August of 2008 is a month that will forever be a somber time for my family, but also a time of remembrance to a special person, my grandmother, Mary Ellen McCarrick. I was the youngest of 8 grandchildren.
Gram and I shared a special relationship. Yes, I can admit now that I got somewhat special treatment being the youngest for those asking. She would sit with me for hours as a young kid, mostly to look and watch the cars drive by the corner of Barry Road and North Oak in Kansas City. Cars were my obsession as a young kid. As I got older and more involved in the sports and school scene, Gram never missed a game, or school play, or any function I had if she could get to it. It always meant a lot to me, something I always made sure I shared with her any chance I got knowing that it wasn’t easy for her to get around at that time in her life.
It was 2007, my Senior Night, where my grandmother sat in the stands with a smile and glow about her that always made me feel at ease. With Gram, it didn’t matter what it was, she was always proud of you. She made you feel loved, as if you were the most important person every time you got the chance to spend time with her. That night was emotional, for many reasons as a lone senior, but to see her in the stands for my last high school game hit me hard. I reflected back on her sitting in bleachers around multiple gyms in Kansas City, while also caring for me as a young kid when my parents had teacher obligations.
It was also a moment that started the process of my journey to Mizzou.
That next day, I remember talking with her about life after high school, how I was planning on going to Missouri to continue my education, but I admitted to her that I felt a sense of confusion knowing that I loved the game of basketball.
On this day, she turned to me in deep thought and said, “why don’t you just go tryout for Mizzou?” She said it with such conviction, as if it was a no brainer. Sure, sounds simple enough, Gram, I’ll just go try out for a Division 1 basketball program with players I grew up idolizing.
I had two scholarship offers. One was to William Jewell, the other to Arkansas State, with two welcomed walk-on opportunities to go play at Washburn and Northwest Missouri State (my mom’s alma mater). As time went on, and my fall freshman semester approached, Gram would continually pull me aside to tell me, “you should go play at Mizzou.” It almost became in my mind more realistic, but I knew that if I were to share this with others they’d think I was nuts. Why would I go risk not making a team when I had opportunities to play college basketball elsewhere? That didn’t seem like a rational or logical decision.
My high school career as a basketball player was centered around two words: grit and discipline. You didn’t have those, you didn’t make it playing for Fred Turner. He was tough, hard nosed, and a no nonsense teacher that idolized Bob Knight and John Wooden. Our teams were built on defense, fundamentals and never beating ourselves. He preached consistency with principles.
He demanded of you, both physically and mentally, every single day. Some of the hardest practices I ever experienced were in high school, not college. You earned everything playing for Fred Turner, there was no easy path or special privilege no matter who you were. He engrained in me two words that I have told myself countless times in athletics and in life, “next effort.” You miss the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw, sprint back and defend. You miss a defensive assignment, move on to the next play and make it your best possession.
You dribble the ball off your leg, it’s a physical mistake and not a mental mistake. Get to the next play and possession and don’t compound your mistake, and you better not sulk or blame a teammate or you’ll get put in your place. He had no time for that, you sat and watched if you did something like that.
In the summer of 2007, after I graduated high school, I worked relentlessly on my game. I’d run 8 sets of 11-liners 3 days a week to work on conditioning, which were sprints baseline to baseline in under 1 minute and 10 seconds. I’d lift weights 3 days a week, while getting up 300 shots 5 days a week. I worked on ball handling, I played in pick up games twice a week, all while telling hardly anyone that my grandmother had rubbed off on me and I was going to try to walk-on at Mizzou. It was her and I’s secret, one that I deep down wanted. I envisioned seeing her and telling her face to face that I had made it, knowing how much joy that would bring her.
As I made the move to Columbia to start my fall semester at Mizzou, it was a challenge to adapt to the change.
It was the first time on my own, I was in a fraternity, I had 5 college classes that were totally different than the high school setting and I was in a class where your professor had no idea who you were. I was 1 of 30,000 plus students at the flagship institution and I felt like a fish out of water. I would get up every morning around 6:30 AM, get to the Student REC Center by 7 AM to run sprints and workout. I’d have my daily classes scheduled between 9 AM and 2 PM. When my day of classes would end, I’d go right back to the REC to play in pick up games with students to get 5 on 5 work in.
This became my daily routine. It was creating habits that I knew I had to stick to.
November of 2007 saw Walk On Tryouts at Mizzou Arena. As the day approached, I had only told my parents and brother that I was going to take a leap and try to walk on the basketball team. TJ Cleveland and Matt Zimmerman were the two Assistant Coaches leading the 3-hour tryout filled with different drills, conditioning tests, shooting drills, and a 5 on 5 scrimmage that current Mizzou players and coaches watched.
It was intimidating to say the least, especially knowing the group put together for the tryout had some really good talent in it that I came to know well from pickup games at the REC.
Days after the tryout, we were all notified that the program was not keeping any walk-ons that year, thanking us for our interest and time. It felt like the end, I had tried and failed. I was still proud of myself knowing I took a leap, but it felt as if this was the end of the road. I still loved the game, I thought, maybe I’d go try to walk on at Northwest or Washburn. Would they even consider me now? Do I really want to leave Mizzou when I love the school so much?
Questions spiraled through my mind, I was 18 years old and didn’t know what the next step was in my journey.
As the summer of 2008 approached, I was still in a phase of unknown.
I missed basketball, still played 2 or 3 times a week, but wasn’t working out as hard as I was that previous summer and fall. Classes were getting more intense, but I understood the importance of never letting my grades and academics slide. That was concrete and the number one focus.
This was when I received the news that my grandmother was ill, hospitalized with a stroke. At that time, I think my family knew that something was missing with me, something I was hiding and not wanting to admit. Leave it to my grandmother to pry it out of me as I sat by her in a nursing home that I knew she hated. She still had the glow about her, the smile that always was contagious with me.
I remember the moment vividly in my mind, as my mother left the room to tend to ice water duties and a nurse to assist with pain medication. My grandmother changed the subject quickly, without any thought to the conversation we were having about her health, “you should go try out again at Mizzou, you know you can make it, don’t give up yet.”
If I knew anyone believed in me, it was my grandmother. I am grateful and lucky to have a strong family support system, but my grandmother was the one person I knew really thought I could do it, without even a thought of a doubt. I told her that I was still thinking about it, considering going through another rigorous process, but I also had my own doubts of it in my mind.
My grandmother was a tough and resilient lady, I think her husband (my grandfather) Vic McCarrick, who served in World War II at Okinawa had something to do with that.
That summer and fall period of 2008 was as hard as I ever worked, working out sometimes 3 times a day. I would shoot in the gym for hours, with no rebounders, no coaches and no skill trainers. It was the ball, a hoop, and me. That was all I needed. I knew I had to niche myself as a shooter, that was my game and I had to expand on that. I needed to get faster, I worked on speed and agility drills while working on shooting off the dribble. I knew I had to handle the ball better, I would work on combination moves and different ball handling drills that would push me out of my comfort zone.
It was September of 2008, I was at the REC Center finishing up cone drills that day. I had an open court in the 11 AM hour, which was the best time to get work in knowing must students were in class.
As I glanced over to the court next to me mid-workout, I noticed Mike Anderson, Mizzou head coach, playing in a pick up game with faculty, two former collegiate athletes and University professors. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, knowing he had played in college and still loved to play. As I stood on the baseline, headphones in with Metallica and Pearl Jam playing on repeat, Jeff Daniels (Director of Basketball Operations) walked over and asked, “You want to hoop with us? We need one more.” Sure, why not I thought, couldn’t hurt anything.
As fate would have it, as we began to match up on the floor and check the ball, Mike Anderson walked over and started to guard me. In return, I had to guard Coach A.
In my mind I kept thinking, is this a smart idea? As the game played itself out, I noticed early on that Coach A loved to compete and wanted the same from the other 9 guys playing. He was intense, he was tough, he was strong and wanted the game to be played hard. There was no cherry picking, no checking the ball for anyone that was tired or lagging behind, you didn’t stop play. Fouls? Not many, unless it was obvious. You brought it, the faculty and professors brought it too knowing they didn’t want to appease Mike.
From that point on, for two months, I played twice a week with Mike Anderson, Jeff Daniels, and at the time Director of Strength and Conditioning David Deets. I continued to lift weights, run sprints, workout on my own individually and continued to push myself. I got to know Coach Daniels and Coach Deets fairly well during the pick up games, but Coach A never really said anything to me. He and I would go at each other weekly, pushing each other, never letting the other get any clean look, hating to lose and wanting the ball in crucial situations.
I hit a game winning step back 3-point shot over Coach A in one game that I could tell drove him nuts. He knew I got him, it wasn’t like he didn’t have his moments where he got me, but two days later was the moment I knew I had a real chance of making the team.
18-18, game was to 21, 2’s and 3’s, game 1 of a best of 7, ball at the top of the key and two-staggered baseline screens awaited me as I felt Coach Anderson chase me. As I went to catch the ball, I felt my feet leave the floor as I was thrown into the court nearby. In my head I thought, “Damn, Coach A is an ox.” It wasn’t a cheap shot, it was Coach Anderson testing my toughness, testing if I could handle it.
As I picked myself up the floor, it would’ve been easy to complain, to get mad, to go back at him or say something. I looked on the baseline and several students and on-lookers had surrounded our court, as the other 8 guys looked at me to see what I would do. I got up, went right to the low block, and said, “check ball.” Coach A came over, knowing that it didn’t bother me in the slightest, and stuck his hand out while slapping me on the butt. I knew I earned a lot that day with him, knowing that in two weeks the 2008 Walk-On tryouts were taking place.
As the game concluded, I was packing my bag about to head to the showers. I had a 1 PM class at Middlebush I needed to get to, when Jeff Daniels stopped me dead in my tracks and asked the question, “Are you thinking about trying out for us again?” Without hesitation, I said I was going to, knowing that at this point I felt confident that I had a strong chance.
As Coach Daniels began to walk off, he looked back and me and said, “I think you should.”
I was riding high, I felt hope that this could be the opportunity of a lifetime, yet I still felt that I had to prove myself. That will forever be remembered as the start of the journey. Little did I know that the very next day I would get a call from my mother informing me that my Grandma McCarrick, my inspiration that gave me a belief in what felt like an unattainable dream, had passed away.
My grandmother’s funeral was a difficult day. She was 87 and lived a wonderful life. It truly was a celebration, knowing she had raised three daughters and had a family that was built around her with love. In the days before my walk-on tryout, I thought of her constantly, knowing that she was looking down on me wanting me to go for my dream of playing at Mizzou.
If there was any time for this to happen, it was now. I wanted this not only for myself, but also for my grandmother who always believed I could do it. For the two weeks that followed her funeral I did 3 workouts a day, scattered throughout the day. I prepared as much as I could, while grieving in the process and telling nobody of my impending tryout.
As the 2008 walk on tryout concluded, and days followed, I tried anything and everything to keep busy and keep my mind off of the call. I knew the coaching staff would let all of us know whether we made it or not. It was October 19, days after the basketball team started practice. I was in the library, about to leave a study room area when the 573 area code number popped up on my phone. It was TJ Cleveland calling to inform me that I was invited to practice with the team, almost like a second interview or call back and that I was the only one they were bringing back. If I made it through the weekend, I was on the team.
I waited to make the call to family and friends, knowing I wasn’t sure if I had made it or not yet. That weekend, practice was unlike anything I had experienced in basketball, all while knowing nobody. For my first drill and action on the court with the team, Mike Anderson paired me in a one-on-one full court defensive drill against DeMarre Carroll.
It was another test, I knew it. DeMarre was a starter a year ago, the “junkyard dog.” All I told myself was keep him in front, body him as best you can, contest everything, and block out and force him to a jump shot. As we broke the midcourt stripe it was him smelling blood in the water, a fresh walk-on he could expose. As he went to go right, I was able to get my hand on the ball and knock it loose for a short period. Loose ball, 50/50 ball, my best-case scenario to lay it all on the line. I dove as quickly as I could for it with DeMarre not far behind.
I could hear players and coaches clapping and yelling my name (some not even aware of what my name was), it was a tie up and the possession was over. I was picked up by J.T. Tiller, who yelled, “hell yes, let’s go!” I felt I had earned a lot of respect in that moment, I wanted to compete, I was hungry to prove myself to the players, and I knew how tough and hard nosed the players were if they were playing for Coach Anderson.
Above all else, I knew what my job was to the program and I made sure I set the tone from day one.
That evening I got the call. TJ Cleveland called me to congratulate me, “congratulations, J. You are on the team. See you bright and early in the morning.” I had made the team, I would wear #25, and that I could tell my family and an announcement would be made. To call my parents, two brothers who were Mizzou grads, and extended family and friends who were in shock with excitement was a moment I’ll never forget. Above it all, I came back to my grandmother. I knew she was watching over me in that moment, I knew how proud she was of me and I knew she was glowing with a smile.
That year changed my life. The 2008-09 season was not just a memorable one for me, but our entire team.
We won 31 games, a Big XII Tournament Championship, made an Elite 8 appearance and restored Mizzou Basketball back to where it should be. That summer, Mike Anderson called me to his office following a summer workout. That first year, I typically didn’t get called into coach’s office that often. I was paranoid of what this could be. I kept thinking, did I not sign in this morning on the player sheet? It was a daily requirement that would snake bite guys into additional running if you missed singing in.
I walked into coach’s office, he sat me down and told me that he was putting me on a full scholarship. I was at a loss for words. What stuck with me in that meeting was he looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m giving you a scholarship. You earned this scholarship and deserve this.” To call my parents and tell them the news was a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
What I respected most about it was he didn’t care about making it a flashy statement. It was a private meeting, it wasn’t filmed or posted about and nobody had a clue it was happening. It was him making me feel that I had earned his respect, trust and admiration by the job I did that year.
I walked out of his office, going straight to the locker room holding back any emotion I had. When I got to my locker, I sat down and was overcome with emotion. I thought of my grandmother, knowing how proud she’d be of me, thinking about how in that moment all I wanted was to do was tell her.
I highly recommend the book GRIT by Angela Duckworth. In the book, she discusses how far talent takes you, while effort an achievement are solely correlated around toughness and grit in the long term.
The stories and lessons she shares in the book touch on how much you can grow as a person, while achieving success with determination, toughness, and an attitude of believing in yourself. “Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take the acquired skills and use them with the same effort.”
Life of a walk on isn’t easy. It’s a sacrifice and a commitment that I feel honored and fortunate to have had. In my 4 year career I had the opportunity to play with some of the best men you could imagine, teammates that are brothers to this day. Guys that put it all on the line for each other and cared more about winning than themselves. It was an experience of a lifetime, with life changing relationships that have shaped me into the man I am today.
I learned so much about myself as a collegiate athlete. I was lucky to have come across Mike Anderson, someone I still look up to today. He gave me an opportunity, a chance to earn it by how willing I was to go the extra mile. There was no easy path, no hidden door, no recruiting ranking or AAU story of how he found me. Persistence, perseverance, determination, a goal and dream, a belief in yourself to earn the right to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself. It’s lessons that stay with me today. The journey was hard, it was long, it was challenging, it was a mental and physical grind that was ruthless at times but so worth it in the end.
In just a short time, Cuonzo Martin has given me those feelings I had as a player back. He’s restored that level of toughness, of grit, of resilience to overcome adversity, of no excuses, all while emphasizing growth as a man that makes me so optimistic for the future of Mizzou Basketball. As Cuonzo calls it, “love tough”. It’s how Mike Anderson brought Mizzou out of the shadows. Restoring a fan base while building culture within the pillars of Mizzou Arena. It’s what Cuonzo is creating and building now, a culture the University of Missouri can be proud of.
“I’m convinced there are no more important qualities in striving for excellence than those that create true grit.” – Brad Stevens