Me and the Coach….Getting Close to Greatness

photoIt was the summer of 1977.  I was between my junior and senior year of high school, just starting to work part-time to earn a little cash so I could pay for the insurance on my first car, a 1973  AMC Hornet fastback.  Outside of  school and work, basketball was probably one of the biggest things in my life.  I had just finished a basketball camp held at Santa Clara University here in northern California two weeks earlier, but now, I was on a plane headed for southern California, to join my fellow future star athletes for a week in the dorms at beautiful Point Loma College, right on the beach.  I was headed down to take part in an amazing opportunity:  I was fortunate to be able to participate in the John Wooden Basketball Camp.

Many people know the name of John Wooden.  He was one of the all time leading college coaches, leading the UCLA men’s basketball team to eight consecutive national titles.  Many players from his teams went on to tremendous professional NBA careers, including Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would later become his name), Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes and Marques Johnson. Known by many as “the Wizard of Westwood”, John Wooden built an incredible legacy of not only basketball, but of coaching, of mentoring, and of life itself both before, during and after his tenure with UCLA.  He was the first person to ever be inducted twice into the Basketball Hall of Fame, first as a player and then again as a coach.  If you follow basketball at all, you’ve probably heard of him.

I grew up with the notion that one day I’d attend UCLA, maybe even play basketball for John Wooden.  That was the plan I had, anyway.  But that just wasn’t meant to be.  Ironically, years later my oldest daughter would graduate from UCLA, first as an undergraduate with her Bachelor’s Degree, and then again a second time from their law school.  While in school at UCLA she’d send me jerseys and sweatshirts, and a John Wooden basketball T-shirt or hat…..great stuff!  But back to 1977….

At the basketball camp I had a great experience.  Each day began with exercises on an open basketball court 30 feet from the beach, looking out at the waves, and led by the coach himself, John Wooden.  After breakfast in the school cafeteria, we’d get a chalkboard lesson by Dr. Wooden on basketball fundamentals, followed by practice in our squads, and then an afternoon scrimmage or two, along with some lessons from the resident pro athletes at our camp that week (in my case it was Marques Johnson and Schwen Nader, two former UCLA players and NBA professionals).  Dr. Wooden was there at every session, involved and actively leading us.  What an experience, what an opportunity.

Each morning I looked forward to the “earlybird exercises”, as they were optional and usually had a smaller group.  I’ve always been an early riser, so for me it was a great chance to be outside, in the air, and with a basketball….and (now in hindsight), spending a few moments with one of greatest basketball figures of our modern time.  Although only 17 at the time, I can recall the importance of this time in my life, somehow knowing this was a rare opportunity.  Twice that week I was able to be out early enough to see the coach himself, exercising before the exercises….and remember, this was man already nearing 67 years of age.  Talk about preparedness…..

I put everything I had into that week at Point Loma.  Every scrimmage I was the guy diving for the loose ball, getting open for the fast break or the slam dunk whenever possible, just leaving myself out on the floor.  I wanted to learn, to excel, to win.  And I did it for one reason, really–I was inspired by my opportunity, my surroundings, and my leadership.

Do you want people to be motivated?  To perform in your business environment in the same way as described above?  There are many ways to approach this, but I’ve found over the years that people tend to be inspired by their immediate opportunity, by their surroundings (peers) and especially by the leadership they follow.  What opportunities are you creating for your team? What can you do to pull others into the opportunity?  How about peer relationships?  Are they active at all?  Do they even exist in your company–or do people run for the door every Friday afternoon, never to speak to each other again until Monday morning?  And your leadership team–do they lead?  Are they engaged in the efforts of your organization?  Or distant?

To this day I keep the small,  inexpensive award I received that week at basketball camp in my office (pictured above) and I’ll always remember the congratulatory handshake and pat on the back I received.  I had an amazing opportunity at an early age to rub shoulders with greatness, even if it was a brief moment in time.  It was something that made an early impact on me and will not be forgotten.  That week, in the middle of summer, 1977, will always be cherished.  Thank you Coach Wooden, for your inspiration, your commitment, your leadership.