Father’s Day 2018: Dad’s doctor and his lawyer, and a discussion on careers

Your brother is going to be my Doctor, and you’re going to be my Lawyer!”

Happy Father’s Day. My 2017 Father’s Day blog post talked about some of my father’s life and money lessons, and there were many. I wrote some more about us in my second essay submitted to A Voice For Men entitled: Two very well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own: Reflections on growing up ‘Blue Pill’, which discussed how my brother and I had to figure out several aspects of manhood on our own. There weren’t a lot of men around growing up, and there were limitations in what we were taught by the men we did know.

For this 2018 post, I’m going to go in a different direction and will discuss what Dad wanted both me and my brother to be career-wise, versus what we actually became. This piece isn’t an “ode to fathers” per se, but instead a set of thoughts and ideas based upon something my father said to us as children, which will serve as a jumping off point for things me and those in my circle regularly discuss today as adults – things that have impacted our family dynamics as the years have gone by. As described in my piece Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement, Dad’s fatherly guidance helped me reach my academic potential. He also stimulated me to start thinking about potential careers at an early age.

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“Your brother is going to be my Doctor, and you’re going to be my Lawyer!” Dad said on one of our summer visits in the mid-1980s. The three of us were crossing a street in downtown Schenectady, NY and he turned and gave his proclamation to the both of us – communicating with one of his hands – his signature style. Like many parents, Dad had his own plans for what we should be. Somewhere alo4ng the line, he determined that it should be a Medical Doctor and a Lawyer, and as with everything Dad said, he said it with lots of authority, pretty much commanding us.

Not having either in my immediate family circle on either my mother’s or father’s side, I didn’t know much about what lawyers did. I had some idea of what medical doctors did because I had gone to see them on numerous occasions as a child. One of Dad’s first cousins was in fact a medical doctor, but we didn’t see him enough to be able to ask him about his career. In elementary school it hadn’t occurred to me what I wanted to be career-wise, though I got the inkling that it would be something scientific after really enjoying “Life Science” in the seventh grade – essentially beginner’s Biology. My brother had begun showing signs of being both artistic and creative.

But what made my father so enamored with medical doctors and lawyers in terms of careers for his sons? Dad was always one for stability which is why he became a junior high science teacher. Neither of his parents had gone to college, so he was a first-generation college graduate. From what I can see, some parents naturally want their children to do better than them. In the mid-1980s, the conventional wisdom was that medicine and law were two very high-profile professions which would lead to affluent and comfortable careers/lifestyles.

“I know that your grandfather would be very proud of you being a doctor and all,” Dad said on several occasions regarding my Ph.D. years later. He didn’t necessarily understand what my doctorate stood for or the skills it represented, but the title of ‘Doctor’ meant a lot to him – something I witnessed in the coming years both positively and negatively. Coincidentally, I think he initially discouraged me from pursuing a doctorate – potentially because he only knew Ph.D.s in the context of the school system, and not the ‘Research’ and ‘Regulatory’ worlds.

With one of the principles of my blog being “Critical Thought”, I believe it’s important to look at things in their entirety. So, while Dad wanted these two prestigious careers for us, what would it have taken for us to get into these two professions? The answer is it would’ve taken lots and lots of school for the both us and then, most likely, considerable debt to pay back. This is something very important to consider for parents and students looking to attend college to pursue ‘White-Collar’ careers.

In terms of higher education, thinking out the entire plan long-term is critical – considering the cost of the degree, how to get a quality degree for the least amount of money possible, what the expected salary will be on back end, and finally how much debt will need to be paid back. According to a 2014 article in Forbes, the average amount of debt for Law School graduates ranged from $84,000 to $122,158. Also, according to a recent 2018 article by Credit Donkey, the average medical school graduate finishes with $192,000 of debt.

Keep in mind that these are on top of however much debt was accrued during one’s undergraduate studies. The numbers probably weren’t as high thirty years ago, but it’s important to be mindful of blindly chasing certain careers based upon titles and prestige. If it’s something a student really wants to do, that’s different, but the costs still ought to be considered.

If you run the numbers and your prospects aren’t good, I would recommend not going into debt for that particular degree. A mentor recently taught me that the economy actually dictates the need for specific careers at a given time. I don’t know what the prospects were like for lawyers in the mid-1980s when Dad announced his wish for me, but as I progressed in my education, I heard more and more stories about the market being ‘saturated’ with them. I likewise heard that the landscape for medicine had changed, and in some ways, it wasn’t as lucrative a career as it once was.

In terms of my career, I figured it out as I went along. I had an interest in the Biological Sciences and thus followed that path. I pondered going to Medical School at one point, but decided against it after a professor at Johnson C. Smith University encouraged me and some of my classmates to study up on what it entailed – the demands, the lifestyle, and the backend costs.

It’s also important for students and parents to keep in mind what the student is good at, and where their gift/passion lies. While I turned out to be the son that was interested in the Biology, my brother’s gifts were completely different. He turned out to be a ‘design and build’ –type of guy. He had the gift for designing things, constructing things, taking them apart, and he was quite formidable with tools and devices. He started studying Architecture in college but didn’t finish, but in hindsight, he may have also been well suited for one of the ‘Skill Trades’ – something that didn’t come up as a child as college and ‘White-Collar’ careers were emphasized as opposed to ‘Blue-Collar’ careers.

Speaking of the trades, since finishing my own education, I’ve realized that there is power in learning one or more of the skill trades. There will always be the need to build and fix things. That includes: the electricity and plumbing in your home, airplanes we travel on, the public transportation vehicles we ride to work on every day, and so much more. If your refrigerator breaks down as mine did recently, for example, you either have to buy a new one or hire someone to come and fix it – unless you can do it yourself.

Unfortunately, our society looks down on the Blue-Collar careers in some ways, though they pay very, very well and don’t require the schooling doctors and lawyers need – the same is true for the debt required to train for the latter two careers. In my opinion, individuals who are proficient in the trades people are willing to pay for; and those who also have some business training, stand to make lots of money as they can do things like start their own companies and hire other people.

My brother never finished college and has become a bit of an inventor/entrepreneur which actually is the route that our technology giants like: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg took. There may have been some luck involved for each of them, but these men are reminders that in some instances, ideas and skills are more powerful than the degrees themselves. Today for example, there are quite a few individuals making significant incomes without being ‘degreed’ – those who can write code for Blockchain Technology applications for example. Also, while my brother isn’t degreed, he’s also not saddled with a significant debt payment of any kind – a tremendous advantage.

As for me, depending on your belief system, I got lucky. I pursued a Ph.D. in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field at a time when the economy rewarded individuals with such degrees. What’s even more significant is that I finished only with a little bit of debt from my undergraduate studies. Because I pursued a STEM degree, I didn’t pay for any of my graduate studies so I didn’t have a hefty loan to pay back for those five to six years of graduate school. This brings me to my closing point. It wasn’t until I finished that phase of my science training that I realized that I was missing something very, very important – something some kids are given early, and something others stumble upon later in life if at all.

Regardless of whether or not you get a college degree, a trade or some sort of entrepreneurship, the critical piece is understanding money. Something not discussed much in our younger years was wealth-building – something that is possible for everyone, and independent of one’s career choice as it involves a specific set of behaviors that I’ve written about in my Net Worth and Debt Snowball pieces. Understanding the concepts of Wealth-Building: budgeting, living within one’s means, delaying gratification, investments, and ‘Compound Interest‘ – these are the keys to a great and bountiful life, not necessarily the careers and titles themselves, contrary to what many people think.

Prestige and titles are nice, but if you read Dr. Thomas Stanley’s The Millionaire Next Door, you’ll see that there are many high-income professionals who look the part, but who are actually struggling. In my blog post about the Tax Reform and Jobst Act, I referenced a 2016 article in the Washington Post entitled: The shocking number of Americans who can’t cover a $400 expense which showed that even some individuals making over six figures, surprisingly couldn’t cover such an emergency.

I never wanted to be one of those people. I may be different from most, but I’d rather secretly live nice and comfortable with a simple outward appearance, as opposed to looking wealthy and struggling behind closed doors. That’s a personal choice however – one which everyone must make for themselves.

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In closing, our parents sometimes have dreams of what they want us to be. Some kids actually go ahead and fulfill their parents’ dreams while others go their own way. In some instances, our parents can discourage us from what we really want to do based upon what they know and feel from their lives.

There is thus a complex set of decisions to be made based upon: what one really wants to do, their unique gifts, what they’re passionate about, and how they’ll be able to earn a living on the back end. In the end, the economy dictates what’s needed at that particular time – it will determine who gets hired and how much they will be paid. Lastly, no matter what path is chosen, the critical piece is understanding money. Once again, Happy Father’s Day.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Two very well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own: reflections on growing up ‘Blue Pill’
Father’s Day 2017: reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons
Mother’s Day 2018: Memories of my grandmothers
Mother’s Day 2017: one of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement
The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on three years of basketball camp

“Basketball is our game and yours can be the same.”

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. I originally published this series on the Examiner back in 2014. As a teen I dreamt of being a basketball player just like a lot of kids – a dream for which one must have lots of ability, drive, and luck to achieve. My experience turned out to be quite the adventure, and I didn’t formally play basketball beyond high school. The lessons I learned there however, not all of them happy and pleasant, helped me as I progressed into adulthood and into my Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career. As mentioned when I began reposting this series, I’m working on an ambitious writing project chronicling my early basketball journey in Western New York.

Initially I thought that I would simply republish the original series and let it go, but I’ve decided to add onto it as I continue working on my book project and ideas keep coming to me. Heading into the summer months this particular follow up installment will discuss what I learned from the three years I attended basketball camp. See if you the reader can pick up on the universal themes which transcend the great game of basketball.

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“Basketball is our game and yours can be the same,” was the signature quote of the Ken Jones Basketball Camp – the camp run by Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, my first high school basketball coach. As he told us students more times than I can remember, “I’m a student of the game.” He ate, slept and breathed the great game of basketball. Our basketball program at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY was an extension of him and was unique in our league, the “Yale Cup”, during that sliver of time he coached there. He taught us the structure and fundamentals of the game which at that time were the hallmarks of only the area suburban and private schools. To learn some more about what the Yale Cup was like, see parts one and two of my interview with Buffalo basketball legend Jason Rowe.

What was also unique about our program at Hutch-Tech was that our coach ran his own basketball camp – the first and only one I’d ever attend. I first heard about the Ken Jones Basketball Camp as a freshman. Towards the end of the 1990-91 school year, a highly successful season for Hutch-Tech’s basketball program, Coach Jones posted fliers for the camp on the bulletin board near the coaches’ offices. I knew very few fundamentals of basketball as most of my play consisted of games of “Twenty-One”, also known as “Rochester”, and ‘pickup’ games on Buffalo’s playgrounds and at the William-Esmlie YMCA. I thought attending the camp would not only teach me more about the game, but it would also give me an ‘in’ going into tryouts the next year – something it may have in fact done.

I’ll point out here that my perception of attending the camp as an ‘in’ to get on the Varsity team was a flawed way of thinking. There were several peers who attended the camp and didn’t make the team during those years. For any prospective players or parents reading this, it’s very important for kids with aspirations of playing sports to understand that spots on their school’s roster should be, and must be, earned. Spots on the roster should be awarded based on skills and preparation – not some form of favoritism or partiality – both of which do happen in the real world at workplaces later in life.

I was blessed that my mother and father were able to come up with the $300 to $400 fee to attend the Ken Jones Basketball Camp, as not all of my peers could afford to go. Keep in mind that I went three of my four years in high school – again a blessing. Also keep in mind that there were several local camps in and around the city of Buffalo which I didn’t know much about; which in hindsight, I also wish I had attended. Later in life I learned that no matter what your craft is, learning from multiple teachers only makes you stronger and more formidable. Each year the Buffalo News actually advertised all of the area camps, and neither I, nor anyone in my immediate family ecosystem at the time, knew to look for them.

At this point I’ll distinguish between the two types of camps and if I’ve misspoken here, please do leave a comment below this blog post. According to what I’ve learned, there were two types of basketball camps; ‘Teaching’ camps which were designed to impart the fundamentals of the game, and also what I’ll call ‘All-Star’ camps – showcases for the nation’s top talent. These included the: Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and ABCD camps. These camps drew your future Division I and NBA talent. The documentary Hoop Dreams shows a snippet of the Nike Camp in the early 1990s where in that particular year, players like Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, and Alan Henderson attended. They were scouted by high-level college coaches like P.J. Carlissimo, Mike Kryzewski, John Chaney, Kevin O’Neil and others.

The Ken Jones Basketball Camp was a ‘teaching’ camp. In the early 1990s it was held at Hamilton College in north-central New York State. It drew kids from all over the state – some from the Buffalo area, and many from the Rochester area where Coach Jones used to coach before moving to Buffalo. There were also kids from the middle of the state and the Hudson River Valley. That was true for the coaches on staff too. Coach Jones had an entire lineup of coaches he’d either coached with, coached against, or in many cases had simply befriended along the way. In a way they were like a group of ‘Mob Bosses’ like in the movie Casino. Instead of organized crime though, they were all passionate about basketball. You could hear and feel it in the workshops they taught in addition to how they coached us.

“It’s a season of basketball in a session,” was one of the other signature quote from the camp’s brochure and it was true. It was one week packed with: workshops, drills, and competition. I’d never seen anything like it before. Towards the end of the camp there was a ‘playoff’ for each age group and an All-Star game for the camp’s best players. It was literally like a basketball boot camp. We had to be up at 6-7 am for calisthenics and stretching, and then breakfast to start our day full of games and drills/workshops. We were also supposed to be in bed at a certain hour each night. As promised, our muscles and joints were aching by Tuesday and Wednesday.

It was a very ‘organized’ style of basketball they taught us there – very different than the ‘street-style’ we played in Buffalo which involved mostly, “going up strong to the ‘hole’,” and usually watching your teammates dominate the ball on offense while everyone else stood around watching – ‘isolation’ basketball. As I was going into the camp looking to become a much better offensive player, I was very much surprised by the amount of time we spent on defensive principles and fundamentals.

I also noticed that some of the other kids my age were much more developed than I was in terms of their offensive skill sets and their overall ‘basketball-IQs’ – their basic knowledge of the game allowing them to know what plays to make offensively and defensively – instinctually in some instances. One teammate from my first year at the camp who was from Palmyra-Macedon (Pal-Mac) High School in the Rochester area stands out to me. We were the same age and similar height, but he had already developed a reliable 15-foot jump shot – something I hadn’t developed at that point as no one had emphasized it back home.

Interestingly, the best basketball I ever played was probably at that camp my second year. I think it was largely due to the players I got to play with. They weren’t selfish, ‘me first’ players. The guards were disciplined and they looked to share the ball. At the camp going into my junior year of high school, I remember regularly touching the ball on my team, and making the All-Star game at the end.

What I’m going to say next is probably the most important part of this piece. I didn’t know how to actually harness what I had learned from the camp, and make myself a better player. That is, I didn’t understand that simply going to the camp by itself wouldn’t make methe best player I could be.

Afterwards, it would take hours and hours perfecting those fundamentals, and then learning how to use them in actual competition. This is the actual “development” – something that takes time, focus and commitment. When I look back on those years, I also realize that I was also developing on my own. In a game like basketball, if you want to play at the highest levels, you have to not only develop yourself personally, but you also have to figure out how to coalesce and build chemistry with the group of players you’re going to be playing with in competition.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how to break out of my ‘comfort zone’. As you might imagine, the majority of the kids at the camp weren’t black, and as an inner-city kid I didn’t know how to blend with kids who didn’t look like me – befriending them and asking them to show me what they knew – also learning about their basketball and life experiences. Making new friends was encouraged, but I just didn’t know how to do it. This was also prior to the cell phones, social media, and the technology we have today, so I didn’t think to try to befriend and stay in contact with the other kids long-term.

Probably the last important principle I didn’t understand was that becoming a great basketball player involved combining the ‘organized’ and ‘street’ styles. The reason I played my best basketball at the camp was because I had become used to playing the ‘organized’ style. A teammate at Hutch-Tech likewise told me later that my game was ‘basic’, meaning that it was very technically sound and very ‘textbook’.

I thought he was picking on me as per usual, but he was right. It turned out that the great and transcendent players at any level could play within an organized team structure, but could also play off of pure instinct when necessary – creating shots for themselves or teammates, or creating key turnovers on defense – again all off of instinct. All of this takes any player time, effort and focus, and it should come from within the individual in order for it to truly bear fruit.

“Damn Anwar. You spent all of that money to go to basketball camp,” a classmate said to me as my junior year season fell apart due to injuries and grades. He was pitying me, and or gloating – I couldn’t tell which at the time. I wasn’t originally going to put this quote into this piece, but it’s a critical aspect of my book project because it underscores how peers view you when you’re setting out to do something of meaning and value. Some are happy for you, while some are waiting for you to fail.

And again, not every family had the money to send their kids to camp which probably created some envy. Some kids wanted to play on the basketball team and didn’t for whatever reason, and you don’t know how they’re viewing you and your opportunities until you yourself are going through a hardship of some sort. This also underscores the importance of having the mental strength I discussed in part three of this series.

And I think I’ll wrap this up here. As I’m working on my book project, all of the things I didn’t know from that time are coming to me – things those in my own immediate familial ecosystem didn’t necessarily know to stress to me at the time – things which the highly successful players are and were taught at those critical stages of their development. This piece is thus highly valuable of young players in those stages. I have a cousin like that right now who thinks she wants to be a basketball player. This piece is very much for players like her who are good on defense for example, but need to develop their offensive games to go to that next level.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part four: Life, success, and failure
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional careers and coaching
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

My personal experience with Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball revisited

“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” – Proverbs 22:7

One of the principles of my blog is the “Teaching of Wealth Building and Financial Literacy”. A key component of Financial Literacy is understanding debt – specifically what happens when you carry too much of it. I painfully learned what it’s like to carry exorbitant amounts of debt – a place I hope never to return to.

I got out of debt because some friends graciously shared Dave Ramsey’sFinancial Peace University” with me. While there are supporters of Financial Peace University and Dave’s “Debt Snowball”, I found that there are also detractors and critics. I wrote the following piece on the Examiner in early 2016 after someone else wrote an article about why she quit her Debt Snowball. I didn’t write this to rebut the author in a confrontational way or to discard her experience altogether, but instead to share an alternative perspective. By the way, to read about how to prolong your Debt Snowball, see my Mother’s Day 2017 blog post.

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Over the holiday season, an article appeared on my Twitter feed from another passionate Financial Literacy writer (there are many) titled; Why I Gave Up on Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball. Being a coordinator within the Financial Peace University ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and also in the final stages of my own Debt snowball, the article resonated with me and prompted the crafting of this piece. This piece won’t refute Jennifer Calonia’s experience, but will actually agree with some of her points and discuss my own experiences.

No one plans to go into crippling financial debt which usually occurs because of a lack of Financial Literacy; living above one’s means, or something else such as today’s soaring costs of higher education. Many people don’t understand what they’re doing and the long-term ramifications as was in my case. Roughly nine years were spent completing my Ph.D. and then the two and a half years of subsequent training – all on a taxable graduate stipend which ranged from $17,000-$22,000, and then a postdoctoral salary of $37,000. During that time, my expenses often exceeded my income for a number reasons. My old Saturn SL2 was bought with my father’s credit card. It was maintained using another credit card whose balance eventually ballooned to $8,500 (just paid off this month). An unhealthy relationship or two also contributed to the bonanza.

After starting my first real job in the Federal Government, my debt swelled at least two to three times due to wanting to learn to invest in real estate, and wanting to do too much too soon money-wise. It was a good idea but the trainings came at a steep price which in hindsight could’ve been obtained for less money. Those who gave those particular trainings dangerously encouraged us as students who didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars saved up, to use our credit cards, under the assumption that the costs of the classes would get paid off relatively easily once we some real estate deals were done (to be covered in depth in a later piece).

After accumulating my mound of debt, my life was blessed when two friends (from the same trainings) discovered and shared Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU). Just briefly, four of the key components of FPU – the cornerstones of Dave’s “Baby Steps” include:

• Saving an Emergency Fund – one month and then four to six months
• Learning how to budget
• Using cash instead of credit cards and debit cards
The Debt Snowball

The Debt Snowball is a strategy for eliminating debt. The individual lines up all of their debts smallest to largest, steadily paying them off one by one using the money from each paid off debt on the next one, steadily increasing the size of the payments on the larger ones until everything is paid off using “Gazelle Intensity” as Dave Ramsey calls it. Dave Ramsey uses the parable of the Gazelle who represents consumers who are preyed upon by the Cheetahs who represent credit card companies, banks and marketers.

Jennifer Calonia’s points are honestly all valid. My own Debt Snowball has taken two to three difficult years (and that’s without children), and it is easy to feel like quitting. Life continues to happen not just to you, but those around you – some of whom aren’t making good financial decisions and ultimately need your help – often unexpectedly. There is also the pull to do what others are doing – taking lavish vacations and acquiring luxury items for example. Finally, because you’re living on a fixed income when doing the debt snowball, some people may conclude that you’re “strapped” for cash which can be hurtful if you’re sensitive to the words of others.

These are all reasons why Ramsey discusses prayer when pursuing this effort (if that’s in your value system of course). From experience, when doing the Debt Snowball, one has to know that there are times when this financial plan can and must be altered temporarily – the holiday season for example. Furthermore, periodic rewards are realistically a good idea too (within reason). In other words, if you’re doing the Debt Snowball, you have to allow yourself some fun, or else you’ll stop it and never go back.

Much to my surprise, Dave Ramsey does have his detractors and critics as does every author/speaker/guru. There is for example a second method to paying down debts which involves paying down the highest interest rate obligations first. Some consider this more financially intelligent than the debt snowball which is powerful because of the ‘emotional’ effect of seeing the debts go away.

“We’re going to live like no one else, so later we can live like no one else,” Ramsey says frequently during frequently during FPU meaning that some sacrifices are initially involved, for greater gains and a comfortable life later on. Money is an emotional topic and as with most things, everyone has to make the best decisions for their own lives. Being on the cusp of completing my own debt snowball, it admittedly wasn’t easy, but if one can find a way to stick to it, it does work.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

Chris Brown discusses true stewardship and financial peace
Your gross net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
The difference between being cheap and frugal
Mother’s Day 2017: One of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
Father’s Day 2017: Reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons
We should’ve bough Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing and technology story
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part four: Life, success and failure

This article was originally the conclusion of the series titled the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. As described in the opening piece, I’m working on a larger writing project regarding my high school basketball experience and what it taught me about: life, success, and failure. As I’m working on finalizing that project, more ideas are coming to me and so I may add to this series from time to time. Part four discusses some of the valuable lessons basketball taught me about how to be successful in life.  As with all of the posts in this series, this one also falls under my blog’s principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success”.

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Basketball taught me that no matter what you set out to do, it helps to have a mentor who is experienced in your craft of interest. Someone who has been there already, knows all of the tricks of the trade, and the potential pitfalls, and can help guide you in the best possible way towards your goal is invaluable.

“Sometimes kids have to realize when a coach is trying to help them,” Coach Larry Brown said during his unsuccessful stint coaching Carmelo Anthony, Allen IversonStephon Marbury, and some of the other younger NBA stars on the 2004 Men’s Olympic Basketball Team. “Kids have to understand the difference between coaching and criticism. There is a big difference.”

One of the most important lessons basketball taught me is that when someone says something to you that may at first seem unpleasant or like they’re attacking you, it’s important to try to figure out where their words are coming from. Are they coming from a place of hurt? Are they coming from a place of genuine concern? Are they coming from a place of trying to help? Trying to figure out where people are coming from, and avoiding ‘Knee Jerk’ reactions can often save a lot of trouble later on for all parties involved. It can also lead to major successes and breakthroughs.

Basketball taught me that you have to know the leaders of your craft. On the court, you have to know who to model your game after to improve your own game. In other arenas you have to know who the leaders of your field are and how they got there. In graduate school, my thesis advisor stayed on me about knowing what was new in our field because it impacted our own research projects – it helped us not to, “reinvent the wheel,” as they say.

Basketball taught me that sometimes you have to lose before you can win. This is a hard concept to fathom, especially when the losing is taking place. In life, however, it’s often important to learn what not to do just as it’s important to learn what to do in key situations. Furthermore, there are usually very important lessons in every loss.

Basketball taught me that there are times in life when you have to go your own way, and leave certain people behind in order to achieve your goal. Examples are friends and relatives who don’t share your interests who can sometimes hold you back from achieving your goal. In other instances, they haven’t been to where you’re trying to go, and may hinder your getting there.

It likewise helps to associate with those who share your interests, and are trying to go where you want to go. If you’re going to be a good basketball player for example, you have to hang around with other basketball players. The same thing goes for learning to invest money, learning how to write, learning how to Salsa dance, pursuing higher education, etc.

In my playing days, it was often stressed to us that, “the game is 95% mental and 5% physical.” This relates to one of the biggest lessons that basketball taught me which is that whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, you not only have to be focused on your goal, but you also have to be mentally strong, as there will likely be unexpected obstacles to whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.

Just as on the basketball court, on the way to achieving your goals in the game of life, not only will you have to put in the work to master your craft, but you’ll also have to endure negative people or dream killers – sometimes the people closest to you telling you, “you can’t,” or, “you won’t,” or, “you’re not” – all disempowering words, but comments you’ll face when setting out to accomplish something of value. Many successful people derive motivation from disempowering words and naysayers, while unsuccessful people buckle and fold under such criticisms and doubts. With this being a basketball-themed post, Michael Jordan is probably the best example of this as his critics and doubters regularly served as his main motivators as he memorably described at his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Your attitude determines your altitude,” my high school basketball coach Ken Jones told us regularly. In translation, your approach to a given situation will impact the outcome of that situation. We were fortunate that in addition to trying to lead us to victories, Coach Jones also wanted to develop us into the best people we could be. Likewise, in whichever activity a young person is involved in, the life skills taught are just as important as that particular activity.

This article will be continued in part four of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part two

This article is part two of the interview with Shaka Gonzalez Brown in honor of the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. Part one of the interview discussed Shaka’s: background, the golden age of Washington DC’s Salsa scene, and some of the inspirations for his own social dancing style. Part two will discuss: the current state of salsa, the rise of other Latin dance styles, and the Capital Congress. The pictures used in this post were once again graciously shared by Shaka himself.

Anwar Dunbar: When I started dancing in 2002, Salsa reigned supreme, but then around 2007, Bachata ascended, and then Kizobma and Zouk.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: They just kept coming up with things to take over from salsa (laughing).

AD: Yes, so you had these other universes coming up. How are things now? You started teaching some Kizomba yourself right? What is the state or balance now of the Latin dances?

SGB: How things now? Well, Salsa used to be the main dish. I was talking to a buddy and he said, ‘Salsa is my steak, and the Bachata is like some mashed potatoes, and one of the other dances might be like some vegetables, but I have to have my steak you know?’

So that was the case for a long time. Bachata and Kizomba are easier dances, so it’s easier to reach the masses. To dance Salsa, it sounds weird to say this – it can be hard and it can be really discouraging for someone. So you have a personality type that wants to learn it, and is going to go into something that’s hard, and they really don’t care about it being discouraging because they have a bigger goal. But there are other people who say, ‘I just want to have fun, and salsa is too complicated.’

So in terms of dealing with that, the instructors, the teachers, and the artists are the ones who have a big responsibility in terms of making it fun as people are on the path, because if you’re discouraging someone who is just starting out, they’re going to find something else to do where they feel more welcome. It’s important to let people know that, ‘You know you’re at this point now, but there’s something to enjoy about being at this point, and we’re going to be with you all of the way whether you’re an advanced dancer or just a beginner.’

I’ve seen this – the schools and the instructors that are able to build the best scenes are the ones who are open and welcome. If you look at folks like Ismael Otero of Caribbean Soul, he’ll have dancers who come in who know nothing from their first day of class, but they know they like the environment and they know they like hanging out with him. As long as you hang out with somebody you’re going to pick up their habits, and you’re going to pick up their touches.

So as the student you say okay, ‘This group of people, I’m going to dance with everybody, they’re friendly and they might be good and they might not be that good, they’re just learning but they’re all a group,’ and that’s what people want to be a part of. They want to be a part of something, so with the Bachata and the Kizomba, the basic steps are pretty simple so there’s not a big range in terms of this person has been doing this for one month, and this person has been doing this for six months.

That six month person can easily dance with that one month person, and still make them feel like they’re doing something, whereas the Salsa can be so exclusive, because as you mentioned, you can get to the social or party and say, ‘I want to dance with the person who has been dancing for five years,’ but they’re going to be so much better than the person who has only been doing it for two weeks, and that two week person could be standing there like, ‘Okay I just spent my money, dressed up, came out and now I’m just standing here not doing anything.’ Then they can go to the Bachata room and someone will grab them and say, ‘Oh you’ve been dancing for two weeks? You’re fine,’ and then they’ll be dancing all night. So it’s how that system is managed that’s really going to determine what happens with the Salsa scene, because people have more options now.

AD: I experienced that firsthand when I moved to Albany (the Capital Region Salsa Social). I did some low level teaching and tried a little bit of DJing as well; both more challenging at times than they look. I wanted to bring Salsa to the area the way that you guys did it, and it just didn’t take. Likewise I witnessed a bunch of people gravitate towards Bachata, and then Kizomba. I just didn’t understand what was going on at the time but you’re right. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

SGB: And because folks are on different paths sometimes, even when a person says, ‘I want to be a DJ,’ they may want to DJ because they have music that they like. I was talking with Lorenzo Haire (DJ Renzo), and we talked about how there is a difference between a DJ and music collector. A music collector is going to have music that they like, so they’ll say, ‘I’m going to play something that I like and hope that you’ll like it,’ whereas a DJ will ask, ‘What is it that I can do with this crowd?’

Renzo said the same thing. He said, ‘I don’t make up playlists. I get to the venue, start playing a song, and see how it works. If that works then I’ll work with that, but you don’t come with a full playlist of everything you’re going to play regardless of the people that are there.’ So when you have someone who says, ‘This is the music that I like, and you guys need to like it as well, and this is the only thing I’m going to play for you,’ it can turn people off. Some people might want to hear some Salsa Romantica, some Marc Anthony, some Bachata – do something to draw me in not push me away.

AD: That’s right and I was guilty of that. People definitely have different palates in terms of music and it’s a lot like eating a meal.

So Shaka on that same vein, when I first started dancing in Detroit (the YA Social), I didn’t organize any of the events, so I was unaware of what goes into: starting socials, coordinating with other studios, and building up relationships with other instructors, and I was oblivious to all of the behind the scenes stuff. I got a lot of exposure to that when I moved to Albany where I saw the politics that go on, the business side of dancing, the rivalries, and all of those unpleasant things. Describe your transition from being a student, to an instructor/performer, to a promoter.

SGB: Everything is a transition and an adjustment – like when you go from being the guy who goes out and dances to the guy who teaches, people will look at you through a different lens. There are folks I know who I see when I go out, and we chat it up each time we’re at a party. Our relationship is seeing them at the club and they have fun when they’re dancing. But if they tell me, ‘Oh I’m teaching over here, here, and here now,’ now I’m thinking, ‘Whoa wait a minute what’s your goal there?’ Now I just don’t look at you and see how you dance, but technically how you dance.

Are you just having fun? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you able to communicate that to people and teach that? I don’t want to say you look at the person as less, but you are way more critical of what they’re doing and if they haven’t taken that into account, then that can be a turnoff for me, just like if I was to suddenly promote myself as a Salsa DJ. I mean I’ve been in this thing for 15-16 years, but I know that I am not a DJ. If I tell people I’m a DJ, the DJs I respect are going to hold me to the flame. If you’re a DJ, can you handle this situation? Can you handle that situation? And I realize, no I can’t handle that situation so why am I calling myself a DJ?

So it’s the same thing with being a promoter. I’m much more of a dancer than I am a promoter because when I see folks actually promoting, I think, ‘I should be doing that.’ They’re the ones handing out flyers and talking to people, pushing people and just constantly promoting, and promoting and promoting. That’s the job of a promoter and so on. Each time you want to wear a new hat, you want to make sure you’re willing to go through what it takes to be that, or else you’re not being fair to yourself.

AD: So sometimes you have dancers who say, ‘I want to teach. I want to start a school. I want to host my own event.’ The short version of it all is that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes when you transition from social dancing to the promoting, and the event organizing.

SGB: Every single one of those aspects is a very separate job, and you don’t need to be the do all person. If you’re just good at one particular thing, that’s going to rise. If I try to do everything and say, ‘Oh I can teach. I can promote. I can DJ. I can create flyers. I make my own t-shirts and I can bake cookies,’ then it’s like, okay which one of these things are you really going to do? If you’re average at everything and not doing one thing well, then you’re just that; average. You want to be great at something.

AD: So now Shaka, talk about the Capital Congress.

SGB: We started it in 2005 and it came out of a house party we used to do back in 2002 and 2003. We had a big apartment, my friend Dupree and I, with wood floors, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do a house party?’ I was much more of a promoter then because I would send out these long emails. They were funny and they were dramatic. It was just me trying to get people to come to the party. We must have done about six of these parties and we had people flying in from Chicago, coming from North Carolina, coming in from New York, just for these house parties. And so a promoter, my buddy the late David Melendez saw what I was doing with these parties and said that he wanted to do a Salsa Congress in DC. And so I told him, ‘I’m not a promoter,’ and he said, ‘No just do what you normally do,’ and that’s what we did for the Salsa Congress.

That started in 2005, and David passed away in 2007 and I continued doing the event since then. First when I moved out to Portugal and to Miami, it was like a homecoming. For me each year I was like, okay I’m coming back and doing this event which is an opportunity for everyone to be under one roof and of all different skill levels, and all different dance types, and to have access and to be able to learn from the best instructors in the world because they’re all there, and they’re available to interact. I think it’s like you mentioned, it’s important for the instructors to be available so a beginner can come up to them and have the same chance to get a dance as the most advanced dancer. Also the best instructors I know like teaching beginning classes because sometimes we think that the best instructors are going to be teaching the advanced classes.

Sometimes as an advanced dancer, you know how to get the concepts a person is trying to teach whether they’re teaching it well or not. But it’s to the beginner dancers whom you say, ‘Okay let me show you the most important aspects of what you’re doing,’ and getting that guidance from one of the top five dancers in the world, who will say, ‘Let me show you guys two things that if you get these, you’ll be able expand yourselves and take your dance to new level,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh these are the beginners. Let anybody teach them. All we’re going to do is walk back and forth and do right turns.’

There are so many ways you can grow a scene by having the right people – by having that right fertilizer for it. For me that’s what the Congress is. I know it goes well when I can put everybody in the room and just leave and know that folks are going to have a good time and that there’s not going to be any weird drama. There’s not going to be people turning down other people. That to me is the joy of the event. That’s the best part.

AD: So a Congress (in the dance context) is essentially a weekend of: dance workshops, shows-.

SGB: It’s workshops, parties, performances – and you know it’s a Latin dance experience.

AD: And it looks like you guys have expanded it to incorporate: Bachata, Zouk, and Kizomba.

SGB: Well it’s the same thing; I don’t want just steak. I want the steak, the mashed potatoes, and the vegetables. I want everything to come together at the middle of the pot. My focus is making sure Salsa doesn’t end up as the back burner-type thing. I live in Miami and outside of my window, they have the Ultra Music Festival. It’s hundreds of thousands of people all in one place, and as an event organizer, I think to myself, ‘Oh it would be great to have something like that,’ but as a Salsero I think okay there aren’t that many Salseros, and if I had that many people, I would not be able to cater to what it is that I love. I would not be able to have just David Gonzalez, Hector Martinez and Frankie Morales that I can just text and talk to on Facebook and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re putting this kind of sound together and we’re going to do the old Tito Puento version of this with him playing this,’ and knowing that’s an experience unlike any other.

There aren’t hundreds of thousands of people who will come for that, and I don’t care about that. I want to have that two thousand people come together and have that experience of seeing the New Swing Sextet, and seeing Terry and Cécile. One of the biggest joys for me last year was that I did my first performance to a New Swing Sextet song, and to have the New Swing Sextet last year at my congress say, ‘Hey I want to dedicate this song to Shaka,’ and I said, ‘What?’, and they played that song and I was able to dance to it. That for me is the magic of the event and the most important thing is saying, ‘This is Salsa. This is Latin music.’ The other stuff, I can get that anywhere.

AD: Okay Shaka I’ve got three more questions. Running a congress, what has it taught you?

SGB: In terms of organizing a congress? – finding people who are much better at their jobs than I am. I’ve also learned to hire the best people to: manage the dance floors, the sound, the installation, and manage the DJs. Each one of those tasks, I would tell myself, ‘Oh yeah I can do that task,’ but having to do all of those tasks is overwhelming and I learned that each time I find the right person that I can delegate to, then I find that life becomes so much more – Well maybe you even get a chance to dance at your own event. So I’ve learned that you go professional for as much as you can. If you do anything halfway, then you get halfway results.

AD: The last two questions are related to performances. So the original performance you did with Psyon Mauricio Scott; the famous two man routine, is that available anywhere? Is it on YouTube? Or is it locked away in a vault somewhere?

SGB: If you find it let me know (laughing). I have some halfway versions of it but – this was before YouTube even existed. I think I have one version somewhere, but I would like to see it so that I can go and re-learn it and do it somewhere. We danced to “El Presidente Dante” by Frankie Dante Y Su Orquesta Flamboyan. I first heard that song when DJ Bruno played it at Clarendon Grill. But in terms of performances, that is important to me for people to know what song we’re performing to, and who did it and what version, because you have a lot of folks who just start doing it without knowing what they’re doing and why. So we push that on our teams and say, ‘You guys need to know the music we’re dancing to,’ because one of the most embarrassing things for me is to have a dancer on my team who doesn’t know the song we’re dancing to.

AD: The last question; the five man musical chairs routine you did at the Flava Invasion with Pyson Mauricio Scott, Gordon Neil, Sekou McMiller and Leon Rose, is it true you guys put that together in 10 minutes? One of them told me that.

SGB: That routine, we had no idea what we were doing for that routine (laughing). Gordon said he wanted us to do a routine, and we got together in the middle of the Flava Invasion, and we went over to Gordon’s house. He said, ‘I’m thinking we’ll use this song’ (The Hustler by Willie Colon). We counted out the eight counts in the song and realized there were five sections that we could use. And then the chorus so to speak – that horn riff that comes in, we said, ‘Okay that repeats, so we can all do the same thing for that chorus, and then in between, each person will just free-style.’ And then we decided that when we brought each person up, we’d just rotate the chairs. So we did that, and we kind of just listened to it, said okay that works, and then we all left. We had a specific cut of the song we were going to use, so right before we’re about walk onto the stage, Gordon says to me, ‘Oh we’re going to use the whole song,’ and I said, ‘What?’

So we’re all up there (laughing), and if you see us, we’re all counting the song throughout the chorus and looking at each other. Our plan was that we would stomp so that the other person would know that they were cued up. So you see us all just standing there – you might even see our lips moving, and then at one point in time we stomp, and if the person was off on the stomp, then they would know, because everyone else was stomping. You’d say, ‘Oh this is where we are so now it’s my turn to go out there.’That was a lot of fun in terms of how random and spontaneous it was. We all said, ‘We have to make it through this song.’

AD: Okay, because the end result was brilliant, especially when you did that flip (laughing).

SGB: Oh god. That flip – I can tell you why I did that flip, because I was thinking, ‘I can do a backflip,’ when it was my turn to go up, but Leon went before me, and Leon did a backflip and then I thought, ‘Okay now I have to come up with something else now,’ At the same time I’m counting and stomping and trying to remember when I have to go up, so I said, ‘Okay I’ll do a front flip.’ So I did a front flip and you might notice that I didn’t land on my feet. I landed on my back.

So I do the front flip, land on my back, and then I kept dancing and my back was killing me, and as I walked off of the stage, I’m texting my chiropractor (laughing) and saying, ‘Okay I’ve got to see you on Monday.’ But yes I thought I was going to break my back out there, and there was something that happened with Gordon – he was doing his free-style, and he grabbed his foot as he was spinning around, and afterwards I asked him, ‘Did you just grab your boot?,’ to which he said, ‘I was feeling it (laughing).’ That was the fun of the Flava Invasion that year. There’s a story behind everything if you get to watch that show again.

AD: Yes when I saw it, I was trying to show it to everyone and telling everyone how great it was.

Well Shaka thank you again for this amazing interview. We covered a lot. Thanks for helping me get through graduate school, your teaching and your inspiration, and even for sharing some music files here and there over the years. I look forward to seeing you and everyone else at the Capital Congress this year in June.

SGB: Okay thank you Anwar. I loved being a part of this, and I’ll see you at the Congress.

To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

Thank you for taking out the time to read this interview. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Mother’s Day 2018: Memories of my grandmothers

Following my 2017 Mother’s Day blog post, I had to think long and hard about what to write for 2018. Not coming up with a topic for some time, I figured that I’d simply promote my 2017 post once again. That post touched a lot of people, and it talked about some advice my mother gave me about getting married – advice which helped save me and our family from bedlam and chaos. Recently while at the gym, a topic came to me for 2018 – a remembrance of both of my maternal and paternal grandmothers, and their lasting impressions on my life as a child, and now as an adult.

* * *

As described in the story of my blog, I grew up in Buffalo, NY. Following my parent’s divorce, we returned to New York State’s western-most city where my mother grew up. With most of my aunts and uncles having fled Buffalo along with many other blacks in their peer group, my grandmother moved in with us – on top of us as most houses in the Buffalo were what I call ‘true’ duplexes. True duplexes are singular structures containing multiple units, all under one mortgage. Each unit has its own living room, bathroom, kitchen and multiple bedrooms – something you don’t see here in the Washington, DC market – something I plan to revisit in greater detail in another post where I’ll discuss some of my adventures in learning how to invest in real estate.

My maternal grandmother was a very beautiful woman as a younger woman and as a senior, and there were always suitors. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, but an advantage I’ll always have over my younger cousins is that I was able to spend quality time with my maternal grandmother during my childhood. Some of my first cousins just under me age-wise either didn’t get to spend time with her due to life circumstances, or didn’t appreciate their time with her while she was still in good health.

Curiosity was always in my nature. As stated in the story of my blog, I always enjoyed hearing my elders talk and tell their stories. As result, I regularly asked my maternal grandmother questions about varying topics and sought her wisdom. Sharing everything would literally take volumes to write, so I’ll just share a few.

“My children are all different Anwar,” Grandma told me more times than I can count. It was a simple, but profound statement. Over the years she observed that while her eight children were born to the same mother, ate the same food, and for the most part learned the same set of values, each of them figuratively ‘scattered’ into eight different directions – some closely adhering to what they’d been taught while others went their own way, setting in motion the inevitable family dramas, fallouts, squabbles and rivalries.  She also strongly believed that in terms of family, “The stronger ones should take care of the weaker ones.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but grandma taught me my first lesson about the concept of “Nature vs. Nurture”. This was many years before I had heard of Dr. Thomas Sowell, Dr. Walter E. Williams, or Malcolm Gladwell. It was decades before I met the mentor whom I regularly discuss this concept with – the same mentor who encouraged me to list out the principles of my blog. With such vast differences in one family, isn’t it logical to expect such variability in a whole society of millions of people?

Are our lives extensions of what we were taught in our familial ecosystems? Are our lives the very essence of who we are as individuals? Or are our lives mixtures of both? What I’ve seen in my own family suggests that our lives are mixtures of both. What have you seen in your familial ecosystems?

“People should only speak in ‘tongues’ if there is someone there to interpret what’s being said,” Grandma told me in my late teens. I was raised in a black ‘Baptist’ church in the north. I thus had no idea what I was in for when transferring to Johnson C. Smith University in the region affectionately called the ‘Bible Belt’ – a region where Christianity is much more fanatical, militant, supernatural, and in some instances, cultish.

I had never seen so many people catching the ‘Holy Ghost’, running around their church services, kicking things over, and ‘speaking in tongues’. It all collectively scared me initially and shook whatever faith I had at the time. My maternal grandmother was the first to tell me that this speaking in tongues thing, which was essentially a verbal revelation from the ‘Holy Spirit’, is something not to be done lightly and for show – something that my peers from the southeast seemed to be engaging in.

My maternal grandmother shared things with me about our family, and about the past that I didn’t hear anywhere else. If I recall correctly, she encouraged my mother to let my brother and I form our own opinions about our father, and to also allow us to have a relationship with him. She further encouraged my mother not to demonize him. Apparently, there are a lot of mothers who vengefully keep their children away from their fathers – demonizing them once their romantic relationship breaks down – often to the detriment of the children.

As described in my second essay for A Voice for Men titled “Two very well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own”, I heard my maternal grandmother discuss the differences between being “Providers” and “Fathers” – something which gave me deep insight into what’s expected of a man should he sire children. Apparently, a man can be one without being the other – the ideal situation is that he’s both. As I got older I found that many of my peers in Black America had neither.

“You raise your children for society.” My maternal grandmother never said this to me a directly. It was one of my grandmother’s philosophies/values my mother shared with me. It meant that your children weren’t just things that you carelessly brought into the world. If you had them, it was your responsibility to make sure that they made the world a better place, that they would contribute something positive, and didn’t end up in someone’s prison.

“Be with someone who loves you more.” This again is something not said directly to me. My mother shared this piece of advice that my maternal grandmother shared with her – something I don’t think my uncles were taught. At the time I was in my early 30s, and entangled in a very, very toxic romantic relationship that I couldn’t break free from. I loved this particular woman more than she loved me which created a very bad imbalance. Now considering myself a bit of a ‘Men’s Rights Activist/Advocate’, I feel compelled to share this part of the ‘game’ with other men. Thus, for any man reading this, keep this little nugget in your mind because I’m seeing that many girls are taught this part of the game, but not the boys which is in many ways unfair.

“Be a good son, Anwar.” My grandmother told me this towards the end of her life. At that point she had developed some health ailments, and had become dependent upon the care of her own children. I think that she was encouraging me at that time to be an attentive and caring son if and when my own parents needed me later in life. Now in my early 40s it’s clear to me that not every child cares for their parents in their last stages, even though it’s something they may have been taught to do.

Again I feel as though I was one of the lucky grandchildren to have her there for the majority of my childhood. Both my brother and I are the only two of her grandchildren who can actually say that. She was there until I went away to college, before moving to Georgia for the remainder of her life. That’s the last place that I saw her. That was March of 2008.

* * *

In terms of my paternal grandmother, I’ll start by saying that there are often other causalities in divorces besides the married couple and their children. Sometimes it’s other relatives who don’t get to see the children of those divorces as often. It’s something that affects all parties involved for years to come. There are many instances where children of broken relationships have little contact with the other sides of their family – this is just one. I think ours was just circumstance.

I didn’t know my father’s mother that well before she passed away in August of 1999. We lived in Buffalo and she lived seven hours away in New York City. We were younger at the time and didn’t travel independently – especially not to places like New York City – a dangerous and overwhelming place if you asked my mother. I thus only saw my paternal grandmother on the one or two visits to see my father – not a significant amount of time.

That said as a child, I fondly recall going down to upper Manhattan where she lived and staying in her two-bedroom apartment in one of those orange-brick ‘Public Housing’ buildings you see in many of New York City’s five boroughs – one in a set of three or four, with a shared playground, park benches and basketball courts on the ground level. The elevators had that smell of urine and were ‘tagged’ with markers and spray paint. It was the coolest things for me to see at that time as it was so different than what I knew back in Buffalo. Her apartment overlooked the elevated train tracks leading to and from Grand Central Station – a perfect bird’s eye view. A lover of trains back then, I would spend lots of time in her windows watching the “Metro-North” commuter trains going back and forth, and hoping to spot the “Amtrak” trains which ran less frequently.

She cooked for us when we came, and boy could she cook. We ate like kings. She spoiled us with big breakfasts, and large dinners – usually involving something fried like chicken or salmon croquets. There was also my grandfather’s ‘Shrimp Gumbo’ recipe which my father says he has laying around in a box somewhere. The hallmark of the breakfasts were the waffles, beef bacon and cheese eggs. Then there were the banana cakes on our birthdays. There was one particular visit where I ate so much that my mother said that she could visibly see how much weight I had gained when we got off the train back in Buffalo towards the end of one summer.

Puff Daddy was performing at a gym with Heavy D and there was a shooting,” my paternal grandmother said on one of visits as young teens. We were up at my father’s house and she had seen a news broadcast from New York City. We were preparing to eat one of her wonderful meals. It was the early 1990s and we knew who Heavy D was because he had been out for a while and had numerous hits and music videos. I had never heard of this Puff Daddy before, and wondered what she was talking about. His music just hadn’t made it up to Western New York yet, so we didn’t know anything about him. Three to four years later, Puff Daddy created one of the hottest rap labels of all time; Bad Boy Records. It’s funny when I think about it.

Those were rare occurrences though – specks in the entirety of my life. Similar to my father, because our time was limited, all of the times were fun times at that stage – meant to make up for the lost time and packing in as many good experiences possible. I’m thankful for them, but I can look back as an adult and realize what they were. I also realize the ‘why’ now – something you don’t know as a child on a deeper level.

I didn’t get to know my paternal grandmother on a deeper level the way that I got to know my maternal grandmother – there were no substantial passages of knowledge and wisdom. Well actually, there is one which I’ll keep to myself. I can tell you a lot about her though. She was very gregarious, and always laughing – she was very bubbly and always smiling for one reason or the other. She really enjoyed playing the lottery which is probably where my father got it from. They would play the ‘lot-to’ and attentively watch the numbers on the news every night hoping to win something. Based upon stories from my father, she was also a very superstitious woman – she didn’t believe in picking up pennies on the street, or splitting poles and people when walking down the street. Those are just the two that I know about.

One of my biggest regrets is not doing enough for her, like getting her gifts around the holidays. On my mother’s side of the family birthdays and holidays were sacred and not getting gifts was literally playing with your life. There were times when my mother had to remind me of those expectations until I got to the point of knowing what to do on my own. Gifts weren’t as important to Dad, and thus the importance of getting them for his mother wasn’t engrained in me. There was one instance as an early teen when I realized that I should have gotten her something for Christmas. It wasn’t something she said or reprimanded me over, but instead I realized in her nonverbal body language – her disappointment – something I’ll never forget.

* * *

I’ll end this with a few closing points. My maternal grandmother was a great cook as well. She made a lot of things. Her macaroni and cheese recipe was popular when I’ve made it for some coworkers. She lives on through it among other things. For many years, I needed reminders from my own mother about Grandma’s November 8th birthday. I remembered after a while. My father was an only child and thus my brother and myself were his mother’s only grandchildren. I didn’t understand it growing up, but having ‘Grands’ is actually a really big deal. I guess that explains why she spoiled us so much when she saw us. Oh, and I’ve finally gotten my hands on her Shrimp Gumbo recipe and will be experimenting with it soon.

I’m going to wrap this up by saying that as I grew into adulthood, I watched both of my grandmothers’ declines, and I still remember the last time I saw both. They passed away almost ten years apart. To whoever reads this, man or woman, I encourage you to take care of your health as much as possible as you get older, as we all inevitably will. To the younger folks, cherish your elders as much as you can while they’re still here. Get as much wisdom as you can while they’re still around, as you never know if and how it will help you as you progress through your own years, and the challenges in them. Lastly, do as much for them as you can while you still have them.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Mother’s Day 2017: One of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
Father’s Day 2017: Reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons
Two well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own: Reflections on growing up ‘Blue Pill’
Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement
The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part one

“The combination of people on the same mission created a wave of dancers and appreciation.”

Before becoming a scientist and a writer, I was a scientist and a dancer. I fell in love with Salsa music and dance during graduate school, and became hooked. The dancer I emulated the most was Shaka Gonzalez Brown, founder the Capital Congress Latin Music and Dance Festival.

Two years ago, one of my last pieces on the Examiner was an interview with my Salsa-hero Shaka Gonzalez Brown. We talked about both his personal journey as a dancer, and his signature event, the Capital Congress which takes place every June. I’ll most likely promote this timeless piece annually as it not only discusses a magical time in my own life, but it also gives anyone unfamiliar with it, a look into the world of Latin music and dance.  The pictures in this post were graciously shared by Shaka himself.

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In Washington DC, the words Capital and Congress typically bring to mind political showdowns between Democrats and Republicans. There is however an annual gathering in Washington DC which uses the same words but for a more fun purpose; the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. The much anticipated event will feature four days of non-stop: Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, and Zouk. There will be numerous: workshops, master classes, boot camps, and parties. In honor of the event, the co-founder of the Capital Congress, Shaka Gonzalez Brown granted an interview on April 25 to discuss: his journey as a dancer, teacher, and promoter, the current popularity of the Latin dances, and finally the Capital Congress.

Anwar Dunbar: Shaka, first off thank you for this opportunity to interview you. I hadn’t been out dancing in a long time when I saw you at Mr. Mambo’s Salsa Social. I write about education and STEM-related topics for the Examiner and when I was at the social, I recalled that Salsa dancing is a science in itself. In addition to educating oneself on becoming a dancer socially or professionally, it’s also very important for personal health, and quality of life. With the Capital Congress approaching, I figured it would be a great time to potentially interview you, so again thank you.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: It’s funny how those light bulb moments happen.

AD: Yes it is. My questions will cover a broad range of topics: your background, varying aspects of social dancing, the different Latin dances, and finally the Capital Congress. So with that, we’ll get started. So Shaka you’re originally from Washington DC right?

SGB: That’s right. I was born at the Howard University Hospital.

AD: How did you get started dancing Salsa? Is it something you grew up with or at some point did you wander into a studio? In an interview years ago in Johnny Johnson’s La Voz Del Mambo magazine, I think you said that there was a female (laughing) – which is the reason a lot of us guys get into this, but how did you get started?

SGB: I got interested in Salsa in my senior year of college at Florida A & M University (FAMU). There was a Cuban restaurant I liked going to, and there was waitress who I thought was the prettiest lady in the world. I would go there and eat about three to four times a week. One day she told me about their end of the year party; the pig roast barbecue outside party type of thing and she told me to come to it. She could have told me to go anywhere else and I would have been there.

I got there and they were playing Merengue. She just kind of moved around and bopped around and she asked me to dance. I didn’t know what to do, and I was confused. My friend went off and danced with her and I realized that I had been coming to this place so many years looking for that one opportunity, and I had just missed it. And that’s when I decided that I was going to learn how to do this, and maybe one day I’d get a chance to dance with her.

AD: Now in terms of your lineage, are you part Cuban?

SGB: My grandfather is Cuban; he grew up in Tampa. That’s where my name comes from.

AD: You do dance fulltime now, but your educational background is in Information Technology systems (IT) right?

SGB: Yes I studied IT; computer information systems. I graduated last century.

AD: When did you decide that you wanted to do dance fulltime in terms of teaching, performing and promoting events?

SGB: I didn’t so much decide that I wanted to do dance fulltime. For what I was doing in IT, I was getting great jobs. I graduated, and I was high in my classes. For what that experience was in school, the path I was on – I wasn’t really happy with it. My priorities in life have always been to: travel, and to interact with people, to teach and to learn – that’s pretty much what keeps me keeps me going. I wasn’t waking up excited to go to work to setup computers, and mail them off, and set up more computers. There was no joy to keeping networks secure. It was just a constant demand, and it starts to tug at you. It created a vacuum and so I said let me do this Salsa teaching thing that I really enjoy after I had quit the job, and it’s been growing since then.

AD: Now were your coworkers surprised to hear that you were this instructor and skilled dancer?

SGB: My coworkers? They just thought it was a hobby. When you’re spending more time doing your hobby than your actual job, you have to make some adjustments. My thought process was that if I’m spending 10-12 hours on a job from the time I wake up to the time I get home, and what I really enjoy doing, I’m only doing for four to five hours each day, how can I enjoy doing what I love doing for eight hours a day, make that my fulltime job and put that same energy and commitment into it? Then I would be a lot happier, and then numbers-wise I said, ‘You know I can make something like this work.’

AD: Now I don’t know if you remember this, but on one of your visits to Detroit for the Yoruba Andabo Salsa Social, I told you, ‘Shaka out of all of the dancers I’ve seen you’re my favorite,’ to which you looked at me with a surprised expression and said, ‘Thank you.’ But yes you became my favorite dancer. You’re going to laugh at this, but it got to the point where when I moved to Albany, NY, my friend Lana Ortiz literally started calling me, ‘Shaka.’

SGB: I really appreciate that (laughing).

AD: Seriously. Albany was more of an isolated community at the time so when I moved there I was saying things like, ‘Shaka Brown, Shaka Brown, he’s my favorite dancer-,’ and I would just go on and on.

SGB: I really appreciate hearing that. One day I’m going to go to Albany. Folks are going to say, ‘You’re not Shaka Brown,’ and I’m going to say, ‘Yes I am (laughing).’

AD: In another instance Lana was riding around in her car with someone from one of New York City’s well established dance companies. I called her on her cell phone and she picked up the phone and said, ‘Shaka?’ You could hear the other person literally ask, ‘Is that Shaka Brown?’ Seriously (laughing).

The first time I remember seeing you was at the Canada Salsa Congress in 2002 or 2003. I think Troy and Jorjet were having an issue with their music during a workshop, and you lent them your iPod or something. That was around the time you were leading the Clavekazi Dance Company and you guys had the original lineup. I think that was the “Golden Age” of Salsa in DC, and I moved here three to four years afterwards. What was it like? I hear so much about it. You were out social dancing pretty regularly. Psyon was out regularly and there were a number of dance companies and schools here all at once. Describe that time.

SGB: Well that Golden Age – it’s scary to think about that because to think about a Bronze Age and a Golden Age, it sounds like it was a millennium ago. That was probably 2000 to 2003 or 2004 because once I graduated from FAMU, I came back to DC, and then moved to Brazil when I quit my job. I came back at the beginning of 2001. Our goal was to start a dance company, and teach people how to dance and to promote mambo (NY Style On2 Salsa). The combination of people on the same mission created a wave of dancers and appreciation.

We would go out dancing just about every night: Clarendon Grill on Mondays, the Barking Dog on Tuesdays, and then Zanzibar on Wednesdays. Zanzibar was like the peak of the week and after that we just kind of worked our way around to other place the rest of the week; Thursdays and Fridays we would go to Havana Village, and the Salsa Room/Cecelia’s. Saturdays there was Relish which changed its name to Ooh La La, and that was right downtown. Sundays you might have off unless you had a barbecue over someone’s house. But there was just so much opportunity for people to go out and dance, and go out and practice.

You had people who just loved the music and loved the dancing; people like Eileen Torres. It was so important to her that she would be at Zanzibar regularly. Folks would come out and she would use that as an opportunity to teach them about the music and the artists. She would bring people down from New York City and say, “This is Pequeño Johnny playing the congas.” And so in that way, she would bring life to the music so folks were more connected to what was going on, and we really appreciated that.

And even the DJs, DC has some of the best Latin DJs in terms of their knowledge of the music and their commitment to knowing what they’re doing when they’re playing. It’s not just, “Oooh I like that song.” They looked at the album, the singers, the percussionists, every single person on there to ensure that it was going to be a good combination. We took a lot of it for granted because I just thought that was how it was supposed to be. I didn’t realize until I started going out to other cities that there wasn’t that appreciation and the same focus on the music in other places.

AD: Now on that same vein, what’s the Miami Salsa community like in comparison to DC’s or New York’s?

SGB: Miami is a different kind of scene. It’s definitely more Latin. In terms of Salsa, there are way more stations. You can turn on the radio here and hear Latin music all of the time. That’s not an issue. In DC, you’ll have Nancy Alonzo – you’ll have stations where for the next two hours, she for example will have a Salsa program, and that’s all they’re going to do.

She would do a similar thing to what Eileen did at Zanzibar; promote the knowledge of that particular Salsa culture, whereas down here in Miami, you turn on the radio, you’ll get a station that speaks Spanish, but you’ll get lots of Bachata and a wide range of other Latin genres, so it’s not necessarily very specific to where you’ll only get Salsa. I really can’t speak on New York, because I know it has a huge salsa community, and with the amount of Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans there, it’s way past what I would feel comfortable discussing. When I’m in New York City, I just like being out there on a corner and seeing someone with a conga,
and just enjoying the music.

AD: Yes there is nothing like it. I went to the Jimmy Anton Social after not going for a couple of years, and I saw the same core group of folks dancing hard for four hours on a Sunday evening. There’s nothing like it.

So a year or so after I saw you at the Canada Salsa Congress that first time, you actually came to Detroit; the first of three times, and I think it was around that time that I bought your Advanced Turn Patterns VHS with Griselle Poncé. Shortly thereafter I was doing the arm bump move where you bump her hand with your elbow and catch it on the other side. Then I got you step by step series with Yesenia Peralta. The interesting thing is that after I watched your instructional videos and then watched you social dance, the two looked very different.  The following is rare footage of Shaka dancing with the great Magna Gopal at the 2007 Atlanta Salsa Congress.

As opposed to going move to move to move, which is what a lot of young (and older) dancers do, your dancing (partner-work and styling) looked very improvisational, and very organic – almost like you were out there experimenting every time with every song, and with every lady. You just made it look really easy, and really fun. You also had your own image: the polo shirt, jeans, sneakers, etc. How did you develop your style? Who were your influences?

SGB: I developed that particular style because I like Kung Fu movies. I know that sounds funny but I spent so much time in college watching Kung Fu movies and it wasn’t about the plot. I just loved seeing the interaction of the fight sequences. I didn’t want lots of cutaways, and I wanted to see how a fighter would go from this move to that move and after that move how he would go to this move – and so it’s not a plan. In my mind it was not knowing what was coming up, and just seeing how people reacted to it. That’s what I love.

I’m not really a fighter so the closest thing I get to that is partner dancing. It’s the same thing of – I’m going to try to do this thinking that my partner is going to do that, and if they don’t do that I need to be able to do something different and adjust to it in such a way to make it enjoyable, and non-painful. It’s the adjustment to that that I love. So what I did was I took classes anywhere that I could, because I liked seeing how different people taught.

But the moves that I’ve learned in the classes, I’ve never taken it as, ‘Okay this is choreography.’ These were tools with which I would try to figure out how to get from one to the other. Likewise the way that I teach, I try to teach things in terms of them being very granular; you can do this move at this time, and you can do that move at this time, and then you can make this transition – so the students can kind of build their own dance.

So when you watch me dance, I’m not going in there with a plan. I’m just going in saying, okay it looks like this person likes this band or they don’t, their arms are strong or they’re not, or maybe they like this kind of song – so all of those variables are what I throw into a soup, and as a chef I say, “Okay what would I do with these ingredients?” And that’s where it comes from. It’s like my mind is constantly running, but I’m living in that moment, and that’s what I love about it.

AD: That’s fascinating because when dancers start out, if the partner work breaks down for whatever reason, the lead or the follow will apologize for making a perceived mistake. The other thing I observed watching you was that your musicality was always on point.

SGB: Sometimes I’m dancing with someone and they say, ‘I’m not sure I can follow you,’ and I tell them, ‘I have no idea of what I’m going to do, so I can’t expect you to know so don’t worry about it. There’s no plan here. We’re just going to enjoy this song right now.’

AD: Now one of the other most important things I learned from you when you visited us at the Yoruba Andabo Salsa Social in Detroit was that you danced with all of the ladies regardless of level and had a blast with all of them. When me and some of my peers were younger dancers and trying to prove ourselves, we only wanted to dance with the intermediate and advanced ladies, but I noticed that you didn’t discriminate and afterwards I decided that I too would dance with everyone regardless of level, and try to make it fun. So you learn a lot by watching.

SGB: Yes you do. There’s no scale; this is a good dancer, this is a great dancers, this is a fantastic dancer and you only want to dance with people at this level or at that level. It’s kind of like an ocean where you say, ‘I only want to go in the ocean where the water is this deep.’ There are so many things to appreciate at so many different levels. Every single person you dance with, you’re understanding them, and you’re talking with them and communicating with them. If their timing is horrible, that’s what you guys can work on; giving her something you guys can share and appreciate.

Sometimes I get turned off when someone says, ‘Oh you should dance with this person because they’re a good dancer.’ As I dance with them, it might not be a good dance because what someone else considers a good dance might not be a good dance for me just because they can spin a lot or they’re really light. Being really light isn’t just the dance because I’ve danced with people who didn’t really do anything at all, but I learned something because it was a particular song where they told me, ‘Oh I really love this song,’ and for me I may have just heard the beat and wasn’t listening to what they were listening to. I may hear something else and I learn something, and it didn’t matter how many times we spun or how many cross body leads, or turn patterns we did. It was about that experience, and you get that from every dance.

AD: That’s interesting because as young dancers, when you go to Congresses, you feel like you have to dance with: Magna Gopal, Griselle Poncé, Anna Masacote, etc.

SGB: The “A-Listers”.

AD: Yes and if they tell you, ‘No,’ you’re crushed but if they say, ‘Yes,’ it makes your whole weekend, and you feel like you’ve really come up and been validated in some way.

Thank you for taking out the time to read this interview. It will be continued in part two of, Shaka G Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching

“Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the moment and take it seriously. Understand that every decision you make affects the next thing that you do.”

This interview is the second part of my interview with Buffalo basketball legend Jason Rowe. In the first part of our interview we discussed his background, and the run he and his teammates went on at Buffalo Traditional High School in the early- to mid-1990s in our city league, the ‘Yale Cup’ and postseason play. In the second part of the interview we discussed his basketball career after Buffalo Traditional – college, the professional level, and now his current experiences coaching in Western New York. The pictures in this post were shared courtesy of Jason himself.

Anwar Dunbar: It’s been documented that academics prevented some Yale Cup players from going to big time Division 1 schools. What kind of student were you at Buffalo Traditional?

Jason Rowe: I was a ‘Merit’ and ‘Honor Roll’ student. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to play. My parents instilled education in me from day one. My mother and father were constantly on me about grades. If my grades weren’t above a certain GPA, then I wasn’t allowed to play basketball. My father actually took me off the ‘Modified’ team at Traditional for half the season because my average was an 87% and not a 90% or better. So in no way shape or form would I say that Buffalo Traditional didn’t prepare me. No!!! My parents prepared me and instilled how important my education was.

AD: That’s actually a big deal. I saw that happen to a couple of players at Hutch-Tech. It seems that if your parents don’t set that high standard, you’ll do just enough to stay eligible to play and, in some instances, just walk that line of eligibility as I did in some classes.

When did the colleges start recruiting you? Were you a sophomore or a junior? Or were they looking at you as a freshman?

JR: I was a sophomore and it just blew up out of nowhere. I remember my first two letters were from Duke University and the University of Michigan. They were ‘generics’, but you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t being recruited by Duke and Michigan.

AD: How did it feel?

JR: I thought I was the king of the world. Even though they were questionnaires, these were the guys that were on TV. These were Coach Steve Fisher’s (Michigan) and Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s (Duke) signatures right there so it was a big deal.

AD: Where did you end up going?

JR: Loyola of Maryland.

AD: Why did you choose that school?

JR: It felt like home. I got injured at the ‘ABCD Camp’ and a lot of teams didn’t know how serious it was. My back was just ruined. A lot of schools wanted me to sign ‘late’, but I didn’t want to sign late. My mentality is if you want me, you want me now. I didn’t want to wait for them to figure out if another kid was going to sign. I was second or third on a number of college’s boards, but if you say you want me then I felt like, let’s get this thing done. Let’s figure it out. I wanted to focus on my grades and winning the state championship, so I didn’t want to go the whole season with phone calls and distractions.

AD: So signing late is something colleges want you to do when they’re unsure of your health?

JR: All schools have a list of about five to ten people at your position, and it’s in order of how much they want them. I was two, three, or four on a couple of lists, and I wanted to be their number one. If they wanted me, I wanted to make it happen. I didn’t want to wait for someone else to not sign for them to want me. In my brain, that meant they didn’t want me.

AD: So it’s kind of like dating (laughing).

JR: Exactly (laughing).

AD: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make from playing at Buffalo Traditional to playing on the college level and being away from home?

JR: I had family in Maryland so being away from home wasn’t an issue for me. The biggest issue for me was learning the point guard position because in high school we didn’t have any plays. In college now it was about game management – knowing what’s a ‘good’ shot, knowing what’s a ‘bad’ shot, and how to keep your teammates happy. There were so many things that I was lacking that I had to pick up very fast.

AD: Interesting. So when you were at Buffalo Traditional and an opponent threw up a ‘2-3’ or a ‘3-2’ zone defense against you, how would you all approach that if you didn’t have plays?

JR: We knew what to do whether it was running a ‘Motion’ play or a ‘Pick and Roll’. We felt like we were so talented that we could figure it out anyway. We had athletes, ball handlers, big men, and shooters. We had everything so we could chuck up a shot, and with Adrian, LaVar, and Damien – someone was going to get the rebound (see part one of this interview). We could get a three-pointer if we needed it – enough of us could shoot three-pointers. It was sort of like ‘fool’s gold’ because you could get away with it at the high school level, but at the college level, that’s not how it works.

AD: So in college you had to learn how to play the point guard position from more of an Xs and Os standpoint.

JR: Yes, I had to learn how to play basketball.

AD: Did you play all four years?

JR: I played three and a half. I left halfway through my senior year due to grades.

AD: When I was an undergraduate, I do remember sitting in my dorm room one day and seeing Loyola of Maryland on ESPN, and seeing you suited up in your green and white uniform. What did you major in?

JR: Elementary Education.

AD: Did you just encounter a hard series of classes, or was it just juggling being a Division 1 student-athlete?

JR: There was a lot going on in my personal life and I didn’t know how to handle things.

AD: At any point did you dream of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA)?

JR: Yes, for a very long time. For anyone who plays basketball long enough, that’ s going to be a dream – especially someone who studied it, watched it, and idolized players in the NBA.

AD: In any of your years at Loyola, did you guys make the ‘Big Dance’ (the NCAA’s Men’s College Basketball Tournament)?

JR: The one basketball thing that drives me crazy to this day is not experiencing the Big Dance. Anything else that goes on in basketball is fine, but not playing in the Big Dance drives me insane.

AD: How did you go from playing at Loyola of Maryland to playing professional basketball overseas?

JR: It was through an agency. My college coach gave me a ton of agent letters – dozens and dozens of them and I literally went through all of them, researched them, and figured out which one worked best for me. I literally had an interview process with a couple of agencies and picked an agent that would best help me to further my career overseas and further my basketball career in general.

AD: So you must have done exceptionally well at Loyola for agents to have wanted to sign you.

JR: Prior to my leaving school, I was actually projected late first round and late second round going into my senior year in the NBA Draft. When word gets around, you’ll have agencies calling.

AD: What kind of numbers were you putting up? Were you putting up ‘Triple Doubles’?

JR: I’m trying to remember – my senior year, I was around 25th in the country in scoring, 15th in assists, and 3rd in steals. In my junior year I was 2nd or 3rd in steals, and in my sophomore and senior years it was similar.

AD: What was it like playing professional basketball overseas? Which club or franchise did you play for?

JR: I played in 11 countries for 18 teams. I played 15 years and I don’t regret a thing. It was beautiful.

AD: Wow. So this was all over Europe?

JR: I’m going to try to do it in order. I played in: Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Argentina, France, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Ukraine, and Morocco.

AD: So you were playing against home-grown European players, as well as players from the United States too? Which names come to mind?

JR: Yes. When I was in Turkey, I played against Allen Iverson. In Italy, I played against Danilo Gallinari and Khalid El-Amin. In France, I played against Hollis Price. C.C. Harrison had a big name. I played against Rudy Fernandez when I was in Spain. Lamar Odom signed to a team in Spain, but he didn’t play that night. Manu Ginobli, Marco Bellinelli – I played against those guys. I played against Troy Bell who I’m still friends with. I played against a lot of people.

AD: I remember you posting a picture of you playing against Allen Iverson, also known as ‘The Answer’ on Facebook. What was it like playing against ‘A.I.’?

JR: There’s two sides to it. There’s the ‘wow-factor’, and there’s the competitive part. The wow-factor lasts about five seconds. I walked on the court and I remember looking at him. He’s not bigger than me – maybe an inch taller. His arms are super long and I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Wow, this was once the best player in the NBA.’ He was for sure one of the best players in the world, and he was no bigger than me. And then it was like, ‘Alright jump ball let’s go.’ It literally happened that fast. You’re in competition mode and you don’t ever want to let your opponent see a weakness. While it was a blessing to be able to share the floor with a Hall of Famer and an icon, the competitiveness kicks in and it’s like, ‘Okay you’ve got to go to work.’

AD: There was always some controversy about whether or not he was 6’.

JR: He’s not 6’ (laughing).

AD: Okay, we’re almost done Jason. One of the common themes in my interviews with some of the former Yale Cup players is wasted and underdeveloped talent. The Buffalo News actually wrote a series of stories on this during your junior year at Buffalo Traditional. With players like you and Damien Foster taking your basketball careers beyond the Yale Cup, what are your thoughts on the challenges of our city league and that era? We didn’t have a solid Junior Varsity program like the suburban and private schools, and most of our ‘league’ games were immediately after school. There were just so many differences between what we had versus the suburban and private schools. Talk about that.

JR: I think that’s a valid argument. Our games at Traditional got moved to 7:30 pm because they were so popular. Being a coach now myself, I do think the development is completely different. I’m in a private school right now – Bishop Timon. The things that I have access to, public schools don’t have access to, and what you said was perfect regarding the development of a Junior Varsity team. Having access to the gym and being able to develop my kids in a particular type of way that public schools don’t have access to – I think it’s unfair, and because of that I think you see the difference between public schools and private schools. One is structured and one doesn’t necessarily have the same structure, because they’re not allowed to do certain things. Because of insurance or whatever the reason is, you see this big difference immediately, and in terms of athletics, I think something needs to be done about that.

AD: Is that something the School Board would have to address?

JR: Yes, because from my understanding, the biggest issue is insurance. That’s what I was told. I’ve always wondered why some schools have access and other schools don’t. It’s unfortunate because for a lot of these kids, athletics is their way out of their toxic situations. So why not have things in place for them to look forward to? If they know that there is an adult or adults who are there in the gym to help develop their minds and bodies to give them a place of peace and tranquility, why not do that? Why not develop these everyday life skills, instead of having these kids with nowhere to go, and no access to anything, and now they’re doing something they don’t need to be doing? I would love to sit in on one of the meetings and get to the bottom of why these things aren’t happening.

AD: I’ve heard you DJ at Dennis Wilson’s Oak Room, but you’re coaching now yourself at Bishop Timon. After your long playing career, how are you enjoying coaching?

JR: I love it. To be honest, coaching wasn’t something I was looking forward to – I just wasn’t into it. I don’t like stress – the yelling and the screaming. I’m actually a calm coach, and my kids think it’s hilarious. I don’t yell and I don’t scream and yet I know how to get my point across without demeaning or belittling the kids. That works for me, and I relate to my kids the best way that I can and it’s working for our team. We’re having huge success this year. I’ve tried to take my experience from playing for four different coaches and meshing everything together to come up with my own coaching style.

AD: So you’re not a ‘yeller’?

JR: No, not at all, and I get that from my mother. I just give the kids a look and they know when I’m serious or something wasn’t done right. I also demonstrate – I get in the practices and in the drills because I think it’s pointless to tell the kids they did something wrong and not show them the right way. That works for me, and now the kid doesn’t make the same mistake twice. I’m very, very hands on.

AD: How are the kids today different from 20 years ago?

JR: I do training as well, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of hardworking kids. I think the era as a whole is more concerned about how people view them as opposed to actually getting into the gym and working. I think kids are worried about rankings and social media ‘likes’. Granted it’s a 20-year difference. We didn’t have a phone to let the world know we were in the gym working out, so their mentality is different because they have access to different things. My kids know that when it’s time for practice and training, they have to shut their phones off. When it’s training time give me an hour, and when it’s practice time, give me two hours. After that you can do you what you want to do, but lock into this and we’re fine.

AD: That’s true. We didn’t have Facebook or YouTube twenty years ago.

JR: In the first week of practice I told the kids, ‘Do not worry about polls. Do not worry about rankings. They don’t mean anything. Polls are just a bunch of people’s opinions of who you are. Being ranked No. 1 in November doesn’t mean we’re state championship material.’

AD: Does that mean when you are at Buffalo Traditional, you guys didn’t look at the Buffalo News weekly ‘News Cage Poll’ to see if you were ranked over Cardinal O’Hara, Burgard or John F. Kennedy?

JR: Of course, but as a retired player, a coach and a trainer, I understand that those don’t mean anything. You still have to go out and perform, and do what you need to do.

AD: Is there a difference between the kids you have at Timon versus what you would have if you coached in the Buffalo Public School system (BPS)?

JR: No. I was doing training and I had BPS kids. What works for me is that I respect them and they respect me. Fortunately, I played basketball a long time and I can help them get to where they want to be in terms of this game. Because of that I’m able to keep their attention for an exceptional amount of time. I’ve gone where they want to go, so if was in the BPS I don’t think it would be a big issue.

AD: Is there anything you would change about your playing days?

JR: I would say not failing out of school, finishing my degree and my senior year at Loyola of Maryland. Otherwise, I enjoyed every single time I stepped onto the basketball court – high school, college, rec-center, international – every good game and bad game – I wouldn’t change a thing in terms of my basketball career.

AD: For youngsters aspiring to play basketball or to achieve any other life goal, what advice would you give them?

JR: Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the moment and take it seriously. Understand that every decision you make affects the next thing that you do. When I left school, it affected me possibly not being drafted which led to me going overseas. And I’m grateful to have gone overseas and to have played in fifteen countries, learned so many things, played against so many people. I was able to accomplish so many things and see the world with a basketball which is something I never thought would happen.

But I didn’t understand the effects of decision making. You’re a kid and you think you’re invincible. You leave school, but you don’t understand how much of a domino effect it is, and how one decision affects everything that you do afterwards. It can alter everything in your life, so my advice to youngsters is to really understand the decisions that you’re making with everything you do in life.

AD: Yes, one injury, a violent crime – anything can change your future. I’m sure you saw ESPN’s 30 for 30 about Benji Wilson’s life. He was the No. 1 high school player in the United States in 1984, was on his way to being a college star and then a professional basketball player. And it was all taken away just like that over a stupid argument with two guys on the street he didn’t know, and who had nothing to lose themselves.

JR: When I was in high school I didn’t go out. When I was at Loyola, I didn’t go out to a club until maybe my junior year. I was afraid of losing my scholarship due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I went to dorm parties, but I didn’t want the club scene. I didn’t want it.

AD: Well Jason, thank you again, and I really appreciate your willingness to talk about your life and playing days. Whether you know it or not, you are royalty, at least as far as I’m concerned. What you guys did at Buffalo Traditional was big and in your successes, you touched a lot of lives – not just at Buffalo Traditional, but also for the rest of us at the other schools – seeing that those types of things could be done and giving everyone else something to shoot for. It was something for the entire area to be proud of – to say that you were there, and that you played against Jason Rowe, Damien Foster, and the Buffalo Traditional Bulls (click on the image below to enlarge it).

JR: You just said something very important, which was that we touched lives. At the time you don’t understand that, but that’s why I also said for the youngsters to be mindful of their every decision because you never know who is watching. That was something that I learned later on in my career – to be mindful, to be in the moment, and to appreciate each moment. There is nothing wrong with stepping outside, smelling the air and saying, ‘Thank you.’ Don’t get caught up in getting flashy rings, a Range Rover and all of those things, because all of that can be taken away from you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership

This article is the continuation of the series titled the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. Part three will discuss some of the valuable lessons I learned about people, teamwork, mental toughness, and leadership – all of which have implications for succeeding in any group mission and functioning on a team – key aspects in the workplace and in all relationships.

An important life lesson basketball taught me is that people come and go in and out of your life for any number of reasons. In workplaces, there are always going to be people who are unhappy, distraught and discouraged. They may feel that they’re not being used enough, used properly, or are just being overlooked – sometimes for someone who is favored by management. There are always people who feel passed over for promotions that they just knew that they were qualified for, or entitled to get.

In other instances they may feel that they aren’t being given the chance to succeed. This can lead to frustration and even quitting altogether. Once they’ve quit, they may even try to convince you to do the same, but if you’re content where you are, you have to stay and continue to press on in your current station. Malcontents can become cancers that poison their teams. This is something that goes for both platonic and romantic relationships as well.

Regarding teamwork, basketball taught me that the most talented team doesn’t always win, which is always fun to watch when it happens (but not to experience firsthand). When the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA Championship, they weren’t the more talented team. They were an assembly of interchangeable parts that no one else wanted. They were able to put their egos aside, played together unselfishly, and they bought into a common philosophy while the Lakers fought amongst themselves, and allowed their egos to divide them.

Oh, and speaking of selfishness and unselfishness, just as in basketball, it’s a lot more fun to play with unselfish players than it is to play with selfish players. The same goes for coworkers, friends and significant others. When you feel as though someone is willing to share, respects you, and has your best interests at heart, you tend to want to do more for them. When you’re working with someone whose only concern is their own self-interests, it makes for a difficult partnership.

Basketball taught me that whenever you’re setting out to do something of meaning and substance, you have to be mentally strong as you’ll have to endure criticism and doubt – often from people who are on the sidelines watching. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t doing anything themselves. Sometimes they wish they were doing what it is you’re doing. In some cases they wish they had the opportunity to do what you’re doing. Whate9ver the case, mental strength allows you to keep going through it all.

Basketball taught me that, being a part of a distinct and visible group (like the basketball team) will put a bullseye on your back, and people will ‘gun’ for you even if you haven’t done anything to them. Later in life you may become a: Doctor, a Lawyer, a Division Director, a Manager of some sort, the President of the United States, or even just someone with a lot of responsibility. Once you achieve that level, people will inevitably watch and scrutinize your moves and you have to be ready for that.

“The team, the team, the team,” legendary University of Michigan Head Football Coach Bo Schembechler stressed to his team in one of his most famous pre-game speeches. Schembechler was a wise Coach who came to realize that each player was different, and needed to be motivated differently. Basketball likewise taught me that for any team, whether it’s two people or ten, solid leadership is paramount for any long-term and continued success. Strong leadership can be the difference between members of a team coalescing and becoming their best selves, or falling apart into bits and pieces.

Lastly, not every leader leads the same way. That goes for: athletics, government, the corporate world or any other arena in life that requires teamwork. I didn’t understand this aspect of leadership as a teen on my high school basketball team. Then, a couple of years ago I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary titled I Hate Christian Laettner – a story about Duke University’s most storied college basketball player, and arguably the best college basketball player of all time whom few people outside of the Duke fan base liked – his teammates included.

It turned out that Laettner was a bit of bully towards teammates – particularly Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill who resented him at times. There was a method behind his madness though. It was his way of challenging them, making them tougher, and pulling out their best play. Sometimes leaders just want to see how driven and mentally strong you are, and how you’ll respond under pressure. Rising to the test ultimately creates a much, much stronger team.

This article will be continued in part four of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons

This post is the continuation of the series titled the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. In part two, some of the important life lessons basketball taught me will be discussed. Some of these lessons will come from or be related back to author Charles J. Sykes’s book, 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School.

The biggest lesson basketball taught me is rule number one from Mr. Sykes’s book, “Life is not always fair. Get used to it.” The game taught me that even though you can spend hours upon hours dreaming and preparing for a goal of some sort, an unforeseen calamity can come along and snatch away that goal. For me that calamity was an injury, but in the real world it can be anything, and often times it isn’t fair.

Basketball taught me rule number four from Mr. Sykes’s book, “You are not entitled.” Putting in your time at a job or even your degree level does not guarantee you advancement in your career in every case. Coaches and supervisors are usually looking for the most talented person (s) and will usually show favor to that person at the expense of others, regardless of seniority. So it’s always important to put out your best and not expect things because you’ve been there for a while.

Basketball taught me that sometimes other people’s decisions can affect your life for better or for worse. Sometimes people don’t consider the consequences for everyone else when they make decisions and do certain things. Whether it’s a teammate, a relative, a coworker or even a significant other, sometimes decisions are made that adversely affect the team, and its times like that that you realize another difficult life lesson; there are some things in life that you have no control over, but you have to deal with the consequences somehow. This relates right back to the first life lesson.

Rule number ten from Mr. Sykes’s book states that, “Life is actually more like Dodgeball than your gym teacher thinks.” He goes on to state that, “It comes at you quickly; it requires alertness and skill; the outcome is unpredictable; the weak can sometimes overcome the strong; it involves elimination and has both winners and losers.”

Likewise and easily relatable to rule number 10, basketball taught me that not everyone plays fair and many people seek to gain any advantage they can whenever they can, especially when the referee is not looking. The same is true in the adult world. People have different concepts of what is fair and ethical and can surprise you when they do things to you that you wouldn’t do to them on the job and in relationships.

Lastly, basketball taught that hindsight is 20/20. Often when you are in the actual game or life situation, you make decisions and react based upon what you’re seeing and experiencing in that particular moment. However when the game is over, and you have a chance to look back at the film and what you might have done differently, everything looks so much more clear. It’s the exact same way in the game of life.

This article will be continued in part three of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.