Sharpen the Arrow

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

The first martial arts movie I ever watched was this old Chinese film called Five Deadly Venoms. I was seven years old. My dad and I were sitting in front of the TV on the floor in our living room.

It starts out with this old kung fu master and his student. They’re in a temple or a cave somewhere in China and there’s smoke rising from a fire. The student is heating water for the master’s bath. The master is old and dying. He has one last wish. He instructs his student to go on a mission to defeat the master’s five former pupils, who have turned evil. Each of the bad guys has a unique fighting style named for an animal: the Centipede, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Snake, and the Toad. To take down each one, the master explains, the student will have to learn all five styles.

As a kid, a lot of these movies went over my head. I couldn’t really follow the dialogue all the time. But that didn’t matter. I just loved them. Even the fact that they were dubbed was cool to me. I wanted to know more about this foreign world, where guys knew how to run up the sides of walls and break down wooden doors with their foreheads. I’d never seen anything like it. They just had so much … control.

I grew up in a kung fu house. It wasn’t until I got older that I discovered that most families didn’t talk about the Shaolin Temple or Jackie Chan at the dinner table.

The best part of watching kung fu movies with my dad was the conversations they sparked. We never watched them just for fun.

“Do you see how good his balance is?” My dad would always zero in on really specific stuff like that. Everything had a potential lesson.

I liked the fighting scenes the best. We would talk about Bruce Lee a lot. I would ask my dad to rewind a Bruce Lee scene so we could watch it again in slo-mo. Bruce would twirl two nunchakus like they were literally an extension of his body.

My dad encouraged me to notice more than just the fighting.

“Look at his footwork,” he would say. “Look at his patience.”

He would get up really close to the TV, pointing at Bruce Lee on the screen.

“Watch how he uses his mind to defeat his enemy.”

My dad liked to point out that Bruce Lee was small. He was strong, for sure, but he didn’t overpower people with muscle. The mental side of martial arts is what got my dad fired up.

Learning to meditate is one of my earliest memories. I started when I was maybe three or four. I mean, I didn’t know I was meditating. I just thought it was a weird game my dad had invented. I would sit on the couch and try to remain as still as possible. That wasn’t too hard. Then my dad would try to make me laugh. He’d make funny faces and think of all kinds of ways to distract me. I was supposed to stay in control and not react — to pretend he wasn’t there. But the goal wasn’t to pretend he wasn’t there. It was to clear my mind and notice everything that was going on around me.

As I got older, I got better at it. We would increase the difficulty by meditating in public, on a park bench or in a busy restaurant. Even if I was just quieting my mind for two minutes, I felt like I was building a special muscle that no one could see. Without really knowing it, I was training.

Basketball is my first love. I grew up in Kitchener, Ont., a small town about an hour’s drive from Toronto. Some people know Kitchener as the home of former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis. And of course, hockey is big there. It’s Canada. I could never really skate, but I used to offer to play goalie when we played hockey in school. (I was pretty good.) But for me, it was always basketball that called my name. I became known for being the kid who always had a ball in his hands. In grade school I used to take a ball with me to the school and bounce it between my legs the whole way. Then I’d do it all the way home. I even slept with a ball at times. I remember when I learned to spin a ball on my finger — my mom loves this story — because I broke several glasses in our kitchen in the process.

My dad would always put a little kung fu into our basketball workouts. “Put on this blindfold,” my dad would say. We’d be out on the outdoor court in our backyard.

The court was really just a patch of grass with a hoop. I played out there so much that it became hard dirt. I even made my own three-point line, measuring it out and marking it with sticks. I loved that court.

At first, I really didn’t like the blindfold drill.

“Why are we doing this, Dad?” I’d complain. No one else had to do these drills with their dad, I would tell him.

“This is what it feels like when you aren’t in control,” he would respond. “You’re playing blind.” It sounded like a kung fu movie. I couldn’t see how this drill was better than just taking a lot of shots.

So I’d shoot these blind free throws while my dad rebounded. One after another. My dad would get right in my ear, doing his best to get in my head.

“Maybe you’re not ready!”

“Time to quit!”

“You’ve gone fishin’. You’re done.”

Sometimes I’d airball it, but most of the time I’d hit rim. Not very many went in.

Clank. Clank. Clank.

Sometimes my dad would hold the ball for a minute at a time, making me wait.

He’d tell me to take off the blindfold and shoot a few with my eyes open. Then he’d have me put the blindfold back on, and again it would feel weird. I tried to feel all the muscles that went into the mechanics of my shot. The more we did it, the more comfortable it was to not have to rely on my eyes. By high school, we had done the blindfold drill hundreds of times. By that time, when my dad tried to distract me, he was just wasting his time. I could see the hoop in my head.

Swish. Swish. Swish.

As I got older, my dad’s ideas about mental discipline seemed less and less weird. I remember driving to my city semifinal game in Grade 10. My dad was driving a sprinter van full of my teammates, and I was in the backseat. Music was blasting and guys were fooling around, making jokes and all of that. Our nerves were bouncing off the walls inside that van.

About halfway there, my dad turned around and gave me a stare.

“Settle down and focus.”

He said it loud enough so only I heard him.

I closed my eyes. The van was bumping along the road. My teammates were still singing, yelling, doing their thing. I tried my best to concentrate. I thought about lacing my shoes, putting on my uniform, listening to my coach’s pregame speech. I imagined walking out onto the court and how bright the lights would be. I imagined someone yelling at me from the crowd. I tried to envision how the ball would feel on my first jump shot. I could see their best player, a guy we had scouted, and I went over his go-to moves in my head.

When the van jolted to a stop, I realized we were at the arena. I was ready to go.

It was a close game all the way. With about 40 seconds left, I tied it with a three. The other team came down and missed two free throws. But on our next trip down, we missed and they got the ball back. They called a timeout with five seconds left. Tie game.

Looking back, I think about how calm I was. My mind wasn’t racing. I felt focused. When they took the ball out, I got a jump on the passing lane and stole the ball. With just a few seconds left, I had to pull up from half court. Somehow, some way, the ball went in at the buzzer. We went on to the city finals.

The reason I think of that game isn’t really because of my game-winning shot. Making the shot was nice, but I was more proud of the steal. I was locked in at just the right time.

I used to quiet my mind before games at Rupp Arena. I wanted to savor everything: The crazy student section, the alumni, the season ticket holders, blue and white everywhere. Kentucky fans are next level. Basketball is getting popular in Canada, but there’s a special type of Wildcat blue running through the veins of Kentucky fans. It’s not always easy quieting your mind with all that going on.

Coach Cal and Coach Payne are big reasons why I came to Kentucky. Their openness made it really easy to communicate with the coaching staff. A lot of people only know the guys they see on TV. As coaches, they can be fun and serious at the same time. They’re upbeat and animated, but also all business when they need to be. Above everything else, they treated us as family. 

Lexington became my second home this year. The program is great about making us all feel part of the same family. To all the Kentucky fans that supported me, I loved playing in front of you. I fed off of your energy. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I’m really going to miss my teammates and our traditions. During the Ohio State game this year, I hit a three and I was running back on D. I looked over at the bench and my teammate EJ was pretending to shoot a bow and arrow. The next time I hit a three, I copied what he did. You wind your right arm back like you’re pulling back an arrow, then you let it go. Our whole bench started to do it whenever we hit a three. A tradition, and a new nickname, had been born.

Next year I’ll definitely be watching the team and following their success. I know they’ll do big things and create new traditions of their own.

As I move on to the NBA draft, it’s a big unknown out there. I know I can’t control everything, but I will remain just as focused on my mental game as on my physical game. In crunch time, I want to guard the other team’s best player. I want the ball for the last shot.

I’m looking forward to seeing what bullseye I can hit next, blindfolded or not.