It Begins with Humility
More than any play I drew up on the board in our locker room, more than any strategy or concept we used during our national championship season, one word paved the way for everything that would follow: humility.
This probably is not the way most books following a national championship begin. There are victories to talk about, stories to tell, and lessons to learn. Humility is not even a basketball word. You might ask, where does this guy, or any basketball coach, get off talking about humility? I agree that humility is scarce in the athletic world. Egos run rampant, as much on the sidelines as on the court. The egotistical coach, the arrogant athlete, they are stereotypes that too often ring true.
Here at the outset of this book, you should understand that there are two ways to handle subjects as a coach or teacher. You can teach people or try to help them from showing them how you succeeded, or you can allow them to see and learn from your failures. The former is much more fun. But the latter often is more instructive. In this book, I not only will talk about successes and how they came about, but failures, too, in the hope that both sides will be helpful for some; because we all come up short at some point.
I was not a picture of humility for much of my career. That is one reason I want to talk about it first. The other reason is this: Without humility, no other principle or lesson I talk about in this book will hit home. It is the key to everything that follows.
When our players came back to campus before school started for the 2012–13 season, I knew there was a great danger of becoming complacent or resting on the success of having made the Final Four the previous April. When we got the team together, the theme of my first discussion in our first meeting was humility. It was the theme of my first speech to our fan base during our annual Tipoff Luncheon in October. And it was the last word I wrote on the board after every victory through our entire season, right through the NCAA championship game. For our team, humility was the key to staying focused and to keeping a winning mind-set, as well as the key to accepting setbacks and turning them to positives. Most of our players embraced the lesson of humility, which is a remarkable thing for a group of young people.
It was more than the key for our players. It was the key for me. The longer I live and the more I experience, the more I believe that humility is the quality essential to sustained success, and a lack of it is the major stumbling block for those who find success for a time, then lose it. I’m not claiming to have perfected the trait, but I have learned its importance, and am learning to let it take root in my life and work. The lesson of humility comes to everyone eventually. Either you learn its value, or life drills it into you—and life can be a painful teacher. It is a lesson best learned before life makes you another case study. Let me give you an example: myself.
We all have our share of personal regrets. My greatest professional regret might surprise you. It wasn’t leaving the University of Kentucky and walking into my first professional failure with the Boston Celtics. Failure is not final, and I always have said it is fertilizer for future success. No, my great regret from a professional standpoint is that I was not humbler at an earlier age. Here is how it worked for me. My early coaching career was a succession of surprising rebuilding jobs, each more celebrated than the one before. My first head coaching job was at Boston University. The team had won seventeen games combined in the two years before I arrived and hadn’t had a winning season in fifteen years. Within five years we had made the NCAA Tournament. After working as an assistant coach to Hubie Brown for the New York Knicks, I took over as head coach at Providence College, which had just finished a 12–20 season. In my second season, we went to a Final Four. The next season I had a dream job, head coach of the New York Knicks. For a kid who grew up just eight blocks from Madison Square Garden, at 26th Street, it was as much as I could ask for. They’d won just twenty-four games the year before. In my second season, we won the franchise’s first Eastern Division championship in nearly two decades.
From there it was on to the Roman Empire of college basketball, the University of Kentucky. We took a program famously crippled by NCAA probation and were back in the Final Four in four years, and won a national title in six. Professionally, everything I touched seemed to be turning into gold.
Over the course of that time, I developed a feeling that much of that success was about me and what I was doing. It was difficult not to feel that way. There’s no question when you coach at Kentucky, you fall into a trap of thinking you’re much better than you really are, because of the adulation and attention. It is constant and seems to come in a never-ending supply. I did not know it in the midst of it, but that arrogance, that thinking of yourself as the best, is one of the biggest reasons successful people stumble and fail. It helped lead me into an error, but it was a fortunate one.
I was very lucky to have left that atmosphere when I did. I look back at my time at Kentucky and realize I didn’t carry myself with the humility necessary to foster more lasting relationships. Thankfully, I was able to build some with several remarkable people, anyway, that remain to this day. Because I left when I did, after being on top for some great years, I had a good ending. Most Kentucky coaches have not. Adolph Rupp didn’t; he was in a fierce battle to keep coaching. Joe B. Hall retired under fire despite winning a national title and reaching three Final Fours. Eddie Sutton left in turmoil. Tubby Smith never got his just credit for the outstanding job he did. His major problem was winning the championship too soon. So for me, leaving Kentucky personally wasn’t a bad thing. I recognized that I was falling into a trap with all that adulation; but I really didn’t understand completely the consequences until I failed with the Celtics. If I hadn’t left, I might not have learned that important lesson of humility. Instead, the experience taught me a great deal and I emerged from my time in Boston with the knowledge that I needed to live my life more humbly. I retained that knowledge, but from time to time I would forget it, or not put it into practice, much to my dismay and detriment, which I will discuss during this book.
The consequences of not learning humility can be tragic. If we don’t always see these consequences in our own lives, we should be able to recognize them all around us. Not learning humility is, for one thing, an expensive lesson. In 2009, Sports Illustrated estimated that 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five years after their playing careers are over, and 78 percent of NFL players are facing serious financial distress just two years after their retirement. Others might tell you it’s a lack of discipline or poor financial advice that brings this about. I’m convinced that more than anything else, in most of these cases, it’s a deficit of humility.
Look at the headlines to see examples of people with great talent who fail in many ways. What usually isn’t in the headlines or the stories is the root cause of their failure. People could see it coming for Terrell Owens, the onetime dominant receiver of the National Football League, the player who at the top of his game once said, “I love me some me!” Here was a guy who once caught a touchdown pass over two defenders, grabbed a marker from someone behind the end zone, autographed a ball, and then tossed it to one of his financial advisors. The flamboyant celebrations, the constant need to be in the spotlight even off the field, the brash pronouncements, these are typical of the kind of arrogance displayed in all areas of life today, even if Owens is an extreme example. As high as he was riding—and he made $80 million from 2000 to 2010—Owens took wild financial risks. He made questionable real estate deals. He lost $2 million in an electronic bingo venture in Alabama, an investment that not only was made on an illegal enterprise, but in violation of NFL gambling rules. In 2011, with his football performance sliding, he went to a judge in Georgia asking the court to reduce his support payments to the four mothers of his four children. His Georgia home was in foreclosure. In January of 2012, he told GQ magazine that to anyone who texts him asking him where he is, he responds with a three-word message, “I’m in hell.” Yet he still was not heeding life’s call to humility.
This is a story that is repeated with painful regularity. The mistakes Owens made, while on a much larger scale, perhaps, are mistakes that many make. NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones recently told a gathering of incoming league rookies that he once blew a million dollars in a single weekend. Beside him on the stage, Owens remarked, “Man, you crazy.” And if Terrell Owens calls you crazy, you can take it to the bank. Self-aggrandizement, alienation of friends, family, or teammates, a tragic tendency to overestimate one’s talent that leads to overreaching, they all are traits of people who lack humility.
This also is a story that is not new. The ancient Greeks had a word for this very situation: hubris. It means extreme confidence or arrogance to the point that one loses touch with reality and overestimates one’s abilities. Often in Greek mythology and drama, their heroes would have great success, only to demonstrate hubris, bite off more than they could chew, and be laid low. The Greeks took this concept so seriously that hubris was a crime in ancient Athens. To humiliate a defeated foe was a crime.
Today, it is commonplace. NFL receivers aren’t the only ones who fall into the trap. Some of the most insecure people are movie stars. To see the Mel Gibsons of the world achieve such stunning success, believe they cannot fail, and then be brought low out of arrogance and lack of humility is becoming a frequent narrative. Nowhere is it more personified than in Charlie Sheen. His reckless behavior, combined with a complete refusal to honestly assess himself, led him to assert that he was “winning” even as he was losing stature and face in the entertainment world, not to mention the leading role on a top-rated television show he had helped build. That he capitalized on his runaway arrogance with a so-called comedy tour shouldn’t obscure the truth. What he achieved was not true success, but mere notoriety, and not even the best kind. By failing to embrace humility and clinging in desperation to his own arrogance and misplaced belief in himself, Sheen continued the cycle of self-destruction that was leading to his problems. The same cycle can be seen in many fields, from business leaders who saw no limits to their income or luxuries, to politicians who thought they were on a roll that could not be stopped, only to be run out of office. The list of those for whom humility not only might have saved a fortune, but their future, is long and star-studded.
I can see how it worked in my life. Whether it was Boston University, the Knicks, Providence, or Kentucky, every downtrodden program I took over turned around dramatically. So when I looked at the situation with the Boston Celtics, who were to get two of the top six picks in the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery, why would it be any different? Because I lacked humility, I just couldn’t accept the possibility that I had only a 28 percent chance of getting the best-case scenario, the No. 1 and No. 2 picks. Of course I would get those picks, I reasoned. If I had been humbler, if I had been more aware of where my success came from, I would have looked at that situation and understood that the team was over the salary cap, that the odds were against getting Tim Duncan, the best player in that year’s draft, and that it was not the great opportunity I was making it out to be. I might still have gone to the NBA, but it would have been a different job, had I understood better why you win. A lack of humility clouded my judgment.
Lacking humility makes you overextend. It makes you feel immune not only from common consequences, but sometimes the law. Mike Tyson spent time in jail, and then lost his considerable fortune because of a ridiculous lifestyle of consumption and surrounding himself with bad advisors. People who lack humility often do this. Rather than surround themselves with more talented people with whom they would have to share credit and success, they pick the wrong people, and rarely share the credit. Show me a chief executive officer who keeps all of a $20 million bonus instead of passing some of it along to his fellow executives, and I’ll show you someone who lacks humility, and is heading for a fall. Humility forces you to treat people around you better, to share with people, to carry them with you in any success you have. Humble people do that. That’s why you see people like John Wooden, maybe the greatest coach of all time in any sport, or Mike Krzyzewski, who is the modern-day John Wooden, sustain success for so long. You can readily see their humility. That doesn’t mean they don’t have flaws, don’t get angry or make mistakes. Everybody does. But the key that opens up all the greatness is humility.
Read this list of athletes who have filed for bankruptcy, and consider the cost of not learning this valuable lesson: Warren Sapp, Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Mike Tyson, Marion Jones, Lawrence Taylor, Antoine Walker, Latrell Sprewell, Evander Holyfield, Michael Vick, Travis Henry, Lenny Dykstra, Kenny Anderson, and Leon Spinks. And that list is far from complete.
Even for those whom it doesn’t ruin financially, a lack of humility can bring other difficulties. In every player I have coached who has not reached his potential on and off the court, the common missing element in his life and attitude is humility. The overspending, buying ten watches, the decadent lifestyle, the entourages, the unrealistic expectation of their own stature and longevity—all this leads to poor choices and reckless decision making. There are many athletes who believe that because they are invincible at times on the court, it will spill over into other areas. This is a crucial misjudgment, and it all stems from a lack of humility. So many athletes I’ve coached are struggling right now. Every day, I hope they will find humility and become more like Jamal Mashburn, who was the opposite. He never thought he was good enough, and worked every day to get better. He wasn’t a so-called McDonald’s All-American, and he felt hard work and a willingness to listen to every suggestion for improvement were his road map to success. Jamal seemed to have a blueprint for how humility works in athletics. He was one of the most popular and respected players in University of Kentucky history. People sensed his humble spirit and were drawn to him. Jamal knew how to save and develop a lifestyle that was healthy and humble for his family. He also invested wisely for his future. Today he is the CEO of a Lexus/Toyota dealership and currently owns pieces of franchises with Papa John’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Dunkin’ Donuts, and no one outside his inner circle would even know it. I only wish Jamal would serve as an example for all my players, not only in how to act, but how to develop a successful life down the road.
A lack of humility can damage your influence on others. As I watched New York Jets coach Rex Ryan go about his brash predictions, including guaranteeing a victory in the 2012 AFC Championship game, it just blew me away—and I’m from New York! I was confused about why he was doing this. Confidence is instilled in private meetings as well as in the locker room, with just you and your team, your own family hearing what you think of their skills and abilities to win—that sacred locker room, which has been pried open to the public more and more with each year of advancing technology. He had everything to lose and very little to gain. Everyone in the business tells me he’s an outstanding football coach. I’m hoping the lesson he learned in 2012 brings about true success for him and his organization.
I’m also confused as to why Tim Tebow is such a lightning rod, why his spiritual belief rubs so many the wrong way. Is it because it is so out in the open? Or is it because people’s own spiritual inadequacies or insecurity about faith move them to anger when someone else displays it openly? Tebow deflects all accomplishment toward others and God. Who does that hurt? It can’t hurt anyone. Perhaps people don’t think his faith is real, that it’s an act. But if it’s an act, he’s one of the greatest actors since Spencer Tracy. He may not be the best quarterback, but he’s a humble, hardworking young man who has accomplished so much in his life because he truly understands humility and typifies the proverb, “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.”
Maybe his coach for a while in New York, Rex Ryan, learned some of those lessons. After the 2012–13 season, he told reporters that he thinks his bravado might have hurt his team, and that he plans to tone it down.
“I’ve got to look at the entire dynamic of what I say, and how it doesn’t just affect me,” he said.
That recognition is the beginning of a humble mind-set. On an even grander scale, LeBron James suffered the consequences of arrogance in the realm of personal popularity. James is not a bad person, and should be genuinely well liked around the league. But he staged a terribly conceived production when he decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. “The Decision,” a one-hour television show to extol his greatness while announcing his new NBA home, with a hastily tacked-on charity element after the initial negative reaction, brought him nothing but derision from basketball fans around the country. When the Heat lost in the NBA Finals in his first season, they did so to the delight of most basketball fans. James did not respond well even then, intimating that fans who criticized him would go back to their dreary lives while he would keep living in wealth. His jersey sales slipped from No. 1 in the league to No. 4. A year later in the NBA Finals, however, James performed brilliantly, like the most talented player in the league that he is. When asked after winning the title what enabled him to rise to the occasion, he said, “Losing in the Finals last year. It humbled me.” James found his way back when he found humility. He then said the right things, began playing for the right reasons, was able to let go of the bitterness he felt over the criticism he’d taken and look at himself in an accurate light. A year later, LeBron James cemented his place as the game’s best player by leading the Heat to a second straight championship.
By contrast, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder is beloved in the basketball world, even though his team lost to James and the Heat in the Finals. Why? Durant plays the game humbly and does not seek to draw all the attention to himself. His style of play is refreshing. Durant is old-school. He’s one of only a handful of players who will speak with the media before games as well as in postgame sessions. Before last season, he ranked LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as No. 1A and 1B in the NBA. When asked where he ranked, he said, “Nowhere near those guys,” although he had been the NBA scoring leader for two straight years. One day during the offseason, Durant sent out a post on Twitter that he missed playing flag football. When a fan told him where a game was going on, Durant drove there and jumped right in, with a bunch of kids in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Rather than put on a show like James, when Durant became a restricted free agent he recognized that Oklahoma City matched his laid-back style, and decided he would try to win a title there. Durant is the product of someone taking him at an early age and instilling the importance of humility. This is rare.
Few high school players come to college with humility. There are many qualities I like in young people today better than I did twenty-five years ago. But one of the big changes I don’t like is the lack of humility. Much of that stems from a change within the parents. Rather than instill incredible discipline from an early age, they instead keep telling their children how great they are with what I call undeserved praise, building them up constantly. What then happens is a train wreck when they fail. Too much praise also sets up within children an unrealistic view of themselves and unrealistic expectations for their future. In the award-winning education documentary Waiting for “Superman,” this statistic is reported: American students ranked No. 1 in the world in confidence, but No. 45 in the world in science. When our players arrive at the University of Louisville, what I tell them is this: “High school is over. People telling you how great you are, undeserved praise, is not going to happen here. You are going to get praise for your work ethic; you’re going to get praise for a job well done; but you’re going to understand, you’re going to deserve that praise, and you’re going to have to earn it. You’re going to carry yourself in such a way that when somebody gives you that praise, you’ll pass it along to your teammates.” We spend a lot of time on humility.
Junior Bridgeman is a former All-American at Louisville and a former star with the Milwaukee Bucks. Though he was a sixth man, he was so respected around the league that he became president of the NBA Players Association and his No. 2 was retired by the Bucks. He came in and talked to our Louisville players about his beginnings in business, and it really opened their eyes. Junior was an established NBA player with a role in union leadership, but during his time away from the court, he already was getting involved in his next business move: the restaurant industry. Junior not only bought a handful of restaurants during his playing days, but he went to work inside them. He worked at the cash register. He worked the drive-through window. He worked the grills and learned the business from the ground up, inside out. Can you imagine an NBA player today jumping into work in a fast-food restaurant, outside of a publicity stunt? But the humility that enabled him to do that has paved the way for his success since. He has become one of the most successful executives not only in the state of Kentucky, but the nation. If you look at the Forbes list of the nation’s richest African Americans, he ranks in the top twenty, right along with Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Jay-Z, and Bill Cosby. And he is one of the humblest people I know, a prime example of someone humbly working to learn his profession and reach his potential, and you know he is going to sustain that success.
Bridgeman said he was impressed at meeting Walmart founder Sam Walton for the first time. He wasn’t sure what to expect of such a successful person. He was surprised when Walton drove up in an older pickup truck and emerged wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. Bridgeman immediately liked him because of his lack of arrogance and pretense.
Bob Russell, Bridgeman’s close friend and pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, one of the nation’s largest congregations, calls Bridgeman one of the humblest people he knows, particularly for a person at such a high level of leadership. Russell fits the same description. He helped to build one of the nation’s ten largest churches, but shies away from the limelight whenever he can. When asked to write the story of the success at Southeast, which began small and now has more than 22,000 members attending every weekend at four campuses, the title was, “When God Builds a Church.” It certainly wasn’t titled, “When Bob Russell Built a Church,” though ministers around the world seek his counsel on leadership and ministry. Bob said one of the most impressive examples of humility he ever encountered was the popular preacher Billy Graham. During a series of sermons at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium at the University of Louisville in 2001, Russell was among a group of local ministers asked to pray with Graham before Graham would go out to speak. One night, a local seminary professor was invited in to pray with the group. Russell overheard Graham talking to the professor, and before the group left heard him say, “I wish I had more time. I’d like to ask you some more questions.” Russell was amazed that the most famous evangelist in the world would humbly ask questions of a professor. “One of the marks of humility is openness to teaching,” Russell told his congregation in a sermon about the subject.
Russell said he often uses the example of Jim Collins, business consultant, when talking about the importance of humility in leadership. In his best-selling book Good to Great, Collins distinguishes between Level 5 leaders (the highest level) with one level below, by noting that Level 5 leaders are more likely to put the interests of the company ahead of themselves and stay behind the scenes, while Level 4 leaders, who are just as gifted, have more interest in recognition. Level 4 leaders included bigger names, such as Lee Iacocca. In his Level 5 list were people you probably hadn’t heard of, like Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark. Yet these executives, whose names were more obscure, were leading companies that outperformed others and, just as important, doing it over an extended time.
Here’s what Collins writes of Level 5 leaders:
“They are somewhat self-effacing individuals who deflect adulation, yet who have an almost stoic resolve to do absolutely whatever it takes to make the company great, channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is foremost for the institution and its greatness, not for themselves.”
We see the same principles in sports, with players who are more humble and less concerned with celebrity becoming the ones who are able to sustain success—true success, contentment, and happiness—over a longer time.
Contrast the stories of Terrell Owens, Mike Tyson, and others with Nazr Mohammed. Here’s a young man who was very humble from the start, who knew that whatever he was going to get he was going to have to work hard to achieve. He lived very conservatively, like any union employee might live, and now for the next twenty or thirty years of his life he’ll live very happily because of his playing career, despite never making a huge salary by NBA standards. Humble people understand that no matter how much success they are having, it won’t last forever, and they need to plan for their future.
There are so many examples of humility being a catalyst to greater success and happiness. For some, like LeBron James, it is like breaking through a barrier. We had a cross-country All-American from the University of Louisville named Wesley Korir. Wesley grew up in very humble circumstances in Kenya. He ran five miles to school, one way, every day, and he ran home and back at lunchtime. When he showed up to run his first marathon after college, the Chicago Marathon, they asked him if he was an elite runner, and he said yes. But because he had never run a marathon before, they made him start in the back with all the recreational runners. He did as he was told, and still finished fifth. The organizers were falling all over themselves to take care of him after the race. He won the Los Angeles Marathon twice, but one day he decided he was taking too much pride in the races he’d already won. He called a local reporter to say he wanted to give away his medals because they were becoming an obstacle to him, and he felt his pride in them was somehow a danger to him. With the help of a local minister, he distributed those medals to young runners to serve as inspiration. Having made that symbolic act, Wesley returned to his roots, got back to the basics of his success, and won an even greater prize—the Boston Marathon—in 2012. His story illustrates the value of examining yourself honestly, recognizing when pride is crowding out humility, and having the discipline to remain humble amid success. We may not all give away our trophies and championship rings, but we need to mentally take them off before moving forward, and focus more on what it took to attain them.
Another Louisville athlete, Tony Stallings, was a football running back for the Cardinals who found some notoriety after his playing career by winning the King of the Jungle reality show on Animal Planet. But Tony could not give up his football dream, to the detriment of his family and his future. He even tells about camping out at the Cleveland Browns’ training complex to try to get them a copy of his game tape when his electricity and heat were being shut off at home, leaving his wife and child stranded back in Louisville. He finally accepted an end to his football career, and came back to Louisville and began a job going door-to-door for the local cable company. It pained him every time he was recognized. One Sunday, the sermon at his church was on the subject of humility, and he realized how much his pride was hurting him. Having learned that lesson, he relaunched his acting and modeling career. He opened a gym to train others. In 2010 he landed a role in a movie titled Courageous, an independent church-produced film that eventually grossed $34 million and became for a time in early 2012 the nation’s top-selling DVD. Tony has since moved to Los Angeles where he is a minister, acting instructor, and actor. “It wasn’t until I let go of that pride that something changed for me,” he said. “It wasn’t just that I needed to be humbled. I needed to accept that humility.”
What does true humility look like? Dakota Meyer is a Marine sergeant from Columbia, Kentucky. On September 8, 2009, in Afghanistan, he heard over the radio that some of his team was under fire. He climbed on a gun truck, got another Marine to drive, and rode in to meet about fifty Taliban fighters. During a six-hour firefight, he turned the tide of that battle by himself, according to military accounts. His citation later would read that Meyer “saved 36 Marines and soldiers and recovered the bodies of his fallen brothers. Four separate times he fought the kilometer up into the heart of a deadly U-shaped ambush. During the fight he killed at least eight Taliban, personally evacuated twelve friendly wounded, and provided cover for another twenty-four Marines and soldiers to escape likely death at the hands of a numerically superior and determined foe.”
When he got the call that he had been awarded the military’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, which no living Marine then held, his immediate response was, “I don’t want it,” because although he had saved many Americans, he could not save members of his own team. He explained, “I thought of myself as a failure. I couldn’t even get one member of my own team out alive. I lost them. They were the closest people to me in life.” It took the president of the United States and some other military leaders to convince him that the award was about more than him, and that he should see the responsibility that receiving it would entail. On the day the president was scheduled to call and tell him of the award, Meyer had to work at his construction job in Kentucky. White House aides told him that he might have to wait for several hours for the call, and he told them that he had to go to work, that he was part of a construction crew that needed him. When the president finally caught up with him on the phone, Meyer was at his construction site.
The person with true humility does not see himself as a lone fighter. People with humility see themselves as part of something bigger. At Louisville, we talk to our players a lot about “team ego.” Sergeant Meyer saw himself only as part of a team. He rejected the title of hero when first offered to him, because he felt he had let down his team.
Players with humility lift up the teammates around them. Derek Fisher, talking about Kevin Durant, said, “His attitude affects everything in this organization.” A star player without humility can hurt a team. I am hoping that Terrence Williams, a player who is like a son to me, will find humility in a big way. Terrence came from a difficult childhood and often likes to be the center of attention. I’ve always felt that when the lesson of humility kicks in for him, he will explode onto the scene. He has tremendous talent and did many great things for us, and that’s my wish for him. On the other extreme, Francisco Garcia was as humble a person as you will meet, and he spent a great deal of time trying to lift up others. When we went to the Final Four in 2005 and a reporter asked Francisco what he was most proud of regarding the team, he said, “I’m proud of how humble we are.” I guess that’s possible! If you’re going to have pride, pride in your humility is probably not a bad thing.
For me, this subject is woven through every other discussion, whether it is about success, leadership, dealing with adversity, sustaining prosperity, or happiness. Whether it comes through painful life experience or even through reading about the experiences of others, it is a lesson that is better learned sooner than later. With humility, you are better able to enjoy and understand success, and you are better able to examine and handle failure.
I couldn’t enjoy the Final Four with Providence College in 1987 because of the death of my infant son and I was watching my family suffer. In 1996 at Kentucky, we were in such a cocoon that it was nearly impossible to enjoy. The one thing I wanted to make sure of when Louisville went to the Final Four in 2012 was that everybody around us would enjoy the experience. We started the whole thing in New York with the Big East Tournament, where everybody had a great time and celebrated that victory. So we went into the NCAA Tournament with the right mind-set and we were determined to keep it. In 2013, there was pressure. We were expected to win the tournament. The journey, as you’ll read in these pages, was filled with obstacles. But when we won the title, and stood there with “One Shining Moment” playing, all of us were able to look around and know that the title wouldn’t have happened without so many others contributing. I saw my players, and so many families, and my own family on the court with me, and it was truly a time to celebrate. This time, winning the championship was a profoundly humbling experience, thinking about what these young men had accomplished, where they had come from, and how hard they’d worked. I marveled at what they were able to do.
Humility stops you from overestimating your own significance and it enables you to accept, understand, and live with failures and learn from them constructively. Humility teaches us that our successes, like our failures, are not earthshaking, and are more to be viewed as accomplishments shared with others or shortfalls to be improved upon, nothing more, nothing less. Humble people always handle adversity so much better because they understand who they are. It’s not the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the home they live in, the jewelry they put on, or the way people recognize them. So many athletes come to disappointing ends and wonder why it happened. Most often, it was a lack of humility, leading to arrogance, leading to the mistakes they made. They think they are more significant than they are and it makes them gamble with their lives and their professions. Then, when things go wrong, they lash out and blame others. Arrogant people spread around their failure with blame. Humble people share the credit of their success, and accept their failures with courage and character.
As a young coach, I made an exhaustive study of Vince Lombardi’s coaching philosophies and techniques. When Lombardi was breaking into coaching, as an assistant to the legendary Red Blaik at Army, one of his jobs was to take the film of that week’s game to General Douglas MacArthur at his home in the Waldorf Towers in New York City. Can you imagine the insight in that room? During his farewell speech, Lombardi remembered one thing that MacArthur told him about football, but I think it is true of all sports. Lombardi said MacArthur told him, “It teaches the strong to know when they are weak, and the brave to face themselves when they are afraid, to be proud, and to be unbending in defeat, yet humble and gentle in victory, and to master ourselves before we attempt to master others, to learn to laugh yet never forget how to weep, and it gives a predominance of courage over timidity.”
There’s one other important lesson humility teaches. It instills a sense of gratitude, even in the midst of difficult times. Gratitude is humility’s shadow. It is never far from the humble person’s heart. Earlier in this chapter, I told you about Wesley Korir winning the Boston Marathon. I didn’t tell you what happened after he won in Boston. Though he beat several of his countrymen in that race, Wesley was not selected by his native Kenya to run in the Olympic marathon. It was a bitter disappointment to him. It would have been to anyone. As a runner, what greater honor could there be? A prideful, arrogant person would’ve become angry and bitter. Wesley, however, proclaimed himself content. “I won the Boston Marathon,” he said. “I told myself, Olympics or not, I would be grateful.”
After being rejected for the Olympics, Wesley did what humble people do amid disappointment. He went back to work, training at home and working on projects for his Kenyan Kids Foundation, which included the completion of a hospital in his home village that he had been working to fund. At the very moment the Opening Ceremonies were taking place in London, Wesley was back in Kenya, presiding over the opening of that hospital, and watching a team of medical professionals from the University of Louisville and elsewhere treat several thousand people for various ailments. The effort even resulted in lifesaving surgeries for three children. “Seeing those children smile and knowing that their lives had been saved and they were going to live,” Wesley said, “was better than any gold medal.” And none of it would have happened if he had been chosen for the Olympic team, at least, not at that very important moment. Because Wesley did not react with arrogance and retreat into himself out of pride, lives were saved and changed forever. Humility and gratitude leave your heart and mind open to receive unexpected blessings, even on the heels of disappointment.
Learning the lesson of humility not only can change your life, it can change the lives of others around you. It has changed my life. As we move on in this book, I will share things I’ve learned and mistakes I’ve made. Even after learning many of these lessons, there still have been difficult times, mistakes and failures. But I have handled them better and persevered despite them because of humility. It is the most important difference between those who sustain their success, and those who falter and lose it. From looking back at thirty-five years of coaching, from observing the best and competing against the most talented, as well as experiencing the cruel turns of events that change one’s life, I can tell you that not only is humility the key to finding lasting success, but it is the key to lasting happiness. You can wake up in the morning and understand what contentment is all about. Learning humility clearly is a lifelong process.
Bob Russell calls humility “the slippery virtue,” because just when you feel like you have it, pride can come back and it can slip away from you. John Wooden said, “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
Go back through history, literature, spiritual books, and this cycle is repeated throughout generations and cultures: arrogance, fall, acceptance, humility, healing. We’re no different from people who came before us. I can’t state enough how important a lesson this is to learn, and the importance of learning it before life forces you to, a truth that will continue to reveal itself in the coming pages.
By the end of the basketball season, I didn’t have to keep writing “Humility” on the board, but I did. It set a tone for our players, who repeatedly exemplified being humble and hungry, in the midst of wins, losses, and, in the end, great praise and expectations. As I remember my players smiling in their championship moment, I know that if they can hold tight to the lessons of humility they learned in that championship season, for me it surely will be better than any title.
Copyright © 2013 by Rick Pitino with Eric Crawford
RICK PITINO is the head basketball coach at the University of Louisville. He won the NCAA Championship in 2013 with the Louisville Cardinals and the 1996 NCAA Championship with the Kentucky Wildcats—the only basketball coach to win national titles at two different universities. He will formally enter the Basketball Hall of Fame on September 8, 2013. Pitino also was head coach at Providence College during its remarkable NCAA tournament in 1987, and in the NBA as head coach of the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. He has written five business and leadership books, Rebound Rules, Lead to Succeed, Full-Court Pressure, Born to Coach, and the #1 New York Times bestseller Success is a Choice.
ERIC CRAWFORD is an award-winning sports journalist in Louisville, Ky., where he writes and appears on the air for WDRB Television. He spent twelve years at the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper, including six years as senior sports columnist. His work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors and the Society for Professional Journalists, and has appeared in numerous newspapers as well as online for ESPN, The Sporting News and CNN.