by Tammy Sutton-Brown
I remember the first time I left home. It was 1997, and I was 19 years old. I was leaving Canada for the first time, pursuing my big dream of playing NCAA Division I basketball. I remember sitting on the plane and realizing that leaving home was much harder than I thought it would be. Sure, I had been away from home for tournaments in high school, but they were only a couple of hours away, and I was only gone for one or two nights. I remember the crushing feeling in my chest as I sat there thinking that I was leaving my country, my family, and everything I knew behind me, and I wouldn’t be back for a very long time. I didn’t feel prepared for such a big change, but I had no idea then of how unprepared I really was.
Prepared or not, I arrived at school and got started. I remember the shock to my system when I looked at our training schedule—7 days a week, 9 a.m. to 12 noon, at a minimum. I thought it must be a misprint. But after a week in I realized this was my new life. I remember trying to recover after practice, hurrying to clean up and running to class as soon as it was over. When I asked the other three rookies how they were balancing school and basketball they just laughed. To say we all felt overwhelmed would be an understatement.
Don’t get me wrong, the coaches were very supportive. They talked to us about the three parts of university life: school, basketball, and social life. They told us that if we wanted to experience success we needed to pick two of the three: basketball and school.
It was hard to believe how much of a challenge it was to juggle school and basketball. There’s no question about that. But what I found even harder to believe was the speed my teammates moved at during practice. I had played a lot of basketball, but I’d never seen players move that fast in my entire life. And the other girls, especially the veteran players, were so strong. Their strength was at another level completely, and it made me feel like a child among women.
The hours we spent in practice were the most intense hours I had ever experienced. My coach was more demanding than I had expected. She was really tough on us in practice. And I mean really tough! To this day I have never told my family just how tough she really was, or how hard my first year was. Off court she was still really an amazing, likable person, just like she had been when she recruited me. But when practice started she was pure pro—she knew what it took to coach elite players to meet their potential.
Our assistant coaches were great. When our coach broke us down, they would swoop in and build us up again. They’re the ones I went to when things got so tough that I wanted to quit, and I’ll always be grateful that they talked me out of doing that. They were always there for me when I needed help in school or advice on how to deal with our veteran players.
I was playing for a legendary NCAA Division I basketball program, for a legendary coach, on a full-ride scholarship. I was living the basketball life that every player dreams of. Why didn’t it feel like a good dream?
I remember that first Christmas. It was the first time I was allowed back home to see my family. Sure, my family had come to visit me at Thanksgiving, but nothing compared to sleeping in my own bed. I found myself sitting in a plane once again, but this time instead of feeling anxious I was excited and counting the seconds until take-off and the flight back to Canada.
I guess I was exhausted. I must have fallen asleep before we even took off because I don’t even remember taking off. But I do remember being awakened when the pilot engaged the landing gear, and I remember touching down and feeling a surge of pride when I saw the Canadian flag billowing violently in gusts of snowy wind. I’d never been a big fan of winter, but I was grateful for the snowy weather and the comfort of being back in my home country.
As I turned the corner past customs I started searching for my parents. It wasn’t hard for me to see over the hundreds of people because I towered over most of them with my 6’4” frame.
My eyes met my mother’s eyes first and then my father’s. I could almost feel the pride shooting out of them. They were from Jamaica, and I was the first in my family to go to university or college, not to mention on a full-ride scholarship. I ran over, dropped my bags, and put my arms around them, and we had a good, long, three-way hug. Then we hurried out of the airport and headed home. I had only 4 days and I wanted to make the most of them.
As we drove home, my parents asked me questions about the team and the last game I had played, but I told them I just wanted to try not to think about basketball for my time at home. My dad laughed and asked me what we would talk about, then. As we drove through Markham and got nearer to home, things that used to seem so familiar now seemed just a bit different. I couldn’t decide if everything around me had changed or if it was me who had changed. It just felt different. When we pulled into our driveway, though, the home I grew up in felt familiar again.
I was greeted with squeals of delight when I opened the door. My younger sister, my aunt, my cousins, and my grandmother were all there waiting for me. After all the excitement and hugging was over I suddenly became aware of the wonderful smell of really good food. It practically overpowered me. Our annual Christmas Eve dinner was something we all looked forward to throughout the year. And this year was no different: my mom and grandmother must have been cooking all day.
The table was set in the same way every year. White tablecloth. My favourite dishes. Ribs, rice and peas, mac and cheese, candied yams, chicken, and salad. All our delicious traditional family dishes. Dinner was loud and hot, and it was topped off with my mom’s Jamaican Christmas cake. As she poured tea to go with her cake, I looked around the room. My trophies, which had once been so important to me, still lined the back of the dining room wall. I realized now that they were just shiny objects, and that the real trophies were the people sitting around the table with me. A momentary pang of longing for the NCAA trophy did pop into my head just then, but I quickly returned my focus to my family, determined not to think of basketball until my brief vacation was over.
I went to my room after all the festivities were over. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was relieved to see that it was exactly the same as it had been when I left. I loved how my multi-coloured bedspread stood out against the bright, white walls. I ran my hand over the smooth, polished wood of my dresser. I picked up my musical jewelry box, wound the key, and just stood there listening for a while. As the music continued to play I turned and looked at the pictures of all my high school friends that were arranged around my mirror. Then my attention floated to my reflection in the mirror. I was 30 pounds lighter than I had been when I left home in the fall, and I thought to myself, “Who is this person staring back at me?”
My mom passed by my door just then and saw me looking in the mirror. She scolded me for all the weight I had lost. She said I looked skinny and asked me if I ever ate anything at school. But then she laughed and gave me a hug and told me I looked great. I held onto that hug for a nice long while.
How could I tell her I did not want to go back to school? How could I tell her I just wanted to stay home? How could I tell her that practices were so hard I wanted to die, and that juggling school and sport seemed impossible? I knew I would never be able to describe how intense my experience was. As I let go of our embrace I sighed, realizing that if I told her right now that I didn’t want to go back to school, she and my father would find a way to pay for university here in Canada. But in that moment I knew it would disappoint them, and I just couldn’t do that.
I spent the next 3 days enjoying every minute with my family and reveling in everything I had been missing. It felt amazing. Then, as I packed my bags on the last day of vacation, it felt like I had just unpacked them. I wanted more time at home. I wasn’t ready to go back to school.
As my parents drove me to the airport, I tried to get the courage to tell them I didn’t want to go back, but when the car stopped in front of the terminal I just hugged them and said good-bye and went inside. I found my seat on the plane, and that familiar crushing feeling came back. But this time I knew what I was getting into: hard work, practice, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. A tear trickled down my face as we lifted off and I knew the answer: it was me who had changed, not Markham. I was no longer the person who belonged where I had grown up; I was the person who now had to make the most of my time at school, make the most of basketball.
I remember getting back to my dorm room and being surprised at the feeling of comfort I got when I saw my fellow rookies. It felt like home, too. We had been leaning on each other the whole term. We did everything together: ate, roomed, studied, played, vented. It was a weird feeling to know that I could feel at home in two places.
I remember clearly the feeling of finishing my first season. The feeling of having survived, having made it through. The feeling of immense growth I felt as a basketball player, as a student, and as an independent woman.
And in what seemed like a flash, I was finished at university. I had had a great basketball career there, and now I was moving on again, this time to the WNBA. I remember sitting in the plane as my new journey began, chuckling to myself that I was feeling those familiar butterflies in my stomach again, knowing that I was taking yet another journey into the unknown. I knew, though, that if I could make it through that first year as a rookie at university, I could make through whatever was coming next.
But those butterflies just never seem to leave me alone! As I sit down to write this story after a 10-year career in the WNBA, they’re back again as I embark on another new journey—this time establishing my own marketing company. One thing I know for sure: if I continue to live and work the way I played, I will win at this game called life. Because life is a sport.
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Stephanie uses easy-to-understand principles—simple, relevant, practical solutions for dealing with mediocrity at work, at home and on the athletic field—without quick fix schemes.
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