at some point.) You have to deal with the constant scrutiny and doubt from the outside which only amplifies the little voice within you that comes around and makes you question if you’re good enough to get the job done.
I dealt with it all in my career, and while during a large part of it I wish it was different, I am incredibly grateful for doing it the hard way and here’s why.
Carlie is in her rookie season in the WNBL, Australia’s top women’s professional league. The WNBL is one of top leagues in the world and regarded by many as the first or second best league outside of the WNBA. Most teams will have at least one WNBA player playing in the off season with most teams have multiple players. So to say the least, it’s very high level basketball.
The good news for Carlie, she has high level experience as a rookie. She has won two medals for Australia in international play for 3x3 (which will be an olympic sport whenever the olympics move forward.) She has also played for some of the top state league teams around Australia (Australia's off season league.)
Even better news? Carlie can flat out hoop. From a physical standpoint she is a freak. She had the opportunity to choose between training to be an olympic runner or play basketball (for all of you who think you’re funny, no, she hasn’t won a race between the two of us yet, regardless of what she says.) At 6’3 she is a guard but can play 1-5, she’s long, quick and strong. More importantly she’s tough as nails and will throw her (albeit thinner frame compared to other girls) weight around (we can unquestionably thank her two older brothers for that.) She can drive the ball, post up, is a KNOCK DOWN shooter (still not better than me yet, but my days are numbered) and can make plays off the bounce. She’s a phenomenal passer and after all of that, she’s the best defender I’ve ever seen. Despite coming off an ACL injury, she still manages to stay in front of small guards.
The downfall for Carlie? She’s a rookie. That’s literally the worst thing for her. Now when people think of rookies, they think of 17, 18 year olds, maybe early 20’s coming out of college with a lot to learn. Not Carlie. She’s 26 years old and has a great IQ. Despite being a rookie at 26, it doesn’t mean she hasn't been sought after. She has turned away offers for the last 4 years to play in the WNBL in favour of pursuing her 3x3. But nonetheless, she’s a rookie.
And with being a rookie comes some growing pains and lessons. One lesson she is learning right now, it isn’t always in your control. Carlie has been a star on every single level that she has played on. She has been given massive roles and had high expectations. This year is a little bit different, surrounded by older girls, WNBA players, and girls who were born and raised in Adelaide and been with the program for years. On top of that, Carlie hadn’t played in a game for almost a year and a half coming into this season and if that wasn’t enough, she is playing slightly out of position (I say slightly because she is a bit position-less but definitely slots best into the 3 spot, more of a guard.) Nonetheless, she goes out there and plays her ass off every game. She does all the small things that give her team a winning chance.
She is not responsible for her minutes, which have been inconsistent to say the very least. As a player that’s an extremely difficult situation to handle. I will give you two examples.
Over my college career I know what it’s like for the coach to not put you in because he doesn’t think he can help you win. I also know what it is like to play almost every minute as the captain. It is infinitely easier to play as the captain than it is as a limited bench player and for a few reasons.
Firstly, you don’t always know when you’re going to get put in. It might be early, you might have to sit a quarter or even a half before your number gets called. But you always, ALWAYS, have to stay ready and constantly switched on. As a key player you’ll have longer stints in games and be able to find a rhythm. You’re not constantly looking over your shoulder to see if you’re being taken out of the game. Mistakes can’t be made as a bench player and one bad stint on the floor can influence your minutes in the coming games. So as a bench player, you go on to the floor cold and you need to hold the rope. You need to guard a starter, someone who has been on the floor and in the flow of the game. But that's where the value in a great bench comes in. So Carlie is adjusting, and each game continues to improve- being put on in crucial moments to stop a player who has been hurting them all game. She has yet to fail to come through.
Now coaching is difficult and I know no one ever gets it right every time. As players, especially when we are young, we always think when we don't play it's the coaches fault. Luckily for me, I have always been pretty self aware and known when it is my fault for limited minutes. Early on at Stony Brook I just flat out wasn't ready to help win big games- I had a lot of learning to do and I was aware. Does that mean it didn't frustrate me? Of course I was frustrated, but I knew that I had to keep getting better if I wanted to find myself on the court. Every coach has a system they run and they recruit players accordingly. Sometimes those players are misjudged for their talents or their styles of play. The problem with being versatile, is every coach will want to use you differently. I have been signed to be a banger inside, a three point shooter, to be a defender, to be a scorer, to be a facilitator and to be a high energy athlete. Sometimes these situations don't really fit who you are as a player but it is literally your job to make it work, otherwise, you will be on your way out the door.
Right now Carlie is in one of these positions. She has started games and played five minutes in games. The inconsistency is difficult for a player to deal with. It wears on you mentally and drains you as you struggle to find your rhythm.
One of my teams that I played for, I suffered a broken bone in my shooting hand four games into my stint with the team. Luckily for me, I played well those first four games and the team decided to keep me instead of getting rid of me. Unfortunately for me, I was rushed back in four weeks from the broken hand. Even worse, the doctor didn't set my hand correctly in the cast so it didn't heal properly. My hand was sore, my wrist was so weak to the point I couldn't reach the basket from the free throw line when shooting. Regardless, my team threw me back into the fire, placing me back into the starting lineup and playing me nearly the whole game. I didn't play well but I had a job to do and did it to the best of my abilities. Immediately after that game I was benched, going from 30 minutes to 10 a game and my position changed. I demanded a meeting with the coach and the GM of the team, because after all, if you don't play well you don't get signed the following season.
I flat out asked the coach if he trusted me as a player and he told me he did. I told him if that was the case I would play more because a coaches trust in a player is a direct reflection of that players minutes. After all, they need to win to keep their job too, so they play the players who they think give them the best chance to win. When I presented this argument to him, he literally looked at me and shrugged and couldn't tell me why I wasn't playing more. We weren't winning and they were wasting quite a bit of money if they weren't going to be playing me. My minutes didn't change over the final ten games.
My point being, sometimes a coach just has their mind made up and there's nothing you can do about it. But the best advice I was given from a former teammate, "we're not paid to score every basket or get every rebound. We are paid to be efficient and effective in our time, whether thats 40 minutes or 40 seconds." That always stuck with me and that's what I have passed on to Carlie. It's not always what we want but it's our job to do the task given to us by our coaches. Just because you don't agree doesn't mean you don't do it.
When I first stepped onto campus at Stony Brook, I knew absolutely nothing, especially when it came to basketball. I was tall, a freak athlete and had a half decent skill set. I didn't have the strength I needed, but more importantly, I didn't have the understanding of the game. I had to study harder than my teammates because I had a lot of catching up to do. This became a habit, and as I have gone through my professional career, I have developed a high IQ. What people don't really understand is that basketball is extremely technical and complex. From individual actions and techniques to complex sets and on and off ball actions. People just see the ball move around, players running and jumping, shooting from far, shooting from close and scoring baskets. People don't understand the complexities that go into scoring all of those baskets. As you step up each level, you are responsible for more complex assignments and techniques.
Carlie is playing in a highly complex system (personally, I don't always believe that complexity is necessarily indicative of being elite, but I digress.) Having been around the world, I have heard numerous terminologies and seen just about everything that you can see up to this point (you don't really reinvent the wheel, you just find the wheel that fits your vehicle best.) When she has questions, I can answer them. I can tell her techniques that will help her be successful from my own experiences. She's learning these new techniques taking it all in stride and I couldn't be more proud of her.
I'm so glad that my career was as stressful and tumultuous as it was. I never had it easy and in hindsight I now know why. I know what it's like to come off serious injuries, missing months at a time. I know what it's like to be doubted. I know what it's like to struggle playing under a specific coach or the learning curve or the massive mental battles being a pro athlete comes with. I'm glad that I did it the hard way because when Carlie faces an obstacle, I'll be there to give her advice, to keep her on the right track.
Now in saying that, sitting in the arenas watching her play or watching her play on TV is incredibly difficult for me. For one, I want to see her succeed more than anyone. She has put in a lot of work and overcome many obstacles to get where she is now. There are still the doubters and naysayers but I know in time they will be eating their words.
I also get more nervous watching Carlie than I ever did playing. If you tell me to go and make a free throw in front of thousands of people, I will gladly do so. But watching Carlie go do the same leaves me on the edge of my seat. I don't know why because she's a better player than I am, but I suppose I just want to see her succeed in every aspect.
I might just end up being the next Lavar Ball and say as many outlandish things as I can think of to push Carlie along (although that may backfire, so we'll hold off on that for now.)
Basketball will always be a part of who I am and I will forever be grateful to the game and what it has given to me. But I am even more grateful that I get to share every single thing that I have learned, to the person I care most about. I am glad that I will be there to help guide her as best I can and always be there to protect her when she needs it or when she needs a supportive ear. I will be able to 100% relate to everything that she says and feels because I will have been there before her, and at this level, in this life, that doesn't happen often.
And for those of you wondering, she's going to be a million times the player I was and I can't wait to watch it. So just this one time, these seats are better than being on the floor and I have Carlie to thank for that.