Making History: The AAU Sullivan Award
Michael Phelps. Shawn Johnson. Ezekiel Elliott. For 88 years, the AAU Sullivan Award has been presented to the nation’s best amateur athlete.
Written by: Keifer Sykes, PG, Korea
When I first started playing basketball, it was just for fun. The idea was to play whenever and wherever I had the chance, which at the time was the playground across the street from my project building. We would dribble around on the woodchips acting as if we were playing in front of thousands of fans and shoot the ball in the spaces in-between the monkey bars. At the time I never thought I would make it outside of my block to play basketball because on the South Side of Chicago, you hear all about the broken dream. Makes you think that dreams just don’t come true. What you see is reality and what I saw was gangs, jails, drugs (that a large number of people I knew fell victim to), and everything else you hear about when you grow up poor in the neighbor“hood”.
I’ve been through so much adversity but today I’m a professional basketball player who has played at the highest levels. I was an AP All-American in college as a two-time conference Player of the Year. I played with the San Antonio Spurs and their D-League affiliate team, the Austin Spurs. I’ve been on SportsCenter multiple times, on YouTube with highlight reel dunks, and now I’m thousands of miles away from my family playing professionally in South Korea. You never know where this journey will take you but this small idea has taken me and my mind to so many places, putting me on platforms to meet so many great people. This game has given me a chance to tell you about what I call “The Journey.”
I feel a responsibility to tell you about the journey because I came from nothing. I’ve been able to go through the dark times and embrace the bad and trust the process, which enabled me to appreciate the high moments. My life’s purpose started with this idea, and once your idea becomes larger it turns into a vision and the vision turns into a mission that you go after relentlessly. The journey is about the time you put in, the discipline to make sacrifices, finding the proper strategies, listening to the critics, using them to make you better while listening to your inner self, and having the emotional acceptance of your greatness.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
Basketball is something that I always had a passion for. I always found myself playing for fun so I knew that I wanted to make something of it. During adolescent years, when life is full of distractions and indecisiveness, I knew one thing – that I loved basketball. Being born in Chicago gave the game some meaning since I was able to grow up and see people like Derrick Rose. Kevin Garnett also played at my high school conference rival, Farragut Career Academy. He recently retired with the largest contractual earnings ever by a player in the NBA to go along with his outstanding Hall of Fame career. Then you have Antoine Walker, Isaiah Thomas, and of course the greatest player of all-time, Michael Jordan, just to name a few. These are guys that I was able to grow up seeing and hearing stories about that gave me a thrill I couldn’t find anywhere else.
I wanted to be a professional basketball player and I believed this to a fault. I told people how I wanted to play on the same courts as these great players and I learned early on that most people won’t believe in you like you believe in yourself. I vividly remember my 7th grade teacher telling me that I wouldn’t make a career out of basketball. But at that age, it was hard to explain the focus that I was gaining on the game.
The real sacrifices came for me when I entered high school. I had to commute an hour every day from the South East side of Chicago to the West Side, just to go to school with my older brother and to play at Marshall High from the famous film “Hoop Dreams”. Traveling across the city each and every day on Chicago’s Public Transit System at 13 inserted me into a crazy world. I had to fight fatigue, waking up every morning at 5:30, then not making it home until after 8:00 every night. I missed every meal with my family. And I still had to keep up with my grades or my dad wouldn’t even let me play basketball. But I was dedicated and this is the point where I began to build my success.
I played junior varsity my freshman year and was an average player, but I watched our varsity team win the city- and state title that year. After that season I began to feel that if I ever wanted to play real high school basketball at the varsity level that I would have to go to another school. I was at a basketball powerhouse and I just wasn’t ready for it.
My dad coached me throughout grade school and high school from the sideline, in the car, and at home. I remember telling him that I wanted to go to another school but he made me stay at Marshall. He said that I would have to man up and figure it out.
This was the first time I challenged myself to trust my instincts at that moment and go for something that I only had faith was there. I began to work harder than ever the summer after my freshman year. I barely slept before morning conditioning. Outside in the heat, we would run around the school and then run stairs for hours (where I believe my jumping abilities came from). After that, we had normal practice then open runs. Lastly, we would have games in the summer tournaments – sometimes more than one game in a day. After that summer, my confidence was high and I felt that I could play at the varsity level. But my confidence took a hit when I didn’t even get a chance to try out. The varsity team was already full of juniors and seniors. So for the first half of my sophomore season I dominated the junior-varsity level until I was called up to varsity. I finished the season with them and by the time my junior year came around, I was the starting point guard. We went on to play in the city title game that year and to place third in the state finals.
After that season, I began to receive letters from some mid-major Division 1 colleges and some interest from some high-major schools. I had to choose to leave my family or give up on my dreams after high school. I knew my parents couldn’t afford college tuition, so this was my only chance to make it out of Chicago. My father felt that it would be best if I committed to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay right after my junior season. I’d have a chance to play right away and it was only three hours from home. No one from my hometown had heard of any sport in Green Bay other than pro football, which made them question why would I sign so early, still having my senior season to gain some high-major offers. At that point my dad taught me to be a leader and pave my own way. Most kids chose more established schools because of the name, but I wasn’t rated at all in high school so it was fitting for me to go to a smaller school. I felt lucky to have a chance to play and be the first to get a college degree in my family. I decided to take the scholarship and continue to build my momentum of success. I had to go with my gut because of all of the work that led up to me being in that position.
I went into college with this no expectations, no limitations attitude that propelled me to the situation I am in today. In Green Bay, I became fully consumed with basketball because it was the first time the game took me out of my comfort zone and out of Chicago. As soon as I pulled up on campus, I learned that my life would change because of two things: I was a minority on a small campus of 6,000 students, and I was playing Division 1 basketball at 17. This would make or break me.
My vision to be a pro basketball player had turned into a mission now that I was just one level away. Before I knew it, I was inserted into the starting line up as a freshman, just a couple games into the season (as the youngest Division 1 basketball player in the country). I had some big games throughout the year and things were looking good for me and the team. Then, heading into my sophomore season I faced the biggest tragedy that changed my life forever. I got a call while at school that my father had passed away from a sudden heart attack. Losing my father was something that haunted me and it still does to this day. I felt completely lost and couldn’t understand life at that point.
When I got home, my family was torn apart and I was the worst of all. Basketball was the last thing on my mind and I felt like I didn’t want to play anymore. All I wanted to do was be there for my mom and the family and fulfill my dad’s role. But when I finally got back to school, I knew what I had to do to make my father proud and that was to play this game with everything I had in order to create opportunities for my family like he did. This is when I began to challenge myself mentally like never before, because I knew I had to get something out of this game.
My coach would say that to master a craft it takes 10,000 hours of practice, so I knew that I had to find that type of focus to keep my mind off of devastation. I had to fully commit to the game without the fear of failing. The first thing I did was get a white board, write my goals on it, and hang it right next to my bed so I could wake up and see it every morning.
I set the bar high.
I wanted to break records.
I wanted to lead the league.
I wanted to test my limits and compete with the guys from the high major schools that didn’t recruit me.
I wanted to be everything people said that I couldn’t be when they heard I committed to Green Bay.
Displaying my goals this way helped me push myself and hold myself accountable every day. I started to spend hours watching film and taking notes with the coaches. Physically, I would try to lift everything in the weight room. I would work on my game outside of practices and in between classes, even if it was just to stop and shoot 100 free throws in my street clothes. My vision for what I needed to do to achieve my goals was becoming clearer by the day.
LEVERAGE YOUR RESOURCES
After my junior season, I won the Horizon League Player of the Year award and I was invited to Chris Paul’s Annual Camp for the top 20 college guards. Going to CP3’s camp was one of the greatest learning experiences of my career. This was the first time I felt like I could compete at the NBA level because of all the NBA players who were there. We were competing in front of NBA scouts and under NBA coaches. We played against all-stars like Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas, and all of this was new to a player like me who came from the lower levels of college. Most importantly, what I took from these players and coaches in that short week was that I was just like them. It seemed far-fetched for a kid from Chicago. When we see those people’s lives on TV, we feel like to achieve that level of success is impossible. However, at that point I gained clarity that this game was for me. It was taking me places and I was able to reach people at the highest levels, getting access to some of the greatest minds in the game. My life began to change and I started to see the world differently as I gained influence from these things. I was just hungry for more knowledge to see what else the world had to offer beyond my own understanding.
After the camp, I did well enough that I began to appear on draft boards as I prepared for my senior season and my future pro career. I went out to LA to train and get ready for the NBA Combine. This was the first time that I was able to work with some of the best basketball trainers, learn from strength and conditioning coaches, and workout daily with the best players in the draft (D’Angelo Russell, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Devin Booker). I realized that even though I was getting closer to my dream, professional basketball was new territory. These are people whose jobs only consist of getting better at the game, from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. Some of these people were born for basketball and only needed one year of college. They had received the highest levels of training all their lives. I had to take my game to a new level in order to get with some of the best trainers in Chicago, since playing at lower levels didn’t give me those same resources. I never cared about having less than anyone and I believe that you should make the most out of your situation and appreciate what you have. But I knew in order to play at the highest level that I had to seek out the best training.
After the draft, I went to the 2015 NBA Summer League Cleveland Cavaliers (I like to think that I was close to having a ring this season). I went to training camp and preseason with the San Antonio Spurs (with my dad’s favorite player Tim Duncan), played a season for the Spurs D League team, and played in the 2016 NBA Summer League with the Golden State Warriors. Now that I was able to play on these levels with three of the best teams in basketball, play with some of the greatest players and coaches, and learn their systems and philosophies, it only influenced me to keep improving and grinding harder. I still do all of the things I picked up in those organizations like pool workouts, beach workouts, yoga, and Pilates. My mental approach also changed. I’m so determined after being on that level that I will work out at midnight if I have to. I will do whatever it takes to get the advantage I need. I will do whatever it takes to reach my maximum potential. This game has given me more than I could’ve ever imagine and I feel like I’m only going to get more out of it if I put everything into it.
This year, I entered the Korean Basketball League which raised my awareness of basketball on a global scale. The international game is evolving as many players are now drafted into the NBA from all over the world. My Korean team has us in the gym three times a day with skill, practice, and strength training as the international players now compete for their nations at the Olympic level.
By playing in Korea I am also able to provide more for my family: my son, KJ, and my daughter, Kennedi, who just turned 1. Going through this basketball journey isn’t easy, especially when you are a parent and have to provide for your family along with the other things that come with being a professional athlete.
I’m still facing tests and challenges but it’s key that you have patience no matter where you are in your journey. I look at life in a way where you don’t get to choose the weather, but you have to go through each phase to get to the next level.
Throughout my journey, people have doubted me and there are still people who do, who are shocked that I’ve turned into the player that I am today. I deserve everything coming my way because I took the alley to get everything that I have and I am able to see beyond it. I can feel that I’m getting closer to my dream. I know that I’m still improving because I’m still finding systems that work best for me and I’m gaining more experience with different teams, trainers, coaches, and philosophies on and off the court. This game has meant a lot to me and has taught me so much about myself as well as many lessons about strength and how to survive. It’s enabled me to grow, network, and experience many other wonders that all come from a game. As you carry along, know that hard work will pay off through the ups and downs as we craft our game and teach others as you define and endure your own unique path. The only person that truly knows your destination is God so trust your instincts, challenge change, and leverage all of your resources to break through on your journey of greatness.
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