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The Game

Kareem: How to Be an NBA MVP — Like LeBron

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Esquire.com

Lebron Dunks

Most people think that LeBron James won his fourth Most Valuable Player (MVP) this month because he leads the league in scoring. But that’s not the case. It’s because he leads his team to victories. Lao Tzu once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Although people definitely know LeBron exists, they don’t often recognize his leads in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

In a sport that boasts some of the world’s best and best-paid players, how does a player like LeBron James distinguish himself as an MVP? Simple. He follows these MVP directives:

1. Have a consistent work ethic. MVPs lead by example, and the most important example they can show their teammates is a dedicated work ethic. Leave the superstar attitude and sports-apparel contracts at home and focus on one thing: becoming a better player and better team. As Coach Wooden once said, “Many athletes have tremendous God-given gifts, but they don’t focus on the development of those gifts. Who are these individuals? You’ve never heard of them — and you never will. It’s true in sports and it’s true everywhere in life. Hard work is the difference. Very hard work.”

Anyone who has played with Kobe Bryant cannot help but see the sacrifices he makes to stay in shape and play through pain. Kobe is never late for practice, he never complains, and he is always looking for a way to beat his opponents. Because the MVP comes to work every day on time and prepared to work, he makes it that much harder for his teammates to slack.

2. Develop versatility. Shooters shoot. They score points. The TV camera replays their basket. The crowd cheers and it feels damn good. But scoring alone doesn’t win championships. MVPs like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and myself are in the top echelon in multiple categories. This means that our teammates could count on us to do more than shoot. We know of MJ’s scoring ability, but he also often led the league in steals. Larry had an outstanding 3-point field-goal percentage as well as a free-throw percentage, and he led his team in steals. In the 1976 season, I was in the top three in scoring, rebounding, and field-goal percentages and led the league in blocked shots.

While Dirk Nowitzki is a great shooter, he doesn’t have outstanding skills as a rebounder, shot blocker, passer, or defender. So, even though he scores a lot of points, he is a one-trick pony who does not embrace the characteristics of an MVP. Nowitzki’s team, the Dallas Mavericks, did well when there were other players who could do the essentials of rebounding, defending, and distributing the ball. Unfortunately, the perennial Western Conference frontrunners, the Spurs and the Lakers, play at a very high level with more versatile talent. Hakeem Olajuwon was the go-to guy for the Houston Rockets, but he was also a very effective rebounder and defensive player who led the league in multiple categories in 1994, including MVP. When will we see another center do that?

3. Play to your strengths. Although I just praised versatility, it’s also important that you recognize your weaknesses. You don’t have to excel in every aspect of the game (such as Shaq’s free throw shooting), but you do have to do what you do best — often and successfully.

For example, Bill Russell was able to deny the opposing team any easy shots near the basket. He was also a great defensive rebounder. That meant the opposing team rarely got more than one shot at the basket every time they went down the court. Bill Russell tailored his game to rebounding and blocking shots because those were his strengths and how he could best contribute to his team.

4. Keep the team involved. Points scored are of tremendous value to a team, but when a player scores a lot of points without involving his teammates, he is making it more difficult for his team to win.

LeBron scores points in bunches, but he does it without forcing the issue. When other players have the opportunity to score, LeBron will give the ball up, especially when the other player has a hot hand. He is a leader who enables his teammates to be their best. This builds team cohesion and team confidence — which lead to team championships.

5. Be fearless when your team needs you most. Many NBA games are won or lost in the final minutes. This is when each player is not only battling the other team, but also their own roiling fear, adrenaline, hope, and physical exhaustion. This causes a lot of players, even pros, to lose focus, take bad shots, force a play, turn over the ball, or blow an easy free throw. MVPs have an inner thermostat that they can turn to icy when they have to. Teammates recognize this rare quality and feed them the ball when it absolutely, positively, has to be delivered through the hoop. That doesn’t mean the ball always makes it through the hoop, but they know that player is confident that it will and is willing to take the heat if it doesn’t. Remember Jerry “Mr. Clutch” West’s shot in the 1970 NBA Finals? Three seconds left, and Jerry hurls a 60-footer that swishes through and sends the game into overtime (see above). Or Kobe’s game-tying 3-pointer in Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals (see below). Michael Jordan said it best: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Every time an athlete approaches my record of six MVPs, I’m asked how I feel about it. Reporters want to know how I’d feel if he broke my record. I think they imagine me curled up in a fetal ball clutching my MVP awards, muttering, “Please break an ankle.”

In fact, when the day comes that my record is broken, this is what I’ll say: “Finally.” I think it’s possible that many record holders enjoy seeing other athletes reach the heights they have obtained because it’s a sign of hope. It shows we’re learning from the past and improving because of it. When Alan Shepard, the first American in outer space, splashed down in his capsule, he didn’t think, “Man, I hope no one ever goes to the moon.” He probably thought, with a grin, “This is only the beginning.” That’s how I feel.

The Game

Former UCLA great:
What it takes to be a champion

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Special for USA TODAY Sports

“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” — World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey

Kareem, We're No. 1 UCLAThe question I’m asked most often by fans is “How does one become a champion?”

I can answer that with one word: conviction. Without conviction, it doesn’t matter how much natural athletic ability you have, you will never rise to the level of champion. History has proven this over and over again as we’ve seen promising athletes grab attention and headlines on their meteoric rise to fame, only to flame out and plunge back to the ground, their careers in smoldering ashes.

Part of the reason for this flame-out is that being famous is not the same as being a champion. Conviction is about being dedicated to becoming the best athlete your mind and body will allow you to be, not the conviction to becoming good enough to be a media star. And that difference in attitude and goal is why so many talented collegiate athletes struggle when they join the ranks of professional athletes. They thought the goal was to get to the pros, when really the pros is only a platform for the real goal: to become better athletes.

There’s a popular adage: dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The same principle applies here: you have to see yourself as a champion long before you actually become one. Sure, it’s a major advantage to be born with an abundance of physical gifts. But even competitors who may be less physically gifted than others can reach the top through effort, determination, and preparation. What has been said about the race not always going to the swiftest is absolutely true. Give me the turtle with conviction any day.

I was so fortunate to learn the core lessons of championship from my college coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden used 15 qualities to define the necessary attributes that lead to success. Here’s a handy list:

1. Industriousness
2. Friendship
3. Loyalty
4. Cooperation
5. Enthusiasm
6. Competitive Greatness
7. Poise
8. Confidence
9. Condition
10. Skill
11. Team Spirit
12. Self-Control
13. Alertness
14. Initiative
15. Intentness

I was never able to memorize the whole list of attributes, but by attending Coach Wooden’s practice every day, I was able to learn by doing until every item on that list became second nature. It’s not enough to know these 15 qualities; you have to practice each of them until they are as much a part of your muscle memory as catching a pass without thinking about it.

Most of Coach Wooden’s list are self-evident to every serious athlete, so I’m not going to describe each one. Rather, I’m going to simplify the process of becoming a champion to a few principles.

First is Coach Wooden’s mantra: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” What made Coach Wooden so extraordinary was that he wasn’t referring to winning. Failure didn’t mean losing the game; failure was losing faith. I would play 90 games for Coach Wooden, and even though he wanted to win the games that we played, he never, ever told us that we had to win a game. What he would tell us was that if we played any game with determination and an accurate adherence to our game plan, we would probably be satisfied with the results of the game. By giving our best effort and sticking to our game plan, we would have the best chance to win. And if we lost, we could say in all honesty that we tried our best and were beaten by a better team. That is something any competitor should be able to live with. This focus on each of us doing our best, following the game plan without panicking, and trusting our teammates and coaches, is what made us champions.

The preparation part of his mantra means exactly that: do the work. Off-season, on-season, whenever, there’s no way to avoid the hard work that is necessary to become a champion. Muhammad Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ “

Coach Wooden’s lessons in preparation and the dedication such preparation requires were very helpful when I entered the professional ranks. By knowing my limits and trying to push them I was able to sustain my ability to play at the highest level. I would work every off-season on aspects of my game that needed improvement and I would come to training camp in good shape. This commitment to preparation allowed me to play for 20 years, and every game that I played in, I was a starter.

Being a champion in a team sport has an additional challenge. Sometimes, no matter how great the individual, he or she may struggle for that greatness to translate into winning championships because of the team dynamics. I must give credit to the teammates who enabled me to shine. In Milwaukee, I played with Oscar Robertson, the ‘Big O’. Oscar was a consummate professional and his ability to run a team’s offensive operation was an essential part of the Bucks winning the World Championship in 1971. I was traded to the Lakers in 1975 and for a few years we did not have the right personnel that would give us a chance to win the Championship. However, all of that changed in 1979 when we were able to draft Magic Johnson. Like Oscar, Magic was the cutting edge as far as running a team’s offense and, as a bonus, he was an entertaining performer. He was a delight for me to play with because he enabled me to enjoy smelling the roses as we won 5 Championships in 8 trips to the finals. The Showtime Lakers were by no means just about myself and Magic. The team had All-Star performers like Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and James Worthy who in any given game might thrill the fans with their spectacular play. Players like Kurt Rambis, A.C. Green, Byron Scott, or Mychal Thompson were consistent contributors to our success. Even though they may not have been All-Stars, they made it possible for our team to be consistent. The coaches made us do the necessary things in practice to stay in shape and most importantly stay focused on being ready to compete. Because we are shared conviction, we were all able to share championships.

It’s a thrill to watch today’s college players and try to figure out which of them will rise to the levels of champions. My love of basketball is a direct result of watching college games. When I was still in grade school in New York City, I was able to see the Holiday Festival and NIT games at Madison Square Garden. I followed college ball intensely while I was in high school and I watched the NCAN Tournament in ’62, ’63, ’64, and ’65. At that time, I didn’t know if I had the potential to be an NBA player, but I felt that the college game was something I could participate in and do well. I’m sure it has motivated thousands of young players to go for it and play college ball.

It will be a lot of fun to take part in this years 75th anniversary NCAA Basketball tourney. I must say that the NCAA was very wise to expand the tournament to 64 teams. That format gives the teams who improve during the season a shot at winning it all. As the college game gains in popularity, will there ever be an international college tourney? Given the increased popularity of the game I wouldn’t rule it out.

The Game

Congrats to Eddie Doucette

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Eddie Doucette 'Skyhook'

Broadcaster Eddie Doucette recalls the birth of his term ‘sky hook’
By Bob Wolfley of the Journal Sentinel
Feb. 21, 2013

Sky hook, the shot, was made famous by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Sky hook, the term, was coined by former Milwaukee Bucks announcer Eddie Doucette, who is to be inducted into the broadcasting wing of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September.

In a recent telephone interview, Doucette described the genesis of the term.

According to Doucette, the sky hook was born on May 10, 1974 at Boston Garden in Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Bucks and Celtics.

Milwaukee won in double overtime, 102-101, to tie the series and send it back to the Milwaukee Arena for Game 7.

The shot that won the game was the first time Doucette used the term sky hook. Oscar Robertson inbounded high sideline right to Abdul-Jabbar who was above the foul line. He looked to pass, but found no one open. He faced Finkel, took a dribble to the baseline and lofted a hook shot.

“He got the ball in rhythm,” Doucette said. “It was as beautiful thing. A perfect pass, the way you are supposed to deliver it. So he had to take only one step and go up.”

Finkel was guarding Kareem because Dave Cowens had fouled out, Doucette said.

At Boston Garden, Doucette was not seated courtside as radio broadcasters many times are in NBA venues. He was up in the first balcony.

Had he not been seated there, the term sky hook might never have made its entrance.

“When he went to that baseline and went up for that shot, it was kind of almost eye level with me,” Doucette said. “It felt that way. Everything became slow motion when he went up for that shot on the baseline. Took it in stride. Went up off his left leg. Perfect balance. Right hand fully extended. Ball on the fingertips. Launched that shot. And as he launched it, it just hit me. ‘That ball is coming out of the sky. That’s a sky hook.’ That’s how it happened. I never gave it any thought. But I had to be in a position where I was located that would inspire me to think that it would be coming out of the sky.”

“It was beautiful,” Doucette said. “It was arched. His form was textbook. Every kid who is a big man should study how to shoot that shot. It’s unstoppable. He executed it in art form and we won the game.”

The Game

Kareem on the Court

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

The Game

Kareem on Kobe

Monday, December 10th, 2012

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