Amazing Kids! Magazine

The Fairytale

By Connor Fulton, Age 15, Utah

 

It was July 9, 2011. As I stepped out of the car, I could feel the warm Las Vegas heat beating down on my face, and the not-so-fresh air fill my lungs. I stretched out my cramped muscles and squinted my eyes to protect them from the radiant sunlight. I had finally reached my destination. Las Vegas, Nevada, where some of the most prestigious basketball tournaments take place and where my life would be turned completely on its head. The city itself was intimidating, especially knowing that there was an average of three homicides every day and that the buildings were larger than buildings should really be. The expectations and the pressure to play prodigiously hung heavily in the air surrounding me. Or maybe that was the smoke from one of the 31,700 cigarettes ignited each day? Who knew? More importantly, who cared? The only thing that seemed to be permanently carved into every crevice of my brain was to win and do well. From the moment I stepped out on the squeaky wood court, the only thing that seemed familiar was the smell of the freshly varnished floors that had just been re-done. The courts were lined with screaming fans and the gym was filled with scorching hot air that took my breath away. The lack of space did not prevent the thousands of people from crowding around the six compact courts. The recruits and coaches watched over the games like a hawk watches over its prey. I could feel the tension from the players in the air. All wanting to do well but knowing only a few would succeed. If I was lucky, I would be one of the few. That was my fairy tale story, and it was about to come true.

We wanted to win. My team and I were bloodthirsty for victory, and we would not let anything stand in our way. Not the fact that we were, on average, six inches shorter than the other teams, or that they happened to be all black and Southern Baptist while we were all white and primarily LDS. Not even for the fact that we were playing in their territory. These were problems, and literally “big” problems. The only way to get around a large problem is not to go around it at all, but rather to go right through it. Thus, the puzzle we had to solve, was how? There are an infinite amount of variables that affect the outcome of a basketball game. Unfortunately, there were three variables from the start that weren’t in my team’s favor. The first, we were playing in Las Vegas for the first time. This meant we were rookies trying to slay veterans. The other teams were all nationally ranked and known around the world, and it was our job to replace them. After our first game, it was very clear to us that the second variable was the number of fans and their support. My team had previously played in regular tournaments with a crowd ranging from 20 to 50 people. From the tip-off, we were shocked to see the other team have a student section and parents chanting loudly in masses of up to 200 people. The term “the early bird gets the worm” is not just a saying. My team left on Friday right after school, the day before the tournament. By the time we got to our hotel and went to bed, it was almost midnight. It was a miracle that we were able to get out of bed the next morning. At least 90 percent of the other 40 teams are homeschooled and raised together in a basketball schooling academy. The majority of the other teams had been in Las Vegas two weeks prior to the actual tournament. They had immeasurable advantages that far outweighed our tiny, white, Mormon team. The circumstance of homeschooling to travel and play basketball all year was appalling and unheard of to us. We needed a game plan. We were David facing Goliath; we just needed to find our sling and the chink in their armor.

From all the weaknesses, we found strength. Even though all these teams were well-coached, fundamentally sound, and had been together for more years than us, we were still a better team. I knew and understood the thought processes of all these “next generation” and “future all-star” players. Although winning was a priority, it was second in importance to their drive to play well individually. We had to find a way to somehow use this weakness against them. We understood that the downfall of many elite programs was the mistake of building the programs around stars that cared only about outshining and outplaying each other. It was like being in a fishbowl full of sharks. They were playing against their own team rather than focusing on playing as a team and using the team’s strengths when playing against the opponent.

Surprisingly, there was a benefit to being an all-white team from Utah. None of the other all-black teams had gone up against such a fundamentally sound team and a team that played so unified. One of the few advantages white kids get in basketball is being underestimated. I know I may sound racist or prejudice, but it is something a person can only understand if that person plays basketball. Which brings me to another point, we were scrappy. This meant we would take whatever was available and do whatever we needed to do, to get it. The referees did not call a lot of fouls – they let typical holding and grabbing fouls go. This was a definite advantage to the more physical teams. As a result, our team had to develop a rougher style of play to even the playing fields. Unfortunately, we were from out-of- state and not respected as some of the other regular attending AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) teams. Lack of respect resulted in the officials’ biased opinions helping the local teams. We rarely got the benefit of the calls and were constantly abused without recognition. Whatever the other teams weakness were, we would exploit and target them. For example, a lot of them weren’t as good of shooters as we were, so we would play a tight zone to force the other team to shoot outside. We had no way of winning if we let them play in the style that they were comfortable. We played by our rules and to our comfort. Yet somehow, we didn’t feel that comfortable.

Coaching would prove to be the most critical aspect to prosper in Las Vegas. A common misconception is that talent beats strategy. If teams don’t know how to correctly utilize and share talent, they are not a team at all. Talent defeats itself if it is not used as a group effort. Talent has a selfish element and creates over-confidence. If players value themselves more than others, the team will corrupt. Our coaching was superior to every other team in the tournament. Our team was fit to attack any other offense, defense, press, or play the other team could manage to throw at us. As we advanced to the second game after a hard fought win against the “City Hoopers”, it was clear I had been our best player. I led our team in assists, points, and steals. This was unexpected because prior to this game, I had been just another good player on a good team. Was this the beginning of my breakout season? I couldn’t tell yet, only time would decide that. As I began my second game, I felt good. Some of the other teams and coaches had begun to hear of a skinny white kid on a foreign team. There was no way I was letting someone walk out thinking I was overrated. This was my time to shine, and I wasn’t going to let anybody turn me off.

That game against the “Players,” I played with the swagger of LeBron James in a children’s league. If I imagined that nobody could stop me, then nobody was going to. I scored 26 points with the best defender on the other team guarding me. I wasn’t a player to only acknowledge my points either. I played outstanding defense and had 7 assists. The confidence I acquired would carry on to my next game as well. At that time we were 2-0 and the team to beat. The third game, we played a team that did not out match us. They were a team from Florida called the “Phenom”. They looked smaller and less talented than us. Not only was this original, but it was comforting. They were 0-2 and we stepped into that game arrogant. There is a difference between playing with confidence, as opposed to playing conceited. Our team was about to get a well-needed rude awakening. In the first half, our team had our doors blown off. We were losing by 18 with no hope of winning. This is when good coaching was essential. My dad was our head coach and had a background that exceeded the needed experience. He had played for Utah before playing professionally overseas in Australia. After he had finished his professional career, he decided to coach professionally and on the college level for many years. He knew how to light a fire in our game. After we had been yelled at and pumped up, we entered the second half a different team. By the last three minutes of the game, we were up by seven. We had learned our lesson and didn’t stop there. When the game was all over, we had won by over 20 points. Never again would our team appear weak.

We only had two games left and it was vital to go undefeated. Unfortunately, the odds were against it and the crowd even more. Our next game was against “Desert Hoops” and the bleachers were anything but deserted. The fans were uncountable and louder than I could imagine at the time. This was a team that hadn’t lost and wasn’t planning on losing either. From the start we were down eight. Flashbacks from the game before flooded my mind. Finally, we called a well-needed timeout. I interrupted my dad while he was screaming and spoke in his place. I was anything but inspiring, but I was angry. Like any good leader would do, I transferred my anger to my teammates. We played off that anger until the end of the game when we were losing by 8. With 1 minute and 45 minutes to go, I took over the game. I knocked down two 3’s in a row before giving a crisp dish to my big man Troy. The crowd was going crazy. I could barely hear myself think. All the other fans from other courts had flooded around our court to see the last 20 seconds of the game. I smiled to myself slightly. There was no other position I would want to be in. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to make a play. As they inbounded the ball, the crowd roared. Desert Hoops held the ball at the top of the key. The point guard slowly flicked the ball side to side in a mockingly fashion. Out of nowhere I could faintly hear my dad yell “Bear” at the top of his lungs over the rumbling crowd. Quickly, my teammate Isaiah (who was notorious for his great defense) shot at the ball carrier and took the ball. The point guard swiftly grabbed Isaiah and committed a desperate foul to stop Isaiah from scoring. My dad called a timeout immediately and began to draw a play. It was a diversion play intended to fake a 3 pointer to me. I had played exceptionally well with a game of 33 points and everyone expected the ball to be in my hands for the final shot. The play worked like a charm, leaving our player Brig for a wide open jump shot. As the shot fell through the net, the crowd erupted and swarmed our team. I slept well (besides from the ringing in my ears) that night and was more than ready for the upcoming games.

We had a bye until the elite 8 which we had won by 6. Next, we won the quarter finals by 2 with a 40 point and 7 assist game by myself. When the semi-finals arrived, my team was dead tired. We were due to play GSB who had a 7 foot center and an average team height of 6 feet 4 inches. The game started a shootout, but as we entered the final quarter of the game we were down by 22. We went down swinging and lost by only 9. It was a heartbreaking loss that still haunts me today because I didn’t play well. I had 8 points and multiple turnovers. We walked outside sweaty and defeated. I still recall the muffled crying of my teammates. We wanted to win so badly, and we came up short. This is one of the most significant moments in my life. Not just because I gained recognition and played well. It was because I played with teammates and became great friends with them. The loss that day strengthened my team’s bond even more. I took the new confidence and play style back to Utah and played with that same passion and fire that I adopted from Las Vegas. Ever since that tournament, I have been considered within the top 3 best players in the state of Utah. Like I said, “what happened in Vegas didn’t stay”.

It was July 11, 2011. As I stepped out of the gym, I could feel the warm Las Vegas sun beating down on my sweaty face and the not-so-fresh air fill my lungs. I stretched my sore beaten body out as I squinted from the radiant sun. I had finally reached the end of the road trip. It was the end of Las Vegas Easter Tournament, where one of the most legendary tournaments had ever played out for me and where my life had been turned completely on its head. The city was no longer intimidating, and the pressure had thinned out. I was a new player. A player that was brave and afraid of nothing. I was a proud player named Connor Fulton.