Take It from a Former Benchwarmer

March 5, 2003: My bulky, over-sized headphones sat snugly on my over-sized head. I sweatily grasped the microphone in one hand while my other hand shakily, absently held onto the flimsy game program. My eyes were fixed intently on the miracle unfolding before me.

“Grimmer with the drive. He kicks it out to Ashe in the corner. Ashe squares up for the three. GOT IT! . . . Entry pass from Reece. Boyd with the drop-step. Lays it in for two! . . . Late substitution from Coach Bryson . . . Chambers sinks the 15-footer!” At the final horn, I looked up at that score, then down at the bubbling eruption of forest green and flecks of gold. Darrington: 64; Shoreline Christian: 43; Darrington Loggers: state champions.

What was normally considered a long and uneventful seven-hour excursion from Spokane to Darrington became a seven-hour, interstate, hero’s motorcade. Miles before entering the city limits, over seventy cars and trucks (including folks coming from the previous day’s game, Darrington residents who weren’t able to be there physically, and police, fire, and ambulance emergency vehicles) dotted the gradual S-curves of SR 530, honking their horns and blaring their sirens. By midnight, the whole parade finally came to a head at the high school multipurpose room. The team collectively hoisted that beautiful golden basketball, adorned with a game-net garland. In spite of the excited, standing-room-only atmosphere, the entire room shut up when Coach Bryson took the mic.

After thanking the town, teachers, parents, former coaches, current assistant coaches, his family, and each individual player, statistician, and water boy, the team was free to mingle with their friends and family. The celebration subsided to a dull roar. In the hurricane that was a true town effort to put itself on the map (for a good reason), that trophy stood as the calm and stoic eye. In the eyes of the star point guard’s 13-year-old kid brother, that trophy was more than just a sign of past achievement; it also held the tantalizing promise of future success. I put my hand on the ball, polishing it with my palm as though I were trying to awaken the genie inside. I said a silent prayer, a vow, that this would not be the last time this trophy would grace my hand.

“You have four years,” I told myself.

My high school basketball career, however, was not the star-studded Cinderella story enjoyed by my big brother, well, at least not completely. I did eventually touch that trophy again, but I’ll get to that later.

For three years, I struggled to teach my hands and feet to move like those of an elite basketball player. I was fast, and I could jump, but those attributes were not enough. I spent hours disciplining my left hand, and trained my eyes to find that sweet spot on the rim or backboard. I became a student of strategy, mental toughness, and physical endurance.

Yet, for all this work, I spent the majority of my senior year on the bench.

There is a stigma in our society towards benchwarmers. This seemingly second-class member of the sports world is often associated with bitterness, ineptitude, and the feeling of not being wanted. There was even a terrible movie made about it not too long before I graduated high school in 2007. The bitterness, I understand. You can’t help but feel a little gypped, especially when you’ve poured your soul into the team. The ineptitude, sure. The coach’s reasons for benching me certainly weren’t unwarranted. But in hindsight, I realized that those years riding the bench were pretty instrumental.

And this is the point. Of course the world of high school sports is full of didactic platitudes that invariably show up on posters and business team PowerPoints: “There is no I in team,” “Cheer for, not against,” “Play like a champion today” (my personal favorite), etc. But benchwarming in particular . . . now there are some serious life lessons. Most of the stories you see in sports movies are about how the underdog defies all odds to win the title, to kick that beautiful, blonde-headed boy in the face, to (insert other miraculous sports achievement here). But benchwarmers are a different animal; benchwarmers are the underdogs of the underdog world. You don’t have to have played organized sports to know what it’s like to be a benchwarmer.

Lesson 1: Be Happy for Others

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This is not the same as having sportsmanship for the team that just beat you. Yes, you should have a good attitude even in losing, but with the championship on the line, you check those feelings at the door until the last buzzer. When you are a member of a team, the victories of the players on the court are likewise your victories. We had a tradition on the bench, that for every three-pointer made we would do the wave. Stupid? Incredibly. But you do stupid things when you want to win as desperately as we did (that may or may not include wearing the same sweaty headband that your older brother wore on March 5, 2003, or slapping a sign that says “Play Like a Champion Today” before every game). You find ways, no matter how small or large, to will your team into victory. We never knew whether our sudden bursts of energy had any effect on the outcome of the game, but we were conscious of the message we were sending – both to our team, and to the opposing team. 

The notion of a “team” is less obvious later in life. Very few of us wear those spangly, polyester uniforms anymore. Sure, we have teams at work, we have family and friends, etc. But in such a self-centric culture, it is very tempting to view their victories and our defeats as being related. Your brother just got a job, while you never made it to the second interview; your sister just got married, while you just ordered this book from Amazon.

Sitting on the sidelines does not need to be a passive thing. Actively root for your teammates who are on the floor, and always be prepared for when the coach calls your name. Which leads me to my second point.

Lesson 2: Remember, There Is No Off-Season

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Our coach, as I’m sure many coaches do, had a saying, “The season is to build the team, but the off-season is to build the player.” During the summer and autumn of 2006, I took that advice seriously. I would lift weights, I would take a basketball everywhere I went. I would spend hours shooting the exact same baseline jumper – even when it was raining and the hoop was barely visible. I ran like hell. By the time November try-outs came around, I was in the best shape of my young life. And because of the work I put in during the off-season, I made my teammates, the starters, better during practice. Occasionally, I would go in for up to 30 seconds for added defense, and because I could run circles around the other guys, I would often cause a turnover before returning to the bench.

In other words, there really was no off-season.

Some people might take that to mean that being a benchwarmer is like gambling: more often than not, you end up putting in so much more than you are getting out. I don’t see it that way. Let me be clear: I love this game. I would be a fool to think that all my passion, all my hoop dreams could be confined within a simple four-year high school career, and then poof it’s done, my best basketball is behind me. I’m proud to say that I have a post-high school career. I don’t play for a school, nor do I play for any kind of prestige or golden trophies. I play for myself. I can safely say I have extended my game beyond anything I could have dreamed of in high school. “But no one will know it,” the skeptics might say. I will.

You can never stop improving yourself. Even when the pomp and stage have long passed, even when you hand your beloved headband to the next up-and-coming star of the team, your journey is never over. Doesn’t matter if no one is watching. Opportunities will come and go with or without you. The real question is, will you be ready for that 30-second window when it comes?

Lesson 3: Your Moment Will Come, and When It Does, Kill It!

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Out of all the crazy experiences of high school basketball, I will always remember one shot in particular. It was homecoming night, and through miraculous means, I was crowned homecoming king (I guess it was sort of a Cinderella story). It was also the last home game of the regular season. In the locker room before the game, Coach Bryson gathered us all around for a final word to the seniors. One by one, as was his style, he took a few minutes to talk about each of us. “Vincent was an all-star from the get-go,” “Haywood, I knew would develop into a key player,” “Kelly used to be fat, but he’s really come along,” “Olsen is unstoppable, always has been . . . “

Then, he looked at me. “Jordan Grimmer,” he said with a smirk, “Jordan Grimmer was terrible.”

I prayed that was not all he was going to say.

After the laughter died down, he proceeded to inform the team that he had taken notice of where I was as a freshman versus where I was as a senior. He told them that I knew I would not be playing much that year, and that any few seconds I would see on the hardwood would have to be earned (at the end of it all, I would eventually receive the Most Improved Player Award for those efforts).

“This is your night, king,” his face grew grim, “so you are going to start.” It was the first and only game I had started that year.

My nerves were big, and I could not feel my hands. But when the ball was swung around to me in the corner, for the first time, everything had come naturally. I pumped the ball in a shooting motion, sending my defender (not pictured above) flying past me and out of commission. My body reacted by instinct. That same baseline jumper I had perfected over the summer was right in front of me. It was just a matter of pushing play.

Splash.

We worked hard that season and even harder in the play-offs. We had reached the state tournament with a third-seed ranking, and all felt we were destined for the top spot on the podium, a repeat of the 2003 push. We won two games, then lost our next one, putting us in a battle for third place – the penultimate game before the championship. I wish I could say that all our hard work paid off on paper, and that we took home the third place plaque.

We played Republic to overtime, and lost by three haunting points.

As our dejected Loggers hung their heads and sauntered off to the locker room, I spied a golden glint out of the corner of my sweat-soaked eye. The championship trophy, just out of reach. Or was it?

As the coach was just about to pat a consoling pat on my back, I rushed past him. “Don’t wait up,” I shouted behind me. I went to the scorer’s table where the trophy awaited its new home like Indiana Jones approaching some relic in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and stared at my warped reflection. Then, I slapped that lifeless orb, completing the promise I made to my 13-year-old self.

We don’t know when our moment will come, and when it does come, we probably won’t recognize it. I was just a simple benchwarmer. I played a collective 90 seconds the entire state tournament. But during that long bus ride home from Spokane to Darrington, I could not stop smiling. That victory was mine, and no one could take it away.

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