Learning from Kobe, LeBron and Michael Jordan

Mohan Sivaloganathan is the Director of External Engagement for Citizen Schools New Jersey and an avid basketball fan. Last semester he taught an apprenticeship about the NBA as a business. Here’s the scene. A team is playing for the championship. They have talent across the board, and most people think they’ll win the elusive ring. But when the moment comes, their best player struggles. He misses shots. He’s passive. He doesn’t meet expectations. When it’s all said and done, his team loses in the finals and he’s roundly criticized for his performance.

Now here’s another scene. A talented team is playing for the championship. When the big moment comes, their best player rises to the occasion. He makes all the big shots and all the smart plays. They win the championship, and the player is recognized as the best in the league.

The player in both scenes is LeBron James, and the difference is more than just one year. The difference is humility, hard work, conviction, and focus. After he struggled in the 2010 finals, the rationale for his “failure” came raining in from all angles. Some people said it was because his team didn’t give him enough support. Some people said it was because his opponent, the Dallas Mavericks, was too good and there was nothing he could do about it. Others said there was something wrong with LeBron, and that he would always come up short when it matters most because of psychological issues. Well, what did LeBron do next? He refocused on his goals, got in the gym, and worked.

If Citizen Schools students were still in class on June 22 – instead of on summer break – that’s the lesson I’d share with them when the bell rang. Not a recap of how Miami was hitting shots from everywhere, or how Oklahoma City struggled. Here’s how I’d break it down:

1) Sometimes you have to lose in order to win.

One of Michael Jordan’s greatest commercials ends with this line: “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” What can losing do for you? Losing can teach you humility if you’re over-confident. Losing can expose your opportunities so you know where to improve. Losing can give you a vision and benchmark for aspirations. Losing can give you fuel to improve so you don’t have to relive the pain that comes with it. Whatever losing is for you, just be sure to embrace it in the right way.

2) Of course, just losing by itself is not enough.

You don’t automatically become better at something because you lost. If only life were that simple. Last semester, I taught an apprenticeship on the business side of the NBA, also called NBA General Managers. A bunch of my kids expressed interest in becoming NBA players in the future. When I heard that, I’d always ask them, “What time did you wake up this morning?” They’d typically say they woke up around 7. Then I’d ask, “Do you know what Kobe Bryant was doing at 7 a.m.?” After the inevitable pause, I’d tell them that Kobe is not only working out, but he’s actually been working out for the past hour. And he’ll continue to work out for another 1-2 hours after that. And after a day of work – team practice, video review, and so on – he’ll work out again in the evening. Not every student can manage a schedule like that. Nevertheless, what they need to recognize is Kobe Bryant, a five-time champion and one of the greatest players ever, does not stop working.

3) You are never good enough to stop working.

This goes right in line with the Kobe story. Kobe’s five championships were not good enough. LeBron’s three MVPs were not good enough. Michael Jordan’s career shooting percentage of nearly 50% was not good enough. Why? Because there’s always a way to get better and another challenger who wants your spot. Those who fall asleep after ascending to the top will quickly find themselves at the bottom.

Our kids operate in an environment where naysayers are running rampant and image can overshadow results. It’s important that when they see players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan, they aren’t caught up with the loud haters or the flashy dunks. These guys have lost over and over again, they worked their tails off to reach the top of the mountain, and they will continue to work hard to sustain excellence.

In any successful career there are wins and losses, and a whole lot of hard work. You can show kids the habits that got you through your obstacles. Get in the game: volunteer to teach an apprenticeship.