DY: In Just a Few Words (#22)
Elementary school was the last time I was tall enough to play on the basketball team.
Sports can teach important lessons at any level. An example would be that it’s probably not a good look for a youth sports parent to scream at a volunteer coach just because their son or daughter was removed from a game so another player could see some action, too.
Basketball, in particular, has made it possible for me to know good people and to learn some valuable life lessons. The current March Madness has rekindled memories of four excellent role models from my experience.
My career in basketball began when I became the indispensable sixth man on our elementary school team. It was a different game then, one played below the rim. Of course, I was only about 4’ 7” at that time. No windmill reverse jams for me. For short people (me), it’s still played below the rim.
Later I spent a year as one of the managers of our high school team. The leader of that squad was Marvin Trotman, who topped out at about 5’ 11”. That may not seem tall to you, but to me it did then and still does today. Marvin was the second best high school player I ever saw, ranking behind only LeBron James and the five high school games I saw King James play. I watched in awe as Marvin developed into a basketball superstar in a forest of taller timber and lesser talents. Absolutely unstoppable. Right around 30 points a game. He was the first player I ever remember who truly had a high basketball I.Q. But, he was also the first I knew who truly embraced the joy of the game. The better the competition, the better he played. He made it fun for everyone.
Like all really good players, Marvin was a student of the game. He went on to become second in the nation for all Division II scorers in 1962 and an All-American. Those are big accomplishments. Marvin was unselfish, but always open for a good shot if we needed one. He turned himself into a scoring machine. He would ultimately return to our hometown and become a coach, teacher, counselor and assistant principal at our old high school. He took his success on the court and paid it forward. Lesson Learned: Have the courage to take the big shot without carrying yourself like a big shot.
Austin Carr has been a fixture in the Cleveland community ever since he became the #1 pick in the 1971 NBA draft. Lucky Cleveland. A.C. has been known for many years as Mr. Cavalier. He could also be known as Mr. Cleveland as the recipient of the NBA’s Kennedy Award for Outstanding Service and Dedication to the Community. After basketball, he spent more than 20 years in community relations for the Cavaliers and as a Cavs game analyst for Fox Sports Ohio.
It would have been so easy for A.C. to let all the success go to his head - National Collegiate Player of the Year, being just shy of averaging 35 points a game in his Notre Dame career, scoring 61 points in a NCAA Tournament game, and the list goes on and on (including being a very good golfer). But, that’s not the A.C. so many of us got to know and appreciate. He knows there’s more to life than basketball. He’s always had time for other people. He listens more than he talks. He shares his success with teammates and everyone. Lesson Learned: It costs nothing to be a really nice person.
Gordon Gund became majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1983. A year or so earlier, the Gund brothers had purchased The Coliseum at Richfield, home of the then hapless Cavaliers, and had become a client of mine. I was there in 1983 helping with the announcement of the Cavs purchase and I was present 22 years later when Gordon sold his majority stake in the team in 2005. In the intervening years, I was privileged to be the communication advisor to the ownership group working alongside some very good people in every sense of the word good. I was not the only one who worked with Gordon for all 22 years. There were others. His commitment to his team and the people who ran day-to-day operations was a model of organizational stability and ownership loyalty.
But, beyond that, his work to find a cure for the eye disease that made him blind in his early 30s was always right up there on his list of priorities. Gordon never saw his team play. He could only listen to the amazing commentary of Joe Tait on the radio. But, he spent zero time feeling sorry for himself. He was too busy fighting blindness to let that happen. There is no quit in Gordon Gund. He was and is a very big person amongst the tall trees. Lesson Learned: Never, ever let adversity get the best of you. Face it. Stare it down. Defeat it.
Which gets us to a person who was not only big physically but a big person period. His name is Wayne Embry. What a basketball pedigree. Member of a Boston Celtics championship team. Five-time NBA All-Star. First African American NBA General Manager and Team President. Two-time NBA Executive of the Year. Wayne is tall timber. The last time I saw him he gave me such a powerful hug that I thought I might need oxygen.
What I will always remember about the years I worked with Wayne was this simple mantra he shared with all of us. Players win games. Character wins championships. He believed that with every bone of his 6’ 8” body. Yes, his job was to come up with the right players - ones who were more interested in team success than their own stats. And he had a great record for doing just that. But, there is a lot more to Wayne than that. He is a big person who made a big impression on me. He walked the talk. He was the real deal. Lesson Learned: Live what you say you are. Character is the difference maker that separates a team (or an organization) from its competitors.
At the advanced age of 81, my height has now shrunk to about 5’ 5”. Age, coupled with my lack of height, probably means I have a limited future in basketball. I need to come to grips with that. So, this blog will serve as my long anticipated retirement from shooting hoops. It’s a game played above the rim today and I need a ladder to do that. In addition to a ladder, which is an altitude issue, I confess to some attitude issues because I never got a shoe deal. That’s not fair, is it?
The best people I knew in basketball were all good people long before they excelled in some aspect of the sport. There were more, but these are four who stood especially tall along the way.
DY: In Just a Few Words is a blog that comes out when something needs to be said or every Tuesday - whichever comes first. Davis Young is a communications professional who adds 50+ years of experience and perspective to issues of the day. His emphasis in DY: In Just a Few Words will be humor (a touch of sarcasm here, a pinch of facetiousness there...). Once in a while, he will touch on something a bit more serious - but hopefully not too deep or depressing.
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