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Tips From The Top: One On One With Damon Stoudamire

I spoke to former NBA star and University of the Pacific head coach Damon Stoudamire about his journey and his best advice

Photo Credit: Keith Colgan / University of Pacific
Photo Credit: Keith Colgan / University of Pacific

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and what you have learned from your journey to date. First things first, though, what is something about you that your fans don’t know?

Damon: I love watching HGTV. I am an addict of HGTV because I dibble and dabble with real estate, so it really intrigues me the number of things they do on that station. I like Property Brothers and Love It or List It. I can watch that station all day.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and success?

Damon: I got here by hard work. I fell in love with something – basketball, and I didn’t let anything deter me from that. I was probably just as good as a baseball player, I just had more passion for basketball, so I let baseball go. Even though people always talked about my size, you can question the size of a person, but you can’t question what’s inside. You can’t question their heart. Not wanting to fail, that was the biggest thing for me. I didn’t want to fail. Even when I had setbacks, I learned from them. The failures that I had were later on in life, and I learned to adjust, regroup and get back to where I was. There was something in me that always ticked when someone said I couldn’t do something. As strange as it sounds, I was always looking for something to put a chip on my shoulder. Whenever something would soften me up, I would look for something like a newspaper clipping that criticized me that would harden me, so I wouldn’t get complacent.

Adam: In your experience, other than natural talent, what are the defining qualities of a superstar athlete?

Damon: There has to be a work ethic, there has to be mental toughness to go along with that talent. Something that drives you to be special. There are a lot of people that are talented, but if they don’t have that work ethic and mental mindset, it won’t take them to the next level.  The great ones are leaders in their own way. Superstars are leaders in their own way. You’ve got to have people who want to follow you. Whether it’s from a vocal or silent standpoint, people have to respect the hell out of you and people will see who you are.

Adam: What players and coaches have you learned the most from? What did you learn from them?

Damon: When I was in college, my coach – Hall of Famer Lute Olson, instilled in me what I always believed and had anyway – work ethic and a regimented lifestyle – I am a regimented guy.  I like to have a daily plan of what I like to do. He taught me a lot about leadership. I became a vocal leader, which I wasn’t at first. I took over that lead as I went along in my career. When I got to the NBA, I was a four year college player, I was more mature than the guys coming out today. The one thing I did have is a couple of teammates (on the Toronto Raptors) that were influential to me with their words. Alvin Robertson talked to me about competing. Anytime you step on the floor, you’ve got to leave everything else out there and compete. John Salley was big on fueling your body. Whatever you put in, you put out. He would say, you don’t put regular gas in a Ferrari.  He talked about the physical – taking care of your body in terms of massage and physio. Both taught me things that I carry today. I pass this along to my team today. A player told me his neck was hurting, then he came back and said his back was hurting. I told him to go to the chiropractor to get it adjusted – he didn’t know what I was talking about, he didn’t know about chiropractors. When he went, he was told that one leg was longer than the other and his hip wasn’t aligned. These are all things I learned from John. And what Al told me that I always remember is when you step on the court, it’s not about how much money you make. When you’re in between the lines, all you have is your rep.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have played with and what do you believe are the defining qualities of a great leader?

Damon: Scottie Pippen – I think that he really had command of all the little things that you need to have to be a quality leader in terms of getting after guys to do their best.  In terms of bringing an aura to the game, when he walked into the gym, just the presence he had of having six rings and playing with Michael Jordan commanded respect. During his time with Portland, I think he taught us all a lot when it came to communication. And I think we taught him how to open up. I think we brought a lot of youth out of him. I think it brought him a great joy to play with a younger team and that brought out the youth in him. It was also his work ethic, he would come in an hour earlier, I think that motivated and inspired us. Steve Smith was also a great leader. He was a quiet one, but came to work every single day. He always did the right thing and was on time, selfless, despite ups and downs, he never changed. He was always the same and always had a wise word for you. He had a non-verbal leadership, and would pull you to the side with some of the things he would say. While playing for the San Antonia Spurs, (coach) Gregg Popovich was a great leader because he was an honest guy, because he managed and maintained his ego and kept it in tack, that’s one of the things I took from him. Tim Duncan, he was an unassuming leader, but a great leader, through his work ethic and body language, when required he would say his piece. He was someone who commanded the room. Now, Manu Ginobili – he was fiery, he was a boisterous leader, commanded excellence from the next guy. He studied the game and his opponent, you could see what a good player he was, that made him different from the rest of the guys.

Adam: Who is the best teammate you ever had and why? What are the characteristics of a great teammate?

Damon: Rasheed Wallace. We played together in Portland. Most talented player I played with and I believe he could have had a better career than he had – he was unselfish to a fault – a great team player who cared about the team, more than he cared about his own statistics. He stood for the right thing and he was fun to play with him cause he made everybody’s job easy.

A great teammate is unselfish, willing to learn, willing to be critiqued and critique. For me those are two of the biggest things, especially because a lot goes into that. When you’re the best player, it’s different. You want to be the best liked player, you’ve got to embrace everybody, you’ve got to accept criticism from your coach and your teammates. You have to have a good character, and that’s in terms of any type of leadership – whether you’re the best player or the 12th man. You gotta work hard, you’re actions speak louder than your words. You gotta have a good work ethic. But your best player doesn’t have to be your leader, however they have to be the hardest worker because everything falls on you. For the best player, leadership is going to be different from the other guy who has a different role, that player (the best player) has the coaching staff on his back. Whatever role you play, you’ve gotta have good character on and off the floor. A good teammate has a different stature depending on what role they have on the team.

Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned through your career in sports that are applicable to those of us who will never earn a living playing pro ball?

Damon: I feel blessed to have been in the presence of great basketball players. The biggest thing I took from all of this is the importance of nurturing relationships because you’re not going to dribble a basketball forever. One day that seven pound ball is going to go flat. I take great pride in having nurtured those relationships throughout the NBA and to be able to still talk to those people today – and it’s not about asking for anything. Ten years after my last NBA game, I can still talk to these people. You come into the league, you make a lot of money and spend a lot of money. I take a lot of pride that I can still pick up the phone and talk to a lot of guys I played with and who worked in the league. That’s big for me.

Adam: What is the most surprising thing about life in professional sports? What is something that would shock fans?

Damon : I don’t think there is anything you don’t know because of social media (laughs). There is so much coverage in a lot of ways, if I had to pick something, I would say the demand of the schedule. Yes, you get paid a lot of money, but there is a lot that comes with it. A lot of scrutiny that you’re under. You’re always under a microscope, one wrong step and you could lose it all. I don’t think people understand it. You’ve got 10 to 15 seconds to make a split decision and that could cost you your career. You’re walking on thin ice. You don’t know who’s watching you or who is filming you. Your question if asked 15 to 20 years ago would be relevant– but I’m not sure now because of social media.

Adam: What are your thoughts on today’s game both at the NBA and the collegiate level compared to when you played? How has the game changed and is it for better or worse?

Damon : The college game to me, quite frankly, I am still trying to figure that out. For me, it’s not the same. There is a little more pacifying that goes on at the college level, then when I played. Athletically, they are a bit better. When I was in college, I think we knew the game better, but we were staying in school longer. That’s definitely a difference.  In the pro’s, I’m a little jealous of the way they get to play today then how we did. I enjoy watching it, I like the way it’s played right now. They have more freedom, it was a more physical game when I played. You could do much more hand checking on the floor. Offence rules now, you can’t do the beating up of players like when I was in the NBA. I like where the game is going. I think they made it more enjoyable for the fans. Although I liked our era, I know it wasn’t the best to watch, a lot of fouling all over. I think it’s for the fans now and they are really enjoying watching this new brand of basketball.

Adam: What are the most characteristics of a successful coach in today’s game? Has that changed from your playing days?

Damon: On both levels, NBA and college, you’ve got to manage egos a little more – it’s always been prevalent, but more so today. It’s weird to say that on the collegiate level, but they are treated so different from when I was coming out of high school. There is a lot of preferential treatment. When I was coming up, a star was still a star, but they weren’t treated any different. Kids – and I say kids on both levels – nobody will let you coach them if you don’t have a relationship – that’s one of the things I learned with the college kids and my time in the NBA as a coach.

Adam: Why did you decide to get into coaching? What are the best lessons you have learned so far from your time in coaching?

Damon: I kind of bumped into coaching. I didn’t set out to be a coach. In between the time of me working out and figuring out my next move, I was talking to a good friend of mind and he talked to me about coaching. I ended up getting into it and I ended up liking it. I developed a love for it and it kind of went from there. Now that I’m on the other side, one thing I learned from the standpoint of me playing and from some of the guys I played with, they would say, coach is trying to hold me back. No coach is trying to lose a game. I’ve learned a lot about kids. It’s a different type of kid nowadays. But it’s made me a better parent. Things are different from when I was growing up and playing. I learn more from them than they learn from me. It’s a different era and I embrace it. I like being around them. They help me out tremendously.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Damon: Be prepared when people come at you from a whole bunch of different angles and have a fast “no” and a slow “yes”

I didn’t understand that when I first heard it, but I realized that’s true, no matter what you’re doing.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Damon: I’m in the process of trying to figure out golf – that’s the latest hobby I’ve picked up. In my spare time, I try to relax, read up on things, grow myself in different areas. I’m infatuated with this game called basketball. I always try to stay up on the next new thing, something is always revolutionizing the game and you don’t want to be left behind.

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