Handling the Pressure
Four NBA greats dish out advice on dealing with the Finals spotlight for the first time
First-time jitters. No one is immune. Be it a date, job interview or athletic competition, the first time can be the toughest time. To make life a bit easier for first-time participants in this year’s NBA Finals, we sought advice from some of the modern era’s premier players and coaches concerning how a first-time Finals player should handle the pressure.
“The first thing I would tell (a new finalist) is that it’s so hard to get to the Finals, but that the only thing anyone remembers is whether or not you win. I came in second two times, but nobody ever says a word about that. They only want to talk about your success. If you get to the Finals and come in second, nobody cares.”
Asked if he remembered the intensity level of his first Finals experience as being notable, Bird replied, “Oh, yeah. The intensity is there. It seems like everybody in the whole country knows who is playing. It’s an ultimate feeling, but it’s a lot of pressure, too.
“I would tell first-time Finals players that, mentally, they’ve got to stay in the game. Emotionally, they’ve got to stay in the game. You can’t get too high over a victory or too low over a loss. You just got to keep plugging away, knowing that with four victories you will be world champions.
“In terms of preparation, unlike the regular season, you really have time to prepare for the other team, because in the Finals, you are going to see them game after game. I always feel the preparation is the key, and in the Finals, you should know everything that your opponents are going to do.”
Was Larry Bird, the great competitor, at all scared during his first Finals?
“Scared?” he responded incredulously, his light blue eyes seemingly blazed, if that’s possible. “I’ve never been scared in my life. I always thought we were going to win.”
“Before we started.”
“What we like to tell players is that, even though (the Finals are) not like practice, you build things from practice that you can take to games. And, if you remember the poise and execution training that’s really an important part of our program, then you can take that to the Finals or to any critical games and perform properly. If players lose their concentration or their poise, then trouble arises.
“The method (of maintaining poise and concentration) is very simply to always carry with you the basic fundamentals: That you always have to be a threat for a shot, that you always have to keep the ball in a protected place, and that you use your footwork to clear your opponent. Those little, simple things that you teach at the very beginning are the things that take a player the farthest. Focusing on the fundamentals brings you back inside your body and that makes you centered.”
Jackson was asked what made him more nervous, his first Finals as a player or as a coach?
“Definitely as a coach,” he said. “I was much more nervous as a coach. When you play, your body is involved. You’re running. You’re energized. You’re playing the game. You may lose focus or track on the floor, but your energy is a function of what you are doing. As a coach, you are just participating through your mind.”
“In my first Finals as a coach (1991),” Jackson continued, “we came into the first game as nervous as can be, and we lost the first game. Everybody said we weren’t ready for the Finals, but we felt good about where we were. We went back and watched (game) film and concentrated on what had gotten us to that point.
“We felt good because we had a shot to win it. We had played a veteran, experienced (L.A. Lakers) playoff team and they had given us their best shot and we had responded. And even if we didn’t win with that response, we felt as if we were capable of winning it.”
“I would tell players to relax and never think about what’s at stake. Just think about the basketball game. If you start to think about who is going to win the championship, you’ve lost your focus.”
As for his first Finals (in which the Bulls beat the Lakers, 4-1), Jordan recalled, “It surprised me that I was able to overcome the fears of playing in the Finals. Everybody back then said that you needed to go there a couple of times to get a feel for it. The first game we lost a close one and we didn’t play that well, but we gained confidence from a (home) loss. We didn’t play well at all. They played good basketball, and yet we still had a chance to win. So all we had to do was play good basketball, and the next thing you know it happened.”
Is there some way you can help a new Finals player keep his focus and not get distracted?
“It’s hard,” Jordan said. “You pretty much got to do it yourself. You can try to give them ways to relax, but, when you venture against an unknown, it’s hard to maintain confidence.”
“The first thing I would tell any first-timer is that you have to be mentally prepared and mentally strong. When you’re playing for the championship, it’s not about your skill – it’s about your will. Everybody at that stage of the game is physically gifted, so it’s about how mentally tough you are.
“The second piece of advice I’d give them is to not be afraid of the big crowd or be intimidated by all of the media around you. Because when you walk out onto the floor for the first time and you see the media herd from around the world, your natural response is to think, ‘Oh my god, there are going to be so many people watching.’ You really have to stay focused on the game and what you are there for.”
Can a player learn to focus and get mentally tougher?
“It’s possible. You have to sustain concentration on your opponents.”
Did Thomas, a ferocious competitor, have a method of doing that?
“I just stayed in my hotel room and watched tape. I never got involved in the atmosphere of the Finals. My first Finals we’d played the Lakers, and we went out there and won Game 1 and lost Game 2. But we wanted to make sure we didn’t get caught up in the whole Hollywood atmosphere of Los Angeles. The people there tried to suck us up into that; they sent limousines to our hotel to take us to the Playboy Club and to parties. But we didn’t go for it. Instead, 24 hours a day I was thinking about the opponent I was going to play against.
“I used a lot of visualization in terms of who I would be guarding and who would be guarding me. When I was walking down the street for, say, lunch, I’d imagine those individuals in front of me. I’d imagine going around them.
“Most of the time I was guarded by Byron Scott and Magic Johnson. But whenever I got on a roll, Michael Cooper would guard me. Preparing for him, I’d visualize myself as being George Gervin, because Gervin was a player who gave Cooper problems. So I’d try to imitate some of the things that Gervin did when he came off a screen – how he got his feet square and set and shot the ball. But when I was playing against Byron, I’d visualize different moves. I knew I’d have to break him down off the dribble, get into the lane and use penetration. With Cooper, I wasn’t able to do that.”
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