Chris Bosh shares sage advice for aspiring basketball players
NBA champ is humble, helpful, and maybe still holds a little grudge in 'Letters to a Young Athlete'
Letters to a Young Athlete
By Chris Bosh
Like an ex-partner who isn't quite over it, a Toronto basketball fan might read Chris Bosh's new book with eyes peeled for slights from the former Raptor, former Miami Heat, former NBA all-star player. And, petty though it is to go looking for trouble in a book that has virtuous intentions, Bosh's beef with Toronto is there for the stewing.
To be fair, Chris Bosh is not out to settle scores, or pursue vainglorious 'memoirs of my stardom'. Letters to a Young Athlete is an accurate title for a surprisingly humble read.
Based explicitly on Maria Rilke's Letters To a Young Poet and Wynton Marsalis' Letters to a Young Jazz Musician, Bosh has written and signed 12 chapter-length letters of advice to the young athletic hopeful.
The man is a loving father to five children, and it shows. These are thoughtful, inspiring, frankly paternal words of wisdom to guide the young athlete along the perilous path to professional success.
Letter No. 1 sets the tone. 'When You Ain't Nothin' But Tired' is all about conditioning, running, working hard. Bosh insists effort will compensate for any talent shortfall. Make pain and exhaustion your friend and you'll win.
WATCH | Chris Bosh: 'That pain is temporary, but champions are forever':
His next extended thought is about learning why you play. He urges readers to look beyond surface motivators like money, scholarships, and trophies, to find a deeper inspiration. The love of sport, the need to prove yourself, whatever it is, Bosh makes quite a profound call to people to seek their deep, even possibly spiritual motivation. Because cars and cash ain't enough.
He writes about the gift of hunger. He wins a high school tournament MVP award, but on his way out, dudes from another school chirp him: "Yo why don't you give that trophy to somebody who deserves it?" Which teen Bosh uses as fuel to hit the gym hard.
Next year, same tournament, he makes a special point of beating those guys bad. 40 points bad. "Little things like that fuel you. That hunger sustained me for years. I never forgot it. I never forget any of that stuff."
He says he used that hunger to get him from high school to college, college to the Raptors, the Raptors to the Heat…making it clear that Toronto always was a stepping stone.
He begs kids to hit the books, for all the obvious good reasons, and also because studying means going to college, which has a chance of producing "athletes who understand the power structures that govern their sport and their society, who can advocate for themselves, who can be vocal about things that matter off the court."
A letter about the importance of communicating on the hardwood breaks matters down to the 100 possessions in a typical basketball game. Which means 200 conversations...offence and defence on each possession. Precise, efficient communication is everything in that context. He apologizes when he has to resort to cliches like "if you're not talking, you're not playing defence." Great teams are always talking. Losing teams are generally silent, shut down, not communicating. Which is cause, which is effect?
He counsels listening, too. Absorbing useful critique is an underappreciated asset. Bosh writes about how the U.S. Olympic team's Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), quietly mentioned that he liked Bosh's wingspan on defence. That little comment made a huge difference in how Bosh saw his role on the national team. He became a far better contributor once scoring stopped being the main focus of his efforts.
He devotes a letter to taming ego. He offers a sly thought bomb: 'If you think you are as good as can be, you're right.' Bosh says ego is the reason why the D-League is now called the G-League. Players saw the 'D', which stood for developmental, as a slur, a deficiency. That's ego. Bosh is deeply concerned about this. He knows that ego is devilish to manage for young people. Even harder when they are being told they are great athletes, and getting rules bent for them by coaches. Not easy to keep that ego in check.
Bosh blames his own ego for some early growing pains with the Raptors. He wanted piles of buckets, and when his offence was sub par, coach Sam Mitchell called him out for letting his defence slip too. That was ego, and Bosh is good to acknowledge it.
Bosh's move to Miami
"Before I left Toronto, a friend said to me 'Are you really going to leave Toronto to try to win a championship? Hardly anyone wins a championship, man. Stay here. You'll make way more money. We love you in this city.' Imagine how hard it was for me to make the decision to leave for Miami, and imagine how hard it was for me to do that while making sure my ego wasn't driving my decision."
Bosh had to remind himself that winning mattered more than money. He had to turn down millions, and a starring role in Toronto, and also to make sure it was not vanity or greed driving him.
A letter on critics is perhaps the most touching in the collection. He knows that the bigger you are, the more unwanted attention you attract, but he just did not see trouble brewing when he was leaving Toronto for Miami. In Bosh's mind, the move happened for the right reasons. He rejected being a very rich star in Toronto in favour of becoming a slightly less rich teammate to the bigger stars, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami:
"It really blindsided me...I thought people were going to love watching us play. Oops.
"I saw all that criticism, 'Bosh Spice', 'fake tough guy', Bleacher Report ran a series called 'Everyone Hates Chris.' Man, WTF?"
I found it hard not to feel sorry for him at this remove.
Bosh wisely advises not to ignore all harsh words. He acknowledges that it is tricky to sift the good nuggets from the poison. Speaking of which, on racist taunts, he has a fundamental truth: "All I can tell you is it doesn't have anything to do with you." He also says that when critics get under your skin, take it to the gym. At least you'll be getting better.
One more little jab for Toronto fans. In a letter about being neither too delighted with a win nor too dejected at a loss, it feels almost begrudging as he mentions 'the shot', Kawhi Leonard's astounding bounce,bounce, bounce buzzer-beating game winner during Game 7 against Philadelphia. Would it kill Bosh to praise that moment? All he can say in this context is that the 76ers did the right thing by it. Sure, it was a highlight bucket for the ages, but Bosh's lesson is that Joel Embiid was correct. He defended Leonard into having to risk that low-probability shot. And Embiid went back to work in the off-season. Point made, but it would be nice to think Bosh might, just for a second, savour Toronto's best basketball moment.
When Chris was a kid, he took losses way too seriously. He'd cry in defeat. His dad thought there was something wrong with him. So, give the man his due. He's trying to help the next kid, who like himself, really suffers in defeat. When he cites the Stoics at length, it feels like it's for his own good, as much as the readers.
I don't know who I was expecting Bosh to quote for advice on the beauty of working really hard, but he gives close to the last word to violin maestro, Jascha Heifetz: "If I don't practise one day, I know it. Two days, critics know it. Three days, the public knows it." Ultimately, he wants young people to work at every practise, play in every game like it's their last, because one of them suddenly will be.
On the day Chris Bosh was definitively told by doctors that a rare blood clot condition meant he could never play again, he had just finished playing, and losing, his last NBA game. Bosh is okay with that. He's okay with ending on a loss. Because the last thing he did in the NBA was to try as hard as he possibly could.
Hardcover, $35, Penguin Random House. 231 pages. Foreword by Pat Riley, president of the Miami Heat.