Here's a thought for you today: I would have never played professional basketball if I always played the game the "right" way.
Do you know what I mean by this? If you do, you have your own personal idea of what the "right" way to play basketball really is (and it's far from personal, because many around you share the same view). The problem, however, is that you might be dead wrong.
Hear me out, you probably have some very good ideas. Good, crisp passing. Offensive execution. Unselfish play with good spacing, nice pace, and sound shot selection. Great defensive help with great transition defense. You get the picture. Basketball at its (supposed) best.
But here's the problem: if I had only played in that way ("the right way") during my most formative years, I never would have played professional basketball. Sure, I would have been a nice player. Solid. Well-coached. Tough. Gritty. And surely more fun to play with.
But I would never have been me.
Looking back, I was never a "right way" kind of guy. I was unpredictable, free-flowing, impulsive, almost aggressive to a fault, and insistent on winning or losing my way. I loved to run and, as most folks know, loved to shoot deep, transition three-pointers off the dribble during a time when everyone thought that was crazy.
And you know what? I responded by shooting all the more. With my actions (and my words) I often told the crowd they were crazy for not approaching the game the way I did (time has proved me right!). By the end of my career, I even told a coach and GM that they could either embrace me for who I was or release me so that I could find another team who would do so.
I naturally had to go through a long process to really get to that point, but, but here's the big point today:
I learned who I was as a player and where I could fit in the basketball world, because I had the freedom and the opportunities to play the game "the wrong way."
I can't underestimate how important this point is. After all, I spend countless hours of my life evaluating young basketball players at their most formative time of development. I see thousands of kids play each year, but I am always left with this gnawing sense that something is missing. While watching, I often have this simple thought:
These kids don't know who they are.
I know I am not the only coach who feels this way. And I get it. I really get it. The kids I watch are often trying to impress coaches like me. But here's the thing: I am most impressed by the kids who are clearest about who they are and, therefore, least concerned with who is watching.
You know what I really want to see more of on the recruiting circuit? Conviction. Personality. Fearlessness and freedom. A clarity of identity that declares with your play: "This is who I am!"
There is not enough of this in the basketball world. We have plenty of teams who play the "right way" and the "wrong way", but too few who play "their way." Or who even know what "their way" really is.
One of the primary reasons why is because too many of us are too concerned either with winning at young ages or with teaching players of all ages how to play the game in "the right way."
Even more to the point: one of the primary reasons why I see so little personality and clarity of identity is because young players have never been given the freedom to play the game the wrong way. They have spent their most formative years with a coach in their face and a tournament to win. Or worse, a parent who thinks they have it all figured out. They spend so much time trying to do what they are "supposed" to do that they never find their own voice. They never find their own basketball personality. Individually and together.
Is there a "right way" to play the game? Kind of. There are some common denominators that are best. And I tend to think that the best players have learned to play the game in a variety of ways.
But I tend to think that the right way to play has more to do with the players you have being true to who they are. Yet doing so collectively requires a clarity of identity individually; and both are lacking today.
The best coaching brings out what is inside. Great coaches don't impose a "right way" on the player for all times and circumstances. They teach the principles, but they teach them in such a way and with such space that the individuals under their care can figure out their own way, their own path, their own identity.
The younger the player, the more freedom they must be given to experiment and figure it all out. Sometimes such freedom is given by clarifying a wise offense and offering positive encouragement during the game. Sometimes it is given by sitting against the wall and keeping your mouth shut. Other times it is given simply by dropping them off at the park and encouraging them to just go play.
The development of a basketball player is more than just skills and drills. It is a process of self-discovery. And just like a process of discovery, it requires a great deal of diversity and a great deal of failure. It requires getting it wrong, so that you can really get it right.
Does this mean you don't coach? By no means. But you better be careful. Plenty a player is limited by great coaching. Or the kind of coaching that only knows "one way." Remember, the goal is to help your players become who they really are, who they really can be.
Are we really helping players become the best versions of themselves? Or are we coaching them to be just like everyone else?
I was blessed with coaches who gave me space and opportunity to figure it all out. I was also blessed with plenty of games to do just the same. We need more of these blessings. Whether you are a coach, parent or whoever, please take note and adjust accordingly.
The basketball world needs it. And so do I.