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Swen Nater

Rubbing Elbows…
The truly great understand the value of association.

A community college basketball coach was getting his car fixed by a local mechanic. As he walked into the garage he noticed the guy under his car had his head sticking out one side of the car and his feet hanging out the other. That moment led to a life-changing discussion and a powerful lesson in Greatness.

As I sat with legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, he told me the story of Swen Nater – an orphan from Holland who moved to the United States when he was three years old. He grew up in an American home and, as a high school junior, stood 6-feet, 11 inches tall.

One would think Swen Nater was destined for basketball, but he was so gangly and awkward that he didn’t make his high school team until his senior year. Instead of going to college after graduation, like some of his teammates, he went to work at a garage.

However, when the community college coach convinced the towering mechanic to give basketball another shot several years later, his body had matured. Over the next two years Swen became one of the best junior-college basketball players in the country.

With two years of eligibility left, several smaller schools became interested in Swen and each offered him a chance to be their star.

But his coach decided to take a shot at a higher opportunity. He called John Wooden whose UCLA team was in the middle of one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports. He said “Coach, next year you have a guy coming in that everybody in America believes will be the greatest player to ever play college basketball – 7-foot tall, Bill Walton.

“The next biggest guy you have on your team is 6-foot-9 inches tall. In practice, Bill Walton is not going to get better every day because he’s not going to have any competition… Give my guy a chance.”

nater 2The value of association – we get better when we surround ourselves with better people – it made sense to John Wooden and he offered Swen Nater his last remaining scholarship to play at UCLA.

“I’m going to make you two promises,” Wooden told Nater. “One, you’ll probably never ever get off the bench. But two, you’re going to get a chance every day to practice against the best player in America, and I promise you, the best coaches in American are going to work with you every day.”

Swen Nater didn’t wait a second before he accepted that scholarship, and as John Wooden promised, he barely ever played.

Three years later, Bill Walton was a senior and poised to be the number one pick in the draft. Everybody wanted to ask Walton who was the best center he played against all year long. Was it that guy at Pepperdine or maybe the guy at Kansas?

Bill Walton looked down at the end of the practice court and said, “That guy down there, is the best player I’ve played against. Swen Nater.”

And it was true. Swen Nater had gotten so much better as he was working and playing against Bill Walton, that he became the first player in history to not start a college basketball game and be selected in the first round of the professional basketball draft.

Tips From the Great Ones

John Wooden understood that the value of association is a major step to achieving greatness. Despite not starting a single college game, Swen Nater went on to play 12 years in the NBA and is now vice president of Costco. He says that to this day, associating himself with John Wooden and Bill Walton was the best decision he ever made.

The point is, WE ARE WHO WE ASSOCIATE WITH. The five people you spend the most time with in your life, are going to decide just how successful you are. Are the five people you are closest to taking you to greatness? Because having the right five people around you can make all the difference.

I have been blessed over the last few years to spend time with Coach Wooden in his Los Angeles home. In fact I was fortunate enough to attend his 97th birthday party along with his 31 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It’s an amazing thing that his players still come, forty years after they last played for him, to seek his wisdom and seek his knowledge.

We are all blessed to have the opportunity to interact on occasion with great winners. Those of us who are aspiring to greatness, it is our job to rub elbows with the right people and to learn what makes them successful and what keeps them going. In turn, it is up to them to help us better ourselves, just like Bill Walton helped Swen Nater.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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