Travis Bledsoe continues his basketball journey.
by Travis Bledsoe
Welcome back. It felt more like a reunion took place last Saturday (May 12) as I “laced ‘em up” for opening day of the 18th annual Minneapolis Brother’s Keeper Men’s League. Everybody was there except half of my teammates (if you’re from Minnesota, you know what I mean). It’s OK, they had other obligations, and we still had a solid team.
The atmosphere was nice—a good crowd and even better location (DeLaSalle, located on Nicollet Island). The game was just how I like it—physical and the whistles were swallowed. I got to matchup against some of my childhood friends and competitors, which made the game that much more intense (a scratch left on my face would prove my case).
Seeing all of these players and people who I grew up with—some young, some old—made me think about childhood rivalries and people I’ve looked up to, who have helped my journey along the way. To name everyone would be impossible, as every person in your life serves their purpose, whether good or bad.
But remember when you wanted to be a professional basketball player (and still believed you could)? I mean, back in the day before college basketball… before you graced the high school hardwoods. Back when you played three games a day on the weekend (and then still went outside to play some more).
I remember when Brandon Smith (former Minnesota Gopher/current pro) and I were one of the best backcourt duos in Minnesota when we teamed up for the North Commons Community Comets and Franklin Middle School (fourth grade through eighth grade).
Don’t laugh… Those are some of the most important times in your journey. That’s when you really find out if you can play this game we call basketball. Brandon pushed and challenged me in everything we did, whether it was a hard game of “twenty one”—tip outs and dunk outs (on an 8.5-foot rim)—or high jump on track and field day at Willard Elementary. We battled, but we weren’t alone.
When I think about how much time I spent playing basketball with Jamar Clark, Brandon Smith and Lajoseph Burgess (R.I.P.)—all day, every day, anywhere and everywhere—it makes me smile. A big smile! I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.
If anyone taught me anything on the court, it was Lajoseph “Joe” Burgess. He taught me how to be tough, how to play bigger than you are, how to be aggressive. He taught me how to do the little things that help win basketball games.
If you needed a steal, Joe would get you three. When you needed a rebound, Joe would grab you 10. If you needed someone to go to war with you, Joe would show up wearing army boots on the court.
That ready-for-anything attitude inspires me to this day. Lajoseph Burgess didn’t die in vain. He left a piece of himself in all of us who knew him. Joe, this journey’s for you.
If you were a baller growing up in north Minneapolis (when the Minneapolis North High and Patrick Henry rivalry games were at their finest), you looked up to one Northside legend… Khalid El-Amin.
For those of you who don’t know Khalid, or “Lid” as we call him, here’s the scouting report: three-straight Minnesota high school State titles at Minneapolis North, McDonald’s All-American, Big East Freshman of the Year at UConn, single-season record holder in scoring for a freshmen.
El-Amin led UConn to a national title over Duke, scoring the Huskies’ last 4 points in a 77-74 victory. He was then taken with the fifth pick in the second round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. He “balled so hard,” he found himself playing in the Rookie Challenge at All-Star Weekend, scoring 18 points.
I’m going to stop here, but the list of accomplishments goes on and on (google him). Tough act to follow, right? But that’s the beauty of the NBA dream—it’s passed on from generation to generation.
Years ago, we would sometimes watch my former high school teammate’s little brother shoot baskets at our practices (he was making them, too). He was only about 5 or 6 back then, but we knew he would turn out to be something special. Fast forward to the present and Tyus Jones is a household name (at least to college recruiters and Minnesota fans) and has dominated Minnesota high school basketball and represented USA Basketball, winning the Gold medal in the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship.
Tyus, like Khalid before me, and many countless others, “laced ‘em up” for one of the best AAU programs in the country: Howard Pulley.
The greatest thing about the NBA dream is that the WNBA has made it possible for female athletes to embark on the same journey. Long before Taylor Hill became Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer, before she was a McDonald’s All-American, and way before she was leading the Big Ten in scoring at Ohio State, she was my good family friend and my childhood teammate’s little sister (he too attended Ohio State to play basketball).
Hill would be at all of our North Commons Heat AAU practices, shooting and dribbling at the other end of the gym (sometimes with my little sister, Taylor’s dad was the coach of course). She worked on her game at a young age, and again, I knew she was destined for great things. But who knew how great?
While on the subject of women’s basketball, I want to congratulate the Minnesota Lynx on winning the 2011 WNBA Championship and bringing great pride back to the state of Minnesota. She might not remember, but me and the lucky few who got to stay at DeLaSalle after school (invitation only) will never forget the day Lindsay Whalen came to workout.
She was already a dominant player for the Minnesota Gophers (I know—I used to rout for her), and I was a young sophomore in high school. She came to the workout with two other girls who I was familiar with. The workout consisted of a variety of shooting and ball handling drills and some one-on-one at the end. Everyone participated.
When I left the gym that day (after some very physical play and experiencing the kind of toughness it takes to be one of the best college players in the country), I realized basketball was a genderless sport. Meaning, if you can play… you can play.
Following Lindsay Whalen, Khalid El-Amin, Tyus Jones and Taylor Hill’s journey to success has given me the strength to keep pushing through to my goal because I know I’m “made” out of the same “tough juice” (not referring to Caron Butler) as they are.
Their journeys started way before any of the accolades, way before anyone outside of Minnesota knew who they were. The journey begins in your mind. What I’m trying to say is that when they made it (Khalid, Lindsey) or whenever they make it (Tyus, Taylor), a part of me has made it with them.
Following life’s journey to fulfilling your goal may not always get you where you want to go… But it will always get you where you need to be.
So even though making the NBA will be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do (and the odds are stacked against me), I know one day when I’m old and my dreadlocks are grey, I will be able to look back at my life and the people I’ve shared it with and say, (in my Drake voice/track 2) “I made it… Yeah I made it.”