I’ve had plenty of nicknames in my life. Many were built off my last name and some were better than others: The Klinter, Klinz, Kling-Ding, Dinger, Static (as in Kling). At the local rec courts for most of my time in junior high and high school I was known as West, as in Jerry West of the Lakers. I still have friends from that era who call me West to this day. Please keep in mind that I did not give myself any of these nicknames, they all came from other people. One nickname that I was given never really stuck, but it made an impression on me during a difficult time in my basketball career. The nickname came from one of my assistant coaches at Kent State during my freshman year of college when my playing time was very limited.
Iron Mike. This was during the heyday of Mike Tyson as the Heavyweight Champion of the World, before all of his troubles began. I remember when my coach said it after practice one day I kind of looked at him in a funny way, not sure what his thought process was. He clarified for me. “Mike, you’re the toughest kid on the team.” That didn’t seem right to me, I certainly wasn’t tough in the “physically overpower someone or push them around” sense but he meant that I was willing to do what it took to win, both physically and mentally.
What were the characteristics of being tough on the basketball court that my coach saw in me back then, even when I wasn’t playing much? What made me the tough kid?
• Being willing to guard the other team’s best player. I was an offensive player in high school, defense was an afterthought. I flipped that script in college because I wanted to play.
• Being in great shape. I was always at or near the top in every conditioning activity we ever did even though I was not one of the top “athletes” from a speed, strength, leaping ability standpoint.
• Being available. I never missed a practice in high school or college.
• Being consistent in your effort. I gave what I had every practice, coaches noticed.
• Being able to take criticism. I didn’t like criticism any more than anyone else, but I accepted it and used it to make myself better. I knew when to keep my mouth closed and keep my thoughts to myself.
• Being able to outrun my opponent up and down the floor. I stayed in constant motion and ran harder than the guy I was playing against. It got me extra buckets and helped the team get stops at the other end. No one was going to go harder for longer.
• Being willing to fight through screens and play physical. I tried not to let physical play stop me from doing my job.
• Being able to make free throws in clutch situations. If you’re a guard this should be non-negotiable.
• Being able to know all of our plays/sets/defenses/etc. A coach can’t play you if you don’t know what you are doing. I knew all my assignments.
• Being in control of my emotions. I never got a technical foul. I was always ready to play at a high level, but always under control.
• Being willing to take charges. A charge changes momentum. It makes your opponent mad. Coaches love charges.
• Being ready even when I was not playing much. I tried my best to be into the game on the bench. I helped my team by knowing what was going on out on the floor while I was sitting out.
• Being willing to hit the floor for loose balls. Coaches love players that will give up their body to gain a possession.
• Being willing to take responsibility and not make excuses. I had just as many potential excuses as the next guy, but I didn’t use them. I figured out a way to get the job done. My coaches didn’t have to worry if they could trust me. I was dependable in the classroom and on the court.
• Being tough to play against. I hope that my teammates didn’t enjoy going against me in practice because I pushed them. I hope my opponents felt that going against me was not a fun night of basketball for them.
• Being fun to play with. If you have ever played basketball, you know there are players you don’t want to play with. They dribble too much, they shoot too much, they don’t play defense, etc. I tried to play the game the right way by playing hard and being unselfish. It takes toughness to do that day in and day out.
• Being able to finish plays. When I played pick-up basketball as a high school and college player I never called fouls. I wanted to finish plays despite being fouled.
• Being willing to help on defense. It’s not just about stopping your man, it’s about stopping the other team. I learned that lesson quickly once I got to college.
Even though the name Iron Mike didn’t stick, (maybe coaches called me that behind closed doors, who knows) the things that made me “tough” are things that any player can emulate. Don’t try to act tough with trash talk or trying to intimidate your opponent, be the toughest player on your team as a result of your daily habits!
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