Who Among Us Has What It Takes to Be the Very Best? (Or the Time, Or the Inclination….)

I don’t have many regrets in life, but one I will cop to is not devoting more time and energy to tennis through the years. I took the sport up as a kid and became pretty decent at it, winning a couple little club tournaments and holding my own in other events.

I probably liked tennis more than any other sport I played, and probably had more natural talent for it. I had certain racket skills that are hard to teach, the requisite combination of agility and coordination, and a mind for the game. I was strategizing at an early age, learning how to outthink the opponent if I could not match them physically.

But this was during an era when kids who were into sports split their time between several – football (American), baseball, basketball, and soccer to a lesser extent. Like a lot of kids, I played many sports. When it came time to pick one to focus on in high school, I chose baseball. It was the one my father most wanted me to play, and I’d had some success at it. After high school, my baseball career was finished.

These days, I regret not choosing tennis instead. Maybe I should have focused on it exclusively, taken more lessons, competed in more tournaments, sought to achieve a higher level. I kept playing regularly as an adult, but only recreationally. These days I hit against the wall in our tiny back yard with its uneven ground and errant bounces. I haven’t played a competitive match in more than a decade. But I still get a thrill out of picking up a racket and hitting.

I might never have been good enough to advance much beyond a small college player, if that. But I might have parlayed it into a career as a tennis writer, covering the sport for some newspaper or magazine. That would have been cool – traveling around, watching and writing about tennis. I watch it all the time anyway, even now.

Then again….

Maybe the grind of focusing on tennis at the exclusion of most everything else would have proven more than I could handle. Because that’s what you have to do to become skilled enough to take a sport to the next level – grind it out every day, practicing the same old shots, repeating the same boring old training regimen, even when you don’t want to (and probably mostly when you don’t want to).

Could I have pulled that off? Would I have been willing to?

Good question, all these years later.


I thought about this while watching a recent documentary called “The Greatest Mixtape Ever,” part of ESPN’s excellent “30 for 30” documentary series. This particular film was about the 1990s streetball scene in New York City, where inner-city basketball courts were overflowing with skilled players doing crazyass shit below and above the rim. This era happened to coincide with the golden age of hip hop, and the two cultures naturally intertwined.

Streetball is an art form all its own, much different than the organized game you see on TV. In streetball, the focus is on creativity and improvisation – making up moves on the fly, dazzling the crowd, dazzling your teammates, doing mind and body tricks on your opponent – and then trash talking after you just juked past them and threw down a 360 dunk with a little shake and bake.

The best streetball players had (and have) otherworldly skills that are equal parts imagination and athleticism. The documentary itself is partly about the DJs who made hip-hop mixtapes to films of the streetballers in action.

Most big cities had their own streetball legends with appropriately flashy nicknames – “Skip to My Lou,” “Main Event,” “Hot Sauce,” “Half Man Half Amazing.” They became stars in their own right, building legends on the blacktop and getting so much attention that they eventually took their show on the road to other streetball games in other cities.

But only one of them – Rafer Alston, aka Skip to My Lou – ever made it to the highest level: the NBA. Alston had a decent run in the NBA, spending 10 years in the league and averaging 10 points a game over his career, with a career high of 14.2 points a game for Toronto during the 2004-05 season. You don’t do that without being one of the best players on the planet.

The documentary also interviewed several former and current NBA players, including Julius Erving, Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis, Isiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, and Lou Williams. The NBA players voiced great respect for the streetballers’ skills.

But when asked if those same streetballers could have beaten a group of NBA players, and competed at the highest level in the NBA, they laughed it off.

“Man, fuck no,” one said.

“No way,” said another. “Please.”

One NBA player told of the time streetball legend Philip“Hot Sauce” Champion played a pickup game against other NBA players. By the end of the game, they were “calling him ketchup” instead of hot sauce, because he got run ragged. Even Hot Sauce himself admitted streetball is nothing compared to the NBA.

The reason is simple: The streetball legends, as skilled as they were, lacked the most important element of joining the elite – the willingness to work hard at it every day, and the discipline to keep working at it, rain or shine, year after year. The best streetballers might have had the skills to make it to the NBA. But they didn’t have the dedication.

To compete in the NBA, you need to devote your hours and days and weeks and years to basketball: taking 500 shots in a single session, practicing your defensive footwork, practicing your cross-over dribble, practicing your rebound positioning, running sprints, jogging in the wind and cold, lifting weights, doing agility exercises over and over again, until you want to puke, and then doing them some more.

This is what it takes to compete at the highest level in just about any pursuit, whether it’s basketball or soccer, chess or music, science, math, business, or writing. You need a single-minded devotion to draining every last ounce out of your natural ability, every single day.

Not everyone who works hard will make it to the top. You need some degree of natural talent (or, in the case of basketball – height). You also need a certain amount of luck, whether it comes in the form of being in the right place at the right time, or just being born into the right family, ethnic group, or gender. There’s a reason white males dominate Fortune 500 CEO positions, and it ain’t because they are more naturally gifted than everyone else.

But all things else being equal, you can bet that the best of the best simply work harder and longer at it than most people. They’re the ones taking an extra 200 shots after practice while everyone else has already hit the showers and headed home, or grinding through that engineering problem while all the others are having a drink down at the local tavern.

Me? I don’t mind working hard, and often enjoy it. But I would never have been the last one out of the door at night, and the first one through it in the morning, just so I could reach the top. I’ve known these people. I am not them.

I look back at my younger self, from the vantage point of 40-odd years on, and tell myself to stick to tennis, focus on tennis, grind it out on the court every day, rain or shine.

And my younger self is looking back at me, saying, “Sorry, Pops. But all that work? Sounds like a real drag.”

*Note: Photo is from Redbull.com

*Note2: As a special blog bonus, I have included a couple of original sports drawings I did recently – free of charge!


    1. Interesting point — what drives people to reach the top? Achievement? Money? Recognition? Competitiveness? The chance to change or better the world? A promise they made to their parents? I’m guessing some people reach the top of their professions simply because they were born on third base, as they say. Others might have been so naturally gifted at a young age that they were groomed for greatness, whether they wanted it or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The drawings at no extra charge are much appreciated. I really enjoyed playing tennis growing up and wanted to get better at it, but the gravitational pull towards the “classic” sports only allowed for me to play it part-time. I never got as good as I wanted to be at it, and still to this day would like to get back out there just to see how far my skills have declined over the years…and also enjoy it once more. I think working smart is as important as working hard. Some commit to one, but not the other. I think to get to the top you have to commit to both.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you and I had similar experiences re tennis. I never got as good at it as I thought I could or would as well. Sometimes life just gets in the way. And you are right about commitment — it is so important, and often undervalued.

      Liked by 1 person

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