Roy Exum: What All Have In Common

Friday, May 24, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

A couple of weeks ago I was in the midst of a wonderful crowd and, as we took our places for dinner, there was a bright-eyed fifth-grader seated on my right. Like most his age, he didn’t say much at first but with a nudge or two, he really got it going. He told me how excited he was about going to McCallie this fall and I promised, “Get ready – you are going to have more fun that you ever had in your life.

I asked about sports and he said he might go out for basketball and then, I got it going. “Never let a day go by you haven’t practiced some sport on a team. You try out for everything … the more you put into any sport, the more you’ll get out of it. Same as life … the longer you wait, or get the courage to try, you will be the goat until you take the first step.”

“Yeah,” he squirmed, “but I don’t know how to play a lot of stuff. I don’t know what position to play in football … and I don’t think I could hit a baseball if some guy who was great was throwing it …”

“Then let me ask you a question: have you ever heard of Clayton Kershaw, who pitches for the Dodgers, or Tom Brady who played for New England?” I asked as he quickly nodded his head. “What about Stephen Curry – he’s maybe an inch taller than your dad – or what about Freddie Freeman, who is playing like Superman right now for the Braves?” Oh yes, he said and then it was my turn to lay anchor.

“You know what each of those guys have in common? And hey, wait .. this includes every athlete at UT, male or female … here is my question: What’s the one thing that is true about each one of them?” Now my future Hall of Famer was all ears because what I told him is the naked truth. “Not a single one was any good the first time they tried.”

“I don’t know if they were as scared as almost everybody else is that first time, but I know not a one would trade anything for the journey it took for them to reach the top. You love to watch Curry take it down the floor for Golden State but never forget that when he was your age, he had the same questions that you do, and he had the exact same opportunity to go out for a team that you do…”

My little buddy loved that. It’s a fact, too, that sports is a mirror of life. I’m convinced that nothing in the Bible doesn’t still take place today, or that we shouldn’t heed the ancient lessons in the same modern-day way. I can’t think of anything on earth … any and every thing … where the more you give, the more you get. It’s hard turning a ‘scar’ into a ‘star’ but just like a fifth-grader who is so eager to turn this unknown world known as McCallie into his newest stomping ground, the greatest moment in a child’s life is the self-realization that the “comeback” would never be possible without a set-back.

It’s a shame so many kids have lost sight of Michael Jordan but, let’s face it, it has now been 20 years since the man universally known as “the greatest basketball player of all time” last scored a basket for the Bulls. My dinner partner from a couple of weeks ago had heard of him but did not know Jordan was cut when he first went out for the high school team in Wilmington, N.C. “Yes, he was … and you want to know why? Michael Jordan was told he wasn’t good enough. And what’s more? Michael knew it but unlike many millions the world over who accept defeat as terminal, he dared to roar back at the wolf we call failure.

Over the years the reason Jordan got cut changed to the fact he wasn’t tall enough (5-11 at the time) but he grew four more inches that year, which mattered not an iota to the truth that he practiced every day, many times in the rain on an outdoor court, and I have personally heard him tell people not making the team was maybe the best thing that ever happened in his life.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career,” Jordan will tell you. “I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Some other things that Michael, now age 56, tells kids: “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I cannot accept not trying.”

“You can practice shooting 8 hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”

“The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”

“I’ve never lost a game, I just ran out of time.”

* * *


First, the set-up, this from the Wikipedia files: Jordan and the Bulls compiled a 62–20 record in the 1997–98 season. Jordan led the league with 28.7 points per game, securing his fifth regular-season MVP award, plus honors for All-NBA First Team, First Defensive Team and the All-Star Game MVP.

The Bulls won the Eastern Conference Championship for a third straight season, including surviving a seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals; it was the first time Jordan had played in a Game 7 since the 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Knicks. After winning, they moved on for a rematch with the Jazz in the Finals.

The Bulls returned to the Delta Center for Game 6 this night, leading the series 3–2. Jordan executed a series of plays, considered to be one of the greatest clutch performances in NBA Finals history. With the Bulls trailing 86–83 with 41.9 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, (Bulls’ coach) Phil Jackson called a timeout.

When play resumed, Jordan received the inbound pass, drove to the basket, and hit a shot over several Jazz defenders, cutting the Utah lead to 86–85. The Jazz brought the ball up-court and passed the ball to forward Karl Malone, who was set up in the low post and was being guarded by Rodman. Malone jostled with Rodman and caught the pass, but Jordan cut behind him and took the ball out of his hands for a steal.

Jordan then dribbled down the court and paused, eyeing his defender, Jazz guard Bryon Russell. With 10 seconds remaining, Jordan started to dribble right, then crossed over to his left, possibly pushing off Russell, although the officials did not call a foul. With 5.2 seconds left, Jordan gave Chicago an 87–86 lead with a game-winning jumper, the climactic shot of his Bulls career.

Afterwards, John Stockton missed a game-winning three-pointer. Jordan and the Bulls won their sixth NBA championship and second three-peat. Once again, Jordan was voted the Finals MVP, having led all scorers averaging 33.5 points per game, including 45 in the deciding Game 6.

Jordan's six Finals MVPs is a record; Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Tim Duncan are tied for second place with three apiece. The 1998 Finals holds the highest television rating of any Finals series in history. Game 6 also holds the highest television rating of any game in NBA history.

* * *

A fifth-grader cannot yet comprehend such an achievement. They focus instead on the fact Michael Jordan was cut from the team the first time he tried. It is up to us to remind a 12-year-old that every great athlete, no matter the sport nor the venue, wasn’t any good at it the first time they tried.

If there is a better lesson to be learned, I don’t know it. But because this Monday we will solemnly remember why there is a Memorial Day, I can readily assure you that in America thousands of fallen soldiers guaranteed there would never be a comeback without a set-back.

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