Kareem and Wooden

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined Tyler Cowen on Conversations with Tyler it was an odd pairing. Sure, Cowen’s interests are wide-ranging, but Kareem as one of the first guests? The only incongruous thing was my understanding.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has lived quite a life, growing up around Jazz greats in NYC, playing basketball during a golden age of college basketball and the early days of the modern NBA. He’s lived, reflected, and written about being an African American. He’s been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, just like John Wooden, who was like a second father to him.

We’ll pull quotes, ideas, and lessons from the book Coach Wooden and Me.

Skill and Luck. The two-jar model is handy for identifying outcomes that tend toward luck and outcomes that tend towards skill. Kareem was lucky to be tall was not born to play basketball and preferred baseball as a kid. As a ten-year-old, “I had a better chance sitting on the ball and hatching a unicorn than making the ball swish through the hoop.”

The next two years, “I spent much of fifth and sixth grade riding the bench.” By the seventh grade, “I was no longer an XXL benchwarmer.” Yet, as a freshman, “my style of play reflected my personality: politely passive.” Eventually, Kareem became the NBA’s leader in career points.

Not so fast, John Wooden might say if he were still alive. In the two-jar model, outcomes = skill + luck, and prioritizing outcomes means relying on luck. That’s a bad feedback system. Kareem explained, “Coach Wooden’s most important lesson was that we should never focus on the outcome but on the activity itself.”

Success wasn’t about winning, winning was a byproduct of success. Wooden said, “Just do everything possible to prepare. As long as you know you have done everything possible and you have given your best self on the court, that is your reward. The scoreboard is meaningless.”

And, “If you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it’s going to adversely affect the things over which you have control.”

This is why, Kareem writes, that Wooden didn’t like sports movies, because the team that learned the lesson often would win. “His (Wooden’s) point was that the life lesson is the success. The traveling is the reward, not reaching the destination.”

Kareem arrived after UCLA because he wanted to be there. John Wooden prioritized aligned stakeholders.

It’s not only rowing in cadence but recruiting people who want to be on the boat. Wooden told Kareem, “I wanted young men who wanted to play for UCLA and not one that I had to talk into playing for UCLA. I always believed that the way to build a great team is to find the kind of people you want to work with and tell them the truth.”

UCLA was able to recruit people who wanted to be there. This is what Josh Brown does through blogging. It’s what Warren Buffett does through letters. And the form matches the recipient. Here’s how Cade Massey explained one version of this:

One theme through Kareem’s life was the racial changes and lack of changes in America. Through his involvement, he met people like Muhammed Ali who told him, “When you saw me in the boxing ring fighting, it wasn’t just so I could beat my opponent. My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful in order to get people to listen to the things I had to say.”

Kareem heard plenty of racial taunts at basketball games. He told reporters, “Bitterness gets in your way, you get involved in revenge instead of trying to create a change. I used to be bitter, but now I just play hard to win.” And after one game, “I’d already delivered my presentation of racial equality earlier that evening when we crushed their team.”

If bull markets conceal bad investors maybe the opposite is also true; times of stress can reveal people of remarkable character. Kareem Abdul-Jabar is one of those people.

Thanks for reading.

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