Hard lessons aren't always the best ones

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
11:15
AM ET
By Henry Abbott

Eat your stinkin' vegetables.

That's my general approach. Life can be hard. A lot of times, what you're called on to do is to just not quit. Just stare down whatever crazy crap life throws at you and keep going.

Sugar-coating things, in that context, can almost seem ridiculous. Talk to Kobe Bryant about what he thinks when his alarm goes off in the dark early morning. (You think he wants to get up and go work super hard? I doubt it. I suspect he would love to sleep in. But that's the job.) Talk to a zillion different NBA players' moms -- the ones who worked two or three minimum-wage jobs to keep food on the table. Talk to soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. Talk to people who get a ton done in difficult circumstances anywhere in the world.
Larry Bird
Larry Bird made a name for himself at Indiana State, but only after dropping out of Indiana University where he felt isolated and homesick.
(Indiana State/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Life can be tough, and filled with things you don't feel like doing. Whoever said it was going to be easy was lying.

Being a good leader, however, is to decide how much of that reality to share. How much of that harshness do you want to pass down the chain, and how much are you going to let people figure out for themselves?

If you coach fifth-graders, say, and your team has lost its funding, you don't drive the players to the game obsessing about money -- it's better for everyone if you do a little hand-holding, right? You fire up the bus, suck up the financial worries and talk to them about basketball. Right?

Well, what about incoming freshmen at college?

In many ways, this is the easiest time of life. Sit in a classroom. Write some papers, take some tests. Hang out and drink beer. They serve food three times a day, and no one is homeless. Do these people really need a lot of tenderness? Aren't they coddled enough by the leafy green trees and the ivy-covered walls?

I believe it's OK to run a school of hard knocks, as it were, even if it can be a little stark. (In my first meeting with my academic advisor at NYU, I embarked on some long-winded soul-searching about what I wanted from my time at the school. He cut me off after about a minute. "Do you have the schedule of classes?" he asked in a forceful New York accent. "Yes," I replied. "Why don't you find four you like, and sign up for them?" I was out the door within the minute. Then I followed his advice, and his cues -- in my time at NYU I never talked to him or any other adviser again, understanding it was better to just figure it out for myself.)

But that doesn't mean the school of hard knocks is perfect, by any measure. By all means, educators can get more out of their students by doing a fair amount of getting more involved. A more active, thoughtful, compassionate role can be better for everyone involved.

I've long thought that basketball had way too much machismo where some compassion would really do wonders.

And there may never be a better example than Larry Bird and the Indiana University.

Yes, I know Bird went to Indiana State. But first he went to the Indiana University for 24 days before dropping out.

Larry stinkin' Bird was enrolled to play for Bob Knight.

But as I have learned from the early pages of "When the Game Was Ours," the book Bird and Magic Johnson wrote with Jackie MacMullan, Bird intended to be a Hoosier. But in his first days on campus, a few things happened. He didn't make friends easily, and was socially isolated. He was intimidated by Coach Knight and talked to him only in passing. He was also painfully aware of how poor he was -- other students had all kinds of things he didn't. (Score one, however, for a clean program under Knight -- at a lot of schools, someone like Bird would have had no trouble happening into some pocket money.)

When he broke his foot in a pickup game, and had to hobble all over campus only to be late, Bird had had enough. "I'm sitting there saying to myself, 'I'm hurt, I can't work, I'm going to be in trouble for being late to class, I don't have any money, and they won't let me play in any of the games," Bird said. "Time to go home."

Bird felt some hard knocks. He was served a big plate of vegetables. And they were too much for him. So he bailed. Bird hitchhiked home and made a different life for himself.

A pep talk from Knight ... or anyone ... may well have changed history. But apparently nobody at Indiana had taken the initiative to build a bridge to Bird. That's probably too much to ask of Indiana University. No one has the kind of time it would take to make that kind of connection to every freshman.

Maybe that's just the system working. Maybe that's Bird tasting failure, and building resolve that served him the rest of his days. That's one good story line.

But more than anything don't you find yourself thinking ... wow, that's Indiana Univerity's loss. Maybe a kinder, gentler approach would have been really smart.

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