This past weekend, the Oklahoma City Thunder made their only visit to the tri-state area as they played at the Prudential center against the New Jersey Nets.
Like every other member of the media there, I attended the game with the hopes of seeing/speaking with Kevin Durant and/or Russell Westbrook. However, while everyone else in the Thunder locker room flocked to both of the aforementioned superstars - I unexpectedly became enticed with the prospects of interviewing another member of the team. By himself in a secluded corner away from all the hoopla, I couldn't believe who was sitting right next to me......
It was none other than Royal Ivey!
Wait......do you Know who Royal Ivey is?
Let me tell you.
Royal is a self-described "journey man" backup point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Selected by Atlanta in the second round of the '04 draft, Royal has since had two stints playing in Milwaukee, and one in Philly, before landing in OKC. He is currently in his 8th year in the NBA. In college, Royal was a four year starter for Texas and helped them reach the Final four in '03.
While this is all well and fine, more relevant to me is Royal's origin.
He is an NYC product, having gown up and played high school ball in Queens.
But even more exciting for me, is the fact that I actually played against Royal 13 years ago!
We both played in the "Wheel Chair" charity basketball classic - a two day tournament that features most of the top high school basketball players in the city, representing each borough. I played for the Manhattan team and Royal played for the Queens team.
Our teams faced each other in the championship game.
We didn't know each other. We were both 17 year old high school seniors playing in an exposure game that would alter the course of our respective futures. To be honest, I had no idea who Royal was at the time and didn't even realize he played in the game until several years ago when I went back to check the roster.
In fact, I'm sure Royal didn't even start for his borough. Queens happened to be represented that year by two future McDonald's all-american points guards: Omar Cook and Taliek Brown. I played with Omar for one year at St. John's. After a year in college, he was drafted in the second round but unfortunately never caught on in the NBA - although has had a successful career overseas. Taliek was a four year starter at UCONN, and helped lead them to the NCAA championship his senior year.
At the time, they were seen as the next great NYC point guards.
The NBA wasn't in their futures.
It was for Royal.
And this is what makes Royal's story so interesting: It is the fact that he came out of NYC not as a highly recruited prospect - certainly not considered the best in the city - yet still found his way to the NBA and is the only one from his class to still be playing there. It is the fact that he was able to overcome the odds, fly underneath the radar and hype of his peers, and be the one to accomplish his dreams.
It is a dream and over a decade of devotion to the game that I can relate to. And while ultimately the fruition of my basketball dream turned out to be different from what I envisioned, the pursuit was the same as Royal's. It was with this in mind that I jumped at the opportunity of speaking with Royal and asking him about his New York roots and his journey to and in the NBA.
Take a listen:
A remarkable story with several important concepts.
Royal wasn't heavily recruited out of high school - but because he played with a top recruit, he got exposure and an opportunity to go to a prep school. Similarly, he wasn't a top recruit at prep school - but because he played with Luol Deng he got exposure and an opportunity to get scouted by Texas. And I am sure that despite the fact that his stats weren't gaudy at Texas, he probably made an impression at the pre-draft workout and interviews despite being surrounded by more coveted prospects. And that this was enough impress and warrant him being selected in the second round.
There is so much valuable information here:
The concept of taking advantage of the opportunities you have - even if they come about through someone else. I can't tell you how many times, as a high coaches, my brother and I try to convey this message to our players. That you never know who is in the stands, most likely recruiting someone else. That you always have to put your best foot forward because it may impress someone and cause them to take a closer look at you. And of course this goes beyond the basketball court - you ALWAYS want to do your best and present yourself in the best manner, primarily because you are representing yourself and your community, but also because you will come across so many people and opportunities that you always want to be in a position to take advantage of them.
If you noticed - I made a mistake during the interview when I said that Cardozo high school was "a good catholic school." No, it is not a Catholic (private) school - it is actually a public school. In the tri-state area, many of the top recruits come out of private schools. Therefore, the fact that Royal came out of a public school (PSAL = public school athletic league) with limited funds and resources is even more amazing. It certainly makes his story more relatable for a majority of inner city kids.
How about the fact that Royal didn't even play until he was a junior in high school?
The idea of being persistent, despite little recognition. The idea of being humble. The idea of taking nothing for granted. Of not worrying about more "talented" players but just continuing to work hard. Staying true to yourself and your craft. Believing in yourself, and believing dedication pays off.
I tell you, in this time of reality TV, baseless sound bytes, instant gratification, and false meritocracy - these are the most refreshing and reassuring words I've heard in a while.
After the OKC game, I got a chance to ask Royal some more light hearted questions. This time about how often he comes home, what he thinks of the renound NYC street ball scene, what it was like to see Kevin Durant play in the NYC tournaments, and ultimately what separates street ball players from NBA players.
It was a very interesting conversation:
I only spoke with Royal for less than 10 minutes, but the dude dropped a ton of knowledge!
The NBA is a skill league filled with tons of role players. "Only a hand full of players do many things exceptionally, and those are all-stars." "Everyone else is a role player.""It's not about individual one on one entertainment, it's about winning."
The concept of role players playing their role to perfection to help the team be the most successful it can be. That a role player has many different functions - making open shots, running the offense, defending, making your teammates better in practice, supporting your teammates during games, etc. Some are less canonical that others, but are still equally important towards an organization being successful. The concept of playing in a system, understanding various parts, and finding your position to make it run better. It seems like such a simple concept, but amazingly this is something many people don't understand, both on and off the court.
I feel like this lack of knowledge is what holds many young players back from being more successful. I suppose, much of the problem is kids not knowing what their role should be. Many times it's up to coaches to assess and delegate roles every year (while allowing players to develop and understanding that a player's role may change each year as they improve and develop new skills). But also, it's up to players to understand and accept what their role is, ultimately for the greater benefit of the team (also knowing if they want their role to change they have to put in the work to get better).
But this will really bake your noodle: What if the concept of the role player and understanding the system is applied outside of basketball? What if we all knew what our specific skills were and found out a way to harness this towards towards our careers. Or what if we all found our optimal place in society and used this to make our lives, families, or communities more prosperous? Kind of a crazy thought right?
Well let me also say, I don't want to romanticize Royal's situation too much. I know first hand what it is like to sit on the end of the bench - traveling from arena to arena, having what you love right in front of you and not be able to really be apart of it the way you would like to. But I also can appreciate the strength it takes to stick with it, and the personal sacrifice it takes to still be positive, work hard and do what's right for the sake of the team.
And that's it. That's Royal's success story.
He is a humble, hard working man that understands his role and how he can play it to perfection to make the team better. He understands the system and knows how to do what is needed of him to make it run better. And because of his intelligence, his dedication, and acceptance, he has become an essential component of one of the best teams in the NBA!
Royal Ivey has career stats of 3.5 points, 1.1 assists, and 1.2 rebounds per game.
But the numbers don't do justice to his value as a teammate.
They don't convey his role of mentor to Kevin Durant ("Mr. Fifteen" @ NBA.com).
Coming from New York City, having hoops dreams like millions of other kids - the numbers don't mean anything.
Wearing an NBA uniform and being a professional in the true sense of the word is everything.
He serves as an reaffirmation to my basketball dreams and an inspiration to those of tons of kids growing up in the city. After our interview, I told him in reference to myself "even if you don't make it, you want to at least know that you knew someone or played against someone that did."
Having finally met and spoken with Royal after all these years - I can say that I played against someone that did in fact "make it."
How did he make it?
Royal said to me, "I am a winner" on the court.
Let me correct him. It's because Royal Ivey is a winner off the court.