by T.J. Cline
LAST MARCH, I sat on a bus in traffic in the middle of a Manhattan evening and thought really hard. We had just lost in the Atlantic 10 basketball tournament and our season was over. We came up short of our goals.
On that bus, I started envisioning what this summer would look like. I knew that this was going to be the most important summer of my life because I only have one more year as a college basketball player. I wanted to attack the summer and become a better player, leader and teammate.
My summer took stops in Sacramento, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas and ended in Los Angeles at the Nike Skills Academy. I got to work with NBA trainers, professional players and other elite college basketball players and learned the importance of nutrition, stretching and body preparation and communication and leadership.
I was able to work out in some of the best basketball facilities in the country with guys that are pros and are so dedicated to honing their craft. That intensity and focus was really motivating for me on days that seemed really long and tiring.
I have been watching some of the best basketball players compete and train all of my life, but when you’re completely immersed in that training and pushing to be one of the best yourself, you gain a completely different appreciation for what it takes to be great.
After working out with the Sacramento Kings for a couple of weeks and then back home in Dallas, I was able to go to Arizona and work with some NBA hopefuls in a pre-draft workout.
I then had the opportunity to work as an intern for the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Terry Allen was out there playing for the Utah Jazz so it was great to watch him and really get a feel for what the Summer League was like. I was an Operations Intern, helping to make the games run smoothly, but I definitely watched the games and got a feel for what it takes to be successful in that environment.
Around that time, I got an incredible call from Coach Mooney. When I heard his voice, I knew it was going to be big because you could just hear his excitement. He told me that I had an invite to the prestigious Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles. That had been a goal of mine since the beginning of the summer and since it was already late in the summer, I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen.
The whole experience was first-class from beginning to end. There were some of the best college players and best players coming out of high school. You knew you were among the best of the best. But despite all the gear and the famous people and the hype, they worked us really hard. I felt like I had gotten in better shape just after four days out there.
In the early mornings, we did all sorts of different workouts ranging from CrossFit to working on the beach to hill training. It was so exhausting, and yet it was exhilarating. It almost felt surreal or like a musical training montage out of an epic sports movie.
During our skills sessions, I got to work with Rasheed Wallace, which was incredible. I had grown up watching him with the Pistons when I lived in Detroit and I loved how hard those championship teams played. He took me aside and helped me with my footwork and where to tuck my elbow and how to seal deep on the block. He emphasized all of the little things that can make you a better player.
One of the things he told me that really stuck out was:
“When everyone talks, you add another defender to the court.”
Coach Mooney and our coaches always emphasize talking and communicating, and I know that we’ve played some of our best games when we’re really loud and energetic. When you’re processing the words it reinforces it in your head and helps give you energy when you hear it back from your teammate.
Every night, we played pickup games with different college and NBA players. One night, I was playing with Isaiah Thomas (Boston Celtics) as my point guard and he played with such incredible vision. I was reminded of playing with ShawnDre’ Jones and his vision, combined with Kendall Anthony’s speed and ability to get to the basket. It was so much fun to get to play alongside an NBA All-Star.
My last night was probably my best night of pickup. I was playing with Monte Morris of Iowa State and he was able to set me up all night out of the pick and pop. We lost our first two games and then won seven in a row. I felt so comfortable defensively, getting rebounds and getting out in transition. I hit a good many threes. It was just so much fun to be able to excel out there against that level of competition.
We also had different film sessions with Julius Randle, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. It was incredible to hear from them and see how they break down film and talk about the game of basketball. James essentially took us through Game 7 of the NBA Finals and to hear how he talked about leadership in those moments was awe-inspiring.
He reinforced that to be a leader on a team, you have to know how to talk to every different player. Some guys respond to different things, and you have to take it on yourself to figure out what clicks with guys, whether its quiet reassurance or loud yelling or whatever it is.
I learned that being a good leader isn’t always just a natural transition. Even the best leaders actively work on being better. It takes conscious decisions every day to do certain things or say certain things or reach out to guys just to encourage them. I know that I’m going to have to lean on my teammates when I’m struggling, and they will lean on me as well.
By the end of July, I was chomping at the bit to get back to Richmond and be with my teammates.
As they were working out all summer, I was talking to ShawnDre’ and Marshall and the coaches and all of my brothers and just encouraging them and getting encouragement from them. I know that we all have an outstanding focus on preparing to be our best this season.
There were times throughout the summer when I honestly didn’t think I could keep going physically. I was waking up early every day, eating a completely different diet and going through intense workouts, some of which I had never done before. But every time I came to a mental block, I just kept envisioning my teammates working out back here in Richmond. I kept thinking about how far I’ve come from those days in high school where I wasn’t highly recruited. I envisioned celebrating on the Robins Center floor and walking into an NCAA Tournament arena in March.
As we get ready to travel to Europe in less than a week, I couldn’t be more excited to be with my group of brothers and focused on our goals. It’s going to be a great year to be a Richmond Spider.