Lessons From a Basketball Coach: The Value of Selflessness
How the high school coach of NBA star LeBron James teaches his players about the value of serving others.
From the instant we leave our mothers’ wombs, our needs are somehow magically met. If we cry, we get a bottle; if we soil our diapers, someone changes them; even if we have to burp, someone is miraculously there to make sure we get every last drop of air out of our little tummies. These are nature’s guidelines, of course, because newborn babies certainly can’t take care of themselves.
The problem is that as we grow up, we cling to these guidelines. We get used to other people doing things for us, used to wanting someone else to do the dirty work, and (metaphorically) crying when something doesn’t go our way.
Growing up doesn’t just mean getting bigger or getting older. It means coming out of the delusion that we are here just for ourselves, just to have our own needs met. It means realizing we were put on this earth to make a difference. It means stepping further and further away from the misconception that we deserve things and more into the idea that we are here to serve.
As I move through life, I’m always looking for ways I can serve and give back to my community. After all, the primary reason I was drawn to coaching was that it provided me with an opportunity to serve others. I can’t think of a greater job than one that allows me to positively impact young people’s lives on a daily basis, one that makes me truly proud to be a servant.
Heart of a servant
When people step away from the habit of “taking” and enter the space of “giving,” I believe they become not only more fulfilled but healthier spiritually. Giving back is like a statement to the heavenly Father that says, Thank you for what you’ve given me. It’s like a nod of gratitude combined with a battery pack that energizes possibility for someone else.
As a coach, it was always crucial to me that my players understood the value of having the heart of a servant. I needed them to see the merits of self-sacrifice, not just because it would help them become better players, but more so because it would compel them to become great individuals.
During the holiday season, a local church created food baskets for needy families. It may not sound like a major feast, but the labor that went into making these baskets and getting them to the right places was beyond tedious and took a lot of time and energy. Time and energy—these are building blocks of servanthood.
The boys and I helped unload tractor-trailers full of fifty-pound bags of potatoes and cases of canned goods. We carried them to the church basement, where volunteers sorted them. Do you think a bunch of teenage boys wanted to do this type of labor? We all know the answer. Sure, I’d hear the occasional grumble or wisecrack, but I knew at the end of the day, they were glad they had helped out.
These moments injected them with a sense of empathy for the needy families that would benefit from their diligence, and it also gave them quality time to bond as a group off the court, when they could tap into other aspects of life that were just as important, if not more so, than their own basketball-related desires and goals.
Teaching selfless basketball
One of my goals as a coach is to teach selfless basketball, team basketball. I firmly believe it’s about the team and not just an individual player. I remember driving LeBron James home from practice one evening, and I told him if he shared the basketball, teammates would always enjoy playing with him. I never had to have that conversation with him again. He got it. When your best player creates opportunities for other players, it becomes contagious. This selfless style of play has been emphasized with every team I’ve ever coached.
One of my favorite John Wooden expressions is this: “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” This idea, too, belongs in the discussion of what it means to have a heart of a servant, because when someone is overly concerned with getting the credit or receiving the glory, it’s usually a strong indication that they’re only really there to serve themselves.
Players do this for all kinds of reasons—recognition, popularity, and competitiveness, to name just a few. A lot of seniors will play hard just to get scholarships. But the truth is that if you win a state championship as a team, you’ll ultimately get everything you want as an individual and more. This is why it’s crucial to always put the team first. When you prioritize the team, you are in service; when you prioritize yourself, the only thing you serve is your ego.
Selflessness has become the foundation, the bedrock, of my approach as a basketball coach. And it’s a two-way street. On the one hand, I strive to check my ego at the door of every gym, arena, or rec center I ever step onto, knowing I’m there not for myself but for the benefit of the kids, and on the other hand, I make it a point to make sure they’re also carrying their own air of selflessness, whether doing drills, practicing for a game, or performing on the court. Everyone, from coach to player, needs to operate with the common understanding that we are bound by commitment and fueled by our collective goal.