Hoop Dreams, Part 2

By Jimmy O'Donnell

Basketball continued to afford me some great learning experiences and opportunities.  My high school career ended with a blown-out knee that required me to sit out my freshman college season.  I had opted to stay in Hannibal and play for the Hannibal La-Grange Trojans.  This experience was again special, and another opportunity to be a part of a storied tradition.  As a grade schooler, I had heard of the great McCooey teams of the 1960’s that my father had been a part of, along with the likes of Terry Miller, Tom Murphy, and countless others.  At the Hannibal playgrounds and high school, I studied the trophies and record boards and knew about scoring aces, Jim Hansen and Gary Weathers, and the great teams of the late 70’s with Mark Sanders, Kent Hackamack, Grumpy Boone, and Henry Riedel, among others.  One very special Pirate to me was Jeff Locke.  Jeff started for the Bucs on the hardwood in the early 80’s and went on to have success at HLG and Columbia College.  Jeff took me under his wing so to speak, shooting with me at the Y, then taking me to the Hannibal playgrounds for pick-up and countless hours of one-on-one.  Jeff was a true friend and mentor, although he did take me on one crazy basketball adventure to the Jefferson City Prison to play the prison all-star team that involved me being affectionately identified by the inmates as “Opie Taylor”, but that is a subject for another blog.

HLG presented another opportunity to be around a tradition that had once been a national junior college powerhouse, with the alumni of NBA coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and scoring phenom, Ray Schumann, who still holds the NJCAA Tournament scoring record.  At HLG, I got my first intro to college hoops and played with some great teammates, plus had a fun time along the way.   While we did not win a national championship or conference title for that matter, I got a great education, we won a lot of games, and we even played in a tournament in Boca Raton, Florida that required us to stay at the resort that was once the filming location for the 1980’s classic golf movie, “Caddyshack”.   Not bad for my first two years of college hoops.

From there, my journey took me to Truman State University, where I had the opportunity to play and later coach at the NCAA Division II level.   Truman played in a more competitive conference, the MIAA, with the likes of Northwest Missouri State, Central Missouri, and Washburn.   This conference, packed with several Division I transfers, opened my eyes to a new level of competition and a new repertoire of quotes from Coach Jack Schrader that I continue to use to this day: “Focus on what you are doing, when you are doing it” and “Bring your lunch box and blue jeans today, this is going to need a workman’s attitude”.  Coach Schrader’s quotes continue to surface from time to time when I lead staff meetings and want to emphasize that not all comes easy, and most things to be a success require our attention, concentration, and commitment.  Being a Bulldog allowed me to graduate with a great degree from a wonderful institution.   I got the opportunity to coach as a graduate assistant for the Dogs and enjoyed one of the best seasons in Bulldog history with a trip to the NCAA Division II Final Four.  The experience of playing at Truman began to open my eyes to the future.  Did I want to continue working in athletics in some capacity?  Thankfully Coach Schrader introduced me to Truman’s assistant athletic director that put me in touch with the right people to discuss a career in athletics.   A few months later, I found myself in the middle of ACC Basketball heaven as an intern in the ticket office for the North Carolina State Wolfpack!  At NC State, I had the opportunity to work in the day-to-day operations of the ticket office, game day operations, and taking care of players’ guests at games, as well as recruits.  This was an awesome experience being able to experience ACC hoops up close and travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of the Duke Blue Devils, and “The Dean Dome” in Chapel Hill, NC, home of the North Carolina Tarheels.  Not bad for a kid from Northeast Missouri that isn’t quick, doesn’t jump well, and can’t shoot!

So as we watch our youngsters roll out the balls on the hardwood this winter, let’s remember that this is just a game, but it is also so much more.  These are life lessons, friendships, and countless opportunities that may arise out of these games.   I have been very lucky to have some great coaches, family, teammates, and mentors along the way to help me learn.  I know that I may not be the best athlete in the gym or the sharpest guy in the board room, but if basketball has taught me anything, it is to never underestimate the value of hard work, personal relationships, and building a tradition to be proud of.

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