August 09, 2019
The Day Pistol Pete Taught Me Accountability
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When I was a teenager I became obsessed with basketball for a few years. That’s how you become as good at something as possible. And so, for a couple of weeks in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I went to a local basketball camp. I’m ashamed to admit it now but when I signed up I had no idea what made the camp special. It just happened to be near my home and a teammate of mine was going there too. But this camp was special because it was run by legendary basketball all-star Pistol Pete Maravich and his father, successful college coach, Press Maravich. The organizers of the camp shrewdly set us young men straight within a few hours of our arrival by ushering us into an auditorium and showing us a college and pro highlight film of Pistol Pete. Wow! Most of us had no idea that someone had ever AVERAGED 44 points per game over a college career — and this was before the three-point shot or the shot clock. His innovative style of play was groundbreaking and changed the sport forever. We walked out of that auditorium in spellbound awe.
A few days later I was on the court laboring to accomplish one of the meticulous rituals that Pistol Pete insisted upon: no one left the gym for dinner without first making ten free throws in a row. After making four in a row I sensed a presence over my right shoulder. I knew it was Pistol Pete. He was an intense and, to my sixteen-year-old self, intimidating person. So, of course, I missed the next free throw. He stepped up directly behind me and asked, “what happened there, son?” As I started to answer him with something like, “the ball rolled off the outside of my hand as I was releasing it”, he said something remarkable that I’ve thought about and repeated to others many times since.
Pistol Pete took me by the shoulders and turned me so that we were facing and eye-to-eye. The basketball legend and I were exactly the same height. He looked into my eyes, got my complete attention with a preamble of “I want you to remember one thing”, and uttered a single sentence. “Wherever the ball goes, is exactly where you shot it.” And then he paused for a few seconds, watching my reaction closely. My face must not have betrayed what my teenage self nearly replied — something like, “well, duh!” — because he nodded his head, patted me on the shoulder, and walked away to coach someone else. A few months later, fittingly during a pickup basketball game, he died. But that brief encounter left a huge impression on me.
I’ve used this story and that line in dozens of meetings with teams and individuals. On the one hand, the line is trite: of course, the ball only goes where you shoot it. But on the other, it’s profound: if we are not succeeding — as an individual or a team — we need to dispassionately look at what we have done to get there and make adjustments. And, perhaps even more than that, what makes it great coaching advice is that, even if it’s not always true, it’s the only practical way to look at most situations. Maybe a breeze did blow your shot off course; maybe you were distracted by movement in your peripheral vision, or maybe the ball did have an imperfection. But since none of those factors are controllable by you, pointing to them won’t help your performance on your next shot.
Pistol Pete’s sage advice to me that day didn’t turn me into a basketball legend like he was. I never scored 44 points in any game at any level. But it imparted a piece of his essence: the understanding of accountability for where your ball goes. It was a great gift and I wish I’d have had the wisdom and maturity to tell him so. “Coach Maravich, I will remember and I will share this with many other people when they need to hear it. Thank you, sir”, is what I should have said. And now I have. Godspeed.
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