Ignore Your "Expert" Doubters: How Student-Athlete McKay Became a Division I Player Despite Coaches' Doubt

Editor’s Note: Not everyone has the focus necessary to fulfill their biggest dreams, especially when the odds are stacked against them. McKay LaSalle is not your average Divison I college basketball player- at least, that’s what he was told from the beginning.

Now, perhaps because he was forced to believe in himself and try his hardest, he is something even better: an above-average Division I college basketball player. Here’s the story of how he hustled to get there.

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Since I can remember, my passions have been my family and basketball. My love for basketball developed as a child in elementary school and can partially be attributed to my minor success early on. Equally influential was the incredible role model in my childhood coach, Coach Crowell. Like all sports, the level of play in basketball increases as one grows older. I continued with success in basketball through middle school and knew I loved the game, but I didn’t realize how much.

My freshman year of high school, my role model, who had suffered from chronic undiagnosed stomach pain, committed suicide. This was a life changing event not only for my basketball career but for me as well. This man had taught me the game that became my passion.

After Coach Crowell’s death, a wave of realization came over me: the pain I felt was so powerful I concluded that it must have been driven by my love of basketball and Coach’s connection to that as a major part of my personal growth from childhood through adolescence. I discovered what I really aspired to do in the future, which became a dream to play NCAA Division I basketball.

That is when I truly began to hustle.

As I finished my freshman year of high school I had committed myself to hit the gym every day to practice my game. Early morning (4am) weight-training sessions with my grandfather became the norm. I became obsessed with improvement on the basketball court. To master the craft of the jump shot, I went to our 8 o’clock practices at 5 to work on my game, and stayed so late the janitor usually had to kick me out.

These workout habits became my lifestyle. I didn’t allow the anguish of losing Coach Crowell to become an excuse; instead I turned it into motivation.

Due to my efforts in the offseason throughout high school, I became a standout basketball player in the state of Utah, earning the title of All-State during my junior and senior seasons. Because of this, I began to turn the heads of various college basketball coaches, but the recognition was not to the degree I’d dreamed of.

Coaches knew my name, but at the time many did not think I had the capabilities to succeed at the Division I level. My lack of athleticism was a large part of those judgments. I toured around the state and visited many college campuses, proceeding to play pick-up games with the college teams in hopes of being recognized and wanted.

I travelled many hours just to connect with these coaches, because I believed in myself and knew I could play at that elite level. At this point I had lost the state championship of Utah and was close to graduation. With no offers from Division I colleges, my dreams seemed to be slipping away.

Even though doubt crept into my mind, the drive to succeed and live my dream kept me going. Then an angel saved me. Coach Barton at the College of Eastern Utah decided to give me a chance. He believed in me when no one else did. This had not been my vision during all those late nights alone in the gym, but I knew going to Junior College was not accepting defeat. I knew that if I believed in myself, and with the right amount of hustle and hard work, it could become a stepping stone toward my dream.

I’m happy I pushed on when everyone else said I couldn’t do it and that I should settle for less than what I wanted, because it lead me to Coach Barton, who believed in me as much as I believed in myself. Coach Barton pushed me as hard as I pushed myself to become something I may not have otherwise been. With determination and hustle, I had become a college basketball player, but that was not my view of a final destination.

Coach Barton and I developed an indescribable relationship. Coach became a catalyst for my emotional and spiritual growth off the court, and of course my physical and mental growth on the court. He became a new role model in my life, as well as a best friend. When I first arrived at school, Coach Barton told me that I was not as talented as other players on the team.

He said I would have to work harder for everything, but that he believed in my potential. By the time our second official practice came along, I had impressed him enough during offseason workouts with my hard work and my hustle to become a member of the starting line-up. I had achieved what I wanted.

After that practice, Coach awarded the traditional Gatorade for grabbing the most rebounds throughout practice. He paired the Gatorade with, “And the person with the most rebounds is the un-athletic white-boy shooting guard, McKay.” I was overjoyed at my accomplishment and new position in the starting line-up. My teammates also recognized my hustle and leadership by voting me captain of the team as a freshman.

That Monday in October was one of the highlights in my basketball career, but by Tuesday it would simply be in the shadows. The next day, Tuesday, coach did not show up to practice. Coach Barton was always harping punctuality in everything in life, so his absence was a shock. The other captains and I began to run practice without coach, and about 25 minutes into it the school police officer entered the facility along with out assistant coach, Coach Edelstein.

As Coach Edelstein gathered us, there was a clear consensus that something was wrong. Coach Edelstein simply said, “I don’t know how else to say this, but Coach is dead.” At the age of 32, Coach Barton, my role model, my coach, my teacher, my friend and my angel, was gone due to diabetic complications during the night.

For weeks I remained in shock. My grief was shared with fellow teammates as we attempted to bind together and lift each other up. For me this was another hardship in my journey, but I knew Coach Barton would never have let me use it as an excuse to give in. He, like me, didn’t believe in excuses for anything. As captain I shouldered the weight of a team without our coach. I decided to turn Coach’s death into the driving force of the season. I provided an energy of success and togetherness that trickled down across the entire squad. As our season continued, we were playing for Coach Barton, and were having great success.

Our success was hindered by a mid-season ban from any post–season tournaments. This was due to evidence that surfaced of minutes played by one of the main players in a professional game in Russia, which was a rule infraction. The news was simply devastating to the team as players wondered, “What are we playing for?” We stumbled through the remainder of the season, salvaging any pride that we had in ourselves. At season’s end I knew that this would be a group of men that would be connected forever, but many of us knew it was time to move on, away from the College of Eastern Utah.

With my individual success from my freshman season, Division I coaches had again taken some interest in me, but it was the same old story, as none would offer me a spot. I decided to broaden my horizons as I began discussions with the University of California, Irvine. I went on an unofficial visit to the campus and loved it, but during the visit the coach that was escorting my father and I informed us that they did not have an available spot for the upcoming year. My options as far as Division I went were wearing thin, but my determination and energy for success was never hindered.

Shortly after that visit I was introduced to Coach Ground of Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. This was a successful Junior College program in Southern California. When I met with Coach Ground he had already seen film of the way I play. He immediately offered me a spot on the team only seconds after I entered his office.

He believed I had a unique talent and drive that many young men don’t have. The connection I felt with him, similar to the one I had with Coach Barton, was undeniable. Many people told me not to go; they told me it was a dead end. A Division I head coach in Utah told me that if I went there I would never go anywhere higher. Despite what he said, I believed in myself and decided to move 700 miles away from home and play for Coach Ground.

The move was hard on me emotionally because I had never been away from my family to that degree, but I knew I had to take this necessary step to have any chance of reaching my goals. During summer workouts I really came into my own on the basketball court. I earned a spot in the starting line-up by the beginning of the season, while once again being voted captain in my first year on the team. During the beginning of the season I fell into a real funk, and my performance suffered. I was unhappy and deflated, but I knew the only person that could turn things around was me. I continued to get extra workouts and shots in before and after practice, as well as after late night classes. I was determined and persistent, and the habits I formed in high school continued.

Finally, when conference games started, I broke through and began to play my game. By the end of the season our team had gone 12-0 in the conference and I was named conference MVP and Athlete of The Year at Saddleback. I was also awarded the Dr. Richard McCullough Character Champion Award. All of these accomplishments were a result of my hustle on the court, extra time in the weight room, and success in the classroom (finishing the semester with a 4.0). I was certain this would earn me a spot on a Division I team.

The offers began to flow in, but not from were I expected. An array of offers from Division II schools and NAIA colleges came in, but I didn’t want to settle for less than my dreams. I continued off season work on my own, and I was up early in the morning and late at night to improve my game and my “un-athletic” body while also finishing school.

Spring was growing old and my time was dwindling as I witnessed the window of my dream shutting. The elation from my sophomore season accomplishments was washed away by disappointment from the same old story with Division I coaches. I visited many and played in front of plenty. The interest was there, but I received more than one call explaining that the coaches “were going a different direction.” I was on the brink, but two weeks before the end of the semester I got a call from Coach Brown at California State University, Long Beach, inviting me to an open gym session the next day.

I travelled the 45 minutes to the Long Beach campus to play in the iconic pyramid. The open gym session would be a pivotal point in my life. I played great. All of the talent I had worked for was exposed and the coaches took notice. I was playing my game, and things simply came together. At the end of open gym the head coach, Coach Monson, called me into his office. His excitement was evident as he offered me a position on the team, to play Division I basketball. Five months later I suited up as captain in the starting lineup for the Long Beach State 49’rs in my first NCAA Division I basketball game.

This is my story of how I continually hustled to get what I wanted, and to reach my dreams. Never did I let another person or an excuse hinder my belief of success. The devotion and hard work habits I gained during my pursuit of this dream are immeasurable and will always be something I use to succeed. As you see, I have a passion for basketball and sport, but I also have a passion for education, which is why I would like to introduce to you a start-up idea I have for the future.

My entrepreneurial goal focuses on athletic and academic training facilities. Through my collegiate career I have been a student-athlete. My journey through two Junior Colleges in two different states, and now at California State University Long Beach, has given me a unique student-athlete perspective, unlike many others have experienced. I have observed a dynamic group of student athletes for the past three years, and I discovered what makes some successful and what makes others fizzle.

Very few athletes can rely simply on their athletic talent, and those who do more often than not are those who fizzle. The student-athletes with a positive attitude toward academia are the ones that succeed, not only during their collegiate years, but also post-college. Through this idea and discovery, I want to establish facilities that cultivate a higher understanding and intelligence to become successful. I aspire to create training facilities of the mind and body.

The idea is to create a place to train athletes, young and old, both physically and mentally.
The facilities will be created with weight lifting and intense sport training equipment, as well as sporting fields and courts such as basketball courts or baseball batting cages.

While this aspect of the facilities will be utilized in the physical training and improvement of young athletes in their particular sport, the area will also be used to personally train older populations such as middle aged men and women, as well as provide programs for senior citizens to develop and maintain healthy lifestyles. This aspect of the facility will promote great physical health while training all ages athletically and improve each client’s knowledge of nutrition. While personal training will be a large part of the process, the facilities may have potential to be rented out by various teams and groups to hold practices.

The next aspect of these facilities is where the creativity and uniqueness comes. Working capital and athletic courts will largely take up the facility, but there will also be a separate section of small quiet rooms. These are designed to create a classroom type atmosphere. The goal of this section of the facility is to cultivate knowledge and inspiration in the younger clients.

Done in groups or individually, tutors will provide help with everyday homework while trainers such as former student athletes will provide knowledge, emphasizing the importance of school and teaching them how to succeed in the classroom. Reminding the young kids of this importance in academics will inspire them to buy into the concept of being successful.

I want to make young athletes aware of the incredible importance of school along with their sport. I aspire to create an attitude that success for a lifetime will be created in the classroom. The facilities’ double edge approach will aim to create a new generation of student-athletes with an emphasis on the student while producing elite athletes. Promotion of hard work will be a clear approach, because success in school and on the court both require it.

The idea of the business will be to provide these services at a low cost. I want to make this available to all kids of society. I want to be able to have facilities in neighborhoods of hardship to give the disadvantaged an opportunity to grow. The facilities will not be limited to tough neighborhoods, as that is simply one aspect of the idea, but also in wealthier areas.

While providing this service for young athletes, there will also be an aspect of higher profitability in order to grow and further establish our company. The personal training of the older population and rental of facilities will create a large portion of profits, while not exceeding expected prices for services provided.

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