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Best of Aaron Todd
In 1996, a few years before I started playing poker, I did what most high school seniors in my upstate New York hometown do: I graduated. With a little more fanfare, Kobe Bryant graduated from Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia that same year.
While Kobe spent his senior year breaking scoring records set by Wilt Chamberlain and earning USA Today National High School Player of the Year honors, I edited the sports pages of the school paper, tried to decide which college I would attend, and sang in a barbershop quartet. Somehow Kobe managed a little more success attracting the ladies, taking Brandy to his senior prom, while I took my buddy's little sister.
Kobe had one of the most prolific high school basketball careers in Pennsylvania history. I got cut from the junior varsity team as a sophomore.
I never played organized basketball before going out for the team that year, and I never tried out again. Instead, I stayed with track, a sport in which I couldn't be cut. But I remember the day Kobe was drafted with more clarity than I remember missing the JV hoops cut. The day Kobe was drafted was the day I realized I would never play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
I know, I know, rationally it doesn't make any sense. I didn't even invoke the "Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team" clause to hold out hope for my NBA dreams after Coach Dusharm decided to keep a player to remain unnamed, a freshman without a shred of athletic talent, instead of me. (Not that I'm bitter or anything … he is a good guy and I ended up back on the track team where I belonged … but he was so bad he couldn't hit an open lay-up and had a two inch vertical leap.)
As kids, we all had grand dreams of our future careers. I remember watching the Showtime Lakers against the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals with my dad and my brothers. When we played in our backyard, my oldest brother Craig threw up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hooks. I dribbled and dished like Magic Johnson, and as the middle child, Adam sought attention by pulling his tube socks up to his knees to mimic Michael Cooper. (Even though we had perfect vision as kids, we would have gladly donned thick-rimmed glasses in honor of Kurt Rambis).
Sure, my dream of playing for the Lakers faded as I grew older. But I never had the epiphany that it was out of my reach, not even after my unsuccessful bid for a spot on my school's JV team.
Kobe and I were contemporaries. His ascent from high school basketball phenom to 13th pick in the '96 NBA draft made it clear that we were on different paths. I lacked the physical tools to become an NBA player (most notably size, strength, coordination, agility, vertical leap, an outside jump shot … I could go on but you get the idea), and I was never going to acquire the skill set necessary to play at that - or any - level.
Everyone (except professional athletes) experiences this moment, usually in late adolescence. You realize that your childhood fantasies of hitting the game winning home run in Game 7 of the World Series or tossing a last-second touchdown pass in the Super Bowl were truly just fantasies.
Poker, however, gives us all hope. Chris Moneymaker's win in the Main Event of the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) is tantamount to me winning the NBA's MVP Award. While there's little doubt that he needed a lot of luck along the way, he still walked away with the most prestigious title in poker that year.
And if Moneymaker can do it, why can't we? Nearly every televised poker tournament boasts one or two amateurs who qualified through a satellite. Steve Dannenmann, the WSOP runner-up in 2005, had only played poker for two years prior to taking home over $4 million in prize money.
Poker has no Kobe to chase away the dream of playing at the highest level. In fact, poker encourages the exact opposite: Rank amateurs defeat established professionals in each tournament. Over the long haul, the pros will get the best of it, but who's to say you can't get lucky once?
I am thankful Kobe Bryant got drafted when he did. I gained a practical view on life and an understanding of my limitations. I gave up a lot of childish dreams and thought long and hard about my goals. Once I established a realistic outlook, I took steps to reach my true potential.
I am also thankful that Chris Moneymaker came along when he did, giving me and every other amateur player a small measure of childish hope.
In his previous life, Aaron Todd was a sports journalist by day and a poker player by night. He can now be found covering the poker beat for Casino City and making horrendously unsuccessful bluffs in his home game. Write to Aaron at firstname.lastname@example.org.