Get a PDF!
and his school know about winning
By Rob Stearns
LeBron James is praying. He will be the
first pick in the NBA's draft today. Anointed one of the best
basketball players on the planet, he recently received a $90
million offer to wear Nike sneakers. He is 18 years old. On
this balmy spring morning in Akron, Ohio, zephyrs and
daydreams and a tender tenor solo of Climb Every
Mountain waft through LeBron's high school gym. He stands
at center court amid classmates and family, heads bowed,
I witness this simple and decent ceremony because I arrive
at St. Vincent-St. Mary early for my interview. I'm curious.
What does a high school superstar think about how our culture
defines and rewards winning?
I started asking questions like this while critically
examining my own stomach-churning debacles and recoveries. And
for added perspective, I spent a year speaking with a diverse
sample of Americans about how they feel and think about
victory and defeat. These discussions revealed patterns of
thought and behavior that transcend geography, income, age,
ethnicity and occupation. The patterns are at the heart of why
I believe that individuals enhance their chances of winning --
personally and professionally -- when they adopt specific
standards of thought and behavior, essentially a winner's code
I'm eager to test my findings with a winner at St.
Vincent-St. Mary. We sit on metal chairs with gray plastic
seats, across from each other at a cafeteria table. He is
affable, attentive, neatly attired in jeans and a collared
''Did you expect to be selected first?'' I ask.
''Yes,'' he replied, smiling, proud but not boastful. ''I
worked hard my freshman and sophomore years. I knew I could do
it. But I worked even harder my junior and senior years
because I wanted to make sure that no one caught me.''
Change a couple of words, and you could be listening to
Michael Jordan. Or, LeBron James. But I'm actually chatting
with R.B. Brownfield, the valedictorian in LeBron's high
school class. At the top of his game, mathematics, R.B. thinks
about winning very similarly to his more celebrated classmate.
''I don't equate dollars with winning,'' Brownfield says. ''To
me, winning is doing my personal best. I may never get paid
$90 million, but I still think I'm a winner.''
Winners set stretch goals, then work incrementally and
relentlessly toward them. Winners abound at St. Vincent-St.
Mary, starting with Headmaster David Rathz. Twenty years'
worth of awards attesting to his commitment to academic
excellence and community service decorate his spartan office.
Modest, soft-spoken, driven, Rathz leads by example.
''I set objectives, keep score and reward performance,'' he
says. ''I'm results-oriented.''
The alumni network at St. Vincent-St. Mary is loyal and
generous; the computer lab is modern; the faculty and staff
work effectively. Fortified by more than $3 million in
scholarships, 111 of LeBron's 115 classmates are heading to
college next fall. Winners hold their measurement standards
sacred and do not conveniently change them.
Seven National Merit Scholars and four finalists round out
St. Vincent-St. Mary's academic varsity team. As we talk
around the cafeteria table, I am struck by their articulate
introspections. Although the students have not discussed the
phenomena of losing and winning before our meeting, they
quickly hone in on a common theme. Each regards winning,
ultimately, as an individual accomplishment. Each takes
ownership -- accepts individual responsibility -- for
achieving a victory.
Listen to this Honor Roll trash talk from LeBron's
classmate, Ainslee Johnson: ''I really wanted to get into
Duke. Getting turned down made me so mad that I framed the
rejection letter and hung it in my bedroom. Every day, I look
at it and work harder to prove those people wrong.''
Winners use loss as motivation.
Recent headlines tempt you to believe that Americans enjoy
toppling their winners. Consider the recent bashing of Martha
Stewart, Sammy Sosa, and Gray Davis. But my discussions across
the country reveal just the opposite. Americans resent
arrogance and ingratitude. But, in general, we love winners.
We root for underdogs because we want to see surprise wins. We
applaud our neighbors' successes and rarely begrudge the good
luck that often converges with their hard work. Our strength
derives from our implicit belief that we can create an
infinite number of wins for our citizens without demanding an
offsetting number of losses. We are the antithesis of a
''zero-sum'' society. Our view of winning nourishes our
generosity and our optimism.
So, it's no surprise that the academic winners at St.
Vincent-St. Mary High School identify with LeBron's success
and wish him well.
And, while several do wonder whether shooting
three-pointers trumps teaching or firefighting, most concur
with the sentiments of their Notre Dame-bound senior class
president, Pat Vassel.
''We should celebrate LeBron's win. He's a good person. Now
he can take care of his family and do good things with his
And that's what we all pray for.
Rob Stearns is the author of the new book, Winning
Smart After Losing Big.