To the people who thought Autism meant I couldn’t succeed,
Before high school, my parents sat me down in the living room and told me I had autism. I didn’t even know what autism was at the time. But that’s when I learned about some of you, my earliest doubters.
Back in 1993, my parents noticed that the stimulation from sporting events at arenas overwhelmed me. From the noise of the crowds to the buzz of the scoreboard, it was too much for me.
You diagnosed me with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is on the autism spectrum. I was only five years old and you, a group of doctors, told my parents that I wouldn’t be much in life. You told my family that I would barely graduate high school, I would never go to college, I would never be an athlete and I would one day end up in a group institution.
When my parents told me what you said, I just sat there in shock. Who would say this about a five-year-old kid? Instead of learning more about autism, I focused on proving you wrong.
My parents set high expectations and taught me to work hard despite challenges. They used basketball as a metaphor for life, explaining that in practice I find ways to get through a two-mile run or make 10 shots in a row. In games, if I fall behind I don’t take my ball and head home. And so, I applied that mentality to life and I developed this determined, never-quit attitude.
But you, the doctors, aren’t the only ones I am addressing in this letter, as you weren’t the only people who thought I couldn’t succeed.
In high school, I walked the hallways and found more of you. You were kids at school who told me I couldn’t play basketball. You said I was too slow and that I had no skills. At 6-6 in ninth grade, my height coupled with my autism made me an easy target for bullying. I often didn’t understand your sarcasm. You would make a joke just to spark an emotional response from me.
Frustrated and upset, I got in the gym every single day and worked and worked and worked. When my AAU coach, Anthony Stuckey, saw the time I was putting in, he decided to help. He showed me different footwork and ways to improve my vertical jump.
Heading into my sophomore year he told me, “Every day you wake up, you look in that mirror and you just keep thinking to yourself, ‘Go and take somebody’s spot on varsity.’”
Before my sophomore season started, I was ranked the number one center in the entire state of Michigan. I not only earned your respect but also the respect of the entire community. During my high school career, I helped get my team to a state championship final. But I wasn’t done there…
With the support of my parents and my teachers, I graduated high school and received a scholarship to play at Grand Valley State. After two years, I walked on to the basketball team at my dream school, Michigan State. When I got there, I met more of you, more of you doubters and haters.
My dad was the deputy athletic director at the school, so some of you said that I didn’t belong. You said I was only there because of my father. Incredibly proud to be a Spartan, I was determined to prove myself.
At first, I did not tell my team that I was on the autism spectrum. Many of my teammates were very sarcastic, including former Spartan, Draymond Green. As I mentioned, I often don’t understand sarcasm. One day Draymond made a joke and drove me to a point where I got very upset. I wanted to knock his head off and I let him know.
He said, “If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t be on the team – just go home.”
My strength and conditioning coach then told Draymond that I had autism.
The next day Draymond said, “First of all, kudos to you, because look how far you’ve gotten despite autism. Second of all, shame on you for not telling me. All of this could have been avoided.”
After that day, everything changed. If I didn’t understand a joke, I could go to Draymond or any of my teammates and ask them to explain it to me. On that day, my teammates became more than players on the same roster as me, but also allies in my quest to prove you doubters wrong.
I didn’t play a whole lot at Michigan State but through my work ethic, I made the program better. So much so, my senior year the school granted me a scholarship. And then a few months later, I received my college degree.
Everything all of you thought I could not do, I did.
Now, I am a motivational speaker and I have a wife and two young boys. Of all my accomplishments, my family is the one of which I am most proud. And you all will have helped me teach them important life lessons.
See, my mom once asked me if I forgive all of you – if I forgive the doctors that said I wouldn’t be able to graduate school or the peers that bullied me or the fans that didn’t think I belonged on the court.
I told her, I not only forgive you but I want to tell you, “Thank you.”
Thank you to the haters, doubters and non-believers.
Thank you for motivating me to stay focused. Thank you for teaching me that winning isn’t always meeting a challenge, it’s having the courage to face it. And mostly thank you for giving me a journey that shows my children and others that the words from outsiders don’t dictate your journey. I am proof that it’s the heart and passion from within that will determine your life.
I am not even done yet,