In basketball, it is often said that good players know how to "create their own shots." The great players create their own shot when the ball is in their hands as well as when the ball is across the floor. I bring this up because without a doubt, one of the takeaways of John Willkom's new book Walk-On Warrior is that in life, you are largely responsible for your own success.
Willkom is a small town kid from Marshfield, Wisconsin who was gifted not with a strapping 6'-10" frame, but with a work ethic, brain, great family, and solid mentors. Using these gifts, he fashioned himself into a solid basketball player and better person who would eventually earn a spot as a walk-on at Marquette University. The book covers Willkom's entire life, from grade school to post college, focusing on how he moved up the ladder of basketball and career. I was a little leery at first that this book might be a little too cute of an "overcoming the odds" story, but it ended up being much more.
From the start, Willkom established himself as a playmaker in life. His feat of starting a successful hoops camp as a high school kid and leading the charge on AAU opportunities for kids in the northern rural part of the state was amazing and showed drive well beyond his years.
Willkom's ability to recognize important people in his life and how the people you surround yourself with have a hand in shaping you was thoughtful. The gifts of wisdom that coaches, counselors, and parents subtly offer through words and example are not lost on Willkom. Throughout the book we are introduced to these characters and are left with a clear vision of just how influential these folks were to Willkom. It's a great message for teens to find mentors in those around you.
At every turn, Willkom has a knack for aggressively pursuing opportunities and contacts. Nothing is handed to him, which is another great lesson for kids. It's actually refreshing, in today's AAU "what can you do for me" culture, to see a guy who busted his ass at every turn, for every break, like it was a 50/50 ball on the court. Willkom makes it a point of the book to stress that lessons learned on the court are transferable to life. It's the mantra I harp on with all the sports books I look at on this blog. A sport does not exist is its own bubble, but rather creates a mind-set that is applicable to all phases of life.
Don't worry, there's plenty of baketball in this book! There are some great Tom Crean strories, fantastic basketball moments from his career in high school and college, some classic Rick Majerus ineractions, and anecdotes surrounding players and coaches you may recognize (especially as a Wisconsin kid). Most of all, the basketball content really illustrates how grueling and physically demanding playing higher level hoops can be. It's a great gut check for any aspiring teen hardwood warrior to see what Willkom endured and did to stay relevant on the court.
Overall, I liked Willkom's focus on life over basketball. His decision to walk away from Marquette basketball after a year caught me off guard, but it proved that his head was in the right place. For 99% of the kids out there, basketball will be nothing more than a game, and as much as Willkom loved the game, he knew that he needed that time to prepare for bigger challenges. It showed an immense amount of maturity to do this which I found admirable.
I know I've been on a little bender these days with walk-on books. First, it was Mark Titus and his rollicking look at walk-on life for the Ohio State basketball team. Now, in finishing Willkom's book, I find a very different voice. Both can have a spot in a high school library, but Willkom's book would probably leave you in better graces with the Principal! In truth, while each story has its merits, I would give the Titus book to my son for entertainment, but I would give him Willkom's book for life lessons. And that's a pretty solid recommendation!