Life Lessons On and Off the Court: ESB Exclusive Speaker Coach Lionel Hollins
Those who’ve spent a great deal of their lives in professional sports will tell you the lessons you learn on the court or field often translate into life and career. Executive Speakers’ Lionel Hollins has spent decades as an NBA player and coach. His credits include an NBA championship as a player, and turning the Memphis Grizzlies into a winning team during his head coach tenure. We recently caught up with Coach Hollins in Memphis.
What are some life lessons you have taught – and learned – through coaching?
There are so many lessons to learn through sports. Sports are like a microcosm of life: there’s planning, hard work, persevering – and teamwork. What I try to tell players is, ‘life isn’t fair, nor does it owe you anything.’ All you can do is try to be the best ‘you’ – you can’t be anybody else. You have to define your own success. For me, success is maximizing your God-given talents. If you have been given a little, you maximize your success with it. If you have been given a LOT, and you haven’t taken full advantage of those talents, you’re not a true success. It’s not about wins and losses – it’s about being the very best you can be in whatever you’re doing, and with the gifts you’ve been blessed.
No matter what you do – in whatever line of work – there’s always going to be someone who is better than you. Giving your all doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win. But if you do those things, you can rest easy, knowing that you’ve given your best. Michael Jordan was given a lot and did a lot with his potential. Then you look at a player like John Stockton. He wasn’t very big in stature, but he maximized the gifts he had, and became a role model to players who were shorter, maybe not as quick or as athletic. He still had great success because he went out there and competed with intensity and consistency every day.
Who or what has been the biggest inspiration throughout your life?
When I started out, it was my grandmother because she raised me. She taught me great life lessons in how to conduct and carry myself. I was then fortunate to have strong coaches. One of my first coaches, Bill Evans, taught us a lot about what was expected of us as part of a team, but also what was expected of us from society. He pushed us to set the bar high and be the very best that we could be – on and off the court. He was the first to teach me about character and values, and to be a better person than an athlete. These coaches along the way taught what it really meant to be a man. It had nothing to do with being 21, nothing to do with whether you had children or how much money you had. It was about who you were as a person, how much integrity, and how you carried yourself through all types of situations and adversity.
In junior college, I was the only African-American on the team – and one of the only African Americans in the community. I had to learn to relate to all types of people different from me. They didn’t look or talk like me – but they still cared for me. That was a great growth phase of my life, which allowed me to relate to anybody. Once I got to the pros, I met other men who conducted themselves with poise and class, no matter their story or past obstacles. So when people chose to criticize me for whatever reason, these men taught me no matter what you say or do, there will always be naysayers. The people who really know you – always know who you are. Those who DON’T know you may never understand who you really are. And that’s okay – don’t waste your time with them. It gave me a moral foundation that everyone needs for success.
In today’s world, what advice would you give young people interested in pursuing professional sports?
You have to first define your idea of success. It doesn’t come without adversity. Then you have to understand there is a process and a journey – and embrace it. You can’t be a champion without it. You have to be ready to fail, to pick yourself up, to be committed, and you have to give your all. No matter what amount of talent you have or how good your style, there’s just a process you endure to be a winner and a champion. There are no shortcuts to the finish line. You also have to be willing to have thick skin. When you try to accomplish something, there will be people who have attempted and failed – who will say ‘you can’t.’ You have to be stubborn in your thought process. Coach Tony Dungy once said to me, “Stubborn is a virtue – if you’re right. If you really believe in something, you need to be stubborn about it.”
The last thing I would tell young people is, victims can’t be victors. There are a lot of talented people who become ‘victims’ – or excuse-makers. I believe that everybody has a story. If you take 100 people and listen to their story, 50 will tell you about all the obstacles that kept them from being successful. The other 50 will tell you all the obstacles they overcame to be a success. That’s the difference.
What are some accomplishments – both on and off the court – that make you most proud?
One of my biggest achievements was graduating from college. I didn’t know I was smart enough or capable of graduating, but I did. That gave me the confidence to do whatever I wanted to do – along with sports. I never wanted to go around and talk to kids about the importance of finishing school and not be able to tell them I had a degree. From a professional basketball player’s perspective, one accomplishment was winning the championship in ’77. From a coach’s perspective, it would be taking the Memphis Grizzlies from a losing culture to a winning culture. That was huge for me. But most importantly, it was raising my kids and being married for 35 years. Family and marriage also mirrors other situations in life: it’s easy to give up or quit when things aren’t going your way. You have to step outside yourself and see things from other people’s perspectives. You start giving more and your problems become less important. Hopefully I’ve also made an impact on those I’ve coached and worked with. If you ask Marc Gasol or Mike Conley about me, they’ll say I’m tough because I demand a lot of effort and have high expectations. But I can also be fun – and I can laugh at myself when I make mistakes. That’s important. But you can’t make everyone happy. I’ll say this: I may not know the key to success, but I know the key to failure – trying to please everybody. You can’t. You have to stay true to yourself.
How has the NBA changed over the years?
Today, there are 30 teams vs. 17 when I started. Back then, there was no ESPN, no Fox Sports, no talk shows on radio or TV. The exposure is greater now, which puts more emphasis on the individual rather than the group. Today’s players are better trained and can play longer. Not necessarily more talented, but often now they’re taller with more agility. As far as mental and physical toughness, I would give that to the older players. I’m not saying they aren’t tough today, but more so back then. Bottom line – the game is still the same. As Hubie Brown used to say, “The game of basketball is simple. Know when to dribble, know when to pass, know when to shoot.” It still comes down to mastering the basics.
What’s next on the horizon?
As far as the future, I would very much like to coach again. That’s where my heart is. Whether or not it’s my destiny, I don’t know. I love being back in Memphis. I’m about to introduce a new basketball product in March, I’m working with a new charity, and I’ve been doing basketball clinics and camps. I’m looking forward to a new chapter of speaking to various groups around the country. I hope they will take something I’ve said and run with it; allow my message to inspire or encourage them to be all they can as a leader.