By Erin McCartney Rozniakowski
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure… One is That I Will Fight for What is Right.
There are entire chunks of my childhood that I cannot remember. What I do remember, however, is very consistent and clear and most have something to do with basketball.
Except for gymnastics, my first love. I was strong and flexible and I enjoyed it. But even at eight years old, “they” said I would be “too tall” to be a gymnast. A few years later, after I had already given up the sport, Svetlana Boginskaya took the Olympics by storm. I ranted for weeks because “The Bellarussian Swan” and I were exactly the same height. I felt robbed.
For my brief time as a gymnast I enjoyed being different from everyone in our small town, especially from my father, who had been a three-sport standout in high school and held numerous records, including All-Time Leading Scorer in basketball. He played soccer and baseball at the Division II level. He had Division I offers, of course, but he chose DII in the hopes of being a three-sport athlete. Had the seasons not overlapped, he probably would have been.
“You’ll be tall like your dad!” “they” told me, (my father is 6’3”). Nope, “they” were wrong.
Because I was going to be “too tall,” I was ushered away from gymnastics. I played soccer, softball and basketball instead. Basketball quickly emerged as my favorite. Once in a while, I could even hear my dad saying nice things about me. Never to my face, of course, but suddenly I felt more loved. The desire for approval then turned into a desire to improve. People began to compare me to my dad – the way I moved, my knack for rebounding, my aggressiveness. While my heart swelled with pride and hope, it also began to race with anxiety and buckle under the weight of expectation. My father would often ask me how many points and rebounds I had and if it was the most on the team. I worried incessantly. Living up to my father’s legacy began to consume me.
“My message was clear: This was my game, I deserve to be here, and I will fight for it.”
By 5th grade I was playing basketball with the boys at every recess. This pleased my father as much as it pleased me. Other girls would sometimes take up half the court with games of Pig or Around the World, but they never played pick-up. I was a kid who spent several weeks each summer at basketball camps. I listened when my dad gave me pointers and I didn’t want to let him down. I knew that defensive stance meant getting low, a left-handed lay-up required actually using my left hand, and when a shot went up, I boxed out every time. Of course, being the only girl in a boys’ world, and being better than most of them, offensive rebounds were my best friend. Putbacks seemed innocuous to the guys, despite the fact that it meant I walked away with more points than most of them while they jacked up threes.
So one day there I was, boxing out a boy who had probably just chucked up another three-point shot, when he decided that he didn’t like being boxed out and called me a bitch. There was just something in the way he said it. My reaction was fierce and immediate. I punched him right in the nose. Blood streamed down his face and his eyes filled with tears, but I didn’t feel one ounce of remorse. As he rushed to tell the teachers, the other boys nodded in understanding. No one saw anything; it’s a contact sport, they said. The teachers didn’t see it either. I was never punished. My message was clear: This is my game, I deserve to be here, and I will fight for it.
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure… One is That is You Can Choose Your Dreams, But Not Your Body.
I remember crying the day I got my period. Sixth grade. I knew I only had two more years to grow and since I was now focused on basketball, I had come to hang my dreams on my height. At 5’8,” I wasn’t tall enough to be a post but coaches were still playing me inside. Everyone else around me was still shorter. So there I was, having lost my first dream of a gymnastics career “they” told me my body wasn’t right for, and now I was in love with another sport that my body was telling me I was not suited to master. I did not have the quickness of Jamila Wideman or Sue Bird nor the ball-handling ability to play Division I as a guard. I had to adjust.
“My father would often ask me how many points and rebounds I had and if it was the most on the team. I worried incessantly. Living up to my father’s legacy began to consume me.”
So I learned to dribble and started running with a girl who was going to the Naval Academy. For someone who had always struggled with weight both genetically and personally (not easy coming from a family that owned a deep fryer), I felt great. I had never been so focused or in better shape. It was 1996 and I was a sophomore in high school at Mercersburg Academy. We were ten games in when I stormed down the court during a game, jump-stopped and crumbled. I had blown out my right ACL. I sat through March Madness staring at staples in my knee and crying onto my bracket pool.
After I tore my ACL, I attempted to play the rest of the season before getting it repaired. I played in one game injured, as my femur continued to slide into the meniscus and bones, and I made it through. A couple days later in practice, I reinjured my knee. It felt just as bad as when it had first happened. As I lie there, crying, I saw two of my teammates laughing at me. It was a heartbreaking moment. I felt so lost and so very alone.
I pulled away from the team then and focused on my own recovery. I stopped going to practice, stopped supporting them in games. In hindsight, I never should have done that. It hurt so much to watch others play when I could not, especially to see those who didn’t work as hard or care as much enjoying minutes that should have been mine. But that selfish focus on my own success became a character flaw I would have to overcome later. I still had to learn how to put the team before myself, how to be a leader even when I could not be a player, and to respect the game even when it was not my time to play.
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure… And One is When My Body Broke Down, My Heart Woke Up.
When I graduated from Mercersburg and went on to play at Haverford College, I had still not learned how to be a good teammate. I was finally out of my ACL brace, but just a few weeks into college I missed a step carrying boxes for a basketball fundraiser and tweaked my back. Unbeknownst to me, I had fractured a process and blown out a disc. I continued to play. I played until I had pain shooting down my leg and I was dragging it along behind me. By the time I saw a specialist, the arthritis was so bad the doctor couldn’t believe the MRI was mine and not my mother’s. I was 19-years-old.
I never knew what basketball meant to me until I couldn’t play the way I wanted to anymore. I had hurt my knee and sprained my ankles, but the implications of breaking my back were unfathomable. The spasms, the meds, the physical therapy, the constant threat of permanent injury. Suddenly, every movement was so much harder and I saw how much I had taken for granted. I was a shadow of my former self. It wasn’t as if I could just work harder and get back to the player I once was. With three seasons of college basketball still ahead of me, I had to come to terms with the fact that the player I used to be was someone I could never be again.
“I never knew what basketball meant to me until I couldn’t play the way I wanted to anymore.”
As large and talented as our squad had been my freshman year in college, in our sophomore season we had to rely on players with no significant basketball experience just to keep the Athletic Director from cancelling our season altogether. As my body and my program broke down, no longer did I worry about becoming the second Haverford woman to reach 1,000 points. I realized that my former notions of greatness were selfish and one dimensional. It was then that I actually started to learn the game. I realized how important everyone was to the team. I started thinking about what they had going on in their lives, how much they were giving up to give the team the opportunity to just play the sport. I tried to be more encouraging. I paid attention to our systems so that I could help others understand their positions. My injury slowed me down enough to see what was going on around me and stop thinking only of myself. I began to focus even more on my technique and efficiency and even took time to train some of the younger players. I took higher percentage shots, and less of them. I passed more (at least I thought so). Being a less dominant player made me think more like a coach, especially in how I spoke to and treated my teammates. I became less sarcastic, more positive, and more compassionate. You need five people on the court and I realized that I had been playing one-on-one for a very, very long time.
Just before my last college game, my father called me. He didn’t call often, but when he did his timing was always impeccable. He knew it was hard for me to walk away with unfinished business, with dreams unrealized. I had scored a thousand points in high school, but my college career had fallen short. Dad’s voice quaked, I could tell how much he hurt for me. “You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, least of all me,” he said. “I love you no matter what. I’m proud of every step you take.” Had he not made that phone call, I probably would have spent a lifetime wondering how much I had let him down. But he had finally given me permission to just play. I finally believed that his love for me was separate from and unrelated to my performance on the court.
I have no idea how many points I scored in my final game, but I milked my last moments wearing the number 54 and enjoyed every second until time ran out. There was nothing special about me as a player when I walked off the court that day. I was just a girl who loved the game. Pure and simple as that.
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, And One is That Coaching Basketball is What I Was Born to Do.
Today, I run a girls’ basketball club in the greater Philadelphia area that serves over a hundred players each year. We have worked hard to create a community and a culture based on fundamentals, love of the game and mutual respect. I can tell you honestly I do not care how many of them play college basketball, but I absolutely care what kind of people they become. As much as I love my father, and I know he meant well, I never ask my players how many points they scored or if they were the highest scorer. It was surely not his intention, but as a young player, I came away with the impression that my value as a player was linked to statistics alone. For a long time, it made me a woman without a team: I was in competition with everyone.
“[My injuries] slowed me down enough to understand–not in the cliched way that everyone says, but in the way that I truly, deeply get it–basketball is a tool for learning about life. It is both an end in itself and a means to an end.”
While I learned that my body is not well-suited to play the game, I came to respect the other characteristics that made me specially suited to coach it. My attention to detail and endless desire to learn make me a student of the game; my outgoing personality allows me to quickly build strong relationships with my players; my sense of humor keeps players engaged; and my strong voice and presence allow me to clearly communicate in loud, hectic environments. Most importantly, I have developed a willingness to self-reflect and remain vulnerable. I acknowledge my mistakes, take responsibility and learn from them. I am always eager to get better. My playing career may have ended a long time ago, but my heart and mind are still very much involved in the game at a level that is a thousand times more rewarding. I used to be just one player among billions, but as a coach I can have an infinite impact on countless players and future coaches. My goal is to be the positive voice I rarely heard and to help young girls understand that greatest part of the game is what it can teach you about yourself. I no longer need my name on a banner to know my worth.
At the end of the day, I am grateful for the injuries. They slowed me down enough to understand–not in the cliched way that everyone says, but in the way that I truly, deeply get it–basketball is a tool for learning about life. It is both an end in itself and a means to an end. Ultimately, I was able to set myself apart from my father as well. While I could not match his playing career, he has never and will likely never coach. I will always have the advantage of staying close to the game for my whole life, to continue learning, loving and growing as a person. I am very proud of my father and I love him dearly, but while the injuries prevented me from carrying on his legacy, they set me on a path toward discovering my own. The game can give no greater gift than that.
There is one thing I know for sure – I love this game.