The Man that Taught Me to Compete Like Michael Jordan
Developing MJ’s Competitive Spirit, Effort, and Work Ethic
I was 14, in seventh grade when I first met my future JV Coach Matt Tamm. My seventh grade basketball season had been ugly. We were 3–7. It was the first and only time in my life, I’ve ever had a losing season. I figured out, I hated losing, and worse, I didn’t know how to change it.
Then I met Coach Tamm.
After my losing season in seventh grade, I wrote on a notecard, “Make varsity as a freshman,” but really, I was just a lost kid looking for something to hold onto, for something to become.
It was the summer of 1994 and I was leaving Flint, Michigan for good. My parents were divorcing. It was a messy time. Okay, it was worse than messy. It was chaos. And I was an impressionable kid. I needed some role models. Some work ethic. Some discipline. Instead of face the truth, I sat in my bedroom and pretended none of it was happening. I would sift through my Upper Deck and Topps basketball cards and look at Magic Johnson or Jordan NBA Superstar videos. I would lay in bed and let these images and dreams replay in my head.
Parents splitting up can really do a number on you as a kid. You feel responsible. You feel alone. You feel scared. All I really wanted was something to help me forget what was happening.
Kids can have a hard time accepting something they can’t change, especially when it comes to their parents splitting. Luckily, I had the game of basketball as an outlet for my anger, rage, and resentment. Basketball was joyful to me. It was something I loved to do, to feel, to see, to watch, to talk about, to think about, to breathe. My dad used to tell me:
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
I was more than ready when I met one of my first true basketball teachers.
Based on a True Basketball Story
“Take my Breath Away” and those magical synth chords by Berlin hummed over and over in my head all summer long. “Watching in slow motion, as you take my breath away…”
I would shut my eyes and dream of my family and parents reuniting. My older brother Jeremy was a senior at Petoskey high school and I had no friends other than him. Plus, I was shy — a natural introvert — and I quickly realized…
Sports was a great way to make new friends in a new school!
In the summer of 1994, my dad drove us in a white four-door Cadillac down our one lane road on Crooked Lake. I remember the large digital block letters that read our miles per hour. My dad had one of those huge car phones in the console that looked like a military radio from WWII. I remember pressing my face against the window, demoralized to be moving, sadness oozing out of me like a Nickelodeon game show.
My basketball dreams are going to die here in Petoskey, I thought. Suddenly my dad slowed down.
“Trevor, whose house is this?”
“I dunno dad,” I said.
My dad stopped his car in the middle of the road.
“Get out. Let’s go see if they are home.”
We marched up to the door.
“You want to ring the bell?”
“No, you ring it.’
“Ring the bell, Trevor.”
I smushed my finger into the soft grey button and heard the doorbell chime.
“Hold on — coming!”
A few seconds later, thumping footsteps, and then a large man approached. His shirt was off and he had disheveled blackish-brown hair and thick, broad shoulders. He looked like a WWF wrestler. I remember his mischievous eyes sparkling in the entryway as he looked down at me.
“Dad, is his shirt off?” I whispered.
“I think so. It’s summer. Men like to be comfortable.”
“Hello. Can I help you?” the half-man-half-bear asked, his voice raspy and strong.
I looked up at my dad and he nodded.
“Eh. Hem. Yes. Hello, my name is Trevor. How are you today?”
“I’m fine,” the man said impatiently. He had a thin, black layer of chest hair swirling wildly up from his shoulders to his chest. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, my dad and I, um, we were wondering if we could borrow something, if we could use — ”
“Excuse me, I already bought my Cub Scouts cookies for the year, no thanks — ”
“Oh, I, um. I’m sorry,” I said, stopping, putting my head down.
“Trevor, eye contact.”
I looked back up, my dad was smiling, but the bear-man was too. I felt my confidence waning. I moved the leather ball to my chest and turned it in my hands. The leather pebbles felt good. I just wanted to shoot. I just wanted to be back on the court again. I missed it so much. I missed playing. I missed my friends downstate. I missed competing and knowing I could improve. I missed my dad being around. I missed my teachers back in Grand Blanc.
I missed it all.
But the man standing in front of me already knew — I wanted to be something.
“Trevor. You can’t use your right hand this practice,” Matt said.
“What? Coach Tamm, you serious?”
“You can’t use your right hand. The entire practice. Every time you use it, you got pushups.”
It was my first practice on his JV team and the current JV squad had never won a game. Not in seventh grade, not in eighth grade, and not as freshmen. I had gotten moved up, a 6 foot boy with scraggly, chicken-thin legs, and a ratty mustache filling in above my upper lip. It was my first foray into the world of high school basketball and Coach Tamm was already giving me challenges before the season even began.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…
“Trevor, come here.”
“Square up when you catch the ball. Get your feet in position. Every time. You aren’t going to make varsity playing with habits like this. You have to stay disciplined. And how is Tyler scoring on you? Are you really competing?”
“I thought I was.”
“No, you weren’t. You let up for second. You gave in when you shouldn’t have. You stopped fighting — never stop fighting. You know why Michael Jordan is so good?”
“He practices harder than he plays. He never lets up in practice. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“Can you or can’t you. There is no can, or think — only do.”
“I can… will — I mean, I will Coach.”
“Sports is about learning how to win. To give your best effort. So play to win. MJ always play to win. Every play. Every game. Never stop fighting. Coach Starkey doesn’t want to bring you up unless you play to win. Plus, he doesn’t think you are ready yet. You’ll have to prove you deserve it with showing you can do give the effort and do the small things.”
“What small things?”
“Be the hardest worker, the first to practice, first to the floor, first to the huddle, first to bleed for your team, first to sacrifice for the good of winning.”
His words sunk in. My dream had been making the varsity team ever since I had walked up to Coach Tamm’s driveway court with my dad as a seventh grader. Basketball was my life from that point on. Coach Tamm would stop and shoot with me after school or in the summer. He developed me. He taught me. He would come out and play me in one on one. He would never let up. He demanded the small things, but really, he was showing me how to compete.
About half-way through the season, Coach Tamm brought me to sit with him in the bleachers after practice. Our JV team was over-achieving, knocking off teams and building momentum for a JV league championship.
“TREVOR. GET OVER HERE.”
“Coach, what’s up?”
“Our TC game is a huge game for you. You have been competing better, but this is a real test. Harbor Springs was a cakewalk compared to Traverse City. This is the biggest school in the state. They have 4,000 kids there. If you win this game, Coach Starkey said he may bring you up.”
A surge of adrenaline spiked inside me.
“You serious?” I asked, my eyes turning into lasers.
“You think you can do it? Coach Starkey has been impressed with your change in attitude, effort levels, and competitiveness thus far.”
“I can coach. I can do it.”
“Good. See you tomorrow for practice. Be focused and ready to go. I want you to have your best effort of the season.”
I ran back onto the practice court and started shooting some more, my mind flashing forward to playing in front of Petoskey’s home crowd on a Friday night with thousands of people screaming as the pep band played wildly as I entered my first varsity game.
Great things can happen when coaches and teachers develop your mindset, effort, and work ethic. I eventually the made varsity, thanks to Matt Tamm — the man that taught me to compete like MJ. I learned what 100 percent effort really was and how to apply it to my life. He ended being my history teacher, my neighbor, my friend, and my coach. I always be indebted to him for his tutelage, effort, and mentoring.
PS. Sorry for calling you a bear-man, but a kid’s perspective is an impressionable one.