MOTIVATIONAL MONDAY – I began reading the New York Times obituary about Nera White, a farm girl turned dominant star who could shoot, pass, dribble and dunk. Yet by the end of the story, I was a little bummed when I read this:
“She rarely reflected publicly on her basketball career, and when she spoke to Mr. Marantz of The Sporting News in 1996, she did so reluctantly.
“What did it get me?” White said of basketball in the interview. “Two worn-out knees. All for nothing. Dusty trophies. Certificates that don’t mean a thing.”
“Unless you never win one,” Mr. Marantz said.
“Perhaps,” she replied. “But when I look at what it got me, economically, all that work and sweat, nothing. No job security. Nothing.”
So many kids now – boys and girls – say that they want to be college or pro basketball players. Reality is that 97 percent of the top high school performers won’t make it to the next level (not a bad thing). Of the three percent that do, only a sliver of them will make it to the professional level.
However, what is an open field for everyone – from the 97 percent in high school who don’t make it to those who do for a limited time – is how they leverage the lessons learned, and skills acquired while pursuing their passion.
As the article stressed, I’m sure that during her induction to the Hall of Fame was as good a time as any to say that the path she blazed opened up the doors for so many. But that doesn’t feel like it was enough to heal the wounds – literally. So what could have made her feel like all the sweat, pain and grit wasn’t worth it?
The answer: If she had lived in a culture that endorsed women who were told that sports presented an opportunity beyond going on the road as a show of the famous All-American Redheads, or as the star player on the AAU circuit (no college opportunities back then). Back then, women didn’t know how to leverage anything other than their looks, sex, ability to clean a home, teach, or work a double shift in the hospital. They didn’t know because it was not taught, and because not enough people – men or women – cared enough about sports because so many were living day-to-day, year-to-year.
How many pick-up games did Nera not get into in her 20s and 30s with influencers who could have helped her—on campus during her years in school, in business school, or beyond? How many times could she have gone the extra mile and spoken at schools to girls and boys about hard work, connecting her to people who could have given her more hope for a brighter future? How many times did she try, after a failed job opportunity or failed work-related effort, to bounce back harder, stronger, smarter, and wiser the way she did on the court?
It’s easy for me to sit back and type this all up, as a woman who was born four days after Title IX passed. Nera had little chance to cash in on her investment in the form of coaching because not enough women played. I’m also sure she could have made more money on the farm or in business. Basketball helped me get a free education and it opened up my world to a maze of opportunities that included several dead ends, otherwise known as failures—some of them minor, many much bigger and costly. I hit each of them, turned around and found another way.
Nera missed most of the time in our history where women learned to network and leverage their athletic skillsets in unconventional places to propel them forward into different areas of American business, life, and society. How many employers love to hire former female athletes these days? How many of the top female CEO’s now say that sports made all the difference? How much money are top college coaches making now? Apparently enough that the industry is being flooded by men who want the jobs.
This is sad for a person who was clearly no ordinary farm girl.
Here is what she offered the world:
“I just don’t like to lose, so I go all out every game to prevent it,” Nera White said when she retired from the game at 33 in 1969. “If we do lose and I have gone all out to win, then I don’t have the loss on my conscience.”
Nera added: “I have nobody to blame but myself — I made the decision to continue playing. I can’t say I believed it would get me anything of value. I didn’t deep down. I played because I wanted to.”
I wish the times could have been different for Nera. I wish she had more opportunities to leverage what sports did for her mind, body and soul. It would have been nice if she had left having no regrets – that in some way, in her mind, she could have viewed our shared game and passion as I do: A short-to medium-term investment that pays you dividends for life.
Read the full piece on Nera White here: