There are probably a few good ways to motivate a nationally ranked basketball team that lost its first game of the season after winning its first 23.
Bringing in a perennial NBA All-star, champion and Hall of Famer would definitely be one of those ways. In fact, it was the way of choice Wednesday afternoon for the Newton Rams.
One day after the state’s top-rated team was upset at home by Shiloh, it experienced a pick-me-up of epic proportions when NBA Legend and current TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley came walking through the halls at Newton High School right before practice.
The former Auburn standout who starred with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets sat with Newton coach Rick Rasmussen and the entire team for a little over an hour, talking about everything from his career to making good choices, bouncing back from losing and, yes, even Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.
But it was the stuff about regrouping from setbacks that Rasmussen hopes his players really latched on to — particularly just 24 hours removed from the team’s first loss of the season.
“It’s hard to win,” Barkley told the team. “You guys maybe take it for granted until you finally lost. You’re running up and down the court every day, lifting weights, staying after practice to shoot. But that’s what the good teams do.”
He made mention of how NBA greats such as Larry Bird would show up hours before a game just to shoot. Or how former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan started “the breakfast club,” which consisted of Jordan and several other NBA athletes spending 90 minutes lifting weights every morning before breakfast, even on game days.
Barkley seemed to want Newton to be reminded that winning on an elite level doesn’t happen in a vacuum or by accident.
“That’s what it takes if you want to win,” he said. “You can’t just show up at 5:30 (on game day) and say, ‘let’s go.’ You’ve gotta put the time and the effort in.”
He also talked about the importance and rare qualities of leadership.
“Being a leader is a big responsibility,” he said. “You can’t make anybody a leader who’s an idiot. And you can’t make someone a leader who’s lazy.”
Rasmussen, who noted that Barkley’s meeting with the team was arranged several weeks ago, said he was grateful for the pep talk, and that Barkley still agreed to come even though Newton was no longer chasing an undefeated season.
“I think that’s God’s timing,” Rasmussen said. “I think we needed a shot in the arm, and we needed a message about going back to work and working to get better and having a role on your team and fulfilling it and know you’ve gotta get better and stay humble. Charles is famous and special, but he’s humble. He’s a worker. He thinks it’s supposed to be hard. He thinks you’re supposed to earn it.I think that’s why he even said what he said about LeBron. He’s old school like I am, so I appreciate that.”
Barkley had made headlines recently because of a couple of somewhat heated exchanges between himself and two other NBA icons. Last week he and his TNT co-host — and fellow NBA Hall of Famer — Shaquille O’Neal sparred back and forth on air while discussing comments James made about his team needing another playmaker.
Barkley stated, in so many words, that James’ public declaration of the 2015-16 NBA champions’ need of another playmaker besides himself and Kyrie Irving was inappropriate for a NBA super star. James retorted with a profanity-laced response to Barkley that many saw as a personal dig at Barkley.
The drama wasn’t lost on the Newton hoops squad, as evidenced by Newton senior guard Darvin Jones asking Barkley about it during a Q&A time the legend had with Newton.
“So are you and LeBron still straight,” Jones asked Barkley, who did not shy away from the question.
“You know, he’s so sensitive,” Barkley said, lightheartedly, which drew abundant laughter from players and coaches alike. “All of ya’ll are so sensitive when someone says something about you.”
But Barkley then used the moment to further explain his blue collar mindset about the game of basketball to a young group of emerging ballers.
“First of all, I like LeBron,” Barkley said. “He’s a great player and a great guy. But I said what I said, and I’m not gonna back down. I’m basically saying, you’re the best player in the world. You’ve got Kyrie, you’ve got Kevin Love. You’ve got Tristan Thompson and you need some help? You think Carmelo (Anthony) doesn’t want help? You think Russell Westbrook doesn’t need help? But do you ever see him complain? He’s out there like, ‘I’m bringing what I got and let the chips fall where they may.’
“People saying I’m hating on the young guys, but that’s just my old school.”
Barkley also spent time sharing with the Rams the importance of decision making on and off the court, knowing their roles on the team and using a combination of basketball and academics to position themselves for greatness.
“You’re one stupid decision from it all being over,” he said. “I’ve got a brother who died at 40 because of drugs. He didn’t have to die. But I tell people with drugs, that movie ends the same way every time.”
On education he was just as bullishly blunt.
“Use basketball to get you a free education,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with digging ditches or laying pavement, working at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen. But I don’t think that’s something you wanna do for the next 30 years. If you suck at school now, you can’t come back at age 33 and get that luxury to go back and start making good grades. What you do in a small window of time during four years of high school and four years of college dictates the rest of your life.”
He closed his time with the Rams by encouraging them to love the court and the classroom equally.
“If you don’t get anything else out of here today, enjoy playing basketball,” he said. “Enjoy the game, but also stay in the books and use that to dictate your future.”
In a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, Rasmussen quipped that his team should be on fire in the practice that was to follow their time with Barkley. He’s also optimistic that they’ll cherish the moments spent hearing his story and picking his brain.
“Hopefully that’ll be something these kids will never forget,” Rasmussen said. “Hopefully they’ll always take it with them wherever they go.”