The Value of Sports

What's true on the basketball court is true in life, says a coach

In my years of coaching I have worked with many players and seen a variety of attitude problems. Some players were selfish. Some weren't as committed to the team concept as they should have been. I can live with all that. What I can't live with is a player who won't work hard. If players are willing to give the effort, they have no problem with me.

And you know what?

What's true on the basketball court is true in business and in life. You want to succeed? OK, then succeed. Deserve it. How? Outwork everybody in sight. Sweat the small stuff. Sweat the big stuff. Go the extra mile. But whatever it takes, put your heart and soul into everything you do. It's what I've done ever since I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1974 and began to coach. I learned quickly that motivating people would be the most important responsibility of my career.

When I became a head coach at Boston University, I was just 24 years old. I was stepping into a program that hadn't had a winning season in years. I knew that if I didn't find a way to get the players to play appreciably better in a very short time, my dream of coaching was going to end in a small college gym somewhere. I began reading about coaching legends like Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, looking for clues as to what had made them connect with their players.

What I found had nothing to do with strategy but rather with how these great coaches motivated players to achieve victory. Very early on, I learned that I was simply unleashing the potential in the people I was coaching. I was motivating them not by intimidation but by showing them that it was their choice to win or lose. I have been successful because I've been able to get people to do things they didn't think they were capable of doing.

An example:

When I became Providence College coach in the spring of 1985, I inherited a basketball program that had been languishing near the bottom of the very competitive Big East Conference ever since the conference began in 1979. In one of my first meetings with the team, I listed on the blackboard the four supposedly most important parts of my players' lives: basketball, school, work ethic, family.

"How many of you want to be professional basketball players someday?" I asked. Virtually every hand in the room went up. "Well, since you've had a losing season last year and there is no one in this room who averaged at least 10 points a game, it's obvious you are not a success in the basketball part of your lives," I said, erasing one-quarter of the blackboard. "And since I've seen your grade point averages, it's also obvious you aren't successful in school either."

The room was silent as I erased another quarter. I turned to the trainer and asked how many players had been in the gym every day since the season ended. I wanted to know how many had been working on their games.

"No one, Coach," the trainer said.

"So it's obvious you don't work hard either," I said, erasing another quarter.

"Well, hopefully, you're a close team," I finally said. "Hopefully, you care about each other."

"Oh, we do, Coach," said a player named Harold Starks. "We're a close team."

I pretended to think for a moment.

"OK, Harold, how many brothers does Steve Wright have?" Starks slowly shook his head. "What does Billy Donovan's father do for a living?"

Harold now looked like a deer stuck in the headlights.

"So you really don't know anything about each other, do you?" I asked. No one spoke.

I made each player stand up and talk about himself and his family. Then something wonderful happened. What had been 12 individuals suddenly had become a cohesive unit. The makings of a team. Twenty-two months later that collection of individuals - now a team - would be in the Final Four.

True motivation must make people understand the process to achieve success. In this case, that message was the bonding of individuals sharing the same dreams and goals. The most important thing I learned was that the keys to performing well - on or off the court - were the same for all of us. Hard work and togetherness help us soar to the next level.

* Rick Pitino is the new head coach of the Boston Celtics. This article is adapted from his recent book, "Success is a Choice," (Broadway Books), The New York Times Syndicate distribution.

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