While it only takes a second to make another person feel valued, the memory can last forever.
In the summer when I was in college I would sometimes go to the open gym at James Madison University to play basketball. One night I was idly shooting jumpers on an open basket when I heard someone whistle.
I turned. “Hey, we need one more,” he said. “Run with us.”
My heart sank. The guy asking was Linton Townes. He went on to play in the NBA and Europe. Standing behind him were Charles Fisher and Derek Steele, two other players from the JMU squad that in the 1982 NCAA Tournament almost beat a North Carolina team that included future NBA All-Stars like James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Michael Jordan.
And standing behind them was Ralph Sampson, three-time college National Player of the Year and future four-time NBA All-Star.
Me? I got cut when I tried out for my high school basketball team.
The etiquette of pickup ball meant I had to say yes, but that meant the teams were nowhere near even: We had Linton and Derek and they had Charles… but we had me and they had Ralph.
As we started to play Linton got frustrated. Exceptional athletes hate to lose, pickup game or not, and even though he didn’t say anything I knew he was especially frustrated with me. I wasn’t doing anything well but the worst thing was my man kept driving past me… which meant Linton had to rotate… which meant Ralph was left open… which meant Linton had to watch Ralph dunk.
Then I noticed that whenever I made an entry pass, the guy guarding me knew the ball wouldn’t get kicked back out (no sensible person would ) so he started sagging to force our forward to the baseline as Ralph rotated across.
So the next time I had the ball on the wing I faked an entry pass and as Ralph started to shift threw a lob to Linton — who soared, caught the ball one-handed, and dunked over a late arriving Ralph.
First and last lob of my life, and coolest moment ever.
As Linton jogged back up court he caught my eye and said, “Good pass.”
New coolest moment ever.
If you’ve ever been completely out of your depth, you know the overwhelming sense of isolation and futility.
That feeling instantly disappeared.
To him those two words meant nothing — but to me, in that situation, they meant everything.
I would like to say we went on to win after I caught fire and discovered a long-hidden talent, but life isn’t an 80s Tom Cruise movie, so we didn’t, and I certainly didn’t. I just stayed within myself the rest of the night, only shooting once (and missing), making simple passes, and doing my best to make up for my lack of ability with effort and hustle.
What I can say is that I no longer felt self-conscious or insecure. I was still nowhere near as good as anyone on the court—or even as good as anyone watching—but that no longer mattered, at least not to me. Two simple and sincere words of praise made me feel like I belonged.
Later as I was leaving Linton said, “Hey, we’ll probably be here tomorrow night. If you want a run, swing by.”
I smiled and nodded, not in agreement but as a silent thanks.
Of course I didn’t go back. But, all these years later, I do remember.
The people you work with will, too.
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