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Playing Like You're Winning

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
3 min read
Playing Like You're Winning

I don't think I've ever written about basketball. But it's something I spend quite a lot of time thinking about. God forbid, I don't play basketball myself — I just watch, read, and think.

We're in the midst of the fairest of all basketball seasons. The NBA Finals are entering their third game, following a year in which the league was as open and unpredictable as it has ever been.

I look to basketball for inspiration. As corny as it sounds, I am in literal awe of people who are able to bring out their best consistently over long periods. Particularly, I am fascinated by the slight differences that separate those who are "only" incredibly gifted and hard-working from those who can go all the way to become the best in their field. The league is full of so many talented players, but only a handful of them get to scale the mountain and win a championship. Luck certainly plays a role, but there's something else as well.

This year, I am lucky to see my favorite player making his way to the top of the mountain. I've been observing Jayson Tatum's development for over five years. Even before he was drafted into the league, he stood out as special — not because of his talent and athleticism, but because of his attitude.

Prior to the draft, Tatum reluctantly showed up to work out with the Boston Celtics. He showcased some of his skills but didn't necessarily shoot the lights out. But during this short visit, he managed to showcase something else as well. As Coach Brad Stevens described it, "He would miss two in a row, and it wouldn't dissuade him from hitting the next one. He had no thought about making the next five; he didn't get – he just kind of kept shooting it." Stevens wasn't just watching the basket; he was watching Tatum's reaction to his own failure and success: "He never changed his expression. Never changed his expression, went at a high tempo, but when he missed a shot he never showed anything but resolve to make the next one."

The Celtics ended up drafting Tatum. But they didn't just draft him; they did so while exhibiting unique confidence in his skills — and in the fact that Tatum has something that other people are likely not to notice. The Celtics had the first draft pick. But they traded it for the right to pick third (and get some future perks). Even though they wanted Tatum, they knew that the two teams picking before them were likely to pick someone else. And they did: The Sixers picked Marquelle Fultz, and the Lakers picked Lonzo Ball. Five years later, it's clear that Tatum was by far the best player of the three.

The Celtics knew because they saw something in him. They saw his ability to step into every shot as if it were about to go in. They saw an unwavering belief in his own skill, regardless of whether the last shot went in or not.

I often think about Brad Stevens's comments from the first workout. They seem to capture something about the difference between the potential for greatness and actual greatness. And it applies well beyond basketball. So often in life, we lose confidence, we make a mistake, we doubt ourselves, we say something wrong. The ability to step into the next shot as if you're about to hit it is an incredible power. It's true for sales calls, for product launches, and it's even true for a conversation with a colleague or with a spouse.

Day in and day out, we accumulate so much baggage. We carry around assumptions about ourselves and others. We carry around our history and a definition of ourselves. But to be truly great, we need to leave these behind — if only for a moment — and take a shot believing it will go in.

I hope it does tonight. Good luck, Jayson!