Take the Shot

I was 14 years old. I was the point guard on our ninth-grade basketball team. We were playing a team from a neighboring town – a school that was five times larger than ours. The history of this matchup was a slaughter – with our school the sacrificial lamb. But this year we were a pretty good team – this year might be the year we could actually stay on the court with this big school. It was a big deal to us – we wanted to win.

The game was held in our school’s small gym – a gym that had a tile floor and room for maybe 40 spectators on the small stage at one end of the end of the court. (That was not a problem – surprisingly, ninth grade boys’ basketball games don’t often draw a large crowd.)

And we were playing them well. With 12 seconds left we were trailing by 1 point when we stole the ball on a poor pass they made to the wing. As was our pattern, the teammate who stole the ball immediately passed the ball to me as their players scrambled to get back on defense and our team raced down court toward as the seconds ticked.

I had played a good game, and as was often the case I was our leading scorer with 17 points. As I raced the ball up the court, I can still recall the final last 4 seconds like they were 4 minutes. As I got to the top of the key, I looked for someone to pass the ball to. I could hear our coach yelling “Shoot!” as I pulled up still desperately looking for a teammate to break open. One of my least athletic, but hardworking teammates had made it all the way under the basket and was grinding to get rebounding position in case a shot missed. When I could find no one else open, with three seconds remaining I forced a pass to him under the basket. He saw it coming just enough to make a futile effort to catch it before it bounced off his hand and landed out of bounds. The buzzer sounded; we lost by a point. We never had a shot.

Oh – I so wanted to spin it that my buddy should have been looking for a pass, but I knew that was wrong. I was the best player on our team and when given a golden opportunity to take a big shot – I had choked. No – worse than that. It would have been a choke if I had tossed up a brick. No, I had not even taken a shot. A fear of failure had overwhelmed my desire to win.

We played that same team again later that season on their big, fancy home court. I think we won the rematch, but I honestly don’t remember. And over the next 3.5 years in high school I started on a lot of teams as a quarterback, shortstop, and point guard. We had a good number of wins and a few losses – but no single moment has stayed with me as much as the moment on that tile floor when I failed to take that shot.

When back visiting my old hometown last month, I drove by that old school building where we played that game. As of just last year it’s no longer a school; it now sits empty looking sad and lonely. But if I entered, I could easily mark the exact spot on that tile floor where I could have taken that last shot now more than 50 years ago. Some things we always regret; some things we just don’t forget.

But this little story has a good ending – and even a good lesson. As my dad drove me home from the game, it was obvious that he knew how I was feeling. He shared a story from his accomplished college career when he had lost a big game for his team – and although I was not yet in the mood to stop beating myself up, I appreciated the kindness in his effort. I fumed most the evening preferring to just be out walking alone, but by the time my head hit the pillow that night, I had made a promise to myself: I would never again fail to take a shot when the opportunity came my way.

From that searing formative moment standing on that tile floor at the top of the key, I have kept my pledge to take the shot. It helped me decide to apply for a Master’s program when I was not sure I was qualified – I took a shot. It helped me decide to try and date a beautiful girl (who eventually became my wife) who was out of my league. (I get credit for two shots here, the first to get a date and the second after she dumped me.) I took a shot at being a labor mediator and arbitrator – although I was the only non-attorney in the group. (Oddly, this ended up being an advantage as many groups in conflict seemed to prefer talking to a psychologist rather than lawyer.) I took a shot to see if I could get admitted to a challenging PhD program that was only admitting six per year. And it gave me a push to say yes when I had the opportunity to take a longshot at creating a new company and business model, one that grew into a wonderful success today, QLI – an opportunity for which I was completely unqualified. Then it was a shot to launch MindSet a decade ago, and then another as we created BetterCulture in the middle of a Pandemic.

Of course I have also taken a good number of shots over the years that didn’t pan out – I have several stocks that have not exactly gone to the moon, some business ideas have flopped, and my occasional trips to Vegas were seldom profitable – but I have learned that if you take the shot and miss, there will be more shots to be had down the road.

So, take the shot. You just might win. And if you lose, consider it to be a small price to pay for avoiding the lingering regret that can come from just a moment on a tile floor in a little gym.