Master Motivator: An Interview with All-Star NBA Coach Jim Cleamons  


Master Motivator: An Interview with All-Star NBA Coach Jim Cleamons

Sarah Pachter

Jim Cleamons, NBA coach to Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Scottie Pippen, speaks about motivating others and offers insight into motivating our children. I interviewed him recently, and it wasn’t long after that when I was able to connect his lessons to my personal life.

Early one Sunday morning, I asked my kids to help fold laundry, and my request was met with major pushback.

“Why can’t we do something fun today?!” My four-year-old dramatically complained. “I want to go to Six Flags!” My six-year-old cried.

I turned to my husband, exhausted, and asked, “Did your parents take you on outings every Sunday growing up?”

“Nope,” he responded. “Not at all.”

“Yeah, mine didn’t either.” I said. “Growing up, our big Sunday outing was Home Depot or furniture shopping if we were lucky. And look, we turned out just fine.”

If my kids were complaining about laundry and expecting Six Flags every Sunday, we were in trouble. It became obvious we needed to quickly curb their expectations in the entertainment department.

Immediately, I connected my children’s expectations with the interview I’d conducted shortly before. Jim Cleamons’s childhood story starkly juxtaposed my children’s.

Growing up, finances were tight for the Cleamons family. Chores were non-negotiable and a necessity. Every penny was counted. Jim said he held several jobs while in school in order to pitch in. Yet despite this (or maybe because of it), he pulled himself up by the bootstraps going on to compete in the NBA athlete as an athlete, and later, coach some of the biggest names in NBA history. He holds ten NBA championship rings. He is a master motivator, helping others (and himself) reach greatness.

As a child, Cleamons never dreamed of playing for the NBA. However, he learned in seventh grade that he could potentially get a college basketball scholarship that would provide a good education. “My inspiration to be a player was the mere fact that I wanted an opportunity to get a college education.”

With this goal in mind, he started to play with a different level of intensity. In high school, he woke early to deliver a 4 a.m. paper route every morning. By 6 a.m., he was already practicing for the YMCA league’s basketball team. School started at 9 a.m., and after a long day in the classroom, he often had yet another evening practice for his high school basketball team. While juggling odd jobs and homework, he made sure to stick to his self-imposed bedtime (10 p.m.) in order to be well-rested the next morning. His family expected him to keep his grades up—this was not a topic of negotiation in his household. His mother ran a tight ship, and he rose to the occasion.

He brought this intensity into his own atypical exercise regimen as well. He describes, “We didn’t have money to buy weights, so I would fill up milk cartons with rocks and pebbles. We certainly did not have resistance bands, so I used the inner tube of an old bicycle tire I found. I would strengthen myself by simply pushing my hands against the door frame. I saw what I did have instead of what I didn’t have. I guess I tried to see the glass half-full.”

This positive perspective is how he describes his ability to rise above, despite growing up in a home without a biological father. “I never saw it that I lost a father. Rather, I gained an auntie and an uncle who were like parents to me.”

While he felt his perspective was one of positivity, I also saw this as humility. Accepting G-d’s life trajectory for oneself is the ultimate act of humility. In fact, almost every answer Cleamons gave during the interview was laced with this theme of humility.

For example, Cleamons expressed that his all-time favorite player that he coached was Scottie Pippin. He said Pippen had a lot of humility and didn’t need to be the star of every game. Pippen’s most important goal was to be a team player, and he was willing to forgo being the star to help win the game. Finding a character such as this in the NBA was rare. Cleamons feels that the number one indicator of a great player is their willingness to share the ball and play for the better of the team rather than the betterment of themselves.

Scottie Pippen was also humble enough to learn and improve. There were certain All-Star players (more famous than Pippen) who needed help with their foul shot. The coaches hired help to work with one particular player and spent numerous hours and resources working to help him improve, but that player never changed. Essentially, he was not humble enough to admit he needed the help in the first place; his ego was bigger than his desire to improve.

To Pippen however, everything was about the team. He made himself smaller for the sake of the greater goal. Cleamons remarked that nothing happens without humility both on and off the court.

His sentiments mirror that of the Torah. Humility is a central theme in Torah study, for it is with this middah that Hashem relates to us in this world. During creation, Hashem constricted Himself to make space for His creations.

When I asked Cleamons how he motivated both humble and not-so-humble star athletes, he responded with one word: care. Cleamons explained that having people who deeply cared about him on a personal level gave him the strength to motivate himself and others. He feels that with real care in the other person, you can motivate anyone.

Cleamons added, “When a person or child feels you truly care about them, that’s when the magic starts to happen.”

Note, Hashem does not just create us and walk away. Rather, every moment of our lives we are being recreated, and every aspect of our day is laced with divine intervention. In other words, G-d cares.

Seeing Cleamons as a master motivator, I wondered if he had any words of advice for me as a parent when it came to motivating my own children.

His answer was brilliant. “Well, I’d have to know the child, Sarah. What motivates them? Who are they? Get down to your kids’ level.” He continued, “As a parent you have to see what they want, and what motivates them. It’s not about motivating them to do what you want; it’s motivating them to do what they want.”

That doesn’t mean exempting them from chores because they don’t want to, but rather get to eye-level and see what makes them tick.

When my children complain about chores, I try to tell them that there are people like Jim Cleamons who did not grow up with the same financial privileges, who wouldn’t question his mother when asked to fold a basket of laundry.

But then again, I remember being their age. I specifically recall complaining that I needed new clothing, while my exasperated mother would inform me that I had more clothing than all the poor people in Guyana combined—yet it fell on deaf ears. One can relay entire speeches to our children trying to prove our point, but experience is the best educator. It is real-life responsibility that guide our choices and builds us into who we become, who we create for ourselves.

Perhaps caring for our children is not shown through what we spend on them or the number of Sunday activities we race around driving them to and from. Rather, it is expressed through listening intently about the details of their day, and by showing them we expect great things from them. And most of all, it is shown through requiring that they step it up. That care, similar to God’s ever-present care for us, is the ultimate motivator.

Jim Cleamons serves as an inspiring role model when it comes to motivating ourselves and others. When we work towards developing a positive attitude, humility, and genuine care, we can achieve great heights. I will try to impart these to my kids, and perhaps sharing stories about this famous NBA coach will get them one step closer to my goal.