By Karl Bullock
With looks of dejection on their faces, members of the Von Steuben boys’ basketball team shook hands, grabbed their gym bags, and walked quietly off the court and into the visiting locker room.
Their goals before the season had been lofty: a conference title, a playoff berth and ultimately to compete for an Illinois state title.
But as the game clock expired following a 69-61 loss to Riverside-Brookfield in the IHSA regional playoff matchup, the door to Von Steuben’s state title hopes had been shut.
“I’m not gonna lie,” senior forward Donovan Maxey said. “I cried.”
For some high school athletes, their senior years can be memorable experiences involving college recruitment and signing scholarship letters as they get opportunities to extend their careers at the next level. For others, the same experience can be stressful when there is no idea whether or not their athletic careers will be coming to an end.
Of the 541, 479 high school athletes who participated in basketball in 2016, only 18,697 (approximately 3.5 percent) went on to play at the college level, according to an NCAA report.
Sitting in a dimly lit classroom across from the empty gymnasium where they’ve played so many times, the seniors met one last time to discuss their thoughts on how to move forward beyond basketball. Their varying body language told a story. Some leaned back, relaxingly in their chairs, comfortable with what the future holds. Others gazed at the floor with skepticism.
Edward Nwakego, a two-year varsity player at Von Steuben, said the thought of not being able to play anymore worries him.
“I need to focus on the future and what I can handle,” Nwakego said.
His voice rattled as he spoke, signaling the nervousness at the uncertainty of what could come after graduation. Across the room, senior guard Tyrus Jenkins shared Nwakego’s anxiety but tried not to dwell on his emotions.
“Life moves too fast, Jenkins said. “You have to keep going.”
Throughout the season, Jenkins talked about potentially playing in college as a walk-on, players who typically aren’t recruited by coaches, but recent conversations with his father have gotten him to think about the big picture.
“It’s a reality check every time I walk in here [school],” Jenkins said. “I realize I have things [responsibilities] on the line.”
Although Jenkins may not realize his childhood dream to play professional basketball, he wants to remain connected to sports through another profession—physical therapy. Jenkins went through physical therapy three years ago after he broke his ankle. He sees it as an opportunity to help people.
“This is a way for me to stay around the game,” he said.
To realize one’s skill set isn’t good enough to advance to the next level is difficult for any athlete. While some struggle to cope with this reality, long-time mental performance coach Jim Fannin, said it’s common to see athletes channel their energy into other ventures.
“They [athletes] love sports and miss that feeling of getting in the zone,” said Fannin, who has worked with Frank Thomas, Alex Rodriguez, Luke Donald and other professional and amateur athletes during a 40-year career. “They go into sports management or psychology to feel attached to that team camaraderie.”
Like college and professional athletes, Fannin said high school athletes share a common characteristic called the “zone” mentality, which he describes as a mind-set athletes develop to reach peak performance during competition.
Fannin said it’s difficult for athletes to utilize acquired skill sets such as discipline, mid-game adjustments and playing under pressure outside of sports when they’ve had their sights set on playing beyond high school.
Unlike his teammates, Von Steuben senior captain Rafael Cruz wasn’t ready to give up on basketball just yet. As his senior year is winding down, Cruz said he’s “gonna play college ball,” even though he knows the probability of athletes continuing a sport at the next level is low. The interest from colleges gives him faith he has an opportunity to continue to play.
Since his freshman year, Cruz has channeled all of his energy into basketball through summer camps and offseason workouts, and the strenuous schedule has taken a toll on his body.
“I love basketball, I’m always going to,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to finally relax and be a kid again.”
Despite being adamant about playing college basketball, Cruz said thoughts of the future have not gone away.
“Who doesn’t think about the future and where we’re gonna be in a couple years,” he said. “But you don’t have to become an adult right now.”
As the statement lingers in the air, fellow senior guard Justan McNair-Sneed nods his head in agreement. McNair-Sneed said he hadn’t given much thought into dealing with life outside of basketball and his future.
“I usually like to stay in the now,” he said. “Sometimes I look at the future and how I’m going support my mom.”
While they may not all agree on what steps to take next in their young adult lives, they will always miss the personal relationships they have developed over the years.
From hanging out at Subway as freshmen, to running sprints from mistakes made at practice, the years have flown by and the path to adulthood is drawing near. But the bond between these seniors puts them at ease of what’s to come.
“Sometimes we’re a little scared,” Jenkins said. “Having someone to talk to about what we’re going through and understanding that helps.”