New York Knicks shooting guard J.R.Smith recently received the NBA’s 2013 Sixth Man award, which is given annually to the league’s most valuable player coming off the bench as a substitute. A recent New York Times article about the award found here describes Smith’s transition on the Knicks team from a talented but volatile lone wolf player to an incredibly valuable teammate. Smith made this transition under the guidance of Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who saw the potential in this young man despite his reputation for being hard to handle. Smith initially disagreed with Woodson’s decision not to include him in the starting five lineup, but took Woodson’s coaching advice to heart and worked hard to change his ways. “I’ve been known as such a selfish player for so long,” Smith acknowledged after receiving his award. “I just wanted to show everybody that I can be a team guy and it’s all about team.” Woodson was beaming like a proud father when Smith rose to accept his award.
This is a good story for many reasons, not the least of which is that I am a big Knicks fan. (Go Knicks!) But what I really like about this story is the lessons it offers us and our children. A lesson about having the determination to make a difficult situation better, and most significantly, a lesson about the power of a good mentor.
J.R. Smith is a talented player who developed a reputation early in his career for being a loose cannon on and off the court. When Smith joined the Knicks last year, Coach Woodson knew that Smith needed a different perspective. Woodson told the NY Times that he began by helping Smith look the part of a team player: “I want his shorts pulled up. I want him to look presentable, be a professional.” Woodson also knew that he didn’t want Smith to start. He strategized that Smith would be more helpful to the team and to himself if he came off the bench, and told Smith this on the first day of the Knicks pre season training camp.
Smith was not happy with this news. As he told USA Today Sports, “Once I heard I wasn’t starting it threw a monkey wrench into my goals.” He didn’t like Woodson’s explanation that “it’s not a matter of who starts but who finishes the game,” and that he wanted Smith to come off the bench to execute winning plays for the Knicks. But Smith figured out how to swallow his disappointment and anger, put things in perspective, and over time accepted his role. And he has become a better player for it, as evidenced by the Knick’s strong performance in the latter half of this season, and Smith’s being voted as the best sixth man in the league.
Smith had tremendous professional and personal growth this season: he faced a difficult situation, learned to accept it, focused on a goal bigger than his individual desire, and success followed. But key to this was having Woodson as a mentor. Some might say that this is just part of a coach’s job, but Woodson took a focused interest in helping Smith change his ways. He assessed Smith’s strengths and weaknesses, engineered a plan to use Smith’s talents to maximize team effort, and guided Smith along the path to becoming a more mature and better player.
The power of mentoring was also greatly in evidence at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC’s fundraising benefit which I attended a few nights ago. Their mission is to provide children facing adversity in New York City with professionally supported 1-to-1 mentoring relationships with adults. This organization, which has been facilitating such mentoring relationships for over 108 years, proudly declares as their motto that their mentoring work has “The Power to Change Lives”. We saw this in action that night as three pairs of “Bigs” (the mentors) and their “Littles” (the children) introduced themselves, talked about their mentoring relationship, and introduced the honorees for the evening.
Watching those adorable, well spoken “littles” (one of whom proudly proclaimed that his favorite Knick was J.R. Smith, by the way) confidently tell the packed room how much they admired and appreciated their “Bigs”, and hearing the “Bigs” say how rewarding it was to spend time with and learn from their “littles” was truly inspirational. No doubt that these are life changing relationships.
So as you are watching the Knicks sweep the playoffs(!), and J.R. Smith makes an impressive move on the court, chat with your sons (and daughters) about how he got there, and the lessons he learned along the way. Remind them that everyone can benefit from the power of mentoring.