This morning Cordell Parvin published a blog about what we as lawyers can learn from his hero John Wooden of UCLA basketball coaching fame. I join Cordell in admiring Wooden. Of course, as a University of Houston Law Center alum, I can’t help but point out that the Cougars beat UCLA in the “Game of the Century” in the Astrodome in 1968. In my own time, it was fun to be in school with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler (not that I saw them other than from the stands) during the Phi Slama Jama years of the 1980s.

More currently, as an Iowa State alum, I’m afraid to pinch myself for fear of waking up and finding the Cyclones knocked out of their run near the top of the NCAA men’s basketball polls. During the last March Madness, I wrote about the parallels between basketball and law practice.

I never made the connection before, but Wooden’s string of NCAA basketball championships in the late ’60s and early ’70s was paralleled in the same era by the success of Iowa State’s wrestling coach Harold Nichols, who coached the Cyclones to NCAA championships in 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1973.

Nichols recruited me to wrestle at Iowa State during those glory years. In a 3-minute telephone conversation, he asked me a question I’ve never forgotten: “Do you think you can you win a national championship?”

Can you win a national championship?

I paused for a few seconds to think hypothetically before answering, “Yes, I think I could do that.”  I failed to accomplish that goal—never came close—but the experience of competing at that level, even in the practice room, made a lasting mark on me.

Now, as a managing partner, I ask aspiring associates a variation of Nichols’ question: “Do you think you can become one of the best lawyers in the country?”

It’s interesting to see and hear their responses. Few say yes, and almost none respond without equivocation.

In a 1987 interchange with the Hon. Giles S. Rich of the Federal Circuit, the distinguished jurist pulled a casebook from the shelf and showed me a Supreme Court case. I asked about the lawyers in the case and made a dismissive comment about counsel for the losing side.

“They were good enough to be there,” he replied.

They were good enough to be there

In the early 1990s, I was working out at the gym in prime time when I looked around and found no one in sight. I looked further and found Michael Jordan playing pick-up basketball. He famously had a “love of the game” clause in his Bulls contract. I signed up on the clipboard to go in with the next group of players, but fortunately was spared embarrassment when he called it a night.

I like to see lawyers who’ve competed in sports. They know what it means to work hard, to win and lose, and to strive to be the best.

It’s fun to be in the game with people who are at the top of the game. It’s one of the fun things about law practice (or any other field for that matter) in a big city like Chicago—you meet lawyers and clients who are really good at what they do—and you become better at your work, even a better person, in the give and take of the contest.