When it comes to becoming a professional athlete, so many things have to fall into place. If you think about it, your head will spin.
You need the smarts, the size and the athletic ability. Combine that with the fact there are hundreds and thousands of people out there with the same dream and the same aspirations as you.
Some of us are lucky enough to be that superstar high school phenom that graces the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, and others become highly touted college prospects that we watch on ESPN winning National Championships.
Regardless if you are the superstar baseball, basketball, football player or if you take that college education and prepare for your life after the game, each of us takes his own path and tries to do something great.
Junior Bernal is that guy.
Junior was a 4-year starter on the University of Maine basketball team. He played 115 games averaging 9.0 ppg, 3.1 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game.
I was fortunate enough to connect with Junior on this fascinating social media tool called Twitter. Junior was a basketball player with dreams of playing in the NBA. Unfortunately, as with many others, that dream went unfulfilled. However, Junior decided to take his career in to his own hands.
Devon Teeple: Can you give us a little background on your basketball career? Were you a highly touted prospect coming out of high school?
Junior Bernal: I went to a boarding school in Maine and played AAU in New Heights out of New York, my home town. We traveled to the biggest tournaments; Las Vegas and California. I also had genuinely good players on my team—one who went to Duke. That’s where I started getting noticed. Plus, in high school I was averaging over 22 points per game, and after my junior year I went to a basketball camp called the Eastern Invitational camp where I made the top 20 All-Star team. But where I got the majority of my looks from college recruiters were at the AAU tournaments.
DT: How tough of a choice was it when you were getting scholarship offers? If I am not mistaken, they came from a wide variety of schools; including Iona, Delaware, San Francisco and Cal Poly?
JB: I had more schools than that interested; unfortunately, my SAT scores weren’t high enough at the time. Some started to back down and take away the offers because of it. At the end of the process, only a couple schools stuck around, and I decided to do a Prep year at MCI (Maine Central Institute). From there I got recruited by University of Maine. I went on my recruiting trip and really enjoyed the atmosphere. I had the chance to play right away, and it really was the best spot for me at the time.
DT: I remember when I was getting recruited. You receive many offers, but the majority aren’t the best fit. York College gave me the opportunity to play right away as a freshman, had a great student-teacher ratio, and had an atmosphere you could not top.
JB: It’s interesting, because Maine was interested despite my SAT scores. Maine took a chance on me. They had what was called Proposition 48. I was on the team but had to get my grades up so they gave me a red-shirt year. They trusted that I would get my grades up and assured me I would have the opportunity to play once I got the chance. Maine really had my best interests at heart.
DT: Once you were at Maine, how big of a transition was it from the high school game to the college game?
JB: In high school, the kids who went to Division 1 schools were the best players on their basketball team. When you get to college, every player on the team was the best player on their high school team. The biggest transition was just everything that came with it. Time management for example; 6 a.m. weightlifting, early morning and afternoon practices, the classes are at a higher level than what you were used to. From a basketball point of view, there was never a lot of scouting, but in college, for me, no one really knew me my first year, giving me a leg up on the competition. But after the mid-way point of the season, opposing coaches had scouted me, and tried to exploit my weaknesses. Now you’re going back to square one, working on the fundamentals of the game trying to improve. I couldn’t just rest on my laurels.
DT: And while at Maine, you had a very successful career. When people hear Maine, they never think basketball. During your four years, you went from being ranked in the lower tiers of college basketball, to 94th in the country and third in the American East Conference after your senior season. What was the major difference from your freshman year until your senior year that resulted in the major breakthrough?
JB: In my freshman year, I was a starter but I was still learning and trying to fit into the system. I wasn’t very outgoing at that time and wasn’t showing those leadership qualities. By my senior year, I was the only senior on the team, my coaches told me we were only going to go as far as my leadership would take them. Since I had experienced the bad times, I was more aware of what was needed to take it to the next level. Off the court relationships helped. You have to bond with your team to become successful. It’s not just basketball, its building that closeness.
DT: I had the same experience. Entering as a freshman, and once you do become the senior on the team, it’s a lot of responsibility. You want to show those younger guys how to win, and you want them to continue to build on what you started.
DT: You mentioned that the possibility of playing professionally was cut short due to back problems. What was it like when you found out that you could no longer play the game you have played your whole life?
JB: All throughout college I had back problems, but during school, you have top-of-the-line trainers and facilities. I was able to manage the pain and play through it. When I can back home, I was ready to play beyond college. I had an agent, and was preparing myself over the summer, to play overseas. I was working out one day, and that recurring pain shot though my back. I went to see my doctor; they told me there were bulging disc. Things happen and you have to accept it.
I was going to play over in Spain for eight months, but there were some days where my back hurt so bad I couldn’t get out of bed. Instead, I went over to the Dominican Republic to play professionally for a season. But a season isn’t a season like we’re used to, it’s more like a bunch of tournaments played together to fill out the requirements of games played. I played over there for two months. When I came back, the pain was so bad the doctors told me I could damage myself permanently. It’s hard. It’s something you work your whole life for. I put in a lot of time on and off the court. But I try to stay positive and carry on with my life.
DT: Once school was done, there is obviously a huge transition period where you realize that the cheering is over, and the game you played your whole life is no longer there, but you decided to take a different route.
Basketball isn’t your only passion. You have a passion for music and you are currently pursuing a career in the industry.
I plead ignorance on this, but I have zero idea how one gets into a position like that. How did you know that rap/hip hop was your calling? And how does one go about getting started in an industry that is as difficult to getting into as professional sports are?
JB: Actually, I’ve done music since high school. I was performing in the school at different events, coffee houses, etc… It was just basketball was my opportunity to get me through college. Music has always been something that I loved. Even in my spare time in college, I was writing and recording. I had to slow down on the music because basketball was 24/7 in college, but as far as the industry, I see it just like basketball. I had to start at the bottom to get noticed and you hope that you peak someone’s interest and they will give you that opportunity.
There are so many outlets over the internet with social media; Twitter, Facebook, etc… I record my music and put it out there for people to see and enjoy. I’m also looking for representation that can take me further, and help me reach those heights. Eventually, with hard work, and the proper marketing, everything will shine through.
DT: When it comes to production and videos etc…how can you build your name/brand in this business? Obviously there are many talented people out there. What makes you stand out from the crowd?
JB: My life story. Since I was young, I had to do a lot of things on my own. My parents were incarcerated when I was 12, and I was raised by my aunt and my grandmother. Obviously, I had many people help me along the way like my AAU program, friends and some family members. But when I speak on music, I try to bring positivity to the words, but I also talk about life and how you can overcome. Look at my experience of doing something your whole life and then transitioning to something else. I don’t speak about stuff that I haven’t been through. Fans will recognize when it comes from the heart. I try to stick to that and let them know God led me down the right path.
Even if my music reaches one person and gives them hope, I’m satisfied with that.
DT: Junior, how can your fans or anyone interested in your music, and/or your business follow you and get in touch with you?
JB: They can follow me on Twitter @JuniorBernal12, You Tube or they can look for me on Facebook. I love talking to people about anything. I’d be happy to chat and connect. That’s how you build a fan base.
I really want to thank Junior Bernal for his time to talk to The GM’s Perspective.
Everyone involved in sports can connect in many ways. We connected on Twitter and this led to a really fascinating conversation. A conversation that reinforces the fact that hard work and dedication can take you many places.
Junior’s dream of basketball only took him so far but, his dream of music keeps the fire fueled. Who knows how far it will take him? I can say with confidence, as far as he wants.
Devon is the founder and executive director of The GM's Perspective. He is a former professional baseball player with the River City Rascals and Gateway Grizzlies. Currently, Devon is a manager at a financial institution in Northern Ontario, Canada, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow The GM's Perspective on Twitter and Facebook. His full bio can be seen here.