Ralph Williams lived next door to me at 1330 Franklin Ave. in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. He was older, but he and I were about the same size. Ralph beat me every day. If I knew where he was, I’d pay him back. I owe him. Every day he would beat me on the basketball court.
Ralph wanted to be like his older brothers. They were all-star basketball players. I don’t know if he wanted to be like Walt Frazier but he played like him. He was always smooth and under control. On the court, Ralph anticipated everything. To him, every move, every shot and every score was important. So Ralph practiced every day, on me.
Ralph was always working on his game. He would work on a move until he got it right and could score consistently with it. Then he would tell me how to defend against it. Then he would prove he could score with it anyway. He’d steal the ball from me several times in a row. He’d then tell me what my fault or tip off was. Then he would steal the ball from me several more times. This was every day for as long as we could play.
There were lots of days when I didn’t score a point. I learned and scores got closer as I got better. One afternoon, I had him. I was going to beat Ralph Williams. All I had to do was defend. If I got the ball, I knew I could win. You couldn’t get a hand between us. Ralph scored and won.
I couldn’t believe he had gotten a shot off. I was all over him. He had been going right across the foul line. I was in good position. I was a half step ahead and close. My hands were up. But he scored. I’d seen the ball drop through the basket. I asked what he had done. He laughed and said he’d shot behind his back. I laughed and said stop kidding. He repeated he’d shot behind his back. He walked over to the ball, picked it up and behind his back, flipped it at the basket. It went in. My mouth dropped open. He did it again. He moved further away and did it again. He went to one corner of the foul line and as he dribbled, midway across he scored again.
I asked, “How did you learn that shot?”
He said, “I practice.”
I asked him, “When? That shot?”
He said, “I practice every day by myself. That shot and others.”
That was news to me as I asked, “By yourself? Behind the back?”
He said, “You always have to have a shot you can win with. You don’t have to shoot behind the back. I was having fun.”
Ralph and I played a lot after that. I developed my own “winner.” I could beat him now. I don’t remember when I did. That didn’t matter. We were having fun. Ralph had taught me how to win. Now I could take my game and my life to other courts and other levels.
Michael Jordan finished his career taking the toughest shot in basketball: A jump shot from the corner spinning and falling away. I call that a Ralph William’s shot.
What I learned from Ralph Williams:
Time: You have to spend time at getting better. If you want to be great, it will take even more time.
Hard Work: It is easy to be good at the easy stuff. If you want to be good at the hard stuff it’s going to take hard work.
Sacrifice: What will give up to become better? Nothing? Then you may not get better.
Basketball IQ: If you are not getting smarter, you are not getting better.
Transference: Intelligence is application. Apply the things you learn especially to other areas of your life.
Fun: Have lots of fun!
I could use a lot of clichés about hard work and sacrifice and life’s lessons but what I remember most is that I learned basketball and a lot about life from a neighborhood kid just a little older than me. I was lucky to be taught good stuff by a great guy but what you learn, what you take away and keep, is up to you.
Ralph taught me how to play basketball. He taught me how to win at it. He taught me to be a good sport. He taught me to have fun. And, on the court, one on one, every day he tested me. I became a better basketball player. I also became a better person. I learned how to pay attention to the things in front of and around me. I learned how to anticipate actions and reactions. I learned how to defend, not just a basketball goal, but myself and my goals. I learned the difference between being aggressive, assertive and offensive and when to be which. I learned how to help the other guy up and how not to gloat or taunt. I may have gotten more from Ralph than he ever got from me. I owe him.