Change is possible

Jake Brown, Middlebury College '17

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For as long as i can remember...

I’ve always been a “basketball guy.” In the 5th grade, my teacher told my parents that I was too focused on basketball and that it would be wise if I diversified my interests. Over 12 years later and I’m more fascinated by the game of basketball than ever – after all, it is just an inflatable ball, its entire purpose is to go inside a metal cylinder with a net hanging from it. But while the game itself still intrigues me, I’m more captivated by all the lessons basketball has taught me. This sport has allowed me to travel the world, further my education, land my first job, and most importantly, develop important relationships. However, for as long as I’ve played the game, I only developed this perspective during my junior year of college.

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At a young age, I was introduced to the game by my dad, a former Division I player. Following in his footsteps, as I grew older, basketball became a part of my identity. This identity strengthened when I committed to play at Middlebury College for my uncle and Head Coach, Jeff Brown. In high school, I was the star. Every game, I was given the freedom to do what I thought was best to win the game. Whether that was to shoot the ball 30 times or get my teammates involved, it was up to me. However, on the AAU circuit, it was a different story. Year after year, I was continually put on the “B” team for our program. And year after year, I worked even harder to be put on the “B” team again. This experience helped shape me for my role at Middlebury. I knew the adjustment to college would be challenging, but I wasn’t as prepared for the transition as my 18-year-old-self thought I was.

My first two years at Middlebury were rough and discouraging to say the least. On the court, our team was underperforming. My freshman year, we lost more games in that single season than our seniors had combined their previous three years. My sophomore year was even worse as we didn’t qualify for our conference tournament, something the program had done for the previous 8 years. Off the court, I was struggling academically. Every morning, I woke up feeling exhausted. I was barely passing my classes, and I began to tell myself I wasn’t good enough.  My confidence was crumbling, and by the end of my third semester I was seriously questioning whether I made the right choice.

Over the winter break of my sophomore year, I had a long conversation with a senior classmate of mine. He was someone I had gotten close with that fall. Someone who had a lot of clout on campus but was still approachable. We talked about my tough transition to Midd’ and he was brutally honest with me. He helped me understand that I was fully capable of performing well academically, but I needed to put in the work. The habits I developed in high school weren’t good enough to succeed at the next level. He helped me pick my classes for the upcoming semester and read over some of my previous work. Most importantly, he showed a genuine interest in my success and continued to check in with me. Previously, I didn’t want to ask for help. Everywhere I looked, people seemed to be doing fine. None of my peers were asking me for advice, so I felt like I was the only one struggling. Little did I know, people are very eager to help, I just had to ask.

That spring, I made Dean’s List for the first time and never looked back, earning Dean’s List every semester until I graduated. It was probably directly correlated with doing well, but I began to enjoy school. However, while I was doing well academically, I was still unsure of what I wanted to do in the future. I was following the common narrative of getting an Economics degree in hopes of working on Wall St., but I had no actual interest in doing that.

...I didn’t want to ask for help. Everywhere I looked around me, people seemed to be doing just fine. None of my peers were asking me for advice, so I felt like I was the only one struggling. Little did I know, people are very eager to help, I just had to ask.

During the fall of my junior year, I was invited by a teammate of mine to attend a conversation with Koby Altman, the then Director of Player Personnel for the Cleveland Cavaliers (the current General Manager for the Cleveland Cavaliers.) Koby was a Middlebury basketball alum, so I knew exactly who he was and was looking forward to meeting him. He was someone who looked like me and was passionate about basketball. He was someone I looked up to, not only because we shared similar experiences but because he was able to parlay his passion for basketball into a career. It was during this conversation that I realized that that’s what I wanted to do.

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As a senior, with encouragement and help from one of my professors, I challenged myself to write a Senior Economics Thesis. My thesis, The Political Response to Police Misconduct: Evidence from the NYPD, was a yearlong process that strengthened my analytical skills and helped me see a high-level research project through completion. My thesis was a valuable experience that enabled me to study a social justice issue I was passionate about while developing critical skills in economic analysis. At the same time, I was captain of the basketball team for my last two years at Midd’, proving myself as a leader, leading my team to back-to-back NESCAC championships and two NCAA tournament berths. The combination of these two things was a full circle experience for me; had you told me that either of these things would happen, I might have laughed at you.

Once I graduated, I knew I wanted to do something with basketball but I wasn’t really sure where to start. I spent the whole summer reaching out to people in the industry, but had no luck. Nearly three months after graduating, I applied for a position at Muhlenberg College as an assistant coach. Fortunately, Head Coach Kevin Hopkins, an Amherst grad, gave me the opportunity. Fast forward 7 months and I have recently finished my first year working as an assistant coach at Muhlenberg. Looking back on this first year, I’m so thankful this job provided me with an opportunity to use my passion for basketball to help student-athletes. At 22 years old, I’m not quite sure if coaching is my calling, but as the lone assistant on staff, I am aware that coaching is a very competitive field with a lot to teach me and I’m lucky to have been offered a position out of college.

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At Midd’, my understanding of success was centered on winning. When I arrived at Muhlenberg, which finished their last season at 11-14, I thought bringing a winning culture would be easy. Wins didn’t come right away or as often as I expected, so I was forced to redefine what it means to be successful. Instead of focusing on wins, I began to focus on progress. If there’s anything that Muhlenberg athletes or any athlete can learn from my story, it’s that change is possible. It doesn’t happen alone or by accident, but one conversation or experience can be a catalyst for change when things don’t initially go as planned.

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Jake graduated from Middlebury College in 2017. In his first year as an Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at Muhlenberg College, he helped lead the team to an 11-14 season. This upcoming fall, Jake will begin his Master's in Sports Management at Columbia University. Connect with Jake directly at jakebrown35@yahoo.com.