Leadership · Curriculum · Lifelong Learning

Perhaps, one of the best things to know is when it’s your time to retire, move on, or change. And then to embrace it wholeheartedly. Maybe shelter-in-place gave me a lot of time to think. Maybe it’s my Libra sentimentalism. Or, maybe it’s because lately, so many teachers at my school, in my district, and all throughout my networks have been having conversations about moving on to their next chapter.

For the last two years, I’ve been observing and reflecting upon exit strategies, transition processes, and change behaviors. Each story is different. Each person is unique. It’s interesting to envision:

How will you go out?

In my circles, teachers answered these questions with phrases like: gracefully, professionally, with class, with integrity, and even quietly, to name a few. Ideally, your shift would be on your own terms and in the manner of your choosing. While some love a retirement parade with all the hoopla, others prefer to leave in the middle of the night. While some need closure, others let it be. While some go to great lengths to keep in touch, others walk away and never look back. Yet, the question remains:

How will you be remembered?

While first impressions always steal the spotlight, I think it’s the lasting impression that matters most. Not the last impression, as in the last thing you do, yet the lasting influence that you have on others over time. That matters.

What will be your legacy?

In my legacy series, I usually reflect on the lives and work of three people who have passed away. Here’s Part I and Part II so far.

This time, however, I’m analyzing the curtain calls of three basketball coaches–all of whom are still alive. Each one has a story. Each one will leave a legacy. The question is: What kind of legacy will they leave?

The Last Days of Knight

Growing up in Indiana, basketball was more than a sport–It was a way of life. Many kids (including me) grew up playing basketball in barns, driveways, and the biggest high school gymnasiums in the nation. Even if it wasn’t your thing, you still played–because that’s what people did. I remember wearing a shirt passed down to me from a sibling that read: “Hoosiers Love The Knight Life.” There was nothing like basketball in Indiana. And everyone in the state either loved, hated, or feared Bob Knight, Indiana University’s head basketball coach. Yet, they all respected him.

At least they did, until one, pivotal point in time:

The time to retire, move on, or change.

Like unwinding the strands of DNA, The Last Days of Knight producer Robert Abbott untangled the coach’s admirable qualities, such as discipline, perseverance, fairness, loyalty, mental toughness, attention to detail, high expectations, accountability, hard work ethic, record-setting graduation rates, and emphases on academics and learning that he undoubtedly instilled in others–from the all the other stuff. And Hoosiers loved all of that. Like fields of corn, soybeans, and dreams that grid the flyover states, it was also ingrained in Hoosier DNA.

Unfortunately, all the good was overwhelmingly overshadowed by the bad. Over 20 years later, there’s a dark cloud that still hovers over the Hoosier state to this day–at least in my mind. It’s a sour taste, a lonely lamenting, a myriad of Midwest melancholy to complement the overcast skies. It’s hard not to reminisce. With Hoosier Hysteria, it’s hard not to go back to the comfortable good that we want to remember…

In the early decades, Bob Knight commanded the kind of high expectations like an army general. It was the kind of fear to revere. By the 1990s, however, when people, culture, and the game of basketball were changing all around him, Coach Knight would not change.

To be clear, the General ruled with an iron fist. In so doing, he created a culture of fear. In the pursuit of playing basketball to perfection, Coach Knight employed strategies to motivate kids that might be considered unacceptable by modern standards.

Is there more to it than that? I mean, maybe kids these days are too soft. Maybe the adults are too sensitive, and that’s the reason why they don’t get results. Maybe no one’s tough enough to keep up with… the way it used to be.

Yet, having grown up in a culture where every basketball coach in the state also wanted to be exactly like Bobby Knight, the documentary really has me thinking: Was it really worth it? Was having a grown adult two inches off the nose of a teenager screaming and yelling all the things effective? Perhaps. It definitely yielded results of many kinds.

Producer Robert Abbott goes on to analyze the era, the culture, and the coach:

Bob Knight was always right. If he was ever wrong, he was more right about his being wrong than you were. He was a dictator–not a collaborator. Indeed, he was one of the most brilliant thinkers of his time. Yet, his high expectations couldn’t keep the whistle from blowing on his collaborative, interpersonal embarrassments. While he was loyal to those who followed his every command and threat, he played mental games with college boys who didn’t know how to navigate adult, personality, and inferiority complexes.

What’s especially scathing to me was how he shamed his players, fellow adults, and anyone who opposed him… over and over and over again. In fact, that was one of his biggest tactics. It was nothing new. In the classic bait-and-switch, he would SHAME everyone outright… And then retreat back to his base as a hurt victim. Every interview, story, and conversation with the coach–It was all about him. It was almost as if he wasn’t able to process his own worth, security, and emotions, and then he took that out on everyone around him.

And people around him just took it–out of a sense of Midwest values, duty, respect, honor, and tradition, of course.

But that’s not the biggest tragedy of a potential hero I was conditioned to root for.

Even after he was fired from Indiana, he was begged to come back for this benchmark and that anniversary over and over and over again, yet he would not return to Assembly Hall. It was a dying plea from the Hoosier faithful on their figurative deathbeds, and whose spirits wanted… craved… and even begged for… closure. But no. He would not return.

But that’s not even the biggest tragedy of a coach I was conditioned to support beyond belief, truth, and reality.

When Bob Knight was finally dragged back to Assembly Hall arm-in-arm… It was too late. He wasn’t fully present. He was rumored to have had early signs of dementia, and he may very well be demonstrating all the signs. So, by the time that he could have made amends with all the sour tastes as a reflective practitioner, and by the time that he could have been the bigger person and a good sport with fellow humans as a fellow competitor, and by the time that he could have cemented his legacy with an admission that the changing times might have surpassed him for a moment as a hall-of-fame professional, alumni family member, and lifelong learner… It was too late.

And THAT is the biggest tragedy of a leader who missed his time to retire, move on, or change.

And THAT is the biggest tragedy of a human who finally lost my respect.

As a native Hoosier, Bob Knight’s legacy still feels like a jump ball. While I know to whom the possession arrow belongs, I’m wrestling with the referee’s whistle–the discernment between convenience and truth; complacency and growth; tradition and change. Not yet willing to throw in the towel–or the chair–it’s a legacy that may fester in the hearts of Hoosiers forever.

And that’s why I’m especially keen to anyone who shames others for sport.

If you’re good enough at what you do, if you’re secure, and if you’re generally a good human, then you don’t need to shame others along the way. Shaming people into submission rarely yields positive, sustainable results.

The Last Dance

Growing up in Northwest Indiana, my family and I watched or heard several Chicago Bulls games. I even got to attend a few Bulls games in person! Bulls basketball also became a way of life, but in a different way. High school and college basketball were legit–but the NBA scene was just an added bonus. After all, the NBA wasn’t real in the same way that high school and college basketball may have been. The NBA was just a stage for celebrities, right?

Just like The Last Days of Knight, I’ve also watched The Last Dance several times. Again, this basketball documentary was about so much more than just basketball. The series Director Jason Hehir provided the context in a way that any viewer could infer parallels, analogies, and themes of leadership, learning, and life. Again, I was watching to see how the amazing run came to an end.

Before the final run of the sixth championship (1998), Coach Phil Jackson was reportedly told by the General Manager and Team Owner that it would be the last season together before the coach and team were dismantled by management to rebuild for the future. By all accounts, it would be… The Last Dance. Therefore, the series was framed in a way to make the viewer hate the Chicago Bulls General Manager and Team Owner for ending such a good thing.

What?! Really? How could they? So unfair! So UnbelievaBulls! How could the coach, the team, and the players be treated like this?

One thing I admired about this series was that it revealed a lot truths that were previous rumors. It righted the wrongs. It set the record straight, so to speak. I especially admire how the Director captured and shared multiple perspectives to tell the whole story. This rarely happens anymore, right? Without giving it away before you get to see it, here were just two revelations that blew my mind about….

How and why did the Bulls dynasty really end? I mean, it seemed like it would last forever.

At least it did seem that way, until one, pivotal point in time:

The time to retire, move on, or change.

From 1998–2020, I thought that Michael Jordan–the greatest basketball player of all time–wanted to go out on top. That’s what he wanted his legacy to be. And that’s why he personally ended the dynasty run. To my knowledge, that’s what everyone around me thought. That was the narrative sold. Hearing multiple perspectives revealed that it was actually Phil Jackson–the coach–who made the call.

After finalizing the second three-peat, the owner approached the coach with an offer to extend the run–regardless of what was previously said at the beginning of the 1997-1998 season. Nearly unprecedented in their relationship, this was the ultimate olive branch extended from the Owner to the Coach.

Phil Jackson declined.

It was not Michael Jordan who ended the dynasty. It was not the despised General Manager or Team Owner who ended the dynasty. It was the Coach. In episode 10, Phil Jackson said with the innate kind of all-things-Zen:

“It was a good run. It’s time to move on.”

He knew it. He could feel it. He went out on his own terms. He went out professionally, with class, and with integrity.

That’s legacy-building courage that I admire.

In addition, episode 10 (last episode) also reveals the admission from Bulls players that the hated General Manager who seemed to have his own agenda was one of the greatest General Managers of all time. What?!

I admit it. The first two times I watched The Last Dance, I was so caught up in frustration with management that I didn’t hear this. I mean, I heard it, but I didn’t hear it. How dare the General Manager say:

“Players and coaches don’t win championships; organizations win championships.”

OH MY! How could that be? I mean, it was Michael Jordan who had the ball in his hands, facilitated the moves, orchestrated the team, and made all the shots. It was Michael Jordan who knew the most about basketball and was the greatest of all time! Once again, leadership failed the team! Or did they?

It wasn’t until my third viewing where I finally heard it, and I got it. And it’s another theme that translates directly to leadership structures in education: In the end, organizations win championships. It was management who recruited Scottie Pippen. By Michael Jordan’s own admission, there would be no championships without Pippen.

It was also Michael Jordan who didn’t like Phil Jackson–at first. It was Michael Jordan who absolutely opposed Tex Winters and the triangle offense. It was Michael Jordan who didn’t understand how the triangle offense would initially get the ball out of his hands… only to yield more meaningful, efficient, and record-setting opportunities for the GOAT overall. That really happened. That’s one more perspective in the whole story.

The Last Season

On June 2, 2021, Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Kryzewski shocked the world. The hall-of-famer announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2021-2022 season.

Here we go again! One of the great ones is about to engage a new starting line. But how will he go out? I mean, how will he [continue to] define his legacy?

While the basketball season hasn’t started yet, I can only imagine all the standing ovations he’ll get at every single game this year. I predict that even UNC–Duke’s biggest rival–will even send him off with a kind of congratulatory, mutual respect co-constructed over the years.

Yes, Coach K will go down in history with well over 1,000 wins, several championships, final fours, and all the rest. But that’s not what matters to me. Here are two moments that reveal his genuine character. Here are two moments that will forever cement his legacy in my mind.

Here’s What Matters To Me:

After losing to seemingly-less-than-worthy opponents like Lehigh and Mercer in the first round of March Madness, Coach K could have screamed at his team to maintain high expectations, and, basically, to save his own tail, place the blame on his players. Instead, the guy who had every right to be too big for his britches was found walking to the locker rooms of the teams who just beat his soon-to-be NBA players, where he would congratulate them on a game well-played.

What?! Who does that? Certainly not the big-timers with so much at stake, with so much on the line, and with a personal, campus, and collegiate reputation to uphold. Maybe no one cared about that–but I was watching what leaders do in trying times.

Indeed, the coach has been faced with moments of challenge, strife, and change. And basketball fans around the world have also been watching. There’s no way that one leader could stand the test of time for this long. That’s what some thought.

At least they did, until one, pivotal point in time:

The time to retire, move on, or change.

My biggest Coach K moment of all came to me while I was watching “Coach 1K” on TV as he earned his 1,000th win. He said something that I’ll never forget. He revealed one of his secrets to winning, success, and longevity. He shared with the world why he gets it. In a post-game interview, he said:

“You have to change with the culture of the kids you’re privileged to coach.”

He demonstrated that it’s possible to be both:

  • A fierce competitor and a good sport
  • A brilliant thinker and a warm demander
  • A great individual and a humble collaborator
  • A leader and a follower
  • A consumer and a creator
  • A successful change-maker and a class act
  • A role-player on a Bob Knight team and a hall-of-fame coach in his own right
  • A lifelong learner and a lifelong inspirator
  • One with high IQ and one with high EQ
  • One who builds others up without tearing others down
  • One who stands on the shoulders of giants and one who blazes his own trail
  • One who transcends moments and one who transcends eras
  • One who does things right and one who does the right things

It’s not just making a difference in the lives of others that counts; it’s why and how you do it.

That’s what matters to me.

That’s a legacy that matters.

What are your thoughts? Comment here!

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