Mary Newland: Why I Play

I played tons of sports as a kid. Soccer, swimming, golf, tennis, ice skating, and basketball of course. I loved being on a team, being coached, and competing. I liked every sport I played, even if it just wasn’t my thing. Through trying all these sports, basketball is the only one that really captured me. Maybe it’s because my height was so valued, maybe it’s because my dad was the coach, maybe it’s because there weren’t 6 AM practices like swimming (yet) or because I didn’t have to be outside in the heat all day. Even though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I continued to play, there have been steps along this journey that have kept me in love with the game and constantly reminded me why I play.

My dad played basketball growing up, and I knew I was tall so I figured I’d try it. I joined the YMCA league, where I wore sweatbands, glittery headbands, and running shoes. I don’t remember much honestly: I remember one game when I made a jump shot, coming out of the game and sitting on the floor because we didn’t have a bench, my coach coming over and telling me what a great shot it was. I remember practicing at Buck Recreation Center and playing games there. I remember eventually outgrowing that team and playing on a Gold Crown team, which is the first time my dad was the coach. Our record was 2-11, but as always, it’s the experience that matters.

Regardless of our record, this was the first time I really committed to basketball. I loved playing four games a day and practicing every day but Sunday. I played for my school, where my dad also coached. I started thinking about playing on a club team, which I eventually did. My coach, Nick Graham, pushed me harder than anybody ever did. I also felt that he believed in me more than anybody ever did. He introduced me to how much of a commitment it is to excel at something, yet also showed me the joy and reward in doing so. I would practice twice, sometimes three times a day with him, squeezing in the occasional Jamba Juice run in between practices. I would wake up early before school and go to Buck Recreation Center, the same gym where YMCA practiced, just to get shots up. Thanks, dad, for driving me all those times. I still couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, but I just knew that if I didn’t play, something felt off.

High school came, and basketball took such a priority in my life. My autistic brother, Michael, also played basketball for a Unified team, which is a team for kids with special needs. I pushed myself so hard to make varsity as a freshmen, also to working equally as hard in academics and relationships. This made freshmen year hard, as I saw limited playing time and still tried to excel at everything I did. Morning practices never got easier, proving myself to seniors on varsity never got easier, finding the balance in my life never got easier.

Freshmen year came and went, and I continued on to sophomore year. Challenging myself athletically and academically, I found more of my passions, basketball still being one of them. Early practices followed by late nights resulted in decreased time at home, but somehow my relationships with my family still grew. Michael started connecting with me through basketball, asking me about my teammates, and actually becoming interested in my games and practices. I

think he was happier about Valor winning a state championship than I was. Junior and senior year were similar stories, except for he only became more and more interested in my basketball life while I became more interested in his. Hours and hours at school and in the gym can still be hard, but seeing Michael’s amusement of my schedule make them much better.

Although I still definitely value athletics and academics and continue to challenge myself in them, there are definitely things I value more, one being my relationship with my brother. Even though I’m younger, I want Michael to be able to look up to me and to know that I value him in my life and that I don’t want anything to replace our connection. Throughout maturing, I’ve grown to see that basketball has not only improved my relationship with Michael, but also qualities in myself that carry over to every aspect of my life. My hope is that Michael picks up on these qualities and sees them as admirable, so that I can live as a role model for him in light of something he also loves: basketball. Ultimately, this is why I play.

Basketball teaches an unparalleled work ethic. All-nighters, morning practices, late nights of homework, multitudes of practices, and endurance through games are hard work. Through the years and years of my basketball career, I hope that Michael has seen my work ethic on and off the court, seeing me strive for excellence in a joyful way. Basketball has also taught me the value of caring for others and of accountability. It’s not always easy to own up to mistakes and hold yourself accountable for every action on the court, every test score, or every relationship. Nevertheless, I do this because I want Michael to see the importance and benefits in doing so. I’ve acquired a competitive nature, not only one that has taught me to never settle for mediocrity, but also one that teaches humility in defeat. It teaches me to never slack on a play, never shirk on a responsibility, and to never let a quarter, moment, or experience slip away. If the thrill you get from hitting a buzzer beater or the reward of winning a challenging, physical game aren’t enough reasons why basketball is the best sport, these lessons surely are. I play not only because of the surface level benefits, but also because of the admirable and valuable characteristics developed from it. I play because I want Michael to see these characteristics and someday acquire them, to see what joy comes from doing something you love, and how important it is to live life purposefully, incorporating your passions and values into every aspect.