I recently watched Michael Jordan's hall of fame induction speech. It was pretty powerful and hard-hitting, though a bit raw. Jordan is the greatest, most dominant athlete I've ever seen in my life. He could jump like no one else, drive to the inside and dunk over you and, later in his career, pull up from almost anywhere and drain a three. And could he ever play defense. He was the closest thing to the perfect basketball player that you'll ever find.
Jordan's greatness was about his competitiveness, mental toughness and work ethic as much as his God-given physical skills and talent. He was so competitive and tough that when the game was on the line he wanted the ball--and it seemed everytime he sunk the winning basket and broke the hearts of many rooting for the other team. With him on the team, the Chicago Bulls won six consecutive NBA championships during the nineties (they didn't win during his brief retirement). Through it all, Jordan practiced harder than anyone--the first to show up and the last to leave. He also played harder than anyone, nearly throwing away his career over gambling and a misguided and thankfully brief foray into baseball.
As a man of decent but by no means great athletic ability, I don't look much to the immortals like Michael Jordan for inspiration because it's hard for me to relate to them. But I do draw from what made him great--competitive energy and a tireless work ethic. That said, Larry Bird honestly inspires me more than almost any other athlete--the fictional character Rocky notwithstanding. Bird played his heart out and talked some trash in the process. He had the sweetest jump shot there ever was. He played defense like a crazed Rottweiler, chasing you everywhere and trying to tear you to pieces. He never gave up. He was always angling for the upper hand. He ran down the court harder than the other players. Guys probably hated playing against Bird because he worked them harder than anyone (until Jordan came along). He was the ultimate plugger.
I try to run like Bird played basketball. I run with my heart, and I run hard. I'm not nearly as good at running as Bird was at basketball, but Bird had a mental edge that inspires me. I may not be elite fast--I never will be--my VO2 max might not be otherworldly (though I've never had it measured), and I might have only a limited number of fast-twitch fibers, but what I do have is intense focus and the will to work hard and then harder.
It wasn't always that way. When I was kid, I was timid, weak and anything but competitive. When I ran cross-country, I didn't run hard. I just ran without really caring much about where I finished, how fast I went and who I beat.
Things changed when I left cross-country behind and went out for the varsity football team, wanting to be like my big brother who was an excellent football player. There was this senior on our team who was a bully and really piled on the younger players like me. He took cheap shots at us and was really just a bad guy. He ridiculed a lot of the young players--including me--and no one stood up to him. Not even the seniors. This only empowered him to be more aggressive.
One day in practice I was at linebacker and he was on the offensive line. I was still learning so much about the game and the contact aspect intimidated me. Oklahoma drills had been nearly terrifying for me. He'd been doing his usual that day--hammering on the young guys like me and taunting us as well. I took it without really fighting back--as I'd always done. Finally, after he put a few nasty licks on me, I just got pissed off--not sure what exactly sent me over the edge--and went after him on the next play. I didn't knock him on his ass, but I sure hit him hard enough to send the message that I wasn't his victim. I wasn't anyone else's victim, either. I went hard from that day forward.
Things began to change after that day. I'm not sure why. Sometimes it's hard--I think--for those who knew me then as a weak, timid kid to recognize who I am today. I go hard, push myself and am always looking to go to the next level in exploring the limits of my endurance. I want to win and eventually go to the outer rim of what I can do. Sometimes this drive is misguided and hard to understand.
I wonder how many people out there have something deep within them that has never found its way into their being. How many people have gone through life without that trigger event that brought out their best and made them go for it all? It is for this reason that I want to continue focusing on ways I can help inspire people to run, achieve their goals and take on new challenges. Just as that bully found out that day, sometimes a raging fire can emerge from a weak flame in the blink of an eye.