With 15:30 to play on Fat Tuesday night in Baton
Rouge in 1994, my University of Kentucky basketball
team was getting killed. We trailed Louisiana
State 68-37. If you asked anyone in the Pete Maravich
Assembly Center at that moment, the game was over.
Anyone that is but the guys in the blue uniforms.
Against all odds, we kept believing that we had a chance and
kept playing. Why? Because we had an enormous amount of pride
and self-esteem -- and a little arrogance as well. We were accustomed
to winning, and imposing our will on opponents. Nobody
treated us the way LSU had treated us, and we were determined
to do something about it. Still, we had to stay in touch with our
fundamentals and make this comeback in small steps.
If I had called everyone into the huddle with 15 minutes left
and said, "We're definitely going to win," that would have been
false bravado and the players would have seen through it. One
thing you must do in the face of adversity is to be honest with
yourself, and with the people you're trying to lead. Acknowledge
the difficult spot you're in and commence digging out of it. Don't
point fingers, don't recriminate, and don't make excuses. Stay
positive and get to work.
So the first thing we had to do was salvage our dignity over
the next few minutes -- to simply stop the bleeding and start
making a small dent in that deficit. Down 31, the grand scheme at
that very moment wasn't to emerge with a victory at night's end;
looking that far ahead would have blurred our focus on the gradual
progress that comprises every comeback. The goal was to get
within 20 points as quickly as possible. To do that, we concentrated
on three things: using our press to create turnovers, fouling
the two shaky free throw shooters LSU had on the floor, and
getting high-percentage shots.
All three worked, and the turnaround actually happened faster
than expected. In about five minutes of clock time, we'd shockingly
chopped the deficit from 31 to 14. Our frantic style of play
helped -- speeding up the game and increasing the possessions for
both teams gave us more chances to rally. Stubbornly, we kept
whittling away at LSU's lead, as the celebrating crowd turned
more and more nervous. Every timeout Tigers' coach Dale Brown
called in an attempt to slow our momentum actually raised our
spirits. We knew we had them rattled; we knew we had a
We had little-used reserves making shots, stealing passes, and
grabbing rebounds. Finally, Walter McCarty dropped in a three-point
shot with 19 seconds left and we took the lead, 96-95, and
went on to win 99-95. To this day, it remains the biggest comeback
in college basketball history on the road. The game quickly
became known nationwide as the Mardi Gras Miracle. It was
certainly memorable, but it was no miracle. It didn't take divine
intervention to win that game; it took an unbreakable optimism,
and a plan for coming back.
I've been a part of other great rallies: When I coached the New
York Knicks in the 1980s, we came from 27 points down to beat
Portland; in 1995 my Kentucky team trailed defending national
champion Arkansas by six points with 38 seconds left in overtime
in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship and
won; we rallied from 10 down in the final minute to beat Tennessee
my first year at Louisville; and in 2005 we trailed West
Virginia by 20 points in an NCAA tournament regional final
game and won to reach the Final Four.
Here is the important common denominator in all those
comebacks: They began with positive energy on the floor, on the
bench, and in the team huddles.
They began with a belief that things would get better if we
persevered through adversity, trusted each other and worked together.
They began with a conviction that consistent effort, even
against long odds, inevitably would turn the tide. They began
with a reliance on the fundamentals that made us a successful
team to begin with, and we didn't desert them in a crisis. They
began with a single good play, and a certainty that one good play
would lead to another and another and another until the deficit
was gone and the game was won.
The most important thing I did in the course of those comebacks
was to build my players' self- esteem. Don't tear them down
for the mistakes that got the team in those holes to begin with;
build them up to the point where they felt capable of making the
plays that would result in victory.
When people feel extraordinary, you get extraordinary results.
When people feel ordinary, you get ordinary results. I'm not
talking about false patronage; don't tell little Johnny he's going to be president when he's not doing well in the classroom. They
have to deserve it -- and when they do deserve it, you have to reinforce
it in stressful times.
There have been times when I've not been as positive with my
teams during games. I have succumbed to the frustration of the
moment and filled the huddle with negative energy, telling them,
"This is what you deserve because you practiced poorly." There
certainly is a time for constructive criticism and even an outright
tail chewing, but it's generally not when you're trying to rally people
to redouble their efforts and perform at a higher level. That
deprives your team of the hope that it can come back in adverse
When it comes to team dynamics -- on a basketball court or in
a corporate setting -- maintaining a positive atmosphere is crucial.
The most positive basketball team I've been around was in the
1986-87 season at Providence College. We played an excellent
Georgetown team four times that season. We won the first game
at home -- a game where I almost got into a heated verbal altercation
on the sidelines with the great coach of the Hoyas, John
Thompson. Afterward Big John, a glowering, six-foot-ten Providence
alum, draped an arm around my shoulders and said, "I'm
proud of what you're doing with my alma mater. But when you
come to D.C., we're going to kick your ass."
Big John was true to his word. His team not only killed us at
home, but did it again in the Big East Conference tournament.
After that game, I tried to stay as positive as possible with our
team going into Selection Sunday, when the NCAA tournament
bracket is unveiled. I told my players, "Let's enjoy this experience,
work hard, and see what we accomplish. The only team
that has our number is Georgetown, and we won't see them
Sure enough, the bracket was released and we were in the same
region as Georgetown. If both of us won our first three games,
we'd meet in the regional final for the chance to go to the Final
Four. Still, that seemed like a long shot for us. But lo and behold,
we won our first three games and squared off with the Hoyas for
a fourth time. Before that game, I poured on the positive energy.
I told our players, "In every great achievement, you need some
luck. And you guys are the luckiest bunch I've ever seen. The one
thing you'd want is to play a team that will take you lightly, and
that's Georgetown. You have the biggest psychological advantage
of all time."
We also went to work tactically for that game, completely
changing our offense from shooting three-pointers on the perimeter
to attacking the basket. It worked. We shocked the Hoyas
and won easily, advancing to the Final Four to highlight a fairytale
Current University of Florida coach Billy Donovan was the
best player on that Providence College team. Years later, Billy
asked me whether I really believed that pep talk about how lucky
the team was to draw Georgetown again. "Absolutely not," I told
him, laughing, but when you're trying to overcome an obstacle,
sometimes that's what it takes. Being relentlessly positive can be
the only way to come back and defeat towering negativity.
In recent years, I've had to apply those same comeback fundamentals
to adversities greater than anything encountered in a
single basketball game. In about eight months, from January 8 to
September 11, 2001, I was hit with a series of setbacks far more
difficult to overcome than a 31-point deficit in Baton Rouge.
During that time I resigned as coach of the Boston Celtics -- my
first professional failure -- and then I lost two brothers-in-law to
sudden death in New York City. One was hit by a taxi, and the
other, my dearest friend, was killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. This combination of events left me with
some questions to answer and choices to make: After so many
years of success, would I let that failure with the Celtics define
me? Or would I learn from it and become a better coach? Would
I stew in bitterness over the senseless deaths of Don Vogt and
Billy Minardi? Or would I gain a new perspective and appreciation
I had to make a two-pronged comeback: one in my professional
life and one in my personal life. Chances are good that at
some point in time, you'll have to do the same. Nobody goes
through life without setbacks and struggles, some of them significant enough to cause you to doubt everything you believe in. You
might be fired. You might face serious illness for you or your
family. You might have a major financial setback, face an ethical
dilemma, or find yourself starting over later in life. You might see
a lifetime goal disintegrate, leaving you in a place you never
imagined when plotting out your career path.
Will you have a gameplan in place to make your comeback?
You should, because the comeback is a classic American trait: We
are a second-chance people. The story of the United States was
not written by people who were handed everything. It was
written by people reinventing their lives after encountering
adversity -- by immigrants and cast-offs from foreign lands who
took a leap of faith to make a new start in a new land.
After my job ended with the Celtics, I had to pull myself out of
a crater by rediscovering what I call my PHD -- my passion, my
hunger, and my drive. I had to quit beating up on myself and elevate
the self-esteem that I always have tried to keep so high in
my players. It was time for me to coach myself.
It took weeks of reflection, but I eventually got through to myself. When I decided to return to college coaching and got my
current job at Louisville, I had repaired and prepared my psyche.
I was ready to make a comeback -- but the tragic deaths provided
another hurdle in the midst of making that comeback. This time
I had to think more than usual about other people -- how to help
my family deal with these losses and how to help those who had
lost a husband and a father. I had to step outside myself.
As difficult as it was going through those things, I've emerged
as a wiser and happier person. I wouldn't wish some of those moments
on anyone, but they've been learning experiences that will
shape the later stages of my career and my life after basketball. My
perspective now is totally different. Basketball is my passion, but
not my life. Helping my players, family members, and friends
achieve happiness counts more than the final score of any game.
I'm still enjoying what I do immensely and my energy to work
remains extremely high -- but there is a greater balance at the end
of the day.
There are plenty of books about succeeding in life and in business,
but there aren't a lot of books that tell you how to prepare
and execute a different strategy if your original path doesn't lead
to the end of the rainbow. Rebound Rules will help you make your
own comeback. It delves into the insidious nature of self-doubt,
and tells you how to combat it by facing your fears and failures
and learning from them. It explores the emotional trauma of
tragedy, how it can affect your life, and how you can eventually
overcome it and gain a new perspective. It details the personal
fundamentals that can be relied upon daily to help you get through
those difficult times. It examines the painstaking rally we must
make to achieve greatness without shortcuts; living the "practice-makes-
perfect" credo. It discloses the dangers inherent once
greatness is achieved -- complacency, grandiosity, and a blurred focus -- and how to combat them. It explains the poise and confidence needed to keep your long-range goals intact in an accelerated
world, where impatient pursuit of a quick fix can turn
temporary setbacks into major setbacks.
This book proposes how to turn new challenges into new
methods of success, while also improving our old methods. It
shows the necessity of identifying great talent, surrounding yourself
with it, fostering its growth, and using it as a support system
in tough times. It probes the formula for great chemistry within
an organization -- and finds ways to prevent a rogue element from
ruining that chemistry. It promotes a different means for calculating
your net worth -- your net worth to others, that is, not to your
company's bottom line. It presents a means for rejuvenating yourself
on the cusp of retirement by finding a fresh set of challenges
to undertake. And once you reached a career's end, having survived
all the ups and downs that can be encountered in a life's
work, it provides a game plan for your final act, how to make it
your greatest act yet.
Being confronted with adversity -- in sports, in business, in any
walk of life -- can happen more often than anyone wants to admit.
It will test you in ways most of us have never contemplated. Having
a plan to deal with it can make your comeback a great one.
From the book "Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0," by Rick Pitino with Pat Forde. It is published by HarperCollins and available at bookstores nationwide and online.