NBA legend Michael Jordan locked himself in his room and cried when he did not make the Emsley A. Laney High School basketball team in his sophomore year. Jordan, however, did not give up. He worked hard, remained consistent and earned a second chance. Not only did he make the team his junior year, he finished his high school career as a McDonald’s All-American.
Imagine if Jordan would have given up. He would not have hit the historic, game-winning basket for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill men’s basketball team during the 1981 NCAA Basketball National Championship, won six NBA Championships or changed the culture of basketball forever.
These moments, filled with humble beginnings, are what sports fans live for. They remind us why sports are so special.
Behind those shining moments are stellar athletes who put in countless hours of practice and training to perform to the best of their ability. Even with practice and training, however, no athlete is perfect. Every athlete has high and low points. What separates a “good athlete” from a “great athlete” is how one deals with adversity through difficult situations.
For Jackson State guard Raeford Worsham, his athletic career has seen a few bumps along the way. Instead of giving up when he was down, he looked to God and continued to push himself toward success.
“People try to bury me but God made me a seed,” Worsham said as personal words of motivation. “If you can look up, you can get up.”
Worsham, 22, finished his senior season for the Jackson State University men’s basketball team on March 18 as the Tigers lost to Grand Canyon, 64-54, in the second round of the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament (CIT). Despite the second round lost, Worsham’s basketball career is far from over.
If you asked Worsham four years ago where he might be at this point in his life, he would not have said playing for Jackson State and making an impact on the Tigers team like he did.
Before Worsham served as a major piece and leader on a Tiger team that won 20 games for the first time since 2007, he was a young boy growing in rural southeast Mississippi playing baseball and basketball.
Worsham began to show his competitive nature and passion for basketball at the age of five. He looked up to his older sisters for guidance in learning the game.
“My sisters motivated me to be the best player that I could be,” Worsham said. “I watched them develop as players and I wanted to be better than them.”
Worsham’s sister, Rakesia Gray, 32, played at Wayne County High School and later at Belhaven University. His other sister, Ratassia Worsham, 29, also played at Wayne County High School before playing at Ole Miss.
“As I got older, watching my sisters made my interest for basketball grow even more,” Worsham said. “Ratassia was my favorite player all the way up until my college years.”
Rayford Worsham, Worsham’s father, also motivated him to go after his dream to play basketball and anything that he wanted to do in his life.
Believe it or not, Worsham did not always think that he would play basketball.
“I always had a dream to play basketball but I thought I would be playing baseball,” Worsham said. “In fact, I love baseball more than I love basketball.”
As Worsham got older — around the seventh grade — he began to realize that basketball was a good fit for him and started to put more emphasis on basketball than baseball.
“I was tall. I had big hands and big feet,” Worsham said. “I felt like basketball was the best fit for me.”
Often referred to as “Gator,” a nickname his grandfather gave him when he was two years old, Worsham recalled one of his biggest moments as a child that solidified his dream to play basketball.
“While playing basketball at Waynesboro Middle School, Quitman Middle School was a big rivalry for us,” he said. “Quitman had a really good team but we beat them twice. I had two good games against them and beating that team was a very special moment for me.”
For Worsham, it was early moments like this that prepared him for some of the biggest moments of his life in high school and in college.
At Wayne County High School, beyond simply making a name for himself as an athlete, Worsham did something that none of his siblings were able to do. As a junior, he led the Wayne County to a 31-1 record and a 5A State Championship under head coach Ron Norman.
“All I remember [thinking] was, ‘Is this what winning a championship feels like?’ That and thanking God tremendously,” Worsham said. “It was feeling that I will never forget.”
Worsham also said Coach Norman played a huge role in allowing him to grow as a player and as a leader.
“He always told me that I was my biggest defender and I was my biggest problem,” Worsham said. “I was the only person that could stop me from being great.”
Worsham put in countless hours at the gym and at practice to be the best athlete he could be. He worked tirelessly to perfect his leadership skills on the court and to succeed in every aspect of the game.
“My biggest fear was letting my family down,” Worsham said. “Thus, no matter what, I knew I had to work hard to the best I could be.”
Worsham’s motivation paid off the next season. As a senior, Worsham served as the team captain and Most Valuable Player, averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists and leading Wayne County to a 32-2 record.
Although Worsham experienced much success on the court in high school, he never became complacent. The people who were closest to him did not allow him to become complacent as well.
“Coming from Wayne County, no matter how good you were, you could always be better,” Worsham said. “People would always keep me hype but they always remind me that I could be better. In fact, people in Wayne County will not tell you that you are good until you are gone from Wayne County.”
Finishing his senior season and eager to leave Wayne County to prove himself, Worsham attended Arkansas State on a four-year scholarship to play basketball. Arkansas State, a team within the Sun Belt Conference, seemed like the perfect fit for Worsham.
“I wanted to get away from Wayne County and I did. Arkansas State had a great coaching staff and things seemed really positive for me,” Worsham said.
Despite playing in 29 games but averaging only six points and three rebounds per game in his first year at Arkansas State, Worsham realized some things about himself that he hadn’t before he was a college athlete.
“College basketball was bigger than high school basketball. I wanted to make my mark as a freshman but I had to grow up,” Worsham said. “I had to work a lot harder.”
But working harder turned in to Worsham’s desire to leave Arkansas State.
After seven games into his sophomore campaign, according to multiple reports, Worsham decided to “quit” the team all of a sudden. Red Wolves head coach John Brady released this statement about Worsham in a press release in 2013.
“The coaches, his teammates, the administration and the university as a whole gave this young man a wonderful opportunity,” Brady said. “We believe some NCAA rules may have been breached as it relates to tampering, and we will use all avenues to protect the investment we made.”
Worsham decided to transfer to Jackson State. While JSU is a smaller school than Arkansas State, Worsham felt that playing for the Tigers provided him with better exposure to make an impact on the court.
“I felt a better vibe at Jackson State and I felt transferring to JSU was the best thing for me. I received more playing time as well,” Worsham said. “I felt like it was better for me to have the weight or pressure on my shoulders to perform on the court than sit behind others and watch them play.”
The 6-foot-4, 192-pound guard thrived in his first year. He led the team in points per game with 14 and played in and started 19 games.
During the 2015-16 campaign, the Tigers made it to the 2016 SWAC Championship game but lost to the Southern Jaguars, 54-53, in the final seconds of the game.
A single point kept the Tigers from earning a spot in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Worsham, who averaged 13 points and seven rebounds in his final season, said the loss was hard to deal with for him and his teammates.
“It felt like someone just snatched something you always wanted. All the blood, the sweat and the tears went down the drain,” Worsham said. “We were so close but yet so far away.”
While losing in the SWAC Championship game and in the second-round of CIT were not on the radar for Worsham, he truly appreciated his time and his experience of being a college athlete at Jackson State.
Jackson State’s Paris Collins and Raeford Worsham were named All-SWAC on Monday https://t.co/CLwEU665ay
— Antonio Morales (@AntonioCMorales) March 7, 2016
“Playing at JSU provided me with some great moments that I will never forget. JSU gave me another chance, another opportunity. It felt great to get that exposure on the court,” Worsham said. “Being at JSU also helped me academically and allowed me to become a better person in life in general.”
Worsham also credited Tigers head coach Wayne Brent for making him a better athlete and a better person.
“You could never be sure of how he would be each day. One thing is for sure, he pushed me. He reminded me so much of my high school coach,” Worsham said. “He motivated me to never give up and to always stay focused at all times.”
As Worsham prepares to finish his degree in recreation administration in July 2016, he will continue his preparation for two basketball combines over the summer with the dream of playing in the NBA or internationally.
Because he played the remainder of his collegiate basketball career in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), some may feel that he is not good enough to play basketball on the professional level.
For Worsham, however, it was simply another chance of exposure that he needed to show that he could play with anybody in the country. He will use that same exposure and mentality on his journey to continue playing the game that he loves at the next level.
“It is not about where you come from but it is the impact you leave behind that matters the most,” Worsham said. “I will continue to trust God because he has always been there for me. It was never me who allowed me to do the things I did, it was God.”