U.S. Capitol building

One Degree of Separation Between Greatness and Me

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice, Sports

Back in the days my children were involved in organized sports, coaches liked to tell the story of how former NBA Superstar Michael Jordan was cut from his 10th grade basketball team. The story tended to come out right before cuts were made, presumably to ease the sting for those kids who weren’t going to make the team. The notion is that we are all potential Michael Jordans.

My children had the additional pleasure of hearing my own version of the Michael Jordan story, this one involving former NBA player Perry Moss. (As my children will attest, I subscribe to the theory that if a story or joke works once, it works many times.) According to this story, Perry Moss and I were the last two players on a very long bench on our 9th grade basketball team. Put it this way:  We had a lot of time to get to know each other. Moss grew a lot in high school and went on to play in the NBA — first with the Celtics, then with the Nets and Bullets, and finally with the Sixers.  I went on to greatness in, well, other things.

There were a number of reasons I liked to tell this story. Unlike the Michael Jordan thing, I am actually in this story. The story involves me playing a sport, and I have always fancied myself an athlete. Finally, reflected glory is the next best thing to glory. By placing me in close proximity to someone who went on to achieve something that is so impressive, the story suggests that there is just one degree of separation between success and me. But for some twist of fate or luck, I could be, if not Michael Jordan himself, then at least Perry Moss.

The one thing my story neglects to mention is the enormous amount of work that is involved in becoming tops in your field. The truly great make it seem so easy that we have no idea of the work that was involved in their arriving there. Brilliance is borne of suffering. Tiger Woods, for example, started playing golf before the age of two and did virtually nothing else for the next 30 years. The fact that his game fell off considerably after he achieved fame and fortune and then got married suggests the single-minded effort that is required to maintain that level of excellence.

The good news about the law is that it is a pretty egalitarian profession. You do not need to be 6’5” and a superb athlete. And you do not need to be the smartest person in the room. We all know very smart people who are absolutely terrible at what they do. The person who prepares the hardest is going to come out on top. You know that person sitting in the back of your law school class?  The person who never said a thing all semester unless called on and who then surprised you at graduation upon being named first in your class?  That person wanted it more than you did.

This is good news because it means that we can compensate for our inadequacies.  My wife was never a very good writer in college.  She is now one of the best writers I know. It is because she kept working at it. She is working at it still.

This is also good news for criminal defense attorneys. Although the prosecutor will always have access to more resources while going after your client, he or she will not have the same amount of time to prepare for the case that you do.

In talking with some public defenders here in D.C., I was pleased to hear that they are required to write out every direct examination, cross-examination, opening statement and closing argument before trial.  Still.  Even after they have been practicing for years.

Because this is what I still do as well.

It is not that I always use the materials I have prepared. It is that the process of writing things out forces me to think through what I am trying to achieve. It forces me to form the right words in my mind so that the words come to me – seemingly out of nowhere — when I need them. And, of course, by serving as a checklist of the things I am hoping to bring out, it makes sure that I don’t forget anything.

In the civil context, I remember watching my wife during oral argument in federal court in Virginia, absolutely eviscerating the ringer the opposition had brought in to argue the case, someone who had already argued umpteen cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is not that my wife was a smarter person or a better lawyer. It is that she knew the case better than anyone else in the room. She had prepared herself for every argument and counter-argument, and all of this gave her confidence and ease when the moment came. It gave her the appearance of being brilliant when, in fact, her performance was nothing more than the product of preparation. The other counsel was left stammering, stamping his feet, and pointing his finger at my wife. My wife stepped back, smiled at his attacks, and treated him as though he were a petulant child.  It was a glory for this proud husband to behold.

But I digress. This is a story about Perry Moss, not my wife.

The last time I saw Perry Moss was a year or two after he had left the NBA, trying to keep in shape so that he could make a comeback. I was in Massachusetts visiting my parents and was looking for a pickup basketball game at Amherst College when I ran into him, and the two of us reminisced about our times together in middle school, conveniently forgetting how we had grown apart during high school. Although I was already part of a five-some when I came to the gym, there was a group of other guys – real hackers, all elbows – who needed a fifth. So they picked up Moss.

After the game, one of the guys from the other team was grousing about their loss. Next time, I suggested to him, you might try passing the ball to Perry Moss once or twice. The guy looked surprised:  “That was Perry Moss?” he said.  The guy who had refused to pass the ball to Moss now went over to get his autograph.

Perry Moss never did make it back into the NBA, and I have no idea where he is now. His career peaked while we were still in our twenties. But, aging body notwithstanding, I am committed to achieving some level of Perry Moss greatness before I die. With my law career on the ascendency, there is still a degree of separation between greatness and me. But that gap is getting smaller with every legal opinion I read and every witness I prepare. I am a better lawyer today than I was yesterday.

More like this:

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On the Law and Other Miracles