The Importance of Relevancy, Reverence, and Relationships

From Left: Torino K. Johnson, Glenn Wilkes Sr., Jim Burson, and George H. Raveling

Good coaches can win, they can spot talent, and they can improve a player’s game. But great coaches have something else. They are relevant. The great coaches have a philosophy, a work ethic, and an insatiable quest for knowledge that allows them to remain vibrant innovators and master motivators. They do not spend a lot of time talking about what they know or have accomplished, choosing instead to focus on what they still want to learn or accomplish. They have a sincere reverence for the game, which has enabled each of them to achieve a level of fame. And if you’re lucky to spend time with them, you’ll quickly realize that they want nothing more than for others to enjoy the same. You see, these individuals place a high value on building relationships, a prudent investment of time, energy, and emotion that pays dividends long after each coach has walked off the court for the final time.

Three of the coaches pictured here (with the exception of one of the coaches who is on track, but is still learning) understand the importance of relevance, reverence, and relationships. Their passion for the game of basketball continually evolves, as does their commitment to instilling in their players a sense of civic and personal responsibility. The great ones do more than teach the game. They teach young people how to become game-changers, people who respect themselves and their communities enough to demand more. Surely, there is no greater gift. John Wooden taught his players the meaning of the word commitment, stressing “success is peace of mind which is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” George Raveling sent players he was recruiting scads of excerpts from books, newspapers, and magazines that challenged young men to “make each day a personal masterpiece.” And Jim Valvano forged a lasting legacy, modeling how to live up until the day he died. Valvano’s philosophy about people not becoming “whole” until they become “part of something bigger” than themselves is a mantra every teacher should consider adopting.

Great coaches are mindful that their legacy will not be reduced to games won, nets cut, banners raised. For them, it’s about empowering players to become a force both on and off the court, a process that begins with introducing them to a wide range of concepts, including social justice, cultural fluency, and media literacy. Why not introduce your players to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, or Jon Gordon’s The Energy Bus? Great coaches suggest that their players use their social media accounts to follow Shaun King, Sheryl WuDunn, Len Elmore, Nicholas Kristof, and Fareed Zakaria — who will fill their feeds with content that is more meaningful than any trending meme.

We must encourage our players to be able to speak with authority about Dr. J and Dr. Cornel West, and about Michael Jordan and Michael Eric Dyson, because, when you get down to it, the basketball court doesn’t matter nearly as much as the composition of the Supreme Court. The great coaches know that when they help players develop intellectual curiosity and a true sense of responsibility, these young men and women will become true leaders and game-changers… and not just on the basketball court.

The veteran coaches in the photograph at the top of this article remain relevant because they are still learning, still questioning, still mentoring. And because of that, they remain agents of positive change. The young guy in the photo (Me) understands he is fortunate to have had the opportunity to stand alongside these champions on and off the court. And, if he’s truly blessed, he’ll remain as relevant as the three very relevant coaches standing next to him.

The challenge now is for each of you to go create your own photograph. Who do you want to meet? What do you want to learn? Don’t limit the discussion to the X’s and O’s. Delve deeper, and focus on the whys.

Go into the conversation with a thoughtful game plan. Isolate what you’d like to learn and what you might be able to add to the discourse. What article, experience, perspective, or question will you contribute to keep these coaches engaged in a conversation that will result in everyone feeling energized? That degree of reverence is how we all move toward becoming — and remaining — relevant.

Consider this an invitation to take the first step. Get out a pen and some notecards — email is not going to cut it here — and then write a brief message to someone who has helped you in your career. Share with that person the difference he or she has made, and include a copy of an article, an excerpt, or a quotation that you’d like to share. Next, contact someone who you would like to add to your list of mentors. Include an article or a passage that you found to be helpful or provocative. Just like that, you’ve initiated a conversation that may be extended via email, FaceTime, or a face-to-face meeting.

If we are to become great teachers, we must be willing to become great, lifelong learners. I’ve attached a list of resources I’ve used to make myself a better coach, a better husband, a better father, and a better friend. I sincerely hope you’ll share some resources with me. Remember, becoming a great coach comes down to these three R’s: relevancy, reverence, and relationships.

· I like making lists, and this one contains strategies you can employ in your 20s that will pay dividends in your 40s. The first entry surely is something you’ve already read — and something you cannot read often enough. Please take a moment or two to glance at these five simple strategies.

· Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou taught important lessons about courage, love, and persistence.

· The title of this article by Benjamin P. Hardy succinctly summarizes the message: Surround Yourself With People Who Hold You to a Higher Standard than You Hold Yourself

· Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a frequent contributor to Time Magazine, writing about sports, race, and culture. He has written a book titled Writings on the Wall — Searching for a New Equality Black and White. In this article, which appears in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Abdul-Jabbar speaks about the economic barriers many young students face.

· George Raveling has been a factor — make that a force — in my life ever since my grandmother enrolled me in the “Reading With Raveling” program when I was in middle school. Here’s scientific evidence why you should never underestimate the power of reading. Additionally, connect with Coach Raveling on his site at

· If you’re not reading Jim Burson’s blog, now is a good time to start. This week, he focuses on Marching to your own Championship. Take note of the two key words in this piece: enthusiasm and gratitude. Then, consider bookmarking Jim Burson’s Solution-Based Basketball

· Coach Raveling’s chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King only came because a young man took a chance to go out and experience something new. Never underestimate the value of being present.

· This list contains easy-to-understand guidelines about reframing after a setback or a loss. 7 Ways to Bounce Back

· Gary Colson (Colson’s Corner) is a website designed for coaches who want to be challenged by a skillful tactician with X’s and O’s who also happens to be one of the games 1–3–1 zone defense pioneers.

· TPG Sports Group is a company that creates events that provide networking opportunities for those interested in careers in athletics. These events are ideal for developing mentor/mentee relationships.

· Kevin Eastman is recognized as one of the best teachers and clinicians in the game of basketball. He has spent well over 30 years as a collegiate and NBA coach. You can connect with him through his website:

· Columbia University offers a certificate program that is 100% online, reasonably priced and has allowed me to connect with leaders from across the sports industry. You can obtain more information by visiting their website at

· Lastly, Glenn Wilkes Sr. is a Hall of Fame collegiate basketball coach, he has a wealth of knowledge and has written several books that demonstrate the breadth of his knowledge on the court (Flex Offense) and in management.

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