Outlining the reasons I was able to always improve and get better in my (basketball) game…
I started playing basketball at 14.
By age 16 I was a “go-to” player on my local rec league team.
By age 17-18, I was playing on the main court of my playground, and having an impact in the games.
I made my high school varsity as a senior — sat on the bench — then walked-on and made my team as a freshman in college and was the most talented player on my team. I didn’t have the best performance on that team, but I was the most talented player: here I was in college, and everyone could see that I had “game.” This was an accomplishment!
By age 19 I was recruited to play at another college, an NCAA D3.
By age 21, we (me and a couple of basketball-serious teammates) were running the open gym (aka on-campus pickup games before and after basketball season that anyone could participate in) on campus, and going to play and pickup at every other college in the area, holding our own and making a name for ourselves.
By age 23, I had signed to play professional basketball, and did so for the next 10 years.
The reason that I was able to continue to get better through all of this (and the ride was not nearly as smooth as my synopsis makes it sound), every single year, always adding new skills to my “bag,” never reaching a point where my skills fell off (and I knew a whole lot of players who fell off)???
I knew players who were, as we say, “the shit” — meaning the best player around — at age 16, by age 20 were (again, as we say) “trash.”
I knew players who had certain skills sets that I eventually caught up to and surpassed almost by default — because those players simply stopped improving.
A lot of players I grew up playing with or watching didn’t get any better after their early twenties. Up to that age, athlete bodies don’t react harshly to bad habits such as not stretching, not eating right, not getting proper rest, alcohol consumption, etc.
By around the age of 24 or 25, a lot of players who I knew never got any better at basketball. They fell out of shape. They lost their games. They just stopped improving.
The reason I was able to continue to improve, aside from the fact that I had a professional career as an incentive, was because basketball was the only thing I was focused on.
Let’s go backwards.
Because the foundation of how you start often shows itself in subtle ways over and over again as time passes, with us often not noticing it until later.
I started as a player who, with professional playing ideas, was “behind the 8 ball” and not looked at as someone who was a prospect, even amongst those in my neighborhood. I’m talking amongst maybe 35 kids, I wasn’t one of the best players there, let alone amongst a whole country of players, where you have maybe 300,000 players my age with basketball dreams.
While playing, the only things I focused on:.
- Go to school, and
- Be on that court working on my game.
My parents made me get my first job at age 15, and I kept a part-time job all through high school and even in college. I worked after college for a year-plus, then I started playing pro ball.
Besides academics and basketball, those jobs were the ONLY thing that I did in my school years. I partook in the social aspects of college, yes, but only after basketball was done for the day. The priorities were clear.
Get on a court. Go to school. Work on my game — at the park on the outdoor courts if that’s all I had. I used indoor courts whenever I could (which was not often until college).
Those were my only focuses.
Anything that I did socially, like partying and talking to girls, had to fit around what I was doing on the court. I never put any of the social stuff in front of what I was doing on the court.
And I never let that stuff get in the way of what I was doing on that court — ever.
I don’t know what it would have been like for me if we had had social media back then. I’m sure it would have led to more social stuff — especially on a college campus. Our only social media back then was TV.
My mentality was that socializing, virtually or in-person, just takes time away from everything else.
Ask anybody who was from my neighborhood. When I was growing up, anyone who even knew my face — they didn’t even need to know my name — if you knew my face, you only saw me in one place: on a court, practicing.
You never saw me standing on corners.
You may never see me at the mall.
You never saw me at the movies.
You never even saw me running around chasing girls.
There was never anything that got in front of me working on my game and getting better — even though I had no promise that this focus would lead me to anywhere fruitful.
Some of today’s players need to really look at what you’re doing. Look at where you spend your time and where are you’re making your investments.
In episode #609 I discussed the five forms of investment: time, money, attention, energy and focus. Where are you investing yours?
Many players like to cite a lack of money as the reason why they can’t get to where they want to be in their sport. I made my basketball game with no money, because I had no money to spend on basketball. No trainer, no gym membership.
It was the outdoor courts in Philadelphia.
I live in Miami now, and it’s warm all year round. In Philly, half the year it’s too cold to hoop outside. I’d force my way out there sometimes in the winters and deal with numb hands, but this is my point. That’s the epitome of doing what you gotta do, working with what you have.
And if I didn’t go to that outdoor court because it was just too cold for me, then I just didn’t get on the court at all! It was there or nothing.
Players sometimes ask me, “How do I work on my game in the winter?”
The fact is, many times, I didn’t!
We had gym class in high school, which was somewhat of a chance to practice, but even then, we were playing games — 3 or 3 or, as we call it, “roughhouse” in Philly.
I just did what I had to do, working with what I had — time and facility-wise.
The challenge for athletes now, since we have social media, is that we can see what everybody else has, such as Steph Curry or LeBron working with a trainer, or some guy’s YouTube video with a beautiful indoor gym, or people posting videos of their workouts and you see a huge weight room or someone hopping in a jacuzzi, and you’re like, “Damn, I have NONE of that!”
I call it the wish-I-had syndrome.
16-year-old me had two pairs of sneakers to my name. Maybe some of you can relate.
I had a pair that I’d wear to school — the “good shoes.”
Then I had my “play shoes” to play ball — any kind of ball — in. Football, kickball, basketball, all in the exact same pair of shoes.
When the good sneakers kind of got a little bit too dogged, or the play sneakers got so bad that there were holes in them, the good sneakers would become the play sneakers and I’d get a new pair of good sneakers.
And then it was, “Make sure you keep them clean, because you’re not getting another pair until next year.”
That’s what it was, and I had to work with what I had. There were no alternatives.
If you’re looking at what someone else has, the attention you put into that won’t make resources appear for you. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. If they have it and you don’t, that’s not an excuse for you to not do what you want to do.
An aspiring chemist may need lab time (or whatever a chemist does to get better). A violinist probably needs a teacher. The great thing about basketball — and the reason why so many people play it — is that you don’t need a whole lot of “extras” to learn and even excel in the game.
In basketball, there’s no excuse for you to not get better and reach whatever goals you have for yourself given the (possibly limited) resources at your disposal.
They’re your goals, and you wouldn’t have a goal if you weren’t capable of achieving it.
Your focus needs to be on
- How you want to get better, and
- How you will utilize the resources that you do have.
At the end of everything, nobody is going to ask what you could’ve did if only you had more resources available — nobody cares. The only thing people will remember about you in the end is what you achieved.
The only thing you need to be successful is your desire to be successful. If you didn’t have the potential to reach success, you would not have the desire to reach success. That’s the only reason anybody has a desire for anything — because we are capable of achieving it.
If you can think about it, that means you’re capable of doing it.
Now, will you actually do it? That’s a completely different question, because our minds sometimes work so hard against us that we don’t even realize it. We talk about the “haters” on outside, but mess ourselves up more with our own minds than with what anybody else out there could do or say to us.
So what you need to do is close ranks.
Focus on where you’re at what, what you’re doing, and what you need to accomplish to the exclusion of what anybody else is doing — because “they” really don’t matter.
All you have is what you have, and what you do is what you do. The only thing anyone will remember about you is what you achieved, and if you achieve nothing — what do you think people will remember about you in the end?