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 to workout 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 I did not know what to expect…
Mike Wilks and I walked into the practice facility at the same time and we were greeted by Coach Gerald Oliver. To our surprise, he immediately told us that he would not be working with us on the court that day and that we could shoot around and workout together on our own. Instantly, Mike and I made eye contact. No words needed to be exchanged, I knew we were both thinking 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., now retired, was a journeyman as a coach. He held coaching positions at different levels for many different teams dating all the way back to the 1960s. Most notably, he was a college assistant coach at Marquette and Tennessee, he was a head coach and general manager in the old professional minor league (the CBA), and he held NBA assistant coaching positions with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks. A pedigree that certainly demands respect.
A native of Tennessee, G.O. is an extremely kind and friendly person — always smiling. And he is known to address his friends and acquaintances as ‘buddy’ with a distinct southern drawl. He may talk slow, however, do not be fooled, G.O. is no dummy. In fact, quite the opposite; I consider him to be a basketball genius but I’ll get to that…
Back to the first day of our workouts. Mike and I worked out together by ourselves — nothing all that noteworthy. At that point we had sort of 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. came back out onto the court. He asked us a question: ‘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 that needed to be taken for us 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 to shooting a basketball. I wrote down things 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
I showed up at the practice facility the next day curious to receive feedback on my completed assignment. I turned in my homework. I expected to sit down with G.O. so we could 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 do all of these steps that are written on this paper, will you make your shot?’ I thought about it for a second and replied, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Ok, you do not have any excuses to miss shots anymore.’ He abruptly walked off to the court so we could begin our workout. My mind was spinning… I was being exposed to a whole new mental approach to shooting a basketball. I suppose I had an aha moment. His trick had worked on me! I hurried to the court desperately craving more knowledge — I was all-in!
That workout we did very basic drills. It was by no means a physically taxing workout and it didn’t last long. All of our shots began with us starting at the top of the key. We proceeded to practice shots off a stationary catch-and-shoot, pull ups off the dribble moving towards the hoop, and then to the left and then to the right. Once we finished these 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!’ That was the end of that workout.
On the third and final day, prior to our workout, G.O. grabbed Mike and I before we changed out of our casual clothes into workout gear. He tossed us a ball and said he would like for each of us to make a free throw. I said, ‘Coach, I’m wearing jeans and I’m 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 in order to make my shot… subsequently, 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 in the blink of an eye, the three-day workout session was over.
There was a lot to digest following those workouts. G.O. had us take a step back, break things down in detail 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 the ability to correct our mistakes if we missed. The shooting drills he put us through were an opportunity for us to see 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 far more important: strengthening our minds.
Nearly twenty years have passed since those three days and I have thought about G.O.’s lessons regularly. I have not only applied the methods I learned to shooting a basketball but to many things in my life. I have come to believe that if you are able to learn how to do anything properly then you have no excuses not to execute. And if you do make a mistake from time to time, you know how to correct it. These methods can be applied to just about anything, and when they are applied, as G.O. would say, ‘You’re unstoppable, buddy’.