Jan. 17, 2011
Watching Vanderbilt junior forward Lance Goulbourne take the court at Memorial Gym, one can sense a calm and collected aura about him. In a sports world where tempers flare and athletes can lose their cool, it is sometimes hard to find a seasoned player who knows how to keep his emotions in check. Goulbourne's discipline and focus have been shaped by a past that centered around the hardcourts at Flushing Meadows just as much as the one inside Madison Square Garden.
His journey began at the age of 3 when Goulbourne was given a tennis racket by his father, Verne, while growing up in New York. Even though Lance was raised in the area that produced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Lenny Wilkens, he took to tennis at an early age instead of following in his older brother's footsteps and playing basketball. His father would take him to the park to practice the motions and help teach him the game.
"It didn't matter if he even hit the ball," Verne Goulbourne said. "I just wanted him to go out there and get his hand-eye coordination down. I would bounce him balls, and he would swat at them. If he missed, he missed, and he would just keep at it."
By the age of 5, Goulbourne was playing in different camps around New York, and when he turned 8 he entered his first competition, taking second place. The competitive juices were flowing, and Goulbourne continued to train at camps with different tennis pros. The training paid off, and after dominating junior competitions in New York, Goulbourne received the Mayor David Dinkins Scholarship in 2002. The scholarship is given to two young New York City tennis players who excel in the classroom and on the court. The candidates also have to show a strong work ethic and high standards of sportsmanship. After Goulbourne won the award, he earned a trip to train in Boca Raton, Fla., with young tennis players from around the world.
"After winning the Dinkins Award, Lance headed down to Florida to attend the Chris Evert Tennis Camp," Verne said. "It was his first time really leaving home, and he came back a totally different person. He played with some talented players from overseas, and it helped his game."
That "different" Lance continued to succeed for the next few years. When he began high school at the Dwight School, he showed his dominance by beating the top player on the team, who happened to be a senior. Goulbourne had only a brief stint at the New York-based school before he started being recruited by several academies in the area.
Goulbourne eventually chose the Hun School in New Jersey, and that is when things started to change athletically. Basketball became a focus, and Goulbourne picked it up quickly. He worked hard and started competing in AAU tournaments, while showcasing his talents on travel teams and at camps.
Throughout all of this, Goulbourne was able to stick with tennis by being a ball boy at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows during the summer. When Goulbourne was 14, he was practicing at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and some of the people there suggested he try out. After making the cuts he worked there for five years and was able to experience athletic competition at the highest level. He was there to witness Andre Agassi's final match, a four-set loss to Benjamin Becker of Germany. Goulbourne remembers Agassi going through back pains that required cortisone shots between sets and receiving an eight-minute standing ovation when it was all done. Working at the Open and taking away big moments is something that not all athletes get the chance to do.
Even though tennis was still a part of his life, it was not as prevalent as it once had been. When he began at the Hun School, Goulbourne stopped participating in individual tennis competitions and played exclusively for his school, where he was able to bring the academy its first tennis championship. Despite not playing tennis as regularly as he once had, Goulbourne used the lessons he learned on the tennis court to help him grow in other areas of his life. While basketball and tennis may seem very different, Goulbourne is quick to find a correlation.
"Tennis definitely helped my footwork," Goulbourne said. "I was able to take aspects of tennis to help improve in basketball. In tennis, you're all by yourself and if you make a mistake it's all on you, and there is no one to blame. I had to build mental toughness which has helped me on the basketball court."
His sense of calm in the spotlight mixed with the mental toughness he was building for over a decade has helped shape his basketball prowess. He was able to play for different AAU teams and play in big-time tournaments and camps. During his senior year, Goulbourne stayed home in New York to compete in the Jordan Classic at Madison Square Garden. Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and other star players were in attendance to watch. When attending the LeBron James Camp in Ohio, he was placed on a team that went up against James and fellow Vanderbilt teammate Brad Tinsley. Goulbourne's team lost, but the experience of that level of competition was invaluable.
Back at Hun, Goulbourne started to dominate on the basketball court just as he had done at tennis. He played against 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans his junior and senior season and matched up well. His ability to do well in the big games had college coaches interested in him. Goulbourne chose Vanderbilt over Notre Dame, Rutgers and Marquette to focus on academics and pursue a degree in economics while continuing his basketball career.
Upon arriving at Vanderbilt, Goulbourne came down with mononucleosis and suffered a hip injury that slowed the beginning of his career as a Commodore. He took things in stride and still saw action in 23 games.
His breakout game came on a big stage--a national ESPN broadcast against SEC Eastern Division rival Kentucky. The freshman scored a team-high 17 points in 22 minutes, including three three-pointers, as the Commodores knocked off the Wildcats, 77-64, in front of a sellout crowd at Memorial Gym.
Goulbourne credits the big moments of his past for helping him perform well in the bright spotlight of a packed Memorial Gym. He is looking forward to putting two injury-plagued years behind him. Those injuries may have hindered his play on the hardwood and halted his career on the hard court--he hasn't picked up a tennis racket since he's been at Vanderbilt--but the Brooklyn native is poised for a strong finish over the next two seasons with Coach Kevin Stallings' Commodores.
As for his future beyond Vanderbilt, Goulbourne is well on his way to an economics degree with thoughts of going into business following his basketball career. He also plans to get back to playing tennis, a sport he still embraces. One thing is for sure, though: Goulbourne's experiences at a Top 20 school and on a major college basketball team will undoubtedly help him to continue to excel in the face of pressure.