Sunday, July 19, 2009

Exposure Period Player Diary #1 - Liz Briones

Doing What You Have To Do
Elizabeth Briones

The van we rented seems comfortable enough. Although, who am I to suppose, my eyes are barely open. Four thirty in the morning never seemed so early. Last night I climbed into bed around midnight or so, only after triple checking my things so I wouldn’t have to do so this morning. Who knows what I’d forget this early? Which reminds me…two shoes? Yes. Blue uniform? Yes. White uniform? Yes. Shooting shirt? Yes. Ankle braces? Yes. Everything else? I can live without. And with a long, dramatic sigh, I throw my pillows down and climb in.

“So Buddy, did you bring the laptop charger? Oh, and don’t forget the food? I’m hungry already. Can we eat before we go? Hey B, are you awake? I am. Wake up. I can’t go to bed. Let’s watch a movie? I brought Transformers.” So begins the absolute longest road trip of my life.

Meet my precious, little sister, Victoria. She’s a riot. She will be the lone reason I will enjoy the traveling aspect of the 18 hours ahead of us. Yet, she will be the reason it takes us 20 to reach our destination with her bathroom breaks, stretching breaks, food breaks, and, let us not forget the I-Can’t-Find-My-Phone/ipod/nail-clippers/band-aids/summer reading book (even though she’s probably not necessarily looking for that last one in the first place.)

For the past two years Victoria and I have both played for TeamXpress, a traveling basketball organization founded by Coach Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil. TeamXpress is not your normal everyday AAU team. I have played for a variety of AAU teams since I was about ten years old, and though I have the most absolute respect possible for all of my past coaches and teammates and am grateful for everything that I learned while playing for and with them, I must admit that TeamXpress is the organization in which I have grown the most. Playing for TeamXpress is not as easy as waking up one morning and deciding that you want to be the next Candace Parker. It is a long battle that requires a great amount of commitment and drive. I have heard TeamXpress criticized time and time again for the overall intensity associated with the program. In its defense, we asked for it. In fact, we need it.

For most of the female athletes involved in this family, as I have learned it truly is, their individual goal, mine included, is to compete at the collegiate level. This also requires a great amount of commitment and drive. The biggest lesson I have learned from my years with the TeamXpress family is it is easy to give up. It is too easy to say, “That’s it. I’m done. I can’t feel my legs,” and stop running, stop pushing, stop competing. The great thing about this family is that even though, giving up may seem easy, it’s too hard. Just participating in one tournament with our team, whether it is in the stands, on the bench, or on the court, you participated in success. That taste is sweeter than the nectar drunk by the Olympians. It’s addicting. You can’t quit.

The success that I plan on describing in my next few stories stem from roots watered by coaches who genuinely want what is best for the whole of the individual; who are not afraid to ask always for more from the pushing athlete; and who will be as honest as the mirror in front of the beauty queen. These roots are buried in the soil of support and love of the parents who have invested so much financially and time wise to the daughter’s basketball career. The same roots lead to the stem that grows just as the athlete grows.

Last week, I found myself in Frisco, Texas, a country town just outside of Dallas; the location, USA Fieldhouse. I always love July with TeamXpress. Some of the places we get to play are, without a doubt, just plain amazing. Last year, we played at Texas A&M University on the actual court. Anyways, we arrived on a Sunday afternoon and my dad, Victoria, and I went to check out the facility. There were approximately 16 courts in an array of 4 by 4. Each court came with two flat screen TVs; one displayed the score, clock, foul count, etc. and the other advertised the facility sponsors through commercials. 16 courts. 64 teams, all beatable. This is going to be a good tournament. I slept that night with a smile.

Our bracket was easy. Nothing worth mentioning occurred. But maybe that’s what happened. Sometimes, when a team wins and wins and wins, you can forget how crucial the little things were that helped you win. Maybe that explains the lack of solid closeouts, box outs, and rebounds. Maybe that explains the slow, excruciating process we underwent as our team separated into the individual numbers displayed on our blue jerseys.

Who knows, the fact of the matter is we left with a new fire. The more I think about last week the more my blood heats up. I’m sweating. I’ve been so engulfed, I just realized it’s super hot in here.

“Victoria! Turn the air conditioner on.”
Ok,” her eager face darts away from the summer reading book in her hands. I could see the muscles relax in neck, which she had tensed so tightly to unwillingly hold her gaze upon the text that seemed to slowly be killing her. “Are you ready to watch Transformers?”


So maybe my fire was a little too realistic at that present moment. But on the morning of July 13, it was exactly that same fire that had my team going. We were set to play Oregon Rein as our first game of bracket. A victory for us was crucial, but the fight we had to display in that win was essential. In April, we lost by a mere 2 points to this team in the semifinal of an Adidas Grassroots tournament in Las Vegas. After that defeat, we crawled into a classroom located behind the court. Instead of a lecture, Coach Clarissa had us stand in front and face each other. We each had to begin with the prompt, “I am (name) and I am a (describe role on the team.)” If the team agreed, they’d respond in unison, “yes.” Though the sour taste of defeat was all too distinct in our mouths, we were all laughing as each girl took her turn and was bluntly honest about who she was.

There are a few things I remember from that game:
1. Our game was in the back of the complex, in a little corner.
2. The stands, insignificant in size, were packed with people.
3. Every folding chair reserved for a college scout was in use.
4. The New Yorker had a film crew there to get coverage of the match up.
5. Oregon Rein never stood a chance.
We were all too hyped, all too determined, all too ready, and all too united. We won by 20+. It’s hard to remember scores in blowouts.

With that, we coasted into the semifinal where, ironically, we lost to the Minnesota Stars, whom we had previously beaten by 20+ in the same tournament in Vegas. This was one of those games where the ball seems to be set down on an even platform, and then external forces, such as referees (just an example), push it so it is rolling in the direction opposite of you….if you catch my drift. Honestly, their one team foul compared to our 10+ in the second half is pretty ridiculous. Despite the officials pathetic preferences already digging our graves, we practically began shoveling the dirt on top of ourselves by falling into the same trap again. Our team forgot the little things, and then we forgot about each other.

After losing by eight in the middle of July, the time for defining your role has come and gone. We were asked by Coach Clarissa what we were missing in this game. Each of my teammates said rebounds, box outs, missed free throws, etc. No one said teamwork, and thank goodness they didn’t because I probably would have lost it. Yes, there was no teamwork; but we were way past just “teamwork.” It came down to playing together, trusting each other, and unity. Those were the three things I said, and with that Coach left our huddle knowing that what needed to be said had been said.

I went back to the hotel furious, but I did what I always do. Basically, the only thing I felt I could do. I took a few deep breaths, a cold shower, ate a sandwich and some carrots. Then, I laid down, and it hit me. In Vegas, I stood in front of my teammates and said the following,

“I am Liz. I am a scorer, a defender, a hard worker, a rebounder, a competitor, a coachable, team player. I hustle. I don’t like to lose. I am a leader.”

I probably should have added that I also think to much, more than what should be regarded as a healthy dose. Which transitions me into my next thought, a favorite quote of mine from John Quincy Adams:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

If my role is to be a leader, then I have some inspiring to do. We just hit the bottom again for the second time in two weeks, and this rollercoaster is beginning to feel more and more like the Scream in Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

9 PM: Sat down in front of hotel computer and began searching inspirational quotes regarding teamwork, unity, basketball, and winning.
9:30 PM: Decided my idea was utterly stupid, and I had better things to do like figure out what in the world I was going to write for She's Ballin blog.
10:45 PM: Decided I was stupid for being a chicken.
10:46 PM: After verbally criticizing myself, I sat down, said a prayer, and began.
11:52 PM: Experienced a chocolate craving.
11:52 & 3 seconds PM: Gave into chocolate graving.
12:45 AM: Printed my work, and discovered there was no color ink.
12:46 AM: Told the manager what I thought of his hotel’s No Color Ink Policy.
12: 47 AM: So tired, I got over it.
12:48 AM: Thanked God, the leader of my life, for inspiring me to do this for my teammates.

I must say, it was probably one of the better presentations I ever put together. If this wasn’t already so long, I probably would have posted it here as well because some of the quotes and stories can apply to anyone looking for a little push. In the end, the effect it had was incredible. I handed it out to everyone before the game, and they read it to themselves at first. In a unanimous agreement, we decided to read it aloud as a team a few minutes before the game. At one point in that day, each of the girls told me that they were going to save it and use it for their school teams, put it up on their wall, wished they would have thought of it, or just a simple thank you. This was the first time I had done something like this were every single one of my teammates genuinely appreciated it. I kept thinking, as is my signature trait, and realized it was because each of them genuinely cares about being successful.

We took home third place in that tournament, but that detail is insignificant. When I think about this tournament in Indiana, I will think about the true definition of a team. I will associate this tournament with an understanding of a committed athlete. I will remember how much harder this tournament was mentally compared to physically; because it’s easy to stand in front of your friends and say some words, but it is much harder to sit in front of a hotel computer, late into the night, and write a letter hoping it inspires someone to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more. The red Hoosiers court takes a back seat this time around. It’s the concrete floor we sat on as we read that packet that I’ll always remember.

We’re driving home, and true to character, I’m thinking again. This is what playing for TeamXpress does to you. You’re asked to be a better basketball player, and to do so you must understand the concept of a team. To understand the concept of a team, you must define your particular role. Maybe your particular role is to score, maybe it’s to rebound, maybe it’s to shoot, maybe it’s to defend, and maybe it’s to pull your team back together. Then again, playing for TeamXpress, you’ll do whatever it takes to be successful. That’s what I had to do.