March Madness is on! Such a great time to enjoy college hoops, the powerhouse schools and the Cinderella underdogs. I was reminded recently that few experiences prepared me more for startup life than my time 18 years ago as a college basketball walk-on and before the 1998 NCAA tournament.
Last month I was in Phoenix, Arizona, for a board meeting. The night before, at an evening EdTech meet-up hosted by CampusLogic, from the corner of my eye I caught what appeared to be an old teammate from my days playing basketball at the University of Utah. “Tony? Nah,” I thought, but naturally I had to find out. Sure enough, it was, in fact, an old acquaintance and talented teammate from more than a decade and a half earlier. We chatted for a few hours that evening and I was drawn back to stories and memories from my time around a legendary coach and remarkable team. With March Madness descending upon thousands of us basketball junkies, here’s a reflection back to one of the many lessons learned on the court.
Being a walk-on athlete coached by Rick Majerus left no room for a half-hearted effort. And the result was special…
Basketball walk-ons, by design, have to fight for their place. During tryouts it was an all-out battle to scrap for the ball, defend relentlessly, and hopefully sink a few buckets. For me they also turned out to be a good excuse to remove the studs in my newly pierced ears (yes, my hallmarks of the 90s and college freshmanhood). It’s a long-shot, maybe a crapshoot, to make the team as a walk-on, and so when I made the final cut I was thrilled—but unsure as to how the team would receive me. To the team’s credit, they cooled my nerves by just being down-to-earth good dudes. Great group. If you remember, these were many of the same athletes who just a year prior had me and every other high school basketball player in the state glued to the TV watching them compete against Kentucky for the NCAA national championship.
Coach Rick Majerus was famous for “calling a spade a spade” with his players, including walk-ons. Anyone who has played for him has memories that bring laughs and cringes both. I recall times when he would gather the team and talk specifically about individuals. “Andre [Miller] and Hanno [Möttölä] and Alex [Jensen] will play at the next level,” he’d say. He’d then talk through those who had promise to excel at the collegiate level. And occasionally he’d work his way down to the walk-ons. “Krommenhoek, this is as far as you’ll go in basketball and even this is a stretch for you.”
One time this message really hit home. To understand the impact of his communication, you have to understand the context. Before playing for the UofU and traveling with the team on road games, I had been on an airplane a total of 1 time. Traveling with the team was a privilege in itself; traveling alongside guys I looked up to in every way was an honor. My job on these trips was straightforward: learn the opposing teams plays and prepare our team by running those plays with them in a pre-game shoot-around. So, that being my only responsibility, on this trip to Austin, for some reason I rushed in a few minutes late to the team shoot-around. Coach Majerus stopped the whole team, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “Krommenhoek, you’re not worth a damn if you give me less than 110%. If you ever show up late to a practice or shoot-around again don’t bother coming back.” It was sobering, and of course never happened again.
For a young man still figuring himself out, the lesson that some situations leave no room for a lack of effort has served me over and over. Society seems to shrink at the notion of labelling people. And yet Coach Majerus’ way of repeatedly labeling his players for what they were, in my case was empowering. I was reminded that I was not the athlete with a reserved spot on the team and that talent was probably the last reason I was there. As an underdog, being labeled as such forced me to focus my time and maximize my effort. Here is what I mean:
As a walk-on, you have no athletic scholarship, food stipends, or (back then) access to study hall. So I had to maintain my academic scholarship. The daily 3-hour practices made this challenging. Every minute outside of basketball had to be used for schoolwork—but I also had basic financial needs that couldn’t be met without working a part-time job. So to counterbalance the need to cut my hours waiting tables from 20 to 10 hours/week (all I could spare between practice and school work), I bargained with my boss that if I gave him my player tickets, he gave me the prime schedule—so I could maximize my tips waiting tables.
In life and occasionally in business, it’s easy to imagine ourselves as something we will become instead of what we really are. We dream big, talk big, and play a big game. And sometimes, we need that brutal honesty from a grey-haired coach. This rings true to me: know where you stand, what you are not, and what is required of you if you are to succeed in what you’ve signed yourself up for whether on a court/field, in a startup, or other commitments. In some endeavors we are not good enough to give less than 110%–and that can be a great thing.