Basketball Lessons for Writers

True confession time! In the past few years, I’ve become a basketball fanatic. For most people who know me, this is a great surprise, and a total turnaround in their image of me.  For me, it’s been an unexpected pleasure, and also, a source of unexpected lessons.

I was never big on sports growing up. While my sister and brother were earning trophies for tennis, volleyball, and basketball, I was a bookworm. I lived in books and began keeping diaries at a very young age. I was the last person chosen for the kickball game– the klutz, the wallflower, the quiet introvert.

Two years ago, I returned to Cleveland, my hometown, to spend several months with my father, after my mother died. I had never lived in Cleveland as an adult; I hadn’t spent more than two consecutive weeks there since I graduated from high school. But, my Dad fell into a hard grief after my mother’s death, and I have work that’s portable, so I packed a suitcase and set up an office in my sister’s old bedroom.

That spring, 2015, was the first year that LeBron James—one of the truly great basketball players of all time, and a Cleveland native—returned home, to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was the first year a Cleveland basketball team had made it to the playoffs in a long time.

When I arrived in early April, I’d never heard of LeBron James. But when my brother, my nephew, my sister and my brother-in-law started coming over to watch the game with my Dad, I joined in. I soon became captivated. The Cavs were winning, which was pretty exciting, and they were playing excellent basketball.

I got hooked. I watched every game. I read the sports page avidly. I was teased, mercilessly, by my family, for not knowing who LeBron James was and also for my conversion into a sports fan, but I didn’t care, I was having a blast.

This year is the third year in a row that we’re in the playoffs, and now that I spend part of each year in Cleveland, I’m here to enjoy it. Last week I went to a playoff game with my brother and nephew, and had a huge amount of fun. Here’s a picture of us at the stadium.

Fun, in itself, is a great thing. Learning to play, laugh, enjoy life, enjoy your family, is one of the great secrets to managing the stress that so easily becomes overwhelming, in these tense, modern times. But it’s more than fun I receive from watching the games, and today I want to share some of the lessons basketball has taught me about writing.

Basketball Lessons for Writers

First and foremost: Stay in the game. One thing about the playoffs–they take a lot of stamina.  Basketball has a long season. It starts somewhere in October, runs through early April, and it’s a fast paced game. On the basketball court, you’re always moving.  Players get tired, injured, discouraged. One of the beautiful things about LeBron James is his leadership. He has the capacity to bring a team together. He believes in his own skill, and exudes a confidence that’s both palpable and contagious. He also believes in his teammates. When the going gets tough, LeBron keeps things going.

That’s a great lesson for writers. The thing that stops writers more than anything—at all levels of writing—is not lack of skill, it’s lack of self-confidence. Those inner voices of doubt that strike when you’re close to completing a project, or just after you get inspired to begin—they’re the killers. A certain level of talent is necessary, indeed. But talent is yours already. If you’re called to write, it’s because you’re meant to write and your soul is fully equipped to meet that call. If you’re reading this and care about your writing, I can guarantee that you have the talent you need to write what you want to write.

So what’s stopping you? Belief in your talent. Belief in yourself. The ability to stay in the game when you get scared, or get rejected, or have a bad night of sleep and are too tired to know what you think and you start to read your manuscript and think it’s a real piece of *$#!.

In the first year LeBron returned to Cleveland, this city—that had not won a championship in 52 years—began to call itself Believeland. And it wasn’t just basketball that Cleveland hadn’t been winning. Cleveland was the butt of so many jokes, had losing teams in so many sports, that this city felt like epitome of the underdog. But LeBron believed. He believed in himself, he believed in his teammates, and he believed in Cleveland.

And somehow, he did it. He carried the Cavs to the Finals in 2015, and while we didn’t win that year, making it that far changed everything in this town.

Believeland began to feel real.

The next year, in 2016, we won the Championship. The curse was broken. The underdogs emerged victorious. We actually won!!!

I can’t tell you that if you believe in yourself you’ll win that Pulitzer Prize for your first novel. I won’t be able to guarantee that your poetry book will become a best seller. But if you still think writing is about all that, you’ve got some soul searching to do.

The prize in writing is doing the work. It’s sitting down with an idea for a poem, and actually writing that poem. It’s the magic of finding the flow of words for the images in your head. It’s listening to characters talk to you and letting their conversation have a life on the page in front of you. It’s facing the blank page, and your own fear, and not giving up.

To stay in the game, for writers, is to believe in yourself and what you want to say. It’s about trusting your voice, over and over again, even when you’re terrified.

When I say trust your voice, I mean the voice that comes through when you write something real and true. It’s not about the voice in your head that tells you you’ll never be good enough. That’s the voice of your Inner Critic. The other voice, the quieter voice, is the one you start to hear when you finally STOP listening to the voices of fear and doubt that all too often are also the voices of shame.

Staying in the game means giving up being ashamed of who you are and what’s yours to say, and showing up for the game itself. The game of writing. The dance of it, the magic of it, the grace and power and beauty of writing, for its own sake.

In this game, you’re in the center of the court, you’ve got the ball, all eyes are on you, and you don’t buckle. You stand tall, the ball’s in your hand and you open your mouth and something like light comes streaming out.

You could be singing.

It’s the song you hear when you sit down to write

and it’s no one else’s–it’s yours.


You listen. You pick up your pen and yes, you know that it matters.

You know you’ve got to do this.

It’s between you and your higher self now,

it’s between you and god, and the words flow and you’re humming.


You didn’t drop the ball this time.

You picked it up, and held it to your chest like you own it,

because you do, it’s your turn now.


To play.

To sing.

To speak.

To write,

like only you know how.

Game on.