A life lesson: ‘Failures are more than painful reminders of missteps’

Most avid fans of the ‘90s Chicago Bulls — like myself (I’ve watched the Last Dance documentary at least 10 times) — can remember exactly where they were when Michael Jordan sank his sixth three-pointer in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals.

It was June 3, 1992. I was at a Bulls watch party. After Jordan hit that shot and gave that now-famous shrug, the United Center erupted and so did the small crowd at my friends’ apartment.

But that iconic moment is ingrained in my memory for another reason, too.

As everyone celebrated around me, I fell back onto the couch, manic thoughts swirling in my head.

“What am I going to do with my life?” I asked myself.

Since arriving at the watch party hours before the game, I’d been swimming in a sea of rum and Coke to try and forget about the meeting I had just left with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. We were discussing my petition to be readmitted to the university, where I’d been on a turbulent ride for several years.

Away from home and the watchful eye of my mother, at college I found the social life I’d always wanted in high school and strayed way off-course. I was an academic hot mess. My grade point average was an abysmal 0.98, just below a D. The university had dropped me twice before.

The dean listened closely as I tried to explain why my third chance had gone awry.

“You seem like a very nice guy,” he told me. “But, in good conscience, I can’t readmit you.” My heart sank.

I needed a GPA of 3.4, over my remaining necessary credit hours, to reach the 2.0 minimum GPA necessary to graduate.

“You haven’t had one semester where you’ve posted a 3.4 GPA,” he said. “So if I readmit you, I’d be expecting you to do something over four semesters that you haven’t done in any one semester that you’ve been here.””

Speechless, I just stared at the page of my transcript for a few seconds. I couldn’t argue with his rationale.

Getting turned on to journalism

I spent the rest of the summer working a few odd jobs until I landed a full-time gig in the fall as a bank teller, plus a second job at night in the sports department of the local newspaper as a scoretaker. It was a grunt job, fielding calls mostly from high school football and basketball coaches sharing info we used to compile box scores.

Sometimes, the coaches would share details of a game-winning shot or some other notable accomplishment. Usually, we’d transfer those calls to one of the reporters. But every now and then, none of the reporters would be available, and we’d take notes and pass them off later. On one such occasion, I wrote up a recap that made it into the paper and led the high school basketball roundup.

Even without a byline, seeing my words in the newspaper was electric. It turned me on to journalism. And I’ve never looked back.

The next five years, I took every opportunity I could find to learn and to expose myself to the profession. The newspaper promoted me to agate clerk. I supervised scoretakers and helped lay out the sports page. I volunteered at the local cable access station, operating cameras and setting up lighting. Eventually, I hosted, directed and edited shows of my own.

In the fall of 1993, I enrolled in the communications program at the local junior college, worked as the sports editor for the school paper and called high school basketball and football games for the school’s radio station. I also interned at the local radio news station, covering news events and writing and producing stories.

In the summer of 1994, I met with the dean of the U of I’s College of Communication and convinced her to readmit me. Three years later, I walked across the stage as a college graduate — posting a 3.6 GPA in my last 60 credit hours. Along the way, I’d gotten hired as a reporter, first by a local radio station and later at a newspaper.

Years later, when I was working in Chicago, a colleague asked me to speak to his students and to share some of my journey. I felt ashamed as I talked about the low points, but my colleague later told me those were the details they appreciated the most.

My journey taught me a lot about the consequences of my actions. I also learned about tenacity, drive and resilience, which has helped me through rough times — bankruptcy, foreclosure and divorce, just to name a few. When it feels like things can’t get any worse, I think back to how I felt on June 3, 1992.

Our worst failures aren’t just painful reminders of missteps and misfortune. They’re a chance to show how tough we can be — and why we should never count ourselves out.

Alden Loury is data projects editor for WBEZ and writes a column for the Sun-Times.

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