We asked NBA legends to pass on advice to the next generation and discuss the overall evolution of basketball. Here’s what they told us:
SLAM: What’s the best piece of advice you have for the next generation of players?
DIRK NOWITZKI: Well, I always try to see myself as a student of the game. It sounds silly, but never think that you’ve made it. Somebody else is working out in the gym. Always try to get better. Listen and learn. Watch your veterans. And just always, every summer, try to add something new to your game and never stay the same player. That’s how I always looked at it. I never wanted to be satisfied. I always wanted to be the best player I could be. It’s really all about hard work and putting the time in. To be consistently good for a long, long time takes a lot of work.
DWYANE WADE: The advice I give my son [Zaire] is, find out who you are and what it is you want to accomplish. Have somebody to look at as inspiration, but be your true self. Once you find out who your true self is, now the real work starts. Now the work that you got to put in, the advice that you need to take, the inspiration that you need to grab from—those are all the things that come with it. But I’ll say the biggest thing is, find out what’s your purpose. What’s the reason you’re playing this game for? Try to find that out. For me, it was different from someone next to me or someone on this side. For me, I played for different reasons than a lot of guys or vice versa. So find out what that is first and then you can get to the rest.
[On his motivation]: For me, the way I grew up was my first motivation. Every little boy’s dream is to make sure that their mother can live an amazing life and they can buy their mom that big house. The way I grew up, it was about hopefully I can get my family out of the struggle—be the difference, be somebody that my mom and dad can be proud of. And then from there, it went to me in college having my son at 19 years old. Once I had Zaire, he became my sole purpose to really do something special, really do something different and be different than the people that I grew up around in a sense. Every step of the way, it’s just being different things or people or situations that motivated me a little bit more, a little different.
WALT “CLYDE” FRAZIER: The best piece of advice I can give is what my mother gave me, man. I remember when I first signed a big contract with the Knicks, everybody was telling me what kind of car I should drive, what I should do, wanted to borrow money, everything. I was so confused. I go to my mom, she says, ‘Son, just be yourself.’ Everywhere I go, I’m just being myself. So just be yourself, and from experience you’ll learn the nuances of what to do, how to play the game. Hopefully guys will have the opportunity that I had, to go to a team that has a Willis Reed, that has a [Dave] DeBusschere, a [Bill] Bradley, a Dick Barnett. All these guys had such a tremendous impact on me, man. I just followed their example. I didn’t really have to do anything. I just sat and I watched them. Barnett didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. Today, I weigh almost the same because I used to watch him and how he extended his career 3-4 more years. Willis Reed—”The Captain”—how he had the most tenacious work ethic. Nobody ever outworked him. His professionalism off the court, how he dealt with the fans. So if you ever come to the Garden, you see me signing autographs, I’m laughing, I’m smiling. I learned all of that. And then I had a coach, Red Holzman, who also instilled that in me. The confidence and how to handle the city. Red was like a surrogate father to me. When I was driving the Rolls Royce and had all the suits, he would always say, ‘Clyde, you saving any money? Remember you got to save for a rainy day.’ I had all the best influences on the team. It was a blessing. I was in the right place at the right time and everything just fell in place for me.
GARY PAYTON: The only thing I can give them is, they have to respect those who came before them and who paved the way for them. A lot of these young guys don’t respect like a Dr. J or a Jerry West or guys like that because they’ve never seen them. They see LeBron, Kobe, Stephen Curry and they think their games are the ultimate games. None of them have seen Kareem. None of them have seen Wilt Chamberlain. So I tell them, man, if you go back and look at videos, the stuff that you’re doing, we were doing that early in the ’60s and ’70s. Just because you think that you’re young and y’all doing different stuff and it moves on, that doesn’t mean we weren’t 21 neither. So give respect to the OGs and pay homage. Every time I see a George Gervin or a Dr. J, or anybody who came before me and I watched coming up, I respect them. I get up and I go over there and I give them homage. Because it wouldn’t have started if I hadn’t been watching them. I just tell these young guys, they think that they know everything but they don’t. It’s all about the OGs that came before you.
And absolutely [they can learn something from watching their games]. And they can learn stuff about life: What [the OGs] went through before they were making big time money like that, because they weren’t making no money; what you should understand about struggling and about how to help other people and help your community.
KOBE BRYANT: Be consistent. That’s the most important part. Be consistent with your work.
[On how he coaches his daughter’s AAU team]: I draw a lot from Phil [Jackson]. Phil’s coaching philosophies and my coaching philosophies were put into the Wizenard series [Kobe’s recently released book series]. It’s one where you don’t give directions so much as ask questions. You want to get players thinking on their own and figuring things out on their own. We don’t have sets. We don’t have plays. We have ideas. Within those ideas, the players are responsible themselves for figuring out what is the best idea to use at what time and why. When you have players that can think, particularly at a really early age, and you start teaching them that at 11, 12 years old, then when they get to 17, 18 years old—how are they going to be processing the game then? It’s really fun to watch them work through those ideas.
ALLEN IVERSON: Play every game like it’s your last.
[On constructive criticism]: I wish I understood constructive criticism when I was younger, but I was just so young and stupid and didn’t know any better. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell these young guys. Like, Bro, there’s people out here that really love you and they are trying to tell you the right things. You have to listen to them. You have to. Because Allen Iverson was an asshole and didn’t listen until he got older and was like, Oh, OK, this is how life is supposed to be. I don’t want young dudes to not get the message before they take a bullet. That’s why I’m trying to preach.
STEPHON MARBURY: Try to absorb as much as you can absorb. Basically take everything in [from coaches and players] and apply what you think are the best things that fit for your game. Add it. And the things that don’t fit, don’t subtract it. Just leave it there because you grow as a player, and some of the things that people teach you over the course of time, you don’t get it right then and there but some information is so much more advanced that you’re just not ready at that time so you kind of throw it out the window. For me, what I did, I listened to everybody and tried to take something from everybody. Even the coaches. Even like Larry Brown. It’s so funny, I think about Larry Brown sometimes when I’m coaching [Marbury is head coach of the CBA’s Beijing Royal Fighters], about some of the things he used to say to me and I apply some of that stuff to my coaching method. Some of the things, things that I learned from different players, just adding a variety of different things to your game over the course of time and never deleting anything. It’s like a computer, right? It holds and stores all of the information. You just got to try to keep that database full and never delete anything, because you never know when you’re going to need it again.
I’m still learning the game and I played over 22 years. You learn so many different things, sometimes you learn things from your players, from watching certain things that they do on the court and how you can help them become better. Things that you thought you would’ve done it one way and then you see it can be done another way. The process of learning takes place every second. You are never fully downloaded, never 100% complete because the process is always in continuance.
JASON WILLIAMS: Just try to stay focused and keep improving every day. And don’t get too down on yourself if you’re not getting the minutes that you need.
[For point guards and passers specifically]: Passing was vital in my outlook of the game, but in today’s game, a guard has to get like 30 to be successful. But still, if you get on the right team—everybody can’t score, so…It’s got to be within. I think there’s a good passer and a willing passer. Those are different things. Steph Curry is a good passer, but he’s not looking to pass first or second, he’s trying to score. Whereas a willing passer is trying to pass, pass and then has to shoot it eventually because they’re not guarding him—that type of thing.
SLAM: How has the game evolved from when you first entered the NBA?
DIRK: The NBA when I first got there, every 4 or 5 was big and strong. They were rebounders and screen-setters. Then the NBA changed some of the rules—they brought in the back-down rule and put in the zone and the game changed. Now every big man has to be able to shoot—at least the 4s can all shoot threes now. The League has gotten smaller, faster, more skilled. Even some of the 5s now can pick-and-pop and stretch you to the three-point line. So it’s been amazing to watch the skill level, especially from the bigs, get so much better from when I first got in the League.
J-WILL: I think it’s at an all-time high, if you ask me. I’m a huge fan of the NBA game, I like to see all of the offense and stuff like that. Defense is overrated to me, always has been. Defense don’t win championships to me, bro. It helps—don’t get me wrong. But somebody got to score to win, right? It’s whoever got the most points.
I like the game where it is, but I think too many people want to score. [Not enough] people want to do the dirty job or really understand their roles when it comes to whatever it is on the team. Everybody wants to get buckets. But it’s exciting for a fan.
MARBURY: The physical play is not the same as it was when I was playing. Now you can’t really touch nobody. I played against guys like Derek Harper, obviously Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and those guys. Terry Cummings, Oakley, Patrick Ewing, those guys fouled differently. From us growing up playing against those guys—Charles Barkley, Olajuwon—you have a different understanding about the game and how it’s played. Now it’s completely different as far as the physical play.
Before, it’d be a fight and then guys would finish playing and go out after. Now it’s not like that. You got more guys hugging each other before the game. I’m not saying I’m opposed to it, it’s just, I don’t know how you can be my friend and be hugging and laughing and joking with me and we’re about to go play against each other. You might catch an elbow in the face and then after that, I don’t know how that works. That’s a little different for me. The era, it completely changed to like friends playing against friends. It wasn’t really like that—when Iverson and myself, whenever we got on the court to play against each other, it was a war. I think now it’s a little bit different. It’s not the same as it was back in the day. I don’t think you will ever see Michael Jordan going to shake Isaiah Thomas’ hand before the game, hugging and all of that. I don’t think those things were going on. When you grow up seeing that, that’s basically what you emulate. From guys doing their handshake and all of the things they do, the camaraderie things, it’s cool if that’s what’s going on and creating positive energy. But that wasn’t how it was when I was growing up and watching basketball.
I’m down with the era changing. I can flow with how things change and how things evolve. For me, it’s just different. That’s all. Now you can’t really touch nobody. I’m looking at today’s game and I’m like, What would we have averaged? … The game isn’t different as far as how you play basketball. It’s different in the rules and the rules allow you to play different. It’s more entertaining now.
SLAM: How do you envision the game continuing to change? Where does it go from here?
DIRK: That’s a good question because now we have Steph Curry pulling up from half-court and making every shot. I’m not really sure where this game is going to grow, if they’re going to put in a four-point shot or—I have no idea. But it’s been already amazing to see where guys are making shots from now and the athleticism. On Instagram and Twitter, you have videos from all these high school kids now jumping out of the gym and dunking. It’s hard to see where it can get even more athletic, more skilled, but I’m sure there are ways for it to grow even more.
KOBE: I think it just goes the opposite [way]—it goes back to midrange. I’m just kind of sitting here waiting for all these statistical people to figure out how to make midrange sound appealing after all these years of making it sound not appealing. Because it’s coming.
CLYDE: I think this is it. I don’t see any more changes that could happen. This is what it’s going to be now. When I came in, you always had to have a great center and a great backcourt man. Frazier, Reed. Monroe, Unseld. Jabbar, Robinson. West, Chamberlain. That was the essence of the game. You had to have that big guy and a guard to succeed. Michael came in and now Curry is taking it to a different level. So this is the evolution that I think you’re going to see now. Like a video game. Guys running and dunking and the threes and this is what the fans want. The fans want this basketball. To me, it’s more entertainment today. Early on, I was appalled with the traveling, the euro-step, the carrying of the ball, you can’t touch [players] anymore. All the different things that they’ve done to create scoring. People want to see high scoring and action and that’s what basketball is symbolic of. I don’t think that’s going to change now. This is what you’re going to see.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Additional reporting by Max Resetar and Tzvi Twersky.