Sunday, February 22, 2015

Life Of A Walk-On Chronicled In Toughest Two

Basketball has been a life tool for Johnnie Bird III.

A seldom-used, fan-favorite walk on at UConn, where he had the daunting chore of neutralizing guards such as A.J. Price and Kemba Walker in practice every day, Bird III's new book Toughest Two canvasses the life of a walk-on.

The book touches on Bird's struggles and hard-earned lessons, which go beyond grappling for brief minutes amid heavily-recruited All-Americans.

A basketball journey has allowed Bird III to assimilate from North Carolina to rough-and-rugged Bridgeport, Conn. and eventually basketball-crazed Storrs.

The turbulent times of Bird's freshman season, when he endured everything from agonizing social discord to losing high school friends to gang violence, shaped his battle-tested journey.

Proving he belongs under the demanding Jim Calhoun and staff wasn't nearly as difficult as surviving Bridgeport's meanest, bullet-sprayed and unforgiving streets.

 The experiences helped mold Bird for the harsh realities of the real world. The book is slated to arrive on March 10th, it can be purchased on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.

We caught up with Bird III on his book and the messages he hopes to deliver...

ZS: Beyond the grind of being a walk-on, especially on a star-spangled team of NBA-bound talent, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced adapting to UConn from Bridgeport?

JB: It was a challenge coming from the inner city. I was surrounded by people who looked like me and we were more focused on day-to-day survival than my future.

 That mentality left me severely unprepared for life away from home, let alone life at college.

It was also kind of a late decision to attend UCONN so that left me scrambling. Couple those things together, it makes for the perfect storm that led to me struggling with academics and adjusting socially.

ZS: How do you describe the experience going from an All-FCIAC selection at Bridgeport Central, an integral piece on a state championship team to a walk-on buried behind Craig Austrie, Marcus Williams, A.J. Price, Kemba Walker etc. How did you adjust from going to the spotlight to the background?

JB: Going from being well-known and being a main factor on the court to being a walk-on didn't sit well with me. At first, it was clear the guys on the court were significantly better than me. 

I always felt, however, that I was capable of more and that I could compete with whoever was on the court.

ZS: Toughest guy you've ever guarded?

JB: There wasn't one guy in particular, but the hardest thing to do was run scrimmages against the first and second teams. 

It would be walk-ons v.s. scholarship players and we were clearly overmatched.

Walk-ons ran against both teams consecutively, which left no time to catch your breath. The pace was disorienting.

ZS: Prior to playing at Southern Connecticut, you had an opportunity to play at the NCAA level. Yet you landed at the highest level of Division-I in UConn. 

At the time, the Big East was a  superpower conference, evenly matched and as ultra-physical. 

How did the opportunity at UConn emerge and how did you take advantage of it?

JB: Being born in North Carolina, I had it in my mind that I wanted to attend UNC. So, I dismissed the some of the smaller schools that did want me and I had my mind set on becoming a Tar Heel. When I found out I couldn't go to UNC I was obviously disappointed. I had been accepted into UCONN and decided to attend for a little bit until I could transfer.

The book details what transpired in regard to how I became a member of the team and what pushed me to want to get out of Storrs even more.

ZS: You said the book will discuss the difficulties at home and the process of trying to slay the adverse obstacles in your way. What were the challenges you sidestepped by being at UConn and what were some of the pressures of being in Bridgeport at the time?

JB: They were, I'd say, the typical challenges you face when you come from a tough town. Making it to 18 alive and free is a major accomplishment where I'm from. Not everyone gets to go off to college or get out of the city.

I had friends locked up, friends passing away, friends getting caught up in the street life. At one point, it felt like I was getting "Bad News" calls every day.

 Being at UConn allowed me to not get caught up in the problems in the city--which at times I wanted to be involved in because I felt cut off and did not have many friends at school. In hindsight, it was a blessing to not be around because I would have surely been consumed by the city.

ZS: What are some of the life lessons Toughest Two emphasizes and what do you hope to accomplish in publishing this book?

JB: I definitely want readers to take away a few life experiences from this book. The power of choices is the main thing that will resonate with anyone who reads this book. Also, having the perseverance can help you break through that glass ceiling that hangs above us all.

Lastly, I want to raise awareness on a group of athletes who don't get much shine, and that is the Walk-On. Every team has walk-ons and those student-athletes work just as hard or even more so, with little to no glory. They definitely need to be valued more and recognized.

ZS: Without the opportunity at UCONN, what life path do you think you would have taken?

JB: I am a firm believer that things happen just as they are supposed to. So even though I wasn't in love with my circumstances initially, it has molded me into who I am today. My persistence and my work ethic all stem from my journey as a walk on.

ZS: What was the experience of playing for a stern taskmaster and Hall of Fame coach like Jim Calhoun?

JB: We all know Coach Calhoun was a tough coach. It takes a certain kind of person to take what he dishes out. Most players wouldn't be able to handle it, but of all the things that went on I didn't mind how he was. My high school coach was very strict and straight forward, so I was used to it.

ZS: How does this book address the treatment of a walk-on and in your case an unknown walk-on amongst heavily recruited superstars?

JB: The book pulls back the curtains on the role of being a walk-on at UConn. There is a lot of glitz and glamour that come along with winning four national championships, as UCONN has. The book introduces the group of players behind the players that everyone sees. The ugly step sisters of the bunch.

ZS: What strong points do you really hope the book to illustrate?

JB: There are a ton of young adults who struggle with the transition from high school to whatever their next steps in life will be, from adolescence to becoming an adult like I did.

I hope this book can help provide guidance through my experience. Also being a former walk-on, I sympathize with the guys at the end of the bench. I hope this can raise awareness about how hard they work.

ZS: How did you arrive at the title, Toughest Two?

JB: Scoring the basketball is the name of the game, it's one of the best ways to leave your mark on any given night. Playing basketball my whole life, I've scored countless times. You have to be able to shoot in order to have a chance at scoring.

Being a walk-on meant my opportunities were next to none. I wanted to leave my mark on UConn basketball in some fashion and The Toughest Two summarizes everything that my journey was and is, in a nutshell.