Perseverance Pays Off
May 29, 2012 • Orlando, Florida
As the old adage goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
For someone like Moriah Jefferson, however, it should be: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try and try again.
The 5-7 homeschooled guard from Glenn Heights, Texas, is the epitome of perseverance. She first arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2009 eager to show off her skills and hoping for a spot on the 2009 USA U16 National Team. However, she didn’t make the final cut.
No worries, she thought. Yes, it stung being told you’re not going to play for your country. But plenty of people have been in that situation
“The first year I ever got invited, I didn’t even know they had this for our age,” recalled the ever-positive guard. “I didn’t know anything about it. I just tried to come out here and do my best. I had fun, so I wasn’t worried about it. I didn’t make it, so I was like, ‘okay. I played with all these great players. I got my wind up from being in (the altitude in) Colorado.’ You can’t really worry about it.”
She received a second invitation in 2010, this time for the USA U17 World Championship Team Trials. Armed with the thought she had made enough improvements in her game to make the team, Jefferson returned to the USOTC. On the final morning when names were called out, Jefferson was just as disappointed, if not more so, at not hearing her name called as one of the final 12 players.
Jefferson inquired what she needed to work on, what was it the committee wanted from a guard that it didn’t see in her?
“Then next time I didn’t make it again. I was kind of like, ‘oh, what did I do wrong this time?’ That time I studied it more. I focused on what I did wrong. I tried to fix it, to correct it.”
The future University of Connecticut guard was more determined than ever. After all, more athletes get cut than make the squad.
So, in 2011 when Jefferson received her third invitation, this time to try out for the USA U19 World Championship Team, she came armed with more knowledge, skills and an even greater will to make the team.
“I think it was more disappointing each year,” said Jefferson. “Because you come back hoping you make it. You say, ‘okay, last year I didn’t make it, but this is my year.’ So, I just came back every year and tried to do what I do best.”
Third Time's the Charm for Prince
Moriah Jefferson isn’t the only one on the 2012 USA U18 squad to have come to trials and not made a team. And she’s not the only USA Basketball athlete who’s been cut multiple times.
In fact, Seimone Augustus, who will compete for her second Olympic gold medal this summer, didn’t make a team following her first two USA Basketball trials. In her third try, Augustus not only made the 2003 USA U21 World Championship Team, she went on to earn MVP accolades at the U21 Worlds.
There are a total of four players on the roster who have returned after being cut. Kendall Cooper (St. Anthony H.S. / Carson, Calif.) and Allisha Gray (Washington County H.S. / Sandersville, Ga.) went home following the 2011 USA U16 National Team Trials and in fact, originally tried out for this year’s USA U17 World Championship Team. After not making that squad, the duo was moved, along with four others, to the U18 trials roster and this time the result was a USA Basketball jersey.
Additionally, Bashaara Graves (Clarksville H.S. / Clarksville, Tenn.) didn’t make the 2011 U19 team after being a part of the 2009 USA U16 and 2010 USA U17 squads; while Alexis Prince (Edgewater H.S. / Orlando, Fla.) made her first USA Basketball team this year after missing the final cut for the 2009 U16 and 2010 U17 teams.
“There was never a question about whether I was going to come back or not,” said Prince. “I feel like it’s a good opportunity just to get invited. I was just going to come, work hard and see if they liked me.
“It felt real good to finally tell my mom that I made it,” she added. “After they announced the team I kept saying, ‘there are no more cuts, right? This is it?’ When I heard there were no more cuts, I was like, ‘that’s good!’”
The process was a little different last year as 15 finalists were named for the 2011 USA U19 squad. One of the 15 was Jefferson. Five days after trials, the finalists gathered at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. All Jefferson had to do was to play her game, show she could be a team leader and be one of the final 12 named at the end of the week.
Disappointment again came calling, but once again she used it as a positive lesson.
“Last year I talked with the coaches afterward, and they told me that I had a lot more experience in front of me. I understood that. I was playing with people who are in college now, sophomores and freshmen, so I understood that I was learning from them.”
Jefferson handled the rejection with aplomb and used it as motivation to further improve her game.
“When I came back again that last time and I didn’t make it, I’m not going to lie, it takes you down,” she said. “It takes your spirits out. I never questioned what kind of basketball player I am, because I just know that that’s what I love to do. If anyone else doesn’t like it, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m playing for myself and for God and for my coaches.”
Fast forward to 2012. The Jefferson’s postal carrier stuffed Moriah’s fourth USA Basketball team trials invitation into the family’s mailbox.
Was there ever a hesitation about responding?
“Honestly? I looked at it and I put it down,” she recalled. “I went away and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t do anything. I think I was training or something, so I wasn’t even worried about it. Then I thought about it and was like, ‘I’m going to go back. Why not? All my friends are going to be there and, hey, maybe this year I might make it.’
“I never want to give up. Even if I didn’t make it this year, I probably would have come back, come back and keep coming back because I have a good time here. I know everybody. You get to say you’re a part of USA Basketball even if you’re not on the team. It’s just a humbling experience and you get better, so why not come back year after year?”
She spent the five trials sessions this year being more vocal. Talking to her teammates on the court. Getting as many people involved in plays. Being a team leader. That’s exactly what the USA Basketball Junior National Team Committee was looking for in a point guard for the 2012 USA U18 National Team.
“I wanted to be more of a leader this year. That’s one thing they were saying, that I have to get my team into the offense quicker. Even if my team wasn’t getting in, I was making sure that I was yelling at them and getting everybody to know what they were supposed to do.”
“I think she definitely improved over the years,” said Morgan Tuck (Bolingbrook H.S., Ill.), two-time USA Basketball gold medalist and future Connecticut teammate of Jefferson’s. “She’s more of a leader. She’s always been a great player, but this year she kind of stepped it up to another level. She came to the trials each year with something to prove.”
And prove it, she did. Jefferson involved her teammates. She praised them when they made a good play, encouraged them when they were down, and instructed them if they made a mistake. She did everything possible to force the USA Basketball Junior National Team Committee into a no-brainer decision.
When the 12 names were called last Monday morning and Jefferson heard her name, she said it was like no other feeling in the world. There would be no need to reflect on what she should have done differently.
“Honestly after being through it so many times, I kind of just blacked out,” Jefferson told USA Basketball immediately after the selections were announced. “I didn’t even know they called my name until somebody hit my leg and I was like, ‘Thank God.’”
“I think that’s something great,” added Tuck, who was impressed by Jefferson’s determination. “A lot of people when they get cut once, they’ll come back, but twice, three times, that’s something that not a lot of people do. Her attitude coming in, she doesn’t ever complain about it or anything like that. She definitely came with a positive attitude every year.”
“If you don’t make it, use it as motivation,” was Jefferson’s advice to the next generation of athletes who don’t make their first, second or even third USA Basketball team. “Go in the gym and try to think back on what you think you might have done wrong. Ask people. Ask questions. Don’t wait. Ask early so that when you do come back, and you should come back, you’ll know what they were looking for the first time.”