One constructive deed at a time. And so a legacy is built. It’s always in this order: The work comes first and the glorious narrative of the creative genius, if it ever comes at all, is woven and spun around the world’s reaction to the work.
Last night, in a 100-94 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kobe Bryant made another entry in the history books by surpassing basketball legend Michael Jordan on the NBA all-time scorer’s list.
According to ESPN, “Kobe Bryant made a pair of free throws to give him 32,293 career points, moving past Michael Jordan to 3rd on the all-time scoring list.”
For basketball fans, it’s no secret that Kobe Bryant’s stellar career was significantly influenced by the style and creativity that characterized Michael Jordan’s game.
After being congratulated by Jordan for accomplishing such a prestigious milestone, Kobe said the following about his hero: “He knows how much I’ve learned from him. From the other legends, but him in particular.”
A few nights before Kobe eclipsed Jordan’s career points total, the NBA did a special on the relationship between the two players. One of the highlights of that special came from a moment when a young Kobe paused during the middle of a game to ask Jordan for some playing tips.
It was Dec. 19, 1997*, right in the middle of the Bulls’ second three-peat, and Chicago won the game easily, 104-83. Chicago rode Jordan’s 36 points.
After the game, Chicago’s sideline reporter inquired if Jordan had imparted any wisdom on the budding star.
“(Bryant) asked me one question when we bent down at halfcourt,” said Jordan. “He wanted to know how when I turn around on my jump shot, how to lock the defense or how to feel the defense. I told him he should feel the defense with your legs. Once you feel the defense with your legs, you more or less have a feel for where the defense is and you can take advantage of that … I think that enhances his basketball skill, and someone did that for me.”
In a highly competitive sports culture where the “never let them see you bleed” mentality is often on display, Kobe was willing to set aside his ego and seek advice from the very guy who had just outplayed him. Although he was in a losing situation, he chose a winning response by daring to show respect even in a competitive situation.
Admiration for Michael Jordan, however, is not what makes Kobe Bryant unique. Kobe is only one of thousands of basketball players who’ve been influenced by Jordan’s impact on the game. What sets Kobe apart from so many other athletes is his work ethic, his relentless commitment to being a student of the game no matter how talented he is. Geoff Colvin, author of “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” wrote:
“Frequently when we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they’ve practiced for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically… Great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice – avoiding automaticity. The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one cannot do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible…Practice is all about pushing ourselves just beyond what we can currently do.”
Carlos Boozer, Kobe Bryant’s teammate for the Los Angeles Lakers, reflecting on his days playing for the Team USA Olympic basketball team, had the following to say:
You know what it was for me? And me and him are good friends, but I hadn’t really trained with him — is how hard he works. We saw his dedication to the game. He would get in the gym, lift weights, he would go over to the gym, get shots up before practice, go through the whole practice, and that was his routine every day.
He’s not great by accident is my point. He puts the work in. And I think what I learned about Kobe is he’s so hungry to be good, he puts the work in. I just think his hunger and his determination is what I was most impressed with.
Team USA Basketball coach, Jim Boeheim, had this to say:
Kobe, from day one, is just the hardest-working player I’ve ever been around. He just does an unbelievable job. He came in, he worked out before practice and practiced harder than anybody and then worked out afterwards and continued the whole trip.
Even Shaquille O’Neal, who was the team captain and MVP during the years he played alongside Kobe, conceded the superiority of Kobe’s work ethic to his own:
Kobe is a scientific dawg. He works out every day, practices every day. Most of the other stars are just dawgs, not scientific dawgs. Me, I’m a freak-of-nature dawg because of my size. LeBron could be a scientific dawg like Kobe, but he’s not, he’s got a lot going on like I did, so that’s preventing him from being one.”
The world loves milestones. The arena is never more crowded than when someone is on the verge of breaking a record or doing something rare. We all love to partake in the fruits of labor. The unfortunate thing about milestones, however, is that they often seduce us into equating success with moments of glory. The Kobe Bryant’s and Michael Jordan’s of the world are all too often celebrated as “freaks of nature” or “talented geniuses” whose brilliant accomplishments are the result of being gifted, being discovered, being celebrated and then being rewarded. But the real story of success is a much more lonely and painful one.
The number of people who want to take you out for a drink after you’ve received a standing ovation for a breathtaking performance are far greater than the number of people who want to endure the discomfort of joining you for several grueling years of training and rehearsing.
The number of people who will say “I knew you were going to do something great” after your hard work has paid off are far fewer than the number of people who will question your judgment and worry about the prospects of you embarrassing yourself while you’re in the middle of working towards goals that have no guarantees.
The number of people who will say “congratulations on a job well done” are far greater than the number of people who will say “I think you should go for it. If you need help, let me know.”
To be driven by the need for rewards and recognition is to be driven by the very thing that comes most when it’s needed least. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali wrote, “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
A similar oft-quoted sports mantra is “champions aren’t made in the ring, they’re only recognized there.
In a Nike commercial entitled “Work Before Glory,” Kobe’s hero, Michael Jordan, says it best:
It’s not about the shoes. It’s about knowing where you’re going. Not forgetting where you started. It’s about having the courage to fail. Not breaking when you’re broken. Taking everything you’ve been given and making something better. It’s about work before glory. And what’s inside of you. It’s doing what they say you can’t. It’s not about the shoes. It’s about what you do in them. It’s about being who you were born to be.
One of the great anti-secrets of success is the willingness to do what few others are willing to do. And there are fewer things that the majority of people are willing to do than work hard. And the hardest work that one can possibly do is the hard work of creating work that’s worth doing even when no one is standing around cheering you on. When you can do that, you’ve reached the ultimate milestone.