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Three Days with Gerald Oliver

I arrived at the Milwaukee Bucks’ practice facility on a summer day in 2002. I was set to participate in a three-day session of shooting workouts with then-NBA player Mike Wilks, led by veteran coach Gerald Oliver. I was eager to absorb the tutelage of an experienced coach and work out with an NBA player. Mike was currently on a make-good summer contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. I was extremely excited to be there but did not know what to expect.

Mike Wilks and I walked into the practice facility and were instantly greeted by Coach Gerald Oliver. To our surprise, he told us that he would not be working with us on the court that day and we could shoot around and work out together on our own. Mike and I made eye contact, and no words needed to be exchanged, as I knew we both thought the same thing: “This is a joke.”

Before I go any further, let me give Gerald Oliver a proper introduction.

Gerald Oliver, regularly referred to by his initials G.O. and now retired, was a journeyman as a coach. He held coaching positions at various levels for many teams, dating back to the 1960s. Most notably, G.O. was a college assistant coach at Marquette and Tennessee, a head coach and general manager in the old professional minor league, the CBA. He held NBA assistant coaching positions with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks. G.O.'s pedigree demanded respect.

Gerald Oliver

A native of Tennessee, G.O. is a kind and friendly man, always smiling. He regularly addresses his friends and acquaintances as "buddy" with a distinct southern drawl. He may talk slowly; however, do not be fooled; G.O. is no dummy. Quite the opposite; I consider him a basketball genius, but I'll get to that.

So anyway, Mike and I worked out by ourselves that first day. And at that point, we had pretty much laughed off the three-day session, not expecting it to be of much substance. As we were wrapping things up for the day, G.O. returned to the court. He asked us, "Do you know how to make your shot?" I answered, "Yes." Mike replied the same. He then told us that we had a homework assignment for that night. I thought to myself, "What is going on here?" Again, I'm sure Mike was thinking the same thing. He told us we needed to write down every step we needed to take to make our shots. He suggested that we write down everything that goes through our minds when shooting a basketball; the more detailed, the better.

Although I had questioned the purpose of the homework assignment, I pulled out a pen and paper later that night. I thought about my process of shooting a basketball. I wrote things down like:

  • Find the seams

  • Set your feet, balance

  • Rhythm, positive energy, do not shoot on your way down, do not shoot against your body

  • Do not dip your left shoulder

  • Do not let your release drift in front of your face; keep it above your right shoulder

  • Quick-release, keep it tight, no wasted motion

  • Arc, visualize the ball going up and in

  • Extend

  • Follow-through

I showed up at the practice facility the next day, curious to receive feedback on my completed assignment. I turned in my homework. And I expected to sit down with G.O. to analyze it step-by-step. Surprisingly, he did not even look at the paper. He looked at me directly, paper in hand, and intently asked me one question: "If you follow all of the steps on this paper, will you make your shot?" I thought about it for a second and replied," Yes." He said, "OK, you no longer have any excuses to miss shots." He walked off to the court so we could begin our workout. My mind was spinning. It opened my mind to a new mental approach to shooting a basketball. And I suppose I had an "aha" moment. G.O.'s trick worked on me. I hurried to the court, desperately craving more knowledge. I was all in!

We did very simple drills that day. And it was not a physically taxing workout, and it didn't last long. We began at the top of the key and practiced shots off a stationary catch-and-shoot, pull-ups off the dribble moving towards the hoop, then to the left, and then to the right. Once we finished this series of drills, G.O. explained: "You can shoot off the catch and shoot; you can shoot off the dribble going in every direction. You're unstoppable!" And that was the end of that workout.

On the third and final day, before our workout, G.O. grabbed Mike and me before we changed out of our casual clothes into workout gear. He tossed us a ball and said he wanted us to make a free throw. I said, "Coach, I'm wearing jeans and not warmed up." He responded, "You know what you need to do to make your shot; it doesn't matter what you're wearing, and you don't need to be warmed up." Before shooting the free throw, I thought hard about each step I needed to take to make my shot. I made the free throw. Mike did the same. Following each of our free throws, we changed into our workout gear and had another unique workout with G.O. doing similar drills as we did the day before.

And just like that, the three-day workout session was over in the blink of an eye.

There was a lot to digest following those workouts. G.O. had us step back, break things down, and apply a sophisticated method to shooting a basketball. First, we did an exercise to establish that we knew how to make our shots, which gave us confidence and allowed us to correct our mistakes if we missed them. The shooting drills he put us through showed us that we had multiple options to score by shooting the ball. Lastly, we developed mental toughness by shooting free throws in our casual clothes without warming up, simulating shots in uncomfortable circumstances like coming off the bench cold, for example. He had not dissected our shooting mechanics, nor did we practice a lot of reps of shooting the ball during these workouts. Instead, he worked with us on something even more important: strengthening our minds.

Nearly twenty years have passed since those three days, and I have regularly thought about G.O.'s lessons. He taught me that if you can learn to do something correctly, you have no excuses not to execute it. If you take a systematic approach and make a mistake, you know how to correct it next time. And these methods can be applied to just about anything, and when they are, as G.O. would say, "You're unstoppable, buddy."


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