Basketball has always been an important part of my life.
Like every other brown kid growing up in the US, I dreamt of joining the NBA. Some kids want to be astronauts. Others want to be firemen. We want to be NBA players.
Unfortunately, the dream faded quickly when reality settled in. There’s a big genetic component and I just didn’t have the height or strength. Frankly, I didn’t have the raw skill either. I was good, but not enough to go pro.
But my love for the sport never died. I still play regularly. I follow the league closely. And I’d be lying if I said I never fantasize about the alternate reality where I became an NBA player.
Recently, I’ve taken an even deeper interest. Not just in the sport itself, but the themes it represents.
Though I’ve been an avid fan my entire life, this is the first time I’ve been truly moved by it. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of these playoffs or the unique stage of life I’m in, but it’s speaking to me in an entirely different way this year.
Here are a few themes that resonate deeply with me as I’m forging my own path. Even if you don’t know anything about basketball, I suspect they will be relevant to you too.
Believe in yourself
Context for non-fans: the NBA playoffs are a best-of-seven elimination tournament comprising 16 teams and 4 rounds.
It’s May 15, 2023. The Eastern Conference Finals are set to begin: Miami Heat vs Boston Celtics.
But first, a little bit about the Miami Heat. They’re the underdog team, led by an underdog star.
They were written off from day one. They’re the 8 seed, the lowest ranking to qualify for the playoffs. Going into it, they had a 160-1 chance to win the championship.
No one even expected them to get past the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best record this season. That didn’t stop them. They demolished the Bucks 4-1 and then proceeded to beat the 5th seed Knicks 4-2.
Despite both of these upsets, what odds does ESPN give the Heat against the Celtics? 3%. Disrespectful.
This is a good time to mention Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s best player. He wasn’t always a star. He was drafted 30th in his year (50th percentile) and wasn’t expected to be more than a role player. The first few seasons, he was just that. Then, he had a breakout year and there was no looking back.
Well, except for the chip on his shoulder. When he eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers last year, he famously exclaimed “Tobias Harris over me?!”, referring to a Sixers player that was drafted above him.
To many, this level of competitiveness seems unhealthy. To me, it’s just self-confidence.
And it works. Fast forward 3 games later, they’re up 3-0 against the Celtics (3% chance, my ass).
That’s my takeaway from Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat: believe in yourself. Don’t listen to the naysayers. It’s easy to get trapped in the box that they put you in. The only way out is having confidence in your own abilities. After all, who knows you better than you?
Note: I wrote the above a few days ago. Since then, Boston won the next three games and tied the series 3-3. Currently, it’s halftime of Game 7 and Miami is up by 11 points. Whether or not they win, the point holds: they surpassed everyone’s expectations by believing in themselves.
Focus on the present
Basketball is a game of runs. One moment, your team is up big. The next, you’ve lost the lead.
In order to win, you need to keep your composure and stay focused. Any distraction can cost you the game. This applies to whether you’re up or down.
This is harder than it sounds. Our natural tendency is to either become upset or complacent.
When you’re down, you get frustrated. You detest the situation and the hole you’ve found yourself in. As a result, you lose motivation. It’s obvious when this happens in a game - the body language of the losing team changes altogether. They stop trying as hard because they don’t believe in themselves. They’re stuck replaying the mistakes of the past.
When you’re up, you become comfortable. You assume you’re going to win. As a result, you lose the killer instinct. You stop taking it so seriously and your edge disappears. While you’re taking the future for granted, the other team pounces on the opportunity to wedge their way back in.
In both situations, the solution is the same: focus on the task at hand. Take it one play at a time. Don’t take your foot off the gas.
The Miami Heat exemplify this attitude. It’s what makes them such a formidable team. Even when they’re trailing, they don’t lose hope. They keep fighting. You can’t count them out until the final buzzer sounds. Their record speaks for itself: they are 6-3 in the postseason when trailing by 10+ points.
Actions speak louder than words
It’s May 20, 2023. Heat lead the Eastern Conference Finals 1-0 against the Celtics. Game 2 is underway.
With 6 minutes to go, Grant Williams hits a 3 to put the Celtics up 96-87. He immediately turns to Butler and starts running his mouth. Butler doesn’t react, except for a knowing smirk. “I’ll show him.”
And that’s precisely what he does. The next play, he targets Grant and hits a tough shot through contact. They get into a heated exchange - butting heads and going at it. He proceeds to repeat this for 3 more buckets, making sure he’s scoring on Williams every time. After his 4th shot, he gets the ultimate victory - the Celtics are forced to sub Grant Williams out.
That’s what makes Butler a star. He knows actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. Anyone can do it when they’re up. (See Dillon Brooks - making arrogant statements after wins and declining to talk to the media after losses.)
It takes a real winner to talk trash and back it up. That’s the killer mentality we should all strive for - calling your metaphorical shot and making it. Let your deeds do the talking.
Rise to the occasion
Another inspiring theme has been players rising to the occasion.
Lonnie Walker IV on the LA Lakers is my favorite example. He’s a lesser-known bench player. Since teams usually tighten their rotation in the playoffs, he wasn’t expected to get many minutes.
But he played well enough early on to earn some game time. And man, did he step up when needed.
Take Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors. Lakers are up 2-1 in the series. It’s the start of the fourth quarter and they’re down by 7.
That’s when Lonnie gets down to business. He hits a shot. One more. Then another. He has the hot hand, so they keep feeding him. He proceeds to score all 15 of his points in the final quarter, willing their way to a victory. (For comparison, the best scorers average 8 points a quarter.)
How does a relative nobody become the Laker’s first option in the final quarter of a pivotal game, despite having LeBron James (arguably the greatest player of all time) and Anthony Davis (a generational superstar) on their team?
By rising to the occasion. He didn’t fold under the immense pressure. Instead, he stepped up when called upon and delivered.
This put him on the map. It was a breakthrough game for him - before that, no one knew who he was.
It’s important to remember that this doesn’t happen overnight, though. Just because people didn’t know about him doesn’t mean that he didn’t exist. He was always there, grinding and honing his skills. His performance that game wasn’t just luck; it was the outcome of his hard work.
That’s why they say success is when opportunity meets preparation. There are moments in life when something greater calls on you. You don’t get many chances, so you have to be ready to show up and rise to the occasion.
Here are the lessons basketball has taught me this year:
- Believe in yourself. The value you place on yourself is the only thing that matters. Who knows you better than you?
- Focus on the present. Take it one step at a time. That’s the only thing you have control over - you can’t change the past or decide the future.
- Actions speak louder than words. Let your deeds do the talking.
- Rise to the occasion: Put in the work so you’re prepared to step up when called upon.
This post took redacted minutes to write.
P.S: You can find more of my thoughts on Twitter @_suketk.