Final Call

Alex Stoddard is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Game Time Magazine, an avid basketball player and fan and the youngest author to write for SLAMonline. A sixth grader at Wellesley Middle School, Alex and several of his classmates and teammates interviewed Keyon Dooling about everything from coming out of retirement to handling nervousness on the court. Check out their conversation below.—Ed.

interview by Chris Kolb, Nick Kolb, Warren Serunjogi, Phil Simpson, Alex Stoddard and Alvie Stoddar

When you’re a player undistinguished by incredible size, blinding quickness or pogo stick-like leaping ability, what’s really important is coming to every game prepared to play like it’s your last. Whether it’s a ritual to get you into your game mindset, a pre-game dunk or even a handshake—whatever you do should get you ready to play your best. For Keyon Dooling, he has a different way of getting himself ready.

“Positive happy thoughts will manifest themselves,” says Dooling, before reading his pre-game checklist. “Make your free throws; be aggressive; stay solid; bring your motor; positive energy; be strong and tough with your approach and demeanor; stay low with the ball; you’re a super athlete; you’re super nice with the ball; you’re super savvy. Know the gameplan—both inside and outside; be hungry and humble. You’re from Fort Lauderdale, brother. Remember, make your family proud—you’re a Dooling.”

Dooling’s preparation and consistency have been a big part of his success, from his days at Dillard (FL) High School, to his Big 12 years at Mizzou, all the way to the NBA grind and his Playoff success with the Boston Celtics (reaching the Eastern Conference Finals) and Memphis Grizzlies (now in the WCF). We caught up with Dooling, pre-comeback, to talk about playing, coaching and more.

SLAM: What kind of work would it take to get back on an NBA team?

Keyon Dooling: When you take a year off, a couple of things happen. First off, your body gets a chance to restore itself. It gets a chance to heal because it’s not under the consistent duress of the NBA. But, at the same time, it’s hard to push yourself to train enough to stay in shape year round. The conditioning part, that’s the easy part when you’re an athlete. Getting back in shape, that’s not too bad. The challenge is proving that you can still do it.

SLAM: You played for a number of NBA teams. Tell us about your experiences on these teams and playing with some of the greatest basketball players.

KD: I enjoyed each and every one of my experiences. Even the bad times, I enjoyed them all. I grew the most as a person when I faced adversity—when I had injuries, when I went through adverse times with my family or even went through slumps. These are the times when you have to go down and dig the most. I enjoyed all the ups and downs—the roller coaster of emotions, the fulfillment of life, the highs and lows that you get to feel from riding the wave of playing the game. These are the things about the NBA that I miss the most.

SLAM: What were a few of your greatest moments in the game?

KD: The day that I was drafted was one of my greatest moments in the NBA. Prior to that—the day that I slam dunked the ball in the ninth grade was a great moment. And the first time I saw Michael Jordan wind-mill dunk the ball. These were all great moments that I’ll never forget.

SLAM: At what age did you begin to focus on basketball?

KD: I begin to focus on basketball in the ninth grade. And at the age of 14, I received a scholarship to attend a private Catholic high school—Cardinal Gibbons (FL) High. Attending Cardinal Gibbons changed my life. I then graduated from Dillard HS in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

SLAM: Why do so many talented players never make it to play at the college or NBA level? And what qualities separate the kids who do make it?

KD: Making it to the college or NBA level goes much deeper than pure talent. In many cases there are social challenges and education challenges that prevent many kids from making it to the college level. The challenges of growing up in a poverty stricken community, gang violence, abuse and many other factors impact a kid’s ability to make it to college—let alone to play basketball at the college level. Kids must have the discipline and dedication and avoid the distractions to make it to either the college or NBA level.

SLAM: As a coach, what skills and qualities do you look for in a player and what skills make the best players?

KD: As a coach, I only look for a few qualities in a player (and these qualities make the best players): Players that consistently work hard, players that are selfless, players that are coachable and players that have talent.

SLAM: What have been the toughest challenges in your basketball career that you have faced?

KD: Going through injuries is always tough. The schedule is tough. What your body goes through is tough. Everything about the NBA is tough. I’d be lying to you if I said it was easy money.

SLAM: You really know the game of basketball. In your opinion, who is, or was, the greatest point guard to play the game? Who was the greatest player ever?

KD: The greatest point guard to ever play the game was Magic Johnson. He was able to play with Hall of Famers and All-Stars and make them better. Magic controlled the game. He was a 6-9 point guard who started at the center position in his rookie year and led his team to the championship. He made the passes, he could control the tempo of the game, he was a coach on the floor and he was entertaining. He was unselfish, he was scoring over 20 points, and he was rebounding the basketball. He was Magic Johnson—he was “Magic.”

SLAM: As a player were you ever nervous before a big game?

KD: I was nervous before every game. I don’t know if you call it nerves or just getting focused or if it’s a combination of these things. But whatever it is, it’s something that you cannot feel unless you are preparing for that moment.

SLAM: How did you counter this nervousness?

KD: I embraced it. I loved it. Remember, you are always at your best and you grow the most when you are uncomfortable and when you go through adversity. So every time you’re going up against someone who’s better than you or tougher than you, you need to compete until the last minute, until the last drop. And, at the end of the day, even when you are overmatched, you make your opponent work for every inch.

SLAM: Do you think kids spend too much time on the wrong things with respect to practice?

KD: Yes, I think you have to have balance. I think there’s an unhealthy way that our players here in the United States are being taught the game. And that’s mostly through playing a lot of freestyle basketball and not focusing on developing specific skills. The fundamentals of the game, the thought processes of the game and the little details of the game are not emphasized as much as they were in the past. I would like to see more emphasis on the fundamentals, especially in the urban communities. Often when players do not have a structured game—it’s held against them. It’s not that these players are undisciplined—it’s just that they have been taught to play a different type of game. It frustrates me to hear people criticizing young players on their game. I believe that it is the coach’s job to teach players the fundamentals. I would like to see more work on the fundamentals.

SLAM: What one piece of advice would you give us (not necessarily related to basketball)?

KD: Protect the innocence of youth. Respect yourself, your name, your family, respect everyone. And if you want something—put the plan together and be willing to work hard to achieve your plan.

Alex Stoddard is a sixth grader at Wellesley Middle School. An avid basketball player and fan, he is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Game Time Magazine. Game Time Magazine features articles about NBA, college, high school and middle school players and coaches. Alex is also a sports writer for the Wellesley Middle School Student Newspaper. Alex plays for the Wellesley sixth grade Metro West “A” team, for the DEMI sixth grade AAU team and for the Sudbury Fieldhouse Sting seventh grade AAU team. Alex attended the adidas Jr Phenom Camp in San Diego, CA, in 2012 and was ranked seventh overall among the sixth grade attendees by Hoopscoop.