Leadership Journal
March 9, 2024 (design by Caleb Surly)

I am so happy for the players, staff, parents, students, and everyone at Little Rock Central. 

Three hundred sixty-two days ago, Coach Brian Ross at Central High School called me. We knew one another but had never really talked before that call and had not yet developed a friendship. He was disappointed and frustrated at how the 2023 season ended. Few things in life are more frustrating than not finishing your best. He was resolved to invest the entire year built around “finishing.”

We sat and talked together at The Community Bakery in downtown Little Rock. Most coaches I meet are eager to get started. Coach was guarded. He wanted to know the plan. I was impressed by that. He wanted a measured and intentional approach to the year. I told him I didn’t know anything about basketball. That is still true. But I know about teams, winning, and leadership. We left with a plan for a specific purpose.

After the first session, I knew each guy had something to overcome. Some guys needed to manage success and expectations, some fear and doubt, and others distraction. We also needed to get everyone on the same page, in unison, moving in the same direction for the same purpose. For a team to win, everyone must be in alignment. It is the only path to excellence. I left our first session with no doubt that Coach Ross, Coach Shelby Lewis, and Caleb Surly were working in unison, but the players needed to focus on “Finishing” each day. They were talented enough to win, but would they get the most out of their ability and work together?

Finish Empty is not only about a State Championship performance in March. Everyone plays hard when an Arena is packed with fans. It doesn’t take character or heart to give all you have in front of thousands when everything is on the line. That’s easy. The challenge is to work when there is no crowd and no immediate gratification. Can you Finish Empty on a Friday practice at Central when nobody is there? Can you Finish Empty in a morning workout in May when you’re exhausted? Can you Finish Empty by yourself at the free-throw line in July when nobody will notice? That’s what builds a winner. Nobody else can put in the work for you. Everyone wants to win; not everyone wants to work to win. Winning teams are built by winning players who work hard each day. They Finish Empty each day. This team did that. The guys worked hard. That's forever to their credit. They were ready when school started back, and the staff pushed them. They kept working and got better. The staff made them earn their Finish Empty gear in the offseason with their work!

Before the first game, we gave each player a marble, and we filled a jar with a marble to represent each week in the season. When we can physically see the representation of time, it helps us focus on what matters most. Time becomes more important when we realize it is fleeting and finite. I asked the guys not to waste a moment. We wanted to win a Championship, but you can’t win a Championship on November 14. We can only live the day we have, so we must make the most of it. The tournament would come soon enough, and all these moments would be gone forever. Could we focus on improving each day and enjoy the journey as a team? Coach Lewis kept his marble in his pocket all year. I will never forget that. He would frequently remind the guys that the season was fleeting, and their focus was to Finish Empty.

This week, we met for the final time—this time, for all the marbles. The guys had gradually improved all year. Now, it was time for The Championship. How do you deliver when it matters most? Preparation makes the big stage smaller and more manageable. The guys were ready. Coach Surly had a design prepared with mission clarity. We traded out Coach Lewis’ marble for a big one and focused on five areas:

Ignore The External: What’s happening off the court doesn’t impact what is happening on the court. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

Embrace The Moment: Be yourself and play with courage. You’re here for a reason. Be you.

Trust The Plan: Everyone buys in and is all in. Focus on your role and give all you have.

Expect Adversity: It’s supposed to be challenging; embrace it.

Play Together: We started together. We FINISH together.

Embracing adversity was no doubt the theme that everyone gravitated toward. Bryant is an excellent team with excellent coaches and players. They had defeated Central twice, and the guys knew it would be challenging. Instead of hoping it would be easy, we needed to expect and embrace the adversity. An easy Championship isn’t a fun story to tell anyway. Only stories of overcoming are worth remembering. The guys embraced the fight, and they finished. In the Championship game, I watched each guy overcome something, and they kept fighting together. It took the entire team. They started together, and they finished together as Champions.

In the locker room before leaving, Coach Ross said something I have long believed but rarely heard a coach say out loud. “Trophies collect dust.” It’s so true. Everyone is already talking about next year. That’s life. However, he followed those words with this; “You guys will always be champions, and now you can carry that over into whatever challenge is next in life.” That’s Finish Empty. It’s more than a game; it’s about life.

This team is exceptional—quality young men. I think I'll set a reminder for January 2044. That will be the 20-year reunion for The State Champs. Maybe, at 64, I'll ease out to The Blacktop and listen to the stories of how these guys continued to win. That would be an excellent Friday night in Little Rock and make an older man smile.

For now? It’s Saturday, March 9. The Tigers are Champions. But tomorrow starts a new week filled with new challenges and opportunities. Winners don't look back; their eyes are fixed forward. What's next for the 2024 Tigers? Time to win the day. Time to Finish Empty.