Every young athlete in Lawrence who might be doubting himself or his coach, or hearing poisonous words from friends or folks about how he's getting shafted, needs to think about where Free State High basketball player Jake Miller was at the beginning of the season and where he was Friday night.
Miller, a 6-foot junior guard, started the season coming off the bench for the junior varsity. He quickly worked his way into the JV starting lineup. Last Saturday, he made the first varsity start of his career. And Friday night at Free State's gym, where the girls game went into double overtime and the boys came down to the final possession, Miller played as big a part as anyone in salvaging a split in the doubleheader after the girls lost.
Miller's effort in Free State's 53-52 victory against Shawnee Mission South went pretty much the way of his season. The first half wasn't so hot. Miller came off the bench, but couldn't find the range in the early going, missing his first four three-point shots.
"He had some great looks," Free State coach Chuck Law said. "A couple of those, here in the tightest rims in America, the Free State gym, a couple, two or three of those were down and spit out on him. We tell him to keep shooting. He passed up on some, and we told him, and his teammates encouraged him, to keep shooting."
Miller did the same thing in the second half that he did recently to earn playing time. He listened to his coach. This time, what the coach told him was what every player loves to hear: Keep shooting.
He hit a baseline jumper, and then a three-pointer. Then he showed he can drive, too, drawing a foul and making both free throws. He scored as many points, seven, in the third quarter as Shawnee Mission South did. The Firebirds entered the quarter trailing by five and came out of it leading by five.
Miller scored all of his 11 points in the second half.
"Jake is going to be very critical for us," Law said. "He played maybe eight minutes of varsity basketball the first 12 games of the season. ... He's a confident young man. That was maybe in part why he wasn't playing as much. He's been willing to accept some coaching here in the last two to three weeks."
The key to turning it around?
"I started working harder at practice," Miller said. "They gave me my shot, and I took full advantage of it."
Nothing in the way he handled the ball, attacked the rim and shot from the perimeter suggested this was an inexperienced varsity player trying to find his way. He looked smooth, and he looked relaxed.
"Those guys make it really easy to play with," Miller said of teammates. "They don't make many mistakes, and if you make a mistake, they are going to be there for you. Somebody will go get a steal and get the ball right back. They make it really chill."
Hearing him say the word "chill" in that context sent the memory spinning all the way back to Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik portrayed by the late Bob Denver on the TV show "Dobie Gillis." That show debuted 49 Februarys ago, and the word "chill" is back in full force. Culture has a way of recycling itself.
In the sports world, some things never change. For one, working harder in practice and listening to the coach is, always has been and always will be the best ticket to a shot at playing time.