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I have conducted over two hundred interviews with leading executives, entrepreneurs, celebrities, athletes and influencers, but one of my most memorable was with NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, as Rick Barry was one of the memorable players in NBA history and has established himself as a memorable off the court personality in the years since his players days.

For the uninitiated, here are some highlights from Rick Barry’s basketball career: he led the NCAA in scoring, was the second overall pick in the NBA Draft, won the NBA Rookie of the Year, won an NBA scoring championship, won NBA and ABA titles, was the NBA Finals MVP, made eight NBA All-Star teams, made five All-NBA teams and four All-ABA teams, and was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team consisting of the fifty greatest players in basketball history. Rick is also the patriarch of the Barry basketball family: three of his sons - Brent Barry, Jon Barry and Drew Barry - also played in the NBA, and fourth, Canyon Barry, currently plays professionally in the NBA G League.

I discussed a wide variety of topics with Rick, from his defining memories to his lessons learned to his thoughts on today’s game, in an interview in my Lessons In Leadership series in Thrive Global. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Adam: What’s the most surprising thing about life in professional sports? What is something that would shock fans?

Rick: I can’t speak for the game now, because it’s a different world. I mean you know they forgot three zeros on my contracts. I had to negotiate my own deal – I had no agent when I was the second player picked in the draft. I negotiated my contract from an offer of $12,500 up to $15,000 and got a $3,000 signing bonus. I was as happy as a pig in slop. I didn’t get $15 million dollars to play one season of basketball or a $200 million long term deal. It is beyond my comprehension what has happened to salaries in the NBA.

Adam: It’s very easy to lose perspective.

Rick: Exactly. It really is. I never thought about the money when I played. I used to think, “Oh my God. They’re actually paying me to play basketball. This is unbelievable.” I would pinch myself to see if it was for real, and back then I didn’t have those three zeros. I love basketball, absolutely love basketball, still love it to this day. I wish I could still be playing, but I never think about it because that would make me very sad. When I talk to kids, I tell them that you have to have a passion in life. You need passion, regardless of what it may be. If you start really early enough, it could become your livelihood. If you have a passion for music or a passion for business or a passion for science, and you really apply yourself and get to be really good at it, then you will never work for a living, because you’re going to do what you love do and get paid to do it. You don’t ever want to be a person who gets up in the morning and goes out and says, “Oh man, I have to go to work today.”

Adam: What players and coaches have you learned the most from?

Rick: Well I learned the most from my father – he’s the one who set the foundation for me. I think one of the critical things in life is to have the biggest foundation possible in whatever it is you’re trying to do, whatever it may to be. You can’t build a skyscraper on a small foundation. Try to build a tall building on a small foundation and it’s only going to go so high before it topples over. I see a lot of guys who are playing in the NBA today who will never be as good as they should be because they really don’t have that foundation.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you’ve played with and what do you believe are the defining qualities of a great leader?

Rick: I always tried to take it upon myself to be the leader, and I tried to lead by example. I would show up every time to give my best effort, every time. That is what my dad taught me. He said the best thing is to take great pride in everything you do in life and give your best effort. That’s the greatest thing he instilled in me, and I hopefully have instilled that in all of my boys. I try to instill that in young people because that’s a critical element. You know if that you gave your best effort and you fail, that’s okay, because you learn from the mistakes and you do better the next time. But at least you can go to sleep at night knowing that you didn’t shortchange anything. You tried the best that you could to do whatever it is you were attempting to do that day. Regardless of what the endeavor was you had a learning experience.

Adam: In your experience, other than natural talent, what are the defining qualities of a superstar athlete?

Rick: Something that can’t be taught – a natural feel for the game that you’re playing. I can teach you how to pass, but I can’t teach you how to see. I mean it is just this natural feel. I want a guy who knows how to play as opposed to the guy who is a great athlete but doesn’t have those other qualities. When you get the guy who has the feel and the great natural skills and talents, like a LeBron James, now you’re really lucky because now you have a superstar.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and success?

Rick: All of them. Everyone makes mistakes. I think smart people learn from their mistakes. Intelligent people don’t make the same mistake over and over again. You learn through your mistakes: that’s how you become better at the things that you do. And you can’t be afraid to fail.

Adam: Has there been any one particular experience that stands out?

Rick: The one that was most humiliating for me is the one that I use when I speak to business people now, talking about how important it is to eliminate pressure from your life. I hate that word. I know you’re not supposed to hate anything, but I do hate the word pressure, because pressure doesn’t exist unless you allow it to exist. I hear the word so much in sports commentary. It just drives me insane every time I hear it because I can honestly say that if you prepare properly in life, there is no situation that you’re faced with that will ever provide pressure for you. In life you’re faced with a lot of times that are very critical situations, where your performance is expected to be at the highest level, and if you don’t have confidence in yourself, I think that’s when you can actually feel pressure and when pressure can become a reality. I can honestly say I’ve never in my entire life felt pressure on a basketball court. In fact, I tell people if I could have played every game that I was in, I would have loved to have the game come down to the last 10 seconds with the game on the line and the ball in my hands.

Adam: What is something about you that your fans don’t know?

Rick: Something that most people don’t know about me is that I’m actually a good guy. I’m portrayed as this freaking ogre… I find the reputation that I have almost unbelievable. That reputation is based upon what was written about me by some of the writers out there who have this perception about me based on a lot of stories by other writers who never really knew me. I think that perception is 180 from who I am. I say this to people, everybody should have a friend like me.

You can read the full interview at https://thriveglobal.com/stories/tips-from-the-top-one-on-one-with-nba-hall-of-famer-rick-barry/

Adam Mendler