Elite Lessons : Modern Elders and Basketball

As I’ve written about here often, I’m absolutely fascinated by the opportunities for confluence of elite learnings between sports and leadership. A few examples :

Around these sports, two of my sons are competitive swimmers and I’m a referee, I grew up watching motor racing as my Dad raced, and I started cycling as I got older and also supported a pro cycling team.

However, one sport I love above all others is Basketball. I’m an ex basketball player and coach. It is a team sport where managing the energy and flow of the team and the individual players is so important. So many leadership lessons from the great players and great coaches.

As I think about it, I recognise that many of the coaches held in the highest esteem in the history of the sport reached the pinnacle of their ability to coach, mentor, guide, lead their teams only after decades of experience.

So much to learn from our “Modern Elders” (as I’ve written about before here and here), so I’ll write today and in future articles about lessons from great basketball coaches, some of the “Modern Elders” in our society that are honoured and revered.

One article already on this site is : “Humble Leadership – “that’s family business” about Coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. Every time I watch the videos in that article I get goosebumps !

Gregg Popovich brought his team to the NBA playoffs for the first time at the age of 49. At the time of writing they have made the playoffs every year since. 20 years in a row. “Pop” is 69 now, and only getting better with age, it would appear !

Today I want to draw attention to John Wooden. Coach Wooden is regarded as the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

At the age of 53, he was entering his prime (I like the sound of this), bringing a lifetime of experience as a player and coach. That year, 1964, his UCLA team began a streak of winning 10 national titles in 12 years. Unparalleled.

Coach Wooden live to the ripe age of 99 and died in 2010. After retiring as head coach of UCLA, he continued to coach, guide and lead.

He was absolutely revered by those who played for him, the greatest of all being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with the two of them having a 50 year friendship. Sometimes a picture says it all :

kareem wooden

He was known for his (often concise) thoughts on leadership. If you’ve never heard of John Wooden but these quotes sound familiar, you can offer your vote of thanks now to the “Wizard of Westwood” :

“It’s the things that you learn after you know everything that count.”

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

“Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

and… Coach Wooden’s definition of success, featured in his wonderful TED Talk from 2001 (when he was 90).

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Listen and learn to the wisdom of a humble leader who never stopped learning and never stopped teaching.