THE most important skill in basketball?

That’s an interesting question.


Raise your hand if you’ve heard the following axiom before?

“In basketball, the mental is to the physical as 5 is to 1.”
Robert Montgomery [Bob] Knight, one of the great teachers and coaches in the history of the game.

For Coach Knight, what exactly does “the mental” mean?


[Courstesy of]

An excerpt from, “Knight: My Story,” by Bob Knight with Bob Hammel …

Cornerstone and Credos

Among all the things I believe, and all I’ve gathered from the people who have influenced me, I think one tops the list:

The importance of preparation.

We talk in coaching about “winners”–kids, and I’ve had a lot of them, who just will not allow themselves or their team to lose.

Coaches call that a will to win. I don’t. I think that puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

Everybody has a will to win. What’s far more important is having the will to prepare to win.

I’ve said that often enough that there’s a man on the Supreme Court now, justice Clarence Thomas, who told me he saw that quote attributed to me in a newspaper or a magazine years ago, clipped it out, and carries it-to this day in his billfold. I’m flattered, but credit for it should go to Bud Wilkinson, the great Oklahoma football coach. I grew up an Oklahoma football fan, because that’s where my dad was born, and Coach Wilkinson was one of the great middle-of-the-century football coaches that I later got to talk to about coaching. Somewhere along the line I read that Wilkinson said, “The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win:’ Ralph Waldo Emerson said that next to the author of a good phrase is the first to quote it. So, though I’m sure I wasn’t the first, maybe I deserve a little credit. But certainly not full.

That feeling hasn’t changed for me and I’m sure never will, but a whole lot of other things have changed in basketball since I first began to coach.

Certainly, the pay is enormously better. But that’s about the only change I’d consider a positive.

I hate the elements that recruiting has brought into college basketball-the know-it-alls but know-nothings who have made fortunes by feeding the national recruiting frenzy with gossip and guessing that is passed off as inside information; way out-of-control AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) summer programs; shoe-company financial involvement that attracts unqualified and sometimes undesirable people in. The worst effect of all this may be the damage done to the egos of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids, in way too many cases convincing them they’re far better than they are.

I don’t like the three-point shot and the shot clock. Those two changes take away some of the control I felt I had on the outcome of the game.

The three-point shot exclusively favors raw talent-the ability to shoot the basketball, period. I think the intent of the rule was to take the zone defense out of college basketball: by awarding three points for an outside shot over the zone.

I don’t think rules should ever be made that favor the team with the most talent. And both the shot clock and the three-point shot are talent-oriented rules.

I say these new rules reduce my control of the game as a coach. It’s not truly a matter of control; it’s a matter of teaching a game in which intelligent play is rewarded by giving it an edge.

Playing smart, in discussing how to play basketball, is a function of percentages. Playing smart is a function of positioning, of placement, of recognition.

We try to teach our players to play intelligently. A key to that is getting them to understand not just that something works but why.

Identifying what each player can do and can’t do is important. 1 can’t expect any player to do everything well.

‘I consider it my fault if one of my players who can’t shoot the ball shoots it.

I think it’s my fault if the ball is in the hands of a poor free-throw shooter at a critical time at the end of the game and he’s fouled.

I think it’s my fault if I don’t have the right defensive match-up. Not every kid can guard every opponent.

I have to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of every player who plays for me, and make sure they understand them, too. What a player can’t do is every bit as important for him to know as what he can do.

Part of my teaching process is to tell our players:

“Learn what you do well. Learn your strengths and weaknesses. You can, on occasion, improve your weaknesses. You can work to steadily improve your strengths, but there will be some inherent weaknesses that you have as a player-or as a team-that you just can’t improve greatly. In your play, stay away from weaknesses like those.

“Learn your shot range, what kind of shot you can take effectively. Then, don’t shoot out of your range. Take shots that have a fifty percent chance of going in, not thirty percent.

“Don’t try to make passes that you can’t make. Play to your strengths and away from your weaknesses, while at the same time understanding each teammate’s strengths and weaknesses. Help them to play to their strengths and away from their weaknesses. If one is a big man who doesn’t handle the ball out on the floor, don’t throw him the ball when he’s moving toward the bucket on a break, thirty-five feet out. Give him the ball where all he has to do is catch it and lay it in. It’s just as important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates as it is to know your own.

“Great players maximize their talent and make everybody around them better. It’s no accident that they do this. They understand the game, and they understand the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates and their opponent. That comes from thinking. There’s nothing more important that a basketball player can do. Above all else, think!” The worst phrase ever used in teaching kids how to play a sport is, “Don’t think, just do it”

If you can’t think, you can’t play:

A quick way for an player to make himself better is to think about what he himself doesn’t like to play against. On offense, no one likes to play against a guy who’s in his jock, all over him, making it tough for him to do anything. No one likes to play against a guy who won’t let him get the ball, who makes it tough for him to get a good shot.

And it’s the same thing on defense-no one likes to play against a guy who is moving all the time, a guy who goes to the offensive board on every shot, a guy who makes good fakes and takes the ball hard to the bucket. “Be hard to guard” is one of the things we continually emphasize to our players on offense.

“Think about those things that you don’t like to play against,” we tell our players.

“Then do them yourself, at both ends of the floor.”

I use the word “understand” often. I want my players to understand why teams lose: poor shot selection, bad passing, failure to block out defensively, lack of pressure on the ball. Often the reason players and coaches give for losing a game is how well the other team shot, when the actual reason is how poorly their own team played defensively in giving up so many good shots. Another extremely poor excuse for losing a game is that “we just couldn’t hit anything tonight,” when in actuality the team that lost didn’t work hard enough to get good shots and took a lot of bad ones.

To me, concentration is basketball in a nutshell. Concentration leads to anticipation, which leads to recognition, which leads to reaction, which leads to execution.

The concentration I’m talking about involves four key words.

The first two are “look” and “see.” Everybody who plays basketball looks, but very few players see. Very few players train themselves to use their eyes. Not everybody has the same shooting ability as everybody else, nor the same size, nor the same quickness. But each person who’s playing this game can develop the ability to see what’s happening on the court-see the open man, see where to take the ball, see the guy who’s being defended, see who’s open on the break.

“Hear” and “listen” are the next two words. Most people only hear. The key is listening to what you’re being told, what’s being said, what is expected of you in your role as part of any team.

A basketball player who learns to see and to listen has improved tremendously without doing a single thing involving physical skills. Once learned, “seeing” and “listening” are valuable traits for anyone doing anything.

We all want to win. We all talk about winning. But I’m a great believer in understanding what goes into losing, because if we know how we can lose, if we know those factors or reasons that cause us to lose, and we eliminate those things, we stand a much better chance of winning.

I don’t apologize to anybody for really wanting to win or for hating to lose.

Win at any cost?

No. Absolutely not. I’ve never understood how anybody who cheated to get a player, or players, could take any satisfaction whatsoever out of whatever winning came afterward.


As far as the Toronto Raptors are concerned, there’s at least one player on the current squad who is already aware of this all-important aspect of How to Play the Game Properly [i.e. at its highest level].


Calderon brings sandpaper to mix
“We’ve got to fight everybody, we have to fight for 48 minutes and forget about who we play and where we play,” Calderon said after the Laker game. “I think we’re going to be a pretty good team, we have to keep working, be patient. We just have to concentrate for 48 minutes.”


Yes, indeed.

What some astute NBA observers are able to “see and listen to” when they watch a NBA game is very different from what most players, coaches, administrators, fans and other observers are able to “see and listen to” when they watch the very same game.

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23 Responses to “THE most important skill in basketball?”

  1. Raps Defender Says:

    “I think it’s my [coach’s] fault if the ball is in the hands of a poor free-throw shooter at a critical time at the end of the game and he’s fouled.” (see: Anthony Parker who missed 1/2 free throws that would have iced the New Jersey Game)

    “I think it’s my [coach’s] fault if I don’t have the right defensive match-up. Not every kid can guard every opponent.” (See: Raptor’s team defence against the Lakers)

    “I [the coach] have to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of every player who plays for me, and make sure they understand them, too. What a player can’t do is every bit as important for him to know as what he can do.” (See: Sam Mitchell)

    This post makes one wonder about our coaching situation…

  2. Dan H Says:

    Further to Raps Defender’s point Re: the coach…

    “Often the reason players and coaches give for losing a game is how well the other team shot, when the actual reason is how poorly their own team played defensively in giving up so many good shots. Another extremely poor excuse for losing a game is that “we just couldn’t hit anything tonight,” when in actuality the team that lost didn’t work hard enough to get good shots and took a lot of bad ones.”

    I believe these are the only two reasons Sam has ever given for a loss.

  3. Carolyn Says:

    Hey – I just bought this book for my collection. Now I want to read it. 🙂

  4. dunkonu Says:

    The most important skill in basketball is to see plays before they happen. “Great vision” for a PG, “seeing and reacting to a double team” for a scorer, steals on the defensive end and so on are all parts of knowing what is going to happen before it does.

    This skill separates great from good players. 🙂

  5. khandor Says:

    Raps Defender and Dan H,

    I don’t think Sam Mitchell will ever be confused with Robert Montgomery Knight … when it comes to coaching proficiency at an elite level.

    That said …

    The primary focus of this specific excerpt from Coach Knight’s book is not to shine the spotlight on what’s entailed in being a first-rate basketball coach but rather what’s involved in being a terrific basketball player.

    Interesting that you have chosen to “concentrate” on this application of his words instead. 😉

  6. khandor Says:


    Please let me know what you think of it when you’re done.

    If nothing else, in my book, Robert Montgomery Knight is a fascinating individual.

  7. khandor Says:


    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  8. FLUXLAND Says:

    I really don’t know what to think of that Jose quote – forget about who we play and where we play???!! Umm… this is not some amateur league in Spain, there, hombre.

    Re: Mr. Knight. I appreciate and understand his POV, I’m a big fan, I just think part of his thinking doesn’t apply to modern basketball and/or pro ball. The game is what it is today, and it includes many of the things he doesn’t like or disagrees with. That’s reality.

  9. Raps Fan Says:

    i’m kind of torn on what he said flux:

    on the one hand, you have to be aware of who you play and where you play, so your strategy is tailored to that specific opponent

    on the other hand, if you play your game, execute plays, play defense and crash the glass, the opponent really doesn’t matter because you are executing as best as possible.

    the second philosophy assumes you have a well constructed team of course.

  10. FLUXLAND Says:

    Yeah, that’s what I mean. We have to fight and concentrate, but forget who we play? Is that not contradictory, somewhat?

    Yeah, I agree executing your game plan is a good portion of the battle.. but shouldn’t part of that plan be knowing who you opponent is, not forgetting about him?

    I dunno, I don’t mind Jose. Only think he very over rated. Just because you are conservative with the ball, doesn’t make you a superstar or All Star.

  11. khandor Says:


    In a sense, the very best players everywhere treat each and every time they step on the court … anywhere and anytime … exactly the same, i.e. like KG they give maximum effort, concentration and intensity. Period.

    Who the opponent is, doesn’t matter.
    Where the game is, doesn’t matter.

    What matters is … what YOU bring to the table, no the other guy.

    re: the philosophy of Mr. Knight

    Just because he doesn’t “like” the newer rules does not mean that Robert Montgomery Knight is incapable of preparing the teams he coaches to play well/effectively under the confines of the modern-day game. FACT IS … the man is a Titan of the Game, and what he says has considerably meaning, simply because it’s him who is saying it, and what he is saying there speaks succinctly to that which is still at the very heart of this great game.

    It is simply time-less and its relevance will in all likelihood post-date anything we, in turn, are personally responsible for constructing, in this world.


    Raps Fan,

    IMO, the second philosophy says this:

    If I do what I do each and every time I do it, properly … I am going to beat you, regardless what it is you try to do to me because I am better prepared to deal with whatever you can throw at me than you are prepared to deal with what I am prepared to throw at you, time and time again.

    That’s what THAT philosophy means.

    It is at the root of The Art of War, which I happen to know, based on personal experience, is an all-time favourite of Robert Montgomery Knight’s.

  12. khandor Says:


    I do not think that either Larry Brown or George Karl see Jose Calderon as being conservative with the ball.

    Whether he’s a superstar or all-star, in this League, is irrelevant.

    The better question is … Is he goon enough and the type of PG it takes to win a NBA championship one day in the not-too-distant future?

    IMO, both Larry Brown and George Karl would say “Yes”, if asked that exact question.

    You already know my answer. 🙂

  13. Tim Says:

    Stick JC on the Lakers and Jackson would like him just fine too after he learns the system. He did pretty well with Harper after the scoring part of his career was winding down.

  14. khandor Says:


    I agree 100% with that perspective on Jose Calderon.

    Welcome aboard! 🙂

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