Talent vs. Work
This is one of the original “articles” from our old website; we are reposting the entire series here on our blog.
A great article about the fallacy of talent, the power of reps, and the low correlation between initial ability and final ability. As a footnote to this article, Alexander was selected as the 8th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks – it remains to be seen how’ll he do in the NBA, but should be an interesting study. – Chris
By Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports
LAS VEGAS – The father’s cell phone rang back in Beijing and Steve Alexander sensed such joy in his son’s voice. Steve and his wife and had dropped off Joe in Morgantown, W.V., for the start of his freshman semester, and now the kid’s words tripped over themselves.
“Dad,” Joe Alexander gushed, “I love this place.”
For a moment, Steve wanted to believe such enthusiasm had been about the campus, the girls – and maybe God forbid – the classes. And yet, back in the Far East, where he had raised his son, Steve could just grumble an, “Oh no,” when Joe finally spit out these words:
“They’ve got a couch in the basketball locker room!”
A couch in the locker room. What else did Joe need? It wouldn’t be long until he had turned it into his bed on a lot of nights at West Virginia, until he had found a way to blend body and mind into the Mountaineers coliseum. Family members used to find him sleeping on the park bench on the outdoor courts in Beijing, and here, that foam mattress his stepmother gave him for school would be jammed into his locker and eventually thrown down on the couch for a night’s sleep.
In Joe’s mind, he had been racing against time upon arriving at West Virginia three years ago, trying to make up for those lost years without coaching, without competition, in his childhood stays in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan. From no scholarship offers out of high school, to a surreal rapid rise on NBA draft boards, he started on a tear halfway through his junior season at West Virginia, exploding into the Big East Tournament and Sweet 16 of the NCAAs, and now through some of the most spectacular pre-draft workouts witnessed in this class.
The New York Knicks have watched Joe Alexander, a 6-foot-8½, 230-pound forward, work out twice and are thinking long and hard about drafting him at No. 6. The Milwaukee Bucks are believed to be locked into Alexander with the No. 8 pick. Alexander wouldn’t just be a complement for Yi Jianlian at forward, but also a teammate who can speak Mandarin. Whatever happens on Thursday, no NBA executives believe the kid called “Vanilla Sky” will drop past Portland at No. 13.
Whatever happens, Alexander is one of the most fascinating stories to come down in years.
“I’m blown away by him,” one Western Conference executive said. “He’s a freakish talent. And it’s scary how good he could be, because he’s just now starting to figure it all out. He isn’t driven, he’s obsessed. I think he’s the next Tom Chambers.”
Alexander sighs. “How come,” he asks, “they only compare me to the white guys?”
The most improbable story of the NBA draft on Thursday comes shrouded in mystery out of the Far East, the son of an American CEO who found great inspiration studying a culture where millions of people worked in fields so long and hard for so little. As much as greatness obsesses him, Alexander is just as moved to obliterate stereotypes and force people to reassess the way in which they label basketball players, the way they assign attributes based on race and background.
Alexander is an extraordinary leaper, a dunker that has reached a cult celebrity on YouTube. He is grateful and all, but no one has to tell him that that the intrigue is constructed around the color of skin, the phenomenon that comes with a white guy who balances such strength and a sweet shot, with a 40-inch vertical leap, with an ability to fly from just inside the free-throw line for lean-in dunks.
Alexander lifted weights and skipped rope and wore those jumping shoes. And then he did it again, and again, and again.
“I could never jump really high until I worked really hard on my jumping,” Alexander said. “I was never quick until I worked on being quick. Same thing with speed and strength. A lot of kids think they’re born with great leaping ability. I still hear people today say that I was born with great athleticism. That’s not the truth at all. I’ve been working at it with a good deal of structure for nine years.
“That’s why I can hit my head on the rim.”
“Part of what I’ve done is take the stereotypes and completely ignore them,” he says. “Because I learned really early that if I put in an extra hour or two into something, I get results. Why not be able to put in an extra 100 hours and I’ll be able to jump real high. But a lot of youth, suburban kids, I guess they need to see that a white guy has done that. Where else have they seen that? It’s been few and far between. Right now, it’s about reversing the trend in people’s minds.
“If you don’t have a 40-inch vertical, all you have to do is work for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black.”
So much of leaping comes from time on the playground and pick-up games, and Alexander never had to be bigger and stronger as a young player in China. He was the solitary figure on those outdoor courts in Beijing, where his father, Steve, who played football for Grand Valley State, is the President and CEO of the Adelson Center for U.S.-China Enterprise. His two older brothers, Jeremy and John, were MVPs of the high school division in Beijing, but they never invested the hours that Joe did.
Joe’s brothers would be drinking beer with buddies near the family’s house, and they would hear his ball bouncing in the distance, past midnight, on the courts. “As a parent, we did worry about the fact that he wasn’t out socializing,” Steve said. “Friends would call him to go out and he wasn’t interested. Either he wanted to go work out that night, or be fresh that next morning.”
As much as anything in Beijing, Joe’s mind was burdened with such uncertainty, such fear. “It was absolute paranoia that drove me,” he said. “Kids in America play in middle school and high school and they can gauge themselves on where they are talent-wise (with their peers), but I didn’t know how I compared with other players.”
He had his Michael Jordan and And1 mix tapes and just re-wound them over and over. He watched his older brothers pour hours into the game, too, and never make it past Division III basketball. They had grown up on those Beijing courts, had been the high school MVPs at the International School in Beijing and through it all, he told everyone he ever met that he was going to play in the NBA. After two years at Linganore High School in Maryland, Alexander, a scrawny 6-foot-6, couldn’t induce a Division II school to recruit him. Only Randolph-Macon, a Division III program, talked to him.
“At the time, I had no other option but my goal was set in stone in my head,” he said. “I wanted to go to a big-time major school.”
Alexander would go to Hargrave Military Academy for a year of prep school basketball. He played so little, his scoring average didn’t crack a point per game. “He didn’t really understand the game,” Hargrave coach Keith Keatts said. “He would stand straight up when he caught the ball, go between his legs five times before he made a move. In some ways, he was a little worse than the average American kid who had broken some of those habits. He had been watching tapes over there – the And1 stuff, I think – and gotten the wrong impression about American basketball.”
Before the season, the stream of Division I recruiters passing through the program to see Alexander’s teammates made several stops to inspect him. Keatts had little playing time for Alexander, but he did have hopes for him. He could shoot the ball, could dribble and had an intriguing athleticism. What’s more, he was impressed with how the kid would break into his gym late at night to play.
Keatts called West Virginia assistant, Jeff Neubauer, who made the drive down to watch a fairly unimpressive workout. Before he met Alexander, he still wasn’t sure he’d tell his boss, John Beilein, that they should offer him a scholarship.
“He was just OK,” Neubauer said. “He showed some hop and pop, but it wasn’t like he dominated.”
And they sat down to talk, and Alexander felt like he had waited his whole life for that moment. “He stared through me with those eyes of his, and it made everything he told me like it was the most convincing thing I’d ever heard,” Neubauer said. “Here he is, coming out of high school with no offers, and he’s telling me that he’s going to play in the NBA.”
Witnesses remember Beilein watching the open gyms after signing Alexander, pulling him to the side and telling him: “Joe, your teams never win.” Alexander flashed him something of a blank stare. All his life, he had just played played. He had never been coached in his life, and now, he had the Ph.D. on passing, shooting and cutting. He had that blended Princeton and triangle offense. As a freshman, to run an offense – remember the plays, read the defenses and respond – left him befuddled.
“I didn’t know what I was missing,” he said. “I had no idea. And that’s part of the reason why I struggled so much under Coach Beilein. I didn’t even realize what it meant to be coached.”
Behind an upperclassmen team that reached the Sweet 16, Alexander played little as a freshmen. Even without minutes, though, he was winning respect within the program for a relentless work ethic. He was sleeping in the locker room three and four nights a week, climbing onto a billiards table to take out the safety lights when he finally, in his WVU sweats, lay down on the couch.
Once, the power was lost in the West Virginia coliseum when he was shooting baskets late at night. So, Alexander drove his Nissan down the ramp and turned on his headlights to finish his workout. West Virginia’s coaches would always tell his father, Steve, these stories, and on a visit to Morgantown, his son was getting antsy in his dorm room at 9:30 one night. “I need to go shoot,” Joe told him, and soon, Steve had an uneasy feeling in his stomach when his son knew the one coliseum door he could jerk open to shimmy them inside.
“I felt a little like we were breaking and entering,” Steve said.
Soon, the night security man greeted his son like an old friend, and Joe was introducing Steve to him and the cleaning lady like they were his closest friends on campus. In so many ways, it wasn’t that Alexander needed to spend those nights in the locker room so he could awake and return right to working out.
“It wasn’t like I was putting in 12 hours a day there,” he said. “But it was really a product of my mentality toward what I’m doing in life. Why do I need to go home? What am I going to do there? Watch TV? I had nothing else going in my life. Nothing else mattered. At night, I just need someplace soft to sleep. And the couch in the locker room was fine.”
He worked his way into the Mountaineers’ rotation as a sophomore, scoring 10.3 points per game, but his concentration declined down the stretch of the season. He had made dramatic strides over his freshman season, and Beilein could see the light was started to flicker in that cluttered mind. “We were waiting for him to just slow down, and see the game develop, and that started to happen at the end of his sophomore year,” Beilein said.
Only, Beilein wouldn’t stay to see that transformation as a junior. He left for Michigan, and Bob Huggins was hired as West Virginia’s coach. Whereas Beilein valued the skills and finesse of the game, Huggins honored strength and toughness. Right away, Huggins turned Alexander loose in the weight room, taught him to play the post, to use that burgeoning body on offense and defense.
As it turned out, this was the perfect balance to Beilein. For the kid who had never been coached, he had been delivered two decidedly different graduate-level courses at West Virginia. “The best of both worlds,” he said. “Coach Beilein teaches players to think the game and Coach Huggs teaches guys how to be tough.”
Across the final two months of his junior season, everything came together for Alexander. He lit up UConn for 30 points twice, scoring 25 points per game over the final half of the season. All of that confidence, that earnest cockiness, within him manifested itself on the floor. After scoring 22 points to beat Duke to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, he roared after teammate Joe Mazzulla mocked the Blue Devils’ tradition slapping of the court and Alexander later feigned astonishment in the post-game news conference that Duke had eight high school All-Americans on its roster.
“Who?” he asked.
To Alexander, Duke had been the establishment standard, and he had torn them apart. If nothing else, he was the outsider crashing the gates, the un-recruited kid whom Duke would’ve never considered. “Man, Joe Mazzulla slapping the floor – that was just such a great thing to happen in my life,” Alexander said.
Suddenly, he was a must-see prospect on NBA lists. Back then, there were teams picking in the late 20s who thought they’d have a shot at drafting him should he leave school early. Yet once Alexander started working out with guru Joe Abunassar in Las Vegas, reports of his strength and explosion – video of his 40-inch vertical leap and surreal lift on his jump shot – made him the story of the pre-draft process.
“Who?” he wondered.
Alexander moved to Vegas with his father and rapidly lost his belief that he needed to return to school for his senior year. Before signing with agent Doug Neustadt, they listened to pitches out of several of the powerhouse firms. They talked about all the money that he’d make in the draft lottery, and that rookie contract, and it was after the fifth presentation that Joe finally turned to his father.
“That 1.3 million,” Alexander asked, “is that a year, or over the course of the whole deal?”
“When he tells you the money doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t,” Steve said.
Alexander traveled to Milwaukee on Monday for a second visit with the Bucks, and it appears there’s a good chance he could be drafted eighth there. He comes out of nowhere, out of the Far East and the hills of West Virginia, the biggest story of this NBA draft for the simplest of reasons: Joe Alexander wouldn’t take no for answer.
“The biggest thing that I wasn’t exposed to in this country, with kids coming up in basketball, was that idea that if they’re not good from the get-go, they’re done,” he said. “I always felt over there that the idea wasn’t to be good when you started, but work hard and become good eventually. Here, I get the sense that it’s too much of, ‘I’m not good at basketball, so that means I’m not going to be good.’ That shouldn’t be the mentality.”
Joe Alexander, the mystery slowly, surely fading away, hesitated for a second, and finally said, “Well, maybe they should just look at me.”