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5 Perspective-Shifting Concepts From The Best NBA Players On The Planet

They might be taller and shoot better jumpshots than us, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from their humanness.

Photo by TJ Dragotta on Unsplash
Photo by TJ Dragotta on Unsplash

There are ups, there are downs. There’s pressure, there’s fun. There’s struggle, there’s triumph. There’s overthinking, there’s being in the zone. There’s teammates, there’s isolation. There’s freedom, there’s restriction. There are friends, there are foes. There’s play, there’s competition. There’s amateurism, there’s mastery. There’s worry, there’s peace. There are tears of pain, there are tears of joy. There’s victory, there’s defeat. There’s possibility, there’s finality. There’s a beginning, there’s an end.

We’re lucky that sports are on TV, on YouTube, on social media, because we get to see the whole thing play out right in front of us. There’s a process — the playing of the game — and a result — a win or a loss or a draw. Sports are a microcosm of life, basically.

We get sucked into it because it’s enjoyable, but we can still be objective — and that means we can learn a million different lessons. For example, the athletes who trained the hardest, the ones who were truly dedicated, they rise to the top. You can’t “fake it ’til you make it” in sports. You can’t pretend you’re a good jump-shooter; you will quickly — and painfully, and embarrassingly — get found out. Life is the same, although we like to pretend it isn’t. We do try to fake it ’til we make it and we think that’s ok, and even worse, something to aspire to. What would happen if a heart surgeon tried that strategy?

And anyway, even if you do fake it ’til you make it, does that strategy lend itself to mastery, to happiness? Are you ever truly fulfilled having done that?

That’s just one example. The following 5 concepts are stories to be reminded of, learned, and practiced. I hope you like them.

Balance

Balance isn’t something you achieve “someday.” — Nick Vujicic

The San Antonio Spurs are the most successful NBA franchise of the past 20 years. Since 1999, they’ve won 5 championships, they’ve won 71% of their games, and in all of those seasons they’ve had only winning seasons — that is to say, in any given season in the past 20 years, they’ve always won more games than they’ve lost.

Most teams can only hope to have this kind of sustained success. Sure, the Chicago Bulls won 6 championships in the 90s, but they were an average team before that and have been an average team after that. No other franchise has ever sustained this level of success for this long.

So, one question comes to mind: how do they do it?

You might think that the concept of balance doesn’t fit here. After all, how can you have so much success and so much balance? They’re mutually exclusive, surely?

Not quite.

A good place to start might be with a quote from their head coach, Gregg Popovich — who I will now refer to as Pop — which he said during the 2013 NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. He got asked what his legacy was, and this was his response:

“What’s my legacy? Food and wine. This is just a job.”

The Spurs eat many dinners together. Team dinners, smaller group dinners, one on one dinners, dinners for the coaches. Pop is a big, big food and wine guy. He knows what he’s talking about, and all kinds of sommeliers, chefs, restaurateurs, they all respect him. So yes, perhaps his legacy isn’t food and wine, but if his legacy is basketball, it’s arguably basketball through food and wine.

He uses the dinners “intentionally,” says the Spurs general manager, R.C. Buford. Intentionally and genuinely. Yes, he loves food and wine, but they’re also a tool for him to get to know his players, to connect with them. Couldn’t the same thing be done in the gym though? Surely he’s taking away practice time, time where the players could get tangibly better? Maybe. Maybe not. This is how some of his former players see it:

“Dinners help us have a better understanding of each individual person, which brings us closer to each other — and, on the court, understand each other better,” former Spurs guard Danny Green says.

Says another former player: “I was friends with every single teammate I ever had in my [time] with the Spurs. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s true. And those team meals were one of the biggest reasons why. To take the time to slow down and truly dine with someone in this day and age — I’m talking a two- or three-hour dinner — you naturally connect on a different level than just on the court or in the locker room. It seems like a pretty obvious way to build team chemistry, but the tricky part is getting everyone to buy in and actually want to go. You combine amazing restaurants with an interesting group of teammates from a bunch of different countries and the result is some of the best memories I have from my career.”

The Spurs play a lot of basketball (obviously). There are 82 games in the NBA regular season, not to mention pre-season, not to mention pre-season training camp, not to mention the in-season practices, not to mention the Playoffs, not to mention the Finals. All the players are talented, all are dedicated, and they’re all consummate professionals. They wouldn’t be in the NBA if they weren’t.

But you know what? This is true of all NBA teams, not just the Spurs, so these things can’t be the difference makers. They can’t be the difference between what the Spurs have — 20 straight winning seasons, 5 championships — and what, for example, the Minnesota Timberwolves have — 0 championships, 13 straight losing seasons.

The difference is that Pop and the Spurs are smart enough to know that winning basketball games isn’t all about basketball. It’s not all about practising free throws, running more sprints, lifting more weights. It’s also about dinners, wine, genuinely caring about the players, connecting on a personal level, wanting something more for the players than simply playing basketball.

It’s about balance.

The Voice In Your Head

“There is nothing more important to true growth than realising that you are not the voice of the mind — you are the one who hears it.” — Michael Singer

Most of us remember Kobe Bryant as one of the greatest basketball players ever. An 18-time All-Star, a 5-time champion, the 81 point game; this was a man with staggering accomplishments.

We also remember him as fearless. He took and made so, so many game-winning shots. To take those shots, you need to have developed a huge amount of confidence. The defense knows you’re going to take the last shot, so do your teammates, so do the 20,000 fans in the arena, so do the millions watching at home. And you, with all that going on, have to believe you’re going to score and win the game. That’s no small feat.

What a lot of people don’t know is that one of the first times Kobe was trusted to take any kind of game-winning shot, he failed. Not once. Not twice. Not three times.

Four times.

He missed four game-tying or game-winning shots in one game. And he didn’t just miss them; he missed them badly. All of them were airballs. (If you’re not into basketball, an airball is where you shoot and it doesn’t hit anything — not the rim, not the backboard, nothing. To give you an idea of how embarrassing even one airball is, the crowd will usually chant, “airrrrr balllllllll” afterwards.)

He was also 18 years old when this happened. The youngest player on a team full of grown men. He was actually the youngest player in the entire league at that point. Oh, and this was a playoff game, not a regular-season game, and the Utah Jazz were up 3–1 in the best of seven series. So, if the Lakers lost, that was it. Season over. The stakes were about as high as they could be.

To recap: Kobe Bryant not only missed four game-tying or game-winning shots, but he airballed all four. And he was the youngest player on the team. And it was a playoff game with the entire season on the line. This is what Kobe said many years later:

“After that series, I was very miserable. Every day I thought about it.”

And can you imagine what he was thinking, having failed that embarrassingly and that publicly? How many miserable thoughts must’ve constantly swirled around in his mind?

You’re a failure. You can’t make those shots. You’re no Michael Jordan. You’re not good enough. Just give up already.

What would happen if you failed that embarrassingly and that publicly? How long would it take you to recover? Would you recover?

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’d have to say that this would take us a long, long time to get over — if we ever did. We’d probably be beating ourselves up, torturing ourselves with alternate realities, angry at ourselves, worrying about what to do next, blaming some external factor.

If you know anything about Kobe, you can probably guess what he did in response to this epic failure. As soon as the Lakers landed back in Los Angeles, he went to a gym and shot “until the sun came up.” I’m sure part of him felt like just going to bed, hiding, pretending that what just happened didn’t happen. I’m sure the voice in his head was telling him that it wasn’t worth it, why the hell was he going to practice shooting right now, you won’t get better anyway so what’s the point, and on and on and on.

Because that’s what the voice does, isn’t it? It bothers us pretty much all the time. If we’re trying to do something creative, if we’re working on our craft, if we’re trying to improve ourselves in any way, the voice is there, doubting us, questioning us, even berating us.

Kobe was a human being, so he would’ve experienced the same. He just didn’t let the voice make decisions for him. Just like you shouldn’t.

Trust The Process

“Trust the process.” — Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is a 3-time NBA All-Star. In 2017, he signed a 5-year, $147 million contract. He’s a 7 foot 2 NBA player with the athleticism of a 6 foot 2 NBA player. He’s dating a model.

Not bad, you might think. And you’d probably be right. But he also has a nickname which explains how he got to this point: The Process.

He was drafted number 3 overall in July 2014, but he didn’t play his first professional game until October 2016 because his feet betrayed him and he ended up having multiple surgeries on them, unsure if he’d even be able to play one minute of NBA basketball. When he first arrived in the USA from Cameroon, he didn’t speak any English, so he learned how to say “good morning” so he could say it to his teammates before they started practice as a way to bond; they literally laughed at him. Just a few months after he was drafted, his 13-year-old brother, Arthur, was killed in a car accident back in his home country of Cameroon.

This is what he said about it:

“A lot of days, it sucked. A lot of days, I just wanted to get on a flight back home. I wanted to quit. But I just kept putting in the work every day for two years to try to get healthy, to try to get better, to try to take one step onto an NBA court. I felt like if I did that, then my brother would be really proud of me.”

And this:

“I went through two surgeries, lost my brother, thought about some stuff I shouldn’t have thought about, so that’s my own process. And then the process of going through the rehab and finally getting back on the court and getting the chance to finally play in the league, that’s my process.”

The Process became his nickname because Trust The Process became his mantra. And he was in a situation where, ultimately, he didn’t have a choice. He had to realise that the results might come someday, but it would not be this day or any day soon. What was he supposed to do, mope? Sulk? Wallow? What would that have achieved? All that would’ve happened was, on top of all these other issues, he would’ve added suffering to the equation; that would’ve been unwise.

Kevin Durant, two-time NBA champion, sums this whole thing up rather nicely:

“After winning that championship last season, I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain void. It didn’t. That’s when I realized that the only thing that matters is this game and how much work you put into it. Everything else off the court, social media, perception, isn’t important. What people say, how they view you, it’s not important.”

You might not be an NBA champion, but I know you know this feeling. Accomplishments, success, getting exactly what we wanted, they never feel quite as good as we hoped. And even if they do, it’s transient. We still have to wake up the next day and get on with living.

The Process is probably 99% of life, if not more. We’d better enjoy it, and we’d better trust it.

The Thorn In Your Side

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” — Albert Einstein

Jimmy Butler could’ve been satisfied with just being in the NBA, given his upbringing — his own mother kicked him out with the words, “I don’t like the look of you, you got to go” — and all the odds he had to overcome. But no. He wanted more.

He was drafted into the NBA because of one main reason: his defense. He was 6 foot 7, a very-good-but-not-great athlete (in terms of NBA standards), and a work ethic and determination that far outpaced a lot of his so-called rivals. Even then, his college coach had to call teams personally and tell them about Butler in an effort to convince them to draft him. It worked, eventually, as the Bulls drafted him with the last pick of the first round.

He rewarded them, at first, with relentless — and perhaps short-sighted — focus. There was one game where he was asked to guard the opposing team’s best player, Carmelo Anthony. During one possession, the Bulls star player at the time, Derrick Rose — the 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player — passed Butler the ball because he was open for a shot. Butler simply passed it back to Rose. A timeout was called not long after, and Rose asked Butler why he hadn’t shot. His answer? “I’m only guarding Carmelo.”

This is admirable in some ways, but the same thing that had helped get him into the league — his relentless focus on defense — was now becoming a thorn in his side in terms of improving. In fact, one ESPN article states that “when Butler was drafted, his Bulls teammates and coaches respected his dogged work ethic, but his raw game had limitations. He shot the ball with no arc, like it was a dart. The coaching staff didn’t trust him offensively, using him only occasionally as a defensive plug-in.”

Most of us, when we get a thorn in our side, we somewhat unbelievably choose to leave it there. I’m not talking about an actual thorn, of course, but a metaphorical one. In other words, when a problem arises, we usually avoid it instead of solving it.

For example, I know barely anyone who gets the sleep they’d like to get. You might be one of them. You might think “I’m tired” many, many times per day. You might struggle to focus. You might not do your best work. You might be irritable and less-than-kind to the people around you. That’s just not an enjoyable way to live.

The solution is obvious: get more sleep. Go to bed earlier. Make sure you get a full 8 hours. It’s not hard to realise this is the solution. You could ask a child what to do when you’re tired and they’d know.

But for whatever reason, we try to evade reality because it doesn’t fit with our own personal preferences. We’ll do anything but solve the problem: we’ll drink coffee, we’ll use sheer force to plough through, we’ll keep ourselves busy. Instead of removing the thorn, we actually hold onto it and preserve it. That, as you’re well aware, doesn’t work.

Jimmy Butler’s thorn in his side was that his offensive game — his scoring, his playmaking — wasn’t good enough to warrant him playing over other, more experienced, better players. He could’ve pouted about this, he could’ve been angry the coach didn’t see how great he was, he could’ve just accepted that he just wasn’t “meant” to be a superstar player.

Jimmy Butler did none of these things. Instead, he removed a metaphorical thorn from his side. In the summer of 2014, he did the unthinkable: he got rid of his TV and he got rid of the internet. This is what he said about it:

“I wanted to be so good at the game that we didn’t have cable, we didn’t have the internet. Whenever we got bored, all we would do is go to the gym. We’d eat, sleep, and go to the gym. We’d go three times a day because we didn’t have anything else to do. We were sitting on the couch, looking at each other, saying, ‘what the hell are we going to do all day?’”

That season, he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The next season, he averaged a career-high in points per game and became an All-Star. The season after that, he scored even more points per game and was an All-Star again. The season after that, same thing. For a young man who’d come into the league with a “raw game” that had “limitations” and who the coaches “didn’t trust offensively,” this was quite the evolution, and Butler had become an undisputed superstar.

Well, he’d made himself into a superstar. He didn’t hold onto and preserve the thorn; he removed it.

Routine + Consistency = Greatness

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

Giannis Antetokounmpo (that took me a few tries) is the reigning MVP of the NBA, but in 2013, he was only the 15th pick in the NBA Draft. That’s the lowest an MVP has ever been selected. So, in other words, Giannis was never meant to be an MVP. An All-Star? Maybe, but realistically, the Milwaukee Bucks would’ve been happy had he simply developed into a decent role player.

The routine he keeps on game days begins 6 hours before the game tips off. It involves wearing the same outfit every time (while most other NBA players are mightily concerned with their pre-game fashion choices), getting treatment on his knees, taking a nap, stretching, a carefully scripted shooting routine with an assistant coach — where the two men don’t speak a word to each other — and finally he jogs past the basket into the front row of the fans, slaps his chest once with each hand, and then points his right hand to the sky.

Now, he’s ready to play.

It seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Even his teammate, Khris Middleton, says it’s “over the top.”

During this routine, he only speaks to his teammates and some coaches. He waves off people wanting autographs, saying he’ll do them after the game (which he does). Yeah, maybe it’s over the top. Maybe it’s dedication. In Antetokoumpo’s words:

“I just want to win. All that other stuff takes away from the game, and you just spend extra energy on looking good for five seconds (speaking on his and other players’ fashion choices). I don’t care about that. I just want to look good on the court. Get the win and go back home and lay on my couch and just watch game film. That’s it.”

Since he started being truly dedicated to his routine and eliminating “all that other stuff,” he was named the Most Improved Player, he’s been a 4-time All-Star, and he’s been the Most Valuable Player. Those results speak for themselves.

The reason athletes adopt routines is to improve their performance. That’s their focus, and you can see that from Antetokounmpo’s words: “I just want to win.” They adopt these routines because they need to be at their absolute best and you can’t just fumble your way to that, you can’t just expect it to come out of nowhere — you need a system, an element (or many elements) of predictability. As Antetokoumpo (I don’t think I can write that many more times) has said recently, “chasing greatness is a life mission.” Not a once-in-a-while thing, not some one-off project. Life. Mission. And yet, for the most part, we don’t engage in routines like this or anything even remotely resembling this, even though we’d like to be at our best consistently. Right? Isn’t life just better that way?

This isn’t even just about work or your creative endeavours or a side hustle or even achieving things. This is about all our actions, day in and day out. We feel better when we’re the best friend we can be, the best boyfriend or girlfriend, the best listener, when we do our best in a workout, when we paint our best painting, when we take in every word of what we’re reading.

So many things are outside of our control and they always will be. A routine, and being dedicated to that routine? That’s up to us and us alone. Nobody can stop us from doing that and nothing can take that from us.

Conclusion

Balance, The Voice In Your Head, The Process, The Thorn In Your Side, Routine. I imagine one of these resonated more than the others. Therein lies your task, if you want. And if you’d like to some questions to consider off the back of this article, try these ones out:

  1. Does the balance in your life lend itself to what you want?
  2. Does the voice in your head serve you well?
  3. Do you trust the process or rush to get the results?
  4. What thorn of yours is overdue for removal?
  5. What kind of routine could you implement in your life that would help you perform at your peak?

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