All across America, the high school basketball season is starting up once again. This is definitely the case in my homestate of Alaska, where I played competitive varsity high school basketball for four years. Just like the State, basketball is huge in Alaska. And although big in all of Alaska, high school basketball is especially big in our state’s rural towns, which may be true for many rural towns across America (Hoosiers, I see you!). And when it comes to rural Alaska basketball, it probably cannot get any bigger than Barrow basketball (maybe Nome too).
And right now you cannot get any bigger, more “Barrow-er” and more “basketball-er” than the Barrow Whalers’ Kamaka Hepa. He is 6 feet 8 inches tall, so he is literally big. He is Inupiaq, Hawaiian, Filipino and white; that’s definitely Barrow right there. He is already dominating the entirety of Alaska high school basketball -- including larger and more historic basketball programs from larger cities such as Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, and even other teams from "the lower 48" (teams from Washington, Nevada, etc.) -- despite just being 15 years-old. And last year, he already led Barrow to its first state title - EVER - as a freshman.
Yes, we’ve had other big time high school basketball prospects in Alaska before -- Trajan Langdon, Mario Chalmers, and Carlos Boozer easily come to mind. Unlike Kamaka, however, none of them were from and represent basketball-crazed rural Alaska.
So the excitement about Kamaka and the rest of the Barrow Whalers is huge. I’m caught up in it; my family and friends are caught up in it. We’re hyped! There’s almost nonstop media coverage, and the local, state and national attention is growing every day. Comments and advice are coming from left and right and from all types of sources. Most of them are positive and definitely well-intentioned, and one of the more common “words of wisdom” that people provide to the team is this:
“Enjoy every minute. These are the best years of your lives.”
That is not unusual advice, as I am sure this is advice that many former and current high school athletes – or high school students in general – have received many times as well. It’s definitely advice that I heard often during the four years I played point guard for the Barrow Whalers a long time ago.
It was a time when I got on airplanes regularly to travel all over the state and even “Outside” for free. It was a time when adults, organizations, corporations and businesses paid for my meals. It was a time when my high school peers made posters with my name and jersey number, and used them to cheer for me. It was a time when adults -- including teachers, principals, police officers, parents and other elders -- shouted my name and applauded me. It was a time when schoolwork (e.g., deadlines) and school rules (e.g., tardiness policy) were bent just a “little” for me so that I could remain eligible to play. It was a time when adults spent their hard-earned money to buy plane tickets, pay for hotel rooms and purchase admission tickets just to watch me play basketball. It was a time when I received awards, adulation and recognition. It was a time when almost everyone paid attention to me and catered to me -- from the middle school kids who dreamed to be in my shoes when they got old enough, to my high school peers who put me on a pedestal and considered me “cool,” all the way to the adults who allowed me to get away with so much.
I enjoyed every minute of it and, at that point, those were definitely the best years of my life.
But it was a steep drop after high school, and I had a very difficult time dealing with the drastic life change when “the best years of my life” ended. The sudden realization of “the end” can be tough on many folks – especially young people who may have bought into the advice that their high school years were “the best years of their lives.” Many might find it difficult to let go, many might struggle, many might get stuck and, even worse, many might give up. Sadly, I know way too many people for whom this is the case.
When you believe you already reached the peak, then it is quite depressing to realize that it’s all downhill from there. And for many people, their high school years may not even be all that great to begin with, so essentially the message they receive with “the best years of your life” advice is that their lives will only get worse. So a sense of hopelessness can creep in, creating a perception that one has nothing to look forward to and a belief that one’s life cannot improve.
Again, sadly, I know way too many people for whom this is the case.
So to my dear high school athletes and high school students in general, my advice for you is this:
I hope your high school years are not the best years of your lives.
I hope you keep improving, and I hope your lives keep getting better. I hope you keep striving for great things and for higher goals. I hope you keep reaching toward what most people might consider to be unthinkable or unimaginable heights. I hope you become one of the best athletes in the world -- to reach the NBA, the WNBA, the NFL, the Olympics or whatever the highest stage of your interest may be.
I hope you dream big.
But I also hope that your definition of “big” is more than just fame and fortune. I hope your big dreams are not limited to accumulating wealth and receiving public adoration, awards and recognition.
I hope your big dreams also include helping your communities. Dreaming big can be to address health issues in our communities, to improve people's well-being. I hope you dream of finding a cure for cancer, or other diseases that we have yet to successfully control. Better yet, I hope you dream of coming up with effective ways to prevent such illnesses and diseases from happening in the first place. I hope your big dream also includes developing policies that will make the world a better place for everyone, or policies that lead to more mutually respectful and beneficial relationships between different peoples, and between people and our Earth. Dreaming big can also mean to strengthen your cultures, or to pass on your cultural traditions, knowledge and practices to the next generations. Dreaming big can mean learning our various languages, or encouraging people -- especially the young -- to do so. Dreaming big can mean helping others to live a life of love, compassion and respect for all peoples, for all things living, of the world.
I also hope that you have a deeper definition of “the best years of your lives.” The best years of your lives do not have to mean when people paid attention to you, made posters of you for you, cheered you on or catered to you. It doesn't necessarily mean the years when people adored you, heaped praises on you or publicly recognized you.
The best years of your lives can be the years when you were raising your children, when you were trying, failing and kind of succeeding to shape good people of the future. It can be your college days, or when you served in the Peace Corps in Central America. The best years of your lives can be when you were humbly, selflessly and quietly serving others, making other people's lives in your little part of the world just a little bit better with the little that you have to offer. It can be the years that you spend with the person whom you truly love. It can be when you worked tirelessly to help lift up and empower a marginalized group of people, outside of public attention, recognition and admiration. It can be when you advocated for justice and equality for all peoples, even though you may not necessarily experience injustice and inequality yourself. The best years of your lives can be when you felt pain, struggled and cried but also when you survived, grew, got stronger and learned.
The best years of your lives can be tomorrow.
So enjoy this time, savor these days and treasure your high school years. But don’t let this time be the peak of your lives. Learn from these experiences, and use them to keep improving, growing, evolving, to keep dreaming and to keep reaching even higher peaks. The best years of your lives do not have to be behind you. They can be this year, and the next, and the next, and the next.
E.J.R. David, Ph.D., was raised by the Barrow community. He played point guard for some pretty good Whaler teams from 1995 to 1999, during which he received a few regional and statewide basketball honors. He is now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he teaches in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Clinical-Community Psychology and directs the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology (ANCAP) Program.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published by the Alaska Dispatch News.