About three months ago, 19-year-old Frank Ntilikina was the 8th pick in the NBA draft. He signed with the New York Knicks to begin his third year of professional basketball after two previous seasons in French and European leagues.
As you might have guessed, this was an absolute dream come true for the teenager who was raised in France after his Rwandan family members fled their home country to escape the dangers of war.
I read about his story in an autobiographical article Frank wrote to share the best piece of advice he ever received.
While playing at an invite-only high school all-star basketball game in 2014, he was lucky enough to shake hands with Michael Jordan along with all of the other young hopefuls.
Not wanting to let this opportunity pass him by, Frank mustered up the courage to use his handshake as an opportunity by asking MJ the most important question he could possibly think of at the time.
“Hello, Michael. Can I ask you, what is the key to all your success?”
Sure, this sounds like a generic and wildly open-ended question that any teenager could come up with. And if you’re like me or Frank, you’d probably expect an equally-cheesy answer that drills home the obvious point that it was just a whole whole lot of hard fucking work.
But that’s not what Michael gave him. Not even close. Here is what he said.
What you have to do is love basketball. You can’t be great unless you really love the game. Once you love basketball more than anyone else in the world, then you’re willing to sacrifice. You’re willing to wake up early. You’re willing to do what it takes to be the best. But first, you have to really love it.”
Now, to some of you, this probably still means “you have to work hard”. And yes, that’s baked in the answer a bit, but it’s not at the heart of it.
The reason love is so important is because when it’s completely true and honest, the hard work isn’t hard anymore.
Ask any elite athlete, any billionaire investor, any famous actress, or any great painter. They don’t have to convince themselves to go to practice, schedule important meetings, attend auditions, or break out the brushes. They don’t need motivation. They don’t even think twice about it.
They are in love. They have a deep-rooted commitment.
It’s just the same as how romantic or familial love works. When you’re in love with your spouse, it’s not a chore to call them on the way home from work to check in and see if they need anything on the way home. When you have young children whom you love, you don’t have to force yourself to make them breakfast or warm their bottle. These tasks on their own (making phone calls and preparing meals) are not always enjoyable. But for the people you love, they are automatic and performed without hesitation or resentment.
In sports, this love is equally imperative if you want to reach your potential.
When Michael Jordan talks about love, he is referring to the relentless pursuit to squeeze every last drop out of yourself in the name of your sport. He means keeping sights set on extremely long-term goals and tailoring every part of your life to align with them. The lifestyle, vocation, schedule, and people that you keep are all a part of this.
Understand, there are thousands of Olympic athletes every year in a plethora of sports who do not have the financial means to comfortably support themselves. For the love of their competitive career, they take part time coaching jobs or rely on wavering sponsorships for the occasional handouts. They live with family members or other athletes, they practice for hours on end, they prioritize sleep and food over social events and time-sucking indulgences. Not because they don’t want nice things or great experiences, but because they are in love.
Sure, we all know the few superstars in the headlining sports who do not fit this description of the “starving artist” type of athlete, but remember there are usually decades of an extremely unbalanced life that preceded their eventual success.
They loved it first. They gave everything first.
Even while pouring every ounce of effort, time, money, and resources into their dream, these people achieve a state in which sacrifices are simply nonexistent.
Frank and Michael do not like basketball.