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Vic’s Subs Cover Story: ACIT’s Ahmad Grate went from being cut as a sophomore to a CAL All-Star

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher When Ahmad Grate was a sophomore at ACIT, he made it to the final round of tryouts for the boys basketball team before being cut. The next day, he and head coach Tom Piotrowski had to face each other, as Piotrowski also was Grate’s health teacher. Perhaps there were a few pangs of guilt that motivated the coach, but after class he took out a brand new basketball from his closet and gave it to Grate, saying that if he worked hard throughout the offseason he stood a good chance of making the team the following year. Grate returned the ball the following June and it looked like the volleyball in the movie “Castaway.” Piotrowski said he thought Grate maybe left the ball outside all winter and that’s why it was so beaten up. Little did the coach know that Grate took his coach’s advice and carried that basketball everywhere he went, dribbling it to and from work and taking hundreds of shots every day. “I taught health class, and he was in that class, so we were forced to see each other every morning. While it was still fresh, I called him over. It was emotional. You try to be honest and say, ‘look, from where I’m coming from right now, it’s not there.’ But we saw a glimmer, so I happened to have just bought a basketball. I don’t know why, but it was just sitting in the closet,” Piotrowski said. “So I said to him, ‘to show you that I really mean this, I want to give you this basketball. Play with it as much as possible, take it with you everywhere you go, and try again.’ All I knew was that he was very upset about not being on the team. But I didn’t really know him that well at that point, I didn’t know what made him tick. I don’t know that I really thought anything. “I’ve had a lot of basketballs in my life and I could tell this thing got some serious use. He didn’t really even say anything when he brought it back. He just kind of put it back in the closet and said, ‘here’s your ball back,’ and was gone. There really weren’t any words exchanged at that point. I looked at the ball and I was like, ‘dang, where has this ball been? It looks like it’s been around the world.'” “When he gave me the basketball, I thought to myself, ‘OK, starting today I’m going to be working hard so I can make the team next year.’ I played and took shots in Atlantic City every day, over winter break, over spring break. Everywhere I went, that ball went. When I went to work I bounced it to work and I bounced it back. It meant a lot to me,” Grate said. “I didn’t feel any disdain toward him. He’s the coach and he has to make decisions, and there were obviously guys who were better at the time who made the team. So I wasn’t feeling any hatred toward him. ACIT senior Ahmad Grate was cut from the team as a sophomore, but he continued to work hard and became one of the Red Hawks' stars during his final year. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan) ACIT senior Ahmad Grate was cut from the team as a sophomore, but he continued to work hard and became one of the Red Hawks’ stars during his final year. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) “When I was a freshman, I didn’t try out. I was nervous and I didn’t think I was ready. I walked around the hallways and saw all these big, athletic guys. I tried out (sophomore year) and made it all the way to the last cut, but came in that morning and found out I wasn’t on the team. When I first saw the list, I thought, ‘I’m done with basketball.’ But then I thought about it, came to coach P, and he told me not to quit. And I’m glad I didn’t.” In the span of just three years, Grate when from a shy 15-year-old who didn’t make the Red Hawks’ basketball team to a Cape-Atlantic League all-star. And while the Red Hawks went just 6-20 in Grate’s senior year, he became a focal point of the team — quite a turnaround, and an accomplishment for a kid who wasn’t on the roster just two years before. Grate averaged more than 12 points per game to go along with 2.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. He also was second on the team in steals, scored more than 300 points and shot 46 percent from the field. Piotrowski, who has an extensive basketball background himself and whose sons were prolific players while he was coaching at Atlantic Christian, said it was a difficult decision to cut Grate when Grate was a sophomore. But every coach has to trim the roster down, and he said that while Grate showed some skills, he didn’t think Grate was ready for competition at the high school level. “It was tough. When you’re a coach, the hardest thing to do is to cut kids. Starting out, kids have all kinds of aspirations, and we have a saying, ‘you want to be a dream maker, not a dream taker.’ But you can’t have 25 guys on the team. He was the last cut, and it was a tough decision, but we thought with the personnel we had, he probably wouldn’t have played a lot,” Piotrowski said. “I tell all the guys that I’m human. I make mistakes, all coaches make mistakes. We do the best we can at the time. I think the worst thing was, I was coming from a program at Atlantic Christian that was really successful and I had four Division I kids in my household. I kind of had this mindset of this is where everybody should be, and I think in the beginning I didn’t evaluate guys like I should have at that particular time. So when he did come back, that was the beginning of my discovery of who he was as a man, and his discovery of how we were going to work together in the future. From that point, he hasn’t gone backwards. It’s always been climb, climb, climb.” Decision time When Grate got cut as a sophomore, he faced a decision. He could give up on his dreams of being a high school varsity basketball player, and that would have been the easy thing to do. But his mother works hard and raises four kids, so he didn’t think it would be right to just give up because a roadblock had been thrown up in front of him. “I’ve played with a chip on my shoulder most of my career. My mom always works hard and she never quits. She’s a mother raising four kids,” Grate said. “We try to use basketball here as a microcosm of what life is. I tell them every day, there are much worse things happening in the world than not winning a basketball game. But every day you can come out here and prove something to yourself, you can learn how to work with a band of brothers and overcome different obstacles. For some kids, it really is cathartic. Some are coming from situations where there isn’t much good, but they can come out here and enjoy themselves and have success, and that’s important,” Piotrowski said. “Ahmad says he plays with a chip on his shoulder, and I think one of the things our coaching staff would say about him is he wears it on his sleeve a little too much. But that’s just to say, we were constantly on him to let that go. But he does have that chip on his shoulder, and I think that’s what motivated him on a daily basis. We haven’t had a kid who works as consistently hard as Ahmad.” Coaches don’t know how a kid is going to react when they make final cuts. You can hope a player uses it as motivation, but just as many times a kid will simply give up on the sport and you never see him again. Piotrowski said he wasn’t sure which way Grate would go. Grate didn’t have an extensive basketball background, and when a player isn’t used to playing on organized teams you wonder if that competitive fire will burn bright enough for them to give it another shot, the coach said. “He’s been fortunate that he’s been able to use sports to learn some life lessons and he didn’t get that in a more difficult way. That’s another thing we tell our kids, that this is a good way to learn lessons. It’s been neat to see him progress. A lot of his teammates are going through the same thing where they didn’t have the basketball environment as a youngster, so they didn’t learn the whole team approach and the responsibility of being a teammate. They didn’t learn the ethic, perhaps, of working really hard to get to the next level,” Piotrowski said. “I think Ahmad and his teammates have learned that there really is a systematic approach to climbing the ladder and getting better. It just doesn’t happen overnight. And that’s a hard thing to learn, to put the work in and to have the struggles, and to have bad things happen and overcome them. It’s been fun to watch those guys go through that. I admire him and some of his teammates who were cut but came back out. That’s not an easy thing to do.” Positive attitude ACIT Athletic Director Robert Wagner is around the gym on a nightly basis during the winter months, and he said he was extremely impressed with the way Grate carried himself on the court. “Here’s a kid, when he makes a mistake on the court, his head doesn’t hang and he doesn’t disassociate himself from the game and have a pity party. Instead, he gets up, back into the game and makes a play. If you had five kids on your basketball team that did that every play, you’d never lose. That’s the kind of quality you look for in a kid,” Wagner said. “I went up to him after the season and said, ‘Ahmad, what makes you play that way?’ He said to me, ‘I play with a chip on my shoulder.’ Now, most people think of that as a bad thing. But I think there’s a way to put that in a positive way. He got cut his sophomore year, came back and played JV, then had a great year this year. He’s a guy who leads by example. If I’m coaching a group of kids, I want that kid front and center and I’m going to say, ‘watch how Ahmad plays.'” Grate became a Cape-Atlantic League All-Star this season, averaging more than 12 points per game for ACIT. Grate became a Cape-Atlantic League All-Star this season, averaging more than 12 points per game for ACIT. Grate said he caught some ribbing when as a junior he was relegated to the junior varsity team to gain some experience. It’s not easy for a guy in his third year of high school to have to play JV, but Grate just continued to work hard and hope that one day he would get his shot on varsity. “It was me and a couple of close friends of mine, we had all gotten cut the year before and now we were on JV. I was just happy I made the team, but I did have aspirations of playing varsity. I wanted to play with those guys. When I was a junior on JV, a lot of my classmates who don’t play basketball figured I must not be that good because I was a junior playing JV. And I didn’t even start the first game, there were freshmen and sophomores starting over me. But I started the second game and had about 22 points, and ever since then I stuck with it. Toward the end of the season, I started playing varsity,” Grate said. “I feel good about where I am now, but if I could go back I would want one more year. I wish I could come back next year. People from the school, on Twitter and stuff, were calling me the best player in the school, and that’s pretty cool.” Even when the Red Hawks were struggling, record-wise, Grate never thought about packing it in. He had come too far, and it wasn’t going to matter what ACIT’s record was by season’s end. He was there to play ball until the final whistle. “We have not had a good record, and it’s hard as a coach to keep them feisty and fighting, but I tell them all the time, ‘you’re not defined by your record, you’re defined by how you play.’ And I think he’s starting to see that now,” Piotrowski said. “The evidence he’s left of how hard he played and how much he loves the game, that’s what people respond to.” “I never let our record get to me. When we were 0-5, the thought of quitting never entered my head. I knew I was going to be relied on, so I couldn’t let my teammates down,” Grate said. “I was always defined as a long shot, but I just keep working. I’ve heard stories about Michael Jordan getting cut, and Steph Curry not getting highly recruited, but now he’s pretty much the best player on the planet.” Building a foundation While nothing has come easily during Grate’s high school basketball players, people such as Piotrowski and Wagner know that the lessons he learned by sticking with it and not giving up when that would have been the easy thing to do will serve Grate well as he moves on in life. “I wish I could put his attitude in a bottle and give everybody a sip at the beginning of the season. He’s rare that way, and that is what is going to bring him success in whatever endeavors he chases. He has that kind of moxie that is hard to come by. It’s a cool story. I’ve been around basketball for a long time, and it’s just cool that at ACIT you run into a kid like him,” Piotrowski said. “When we had the Cape-Atlantic League all-star meeting, it was really refreshing to hear the respect he had from other coaches. That’s really the proof of the pudding. I can say whatever I want, but it’s what the opponents say. He became an impact player.” “I asked Ahmad what happens if he doesn’t make a college team. He said he’ll ask to be a manager and ask to work out with the team. That’s his approach to things,” Wagner said. “I think if you look at most people who are successful, they’ve had something challenge them early on and they’ve overcome that. Once you do that, he’s had a victory now. And now he’s learned that hard work leads to victories. How many kids need to have that lesson? If kids have that experience in front of them, it makes things go a lot better. I think Ahmad has realized that and he’s put that into his life. He knows he worked hard to make that team, he set a goal and he accomplished it. He’s a self-motivated kid, and that’s become part of his make-up that will serve him well in the future. “Any negative that he encounters, he turns it around and makes it a positive. The last play you make it what people remember.” Added Piotrowski, “He’s not a red carpet guy. He’s a blue collar guy. Everything that he’s taken from this experience is going to work for him outside of basketball, whatever he decides to do.” Grate said he plans on playing college basketball, no matter what the odds against him are. As he’s proven to coach Piotrowski, you may be able to cut him from the team once, but Grate is going to make it awfully difficult to do that a second time. “This always has been a feel-good story. I came from the bottom, and now I’m here, so I’m going to take that never-say-die attitude to college,” Grate said. “Even if I get cut my freshman, sophomore and junior years, I’ll still try out senior year.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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