For many years—more than I’m willing to admit—I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I spent every weekday night in my front yard weaving between orange cones, pretending I was LeBron or Carmelo or, every once in a while, Yao Ming. And on the weekends I traveled: my dad and I drove all over California for basketball tournaments.
Naturally, when my parents dragged me to my first speech and debate practice in sixth grade, I wasn’t exactly excited. I didn’t hate it—I was never really shy about using my voice—but I would’ve preferred to have been on a basketball court. So, consciously or unconsciously, I made a compromise: I referenced Michael Jordan in virtually every impromptu speech I gave and used canned basketball AGDs.
Unsurprisingly, an obsession with professional basketball prepares you quite poorly for the speech and debate world. I could barely fumble my way through a memorized speech, let alone one with limited prep about current affairs. I also really didn’t know what I was talking about: I couldn’t have told you the difference between Ethiopia and Egypt if I tried. Worst of all, I overcompensated for my lack of knowledge by trying to make myself appear smarter. I soon replaced the names of basketball players with SAT Vocab words and said things like “violated fundamental Keynesian macroeconomic principles.”
In short, I sucked when I first started.
But I kept working. Slowly, I began to learn the basic principles which govern current affairs. I learned about taxes, the military, social issues; I learned about things and places and people I had no idea I was supposed to know or care about. There were many moments where I felt like a mad genius who had solved global conflicts through intricate diplomatic theory; there were many more moments where I felt like a complete idiot for thinking I could solve a civil war in 37 minutes.
My father coached me patiently through all of it. He listened to every mediocre speech I gave and sent me questions he found while combing through the interwebs. When I won, he pushed me to keep working; when I lost—and I lost many, many times—he still drove with me to spectate each final round I had failed to make, even if that meant getting up at 5 AM and eating a boiled egg for breakfast. And, gradually, I began improving.
My big moment came during junior year when I, by some miraculous chance, made a deep run at Nationals. My dad was with me that year, and the day before finals, he took me to see the Civil Rights Museum. It was raining that day, and we parked in a fenced-off lot by an old church across the street.
I didn’t understand why he’d brought me there at that specific moment, but I’d reached the age where I’d learned to just shut up and go with it whenever my dad dragged me out on an impromptu excursion during a tournament of some kind. I figured we’d get soul food after anyway, and I’d still have plenty of time to stress about finals.
It’s hard to describe what I felt as I walked through the museum. I was humbled, undoubtedly, as I fleshed out the stories I’d learned during Black History Month during elementary school. But part of me also left feeling angry and incomplete, frustrated by the half-truths that I, like so many others, had learned about the promises of liberty and justice for all.
I began to understand, then, why my parents had dragged me to that practice all those years ago. They didn’t want to crush my dreams of becoming a professional basketball player (they figured I’d come around soon enough) or to mold me into a Chinese Barack Obama. They wanted me to learn to use my voice, to tell my story, and, more importantly, learn about the millions of stories out in the world that I’d never imagined before. They wanted me to win, yes, but above all else to care about people and their stories, whether I was talking about social inequality or visiting a little pocket of history.
And that single visit captures everything I loved about my time in speech and debate. I had the incredible privilege of traveling across the country for tournament after tournament, but above all else I had the opportunity to spend time with people who were willing to fly out to the strangest, loneliest of places to share their stories with me—including my own father, whose story I heard in bits and pieces while we were sitting together on airplanes or long car rides on rainy Sunday mornings.
Many, many years ago, when I still thought I could be a professional basketball player, I idolized LeBron James. I wanted to be able to see the court like him, to blow past defenders like a tank with a ballerina’s grace.
I quit basketball freshman year, but I still wouldn’t mind if I turned out like LeBron. He is, after all, fighting for the very social change so many extempers and debaters talk about in round after endless round, speech after endless speech.
And I’ve learned after all those years of speech and debate, that that fight for change—to me at least—matters so much more than what happens on a basketball court.