“It is not the critic who counts. . . . The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly
. . . and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Teddy Roosevelt

Now, that’s a powerful quote. You don’t turn to that quote unless you need it. Adam Ballinger needed it. His father, a teacher, sent it in a letter. That letter now hangs on Ballinger’s apartment wall in this, the last year of his college basketball career.

And more and more he thinks it’s the greatest gift he has ever gotten.

“Obviously,” says the Michigan State senior, with the resignation of someone who has had this conversation too many times, “the season hasn’t gone the way I expected.”

Not unless he expected to lose his starter’s role, visit a sports psychologist, be pitied, criticized, all but forgotten, and ultimately turned into a curiosity sentence: “What’s the matter with Adam?”

Ballinger, you see, had the misfortune of hitting an oil slick when the checkered flag was in sight. College basketball is supposed to be a linear thing. You get older, you get better, you get better, you score more, you score more, you’re the man.

Each season for Ballinger had been better than the last. He came into this year as a senior co-captain, the second-most experienced player on the squad. He was a starting forward. A go-to guy. Big things were expected.

But big things never came.

Unless you count big confusion.

Poor play, tougher losses

He was off almost from the start. His shot wasn’t falling. He seemed to grow tentative. His rebounding suffered. Pretty soon, Ballinger was like that Ben Stiller character in “Meet the Parents” — no matter how earnestly he tried, nothing worked out. He was held scoreless against Loyola (Ill.). He turned the ball over three times in five minutes against Michigan. His shooting went south. And then it really went south.

“The worst part wasn’t just my play,” he says, after seeing his scoring and rebounding stats virtually cut in half from last season. “The worst part was we were losing games that I know, if I could have played better, we could have won.”

No one could figure it out. What’s the matter with Adam? Tom Izzo, his coach, tried everything — yelling, coddling, noise, quiet — until finally, he benched him.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt for a kid more than him,” Izzo said.

Ballinger, as stumped as anyone, tried every path out of the maze. He remembers sitting with a sports psychologist, feeling foolish. He remembers friends giving him advice. “They’d say, ‘Go away somewhere.’ But I’m a college student, where am I gonna go?”

Sometimes, for solace, Ballinger would visit the gym late at night and just shoot, by himself, feeling the floor, the ball, the heat. It was like smoothing the dirt of a fox hole. Only, as Ballinger admits, “my enemy was thinking.”

A final shining moment

But lest you think this is some sob story, remember what college is supposed to be about: learning. Ballinger, at 6-feet-9 and 250 pounds, had always been tagged “a basketball player” — from Indiana, no less — and as he advanced, the lights all seemed to be turning green.

This year he discovered that green isn’t promised. He learned who really cares about him. He learned the solace of good friends and good parents. When his father mailed him the Roosevelt quote, he cherished both the letter and the unconditional support it took to send it.

And then came a night against Iowa earlier this month, senior night at the Breslin Center. And like an old dog bursting through the screen door, Ballinger’s game came running back to him. He scored 22 points, a career high, including a one-handed slam that brought his teammates swarming happily around him.

In a Cinderella story, that game would have led to more like it. Instead, Ballinger slipped back to the bench, a few minutes here, a few shots there. Life is not Cinderella. He knows that now.

He knows something else, too: He knows he truly cares about the team, because he is able to say, “I don’t care if I play 10 minutes or 200, as long as we win” — and mean it. His knows he truly loves the sport, because instead of chucking it in disgust, he wants to keep playing somewhere, anywhere, next year.

Friday night, against Maryland in the Sweet 16, could be his last college game. Does he dream of coming off the bench and finding the old touch? Sure. But if it doesn’t happen, he’s ready for that, too.

“In a way, it’s been a great life lesson,” he says. “I feel like I could go through anything now.”And, as Teddy said, his place will never be among those cold and timid souls. Adam Ballinger has taken a lot of hits this year. His character has proven bulletproof.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show”3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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