King of the Dogs or Dog Among Kings

Ask Steve Kerr if he'd rather be the best player in the Italian A league or win 3 championships as a bench player with Jordan and the Bulls. I think I know the answer.

“Do you want to be king of the dogs or a dog among kings?”

That was the question posed to me and a group of my teammates by our high school basketball coach. In the end we determined that we’d rather be dogs among the kings. To this day I’ve live my life with that as my philosophy.

First let me explain.

Back in the early 90’s I played on a high school basketball that had some great potential. Easily the best team I’ve ever played on in any sport. We had the smoothest back court and tallest front court. We could score, we could run and we could play shut down defence.  On paper we were a great team and we weren’t afraid to tell people how good we were. Back then I needed two seats on the team bus, one for me and one for my ego.

The core of the team consisted of me and a very close group of friends. We’d played together for years, but that summer we were intense in our workouts with the upcoming season in mind. During those summer pick up games guys from all over the city would show up and get thoroughly beat down by us. Worse than the beat downs we gave them, was the trash talking that would go with them.  We were on a mission to show the city and the league  how good we were.

The target – the “hardware” (championship trophies)

As the season started we were easily beating the local high schools and getting a lot of publicity in the local papers. You know, seeing your name in print, especially when you’re living in a small city can be quite intoxicating. The attention we’d receive was phenomenal.  And the attention from the girls…  well lets just say it wasn’t unwelcome. Yeah, it’s pretty sweat being a star.

During the week we played league games and on the weekend we’d play out-of-town tournament games. On Monday’s the local newspaper would report on the weekend’s high school basketball results. Tuesday and Thursday the regional paper reported on league games. We’d be sure to pick up multiple copies of each edition and sit in the cafeteria reading about ourselves.

The weekend tournaments our coach scheduled us for put us up against some of the best high schools in the country. We were good but we didn’t rank among the best in the country. We’d hold our own in these tournaments but the weekends rarely ended in trophies.  Monday’s paper made no mention of hard-fought consolation finals or moral victories versus ranked opponents. Worse, the local teams we beat during the week played in local tournaments on weekends. We’d see their smiling faces in the newspaper holding trophies pronouncing them champions. While we, the “kings”, lick our wounds.

It’s not right. My ego didn’t like that.  We wanted our hardware. We were the rightful kings of the city. We went to the coach and told him we wanted to take part in the local tournaments. We were better than these guys. We want to win.

I’ll be honest, I wanted to win more than the rest. I needed to feed that ego. He was getting fat and hungry.

That’s when our coach sat us down and asked us – do you want to be king of the dogs or a dog among kings?

The king of the dogs will win the local tournaments and feature in the local papers. But he doesn’t get better. How can he? He’s never seen anyone better than he is. The king of the dogs doesn’t know his own potential, because he’s never challenged himself. He doesn’t know how deep his resolve is – how deep he’s desire is.  He hasn’t bounced back after defeat or overcome a hurdle he thought was impossible. He hasn’t tried and failed only to try again. He doesn’t experience the true riches that life has to offer, because he’s settled for what he’s been easily given.

He told us that we could be the king of the dogs this year, but we’d never get to play at the next level. The king the dogs doesn’t get a scholarship, he get’s bragging rights at the playground.

That was enough explaining for us. We would swallow our pride and personally, I would push my ego aside. We as a team would be dogs among the kings.

We ended up with a bit of hardware that season, missing out on going to the provincial finals by a mere 6 points. But I came away from that season with a lesson that I would treasure more than any championship trophy.

I will always challenge myself to be better and to learn from the best. Because that is the only way to be the best. Life is more interesting that way.

Sometimes you feel like a bumbling fool when you step outside of your comfort zone. That awkwardness is natural. We all feel it when we challenge ourselves to do new things. However, the feeling of mastering a skill or accomplishing a task that you initially felt was impossible is the greatest feeling in the world. That feeling drives me to challenge myself and try new things even though much of the time by doing so I’m the dog among kings.


  1. Man, I’m all goosebumpy. My son has played “local” basketball for a few years, and all was right with the world. Lots of wins and praise. And then he said he wanted more. So this winter we put together a travel team to compete in a neighboring – and much bigger – state. We finished up a respectable 8-6, defeating a top seed along the way. He pushed himself. Tested himself. He averaged almost 20 points a game against some of the toughest competition involved. And he was invited to play on a premiere AAU team this spring. And had he failed miserably, I’d still be so very proud of him for trying.

    Now if I’d only had his courage when it came to my career.

    Thanks for the re-inspiration.

    • Thanks… I love that this story inspired you! I think of it every time I’m faced with a challenge. Win or lose, there are so many valuable life lessons in sports. Every kid should play a team sport at some level.

      Congrats to your son… basketball is a great sport!

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