As an eighth-grader at Parkview Junior High School in New Castle, Steve Alford and his classmates were asked by a counselor to fill out a sheet of paper with basic questions such as name and age.
At the bottom it asked: What do you want to be when you get older?
Alford, still a year away from embarking on a storied high school basketball career, wrote, “To be a professional basketball player.”
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“She gets to that line and says, ‘Steve, you can’t put that down.’ She said, ‘There’s no way that will happen,’” Alford said. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m going to play professional basketball, so if you don’t want to put that down then just leave it blank.”
The former Indiana University basketball star and current UCLA men’s head basketball coach told Franklin College graduates to hold firm to their belief in God and their belief in themselves. He entertained a packed Spurlock Center gymnasium with his 28-minute speech Saturday.
“What an exciting time for me to be here,” said Alford, who served as keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony.
“Congratulations on this very special day for you. It’s a huge accomplishment and something I can remember back in 1987 from the experiences I had at Indiana and growing and maturing there. It really helped mold what I was going to become.”
He was born in Franklin and his parents, Sam and Sharan, continue to reside in Franklin. He attended New Castle High School while playing for his father.
He was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1983 before going on to score 2,438 career points for coach Bob Knight’s program at IU and helped lead the 1987 Hoosiers to the national championship.
Now 51, Alford talked about his own personal journey — the failures as well as the successes — and the role God has played in it.
Alford’s spirituality has been with him throughout his entire coaching life, which started at Manchester University in 1991 and has taken him to Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico and now UCLA.
“Regardless of that path, you have a lot to say about what your lifestyle is about and how you go about living that lifestyle. The first key that I’ve experienced is that relationship with God,” Alford said.
“Making sure that God is first and you can develop that relationship each and every day. If you don’t have that, I don’t care who you are, you’re always going to feel that void. For the long term, to get rid of the void and really experience incredible joy, it can only be filled by your relationship with God.”
The second thing Alford emphasized to Franklin College’s Class of 2016 was the importance of believing in yourself.
“You’re going to have a lot of people saying, ‘That doesn’t make sense’ or ‘We can’t have that kind of idea.’ You’re 2016 grads. You have incredible ideas and thoughts ahead of you, and you’re going to be told ‘No’ several times,” he said.
“But I really challenge you to stay true to your beliefs.”
Just like he did with the professional basketball career dream and the counselor who challenged it.
“We left it blank. Nothing was more rewarding for me than five years later being honored at New Castle High School as a U.S. Olympian (Alford played for the Knight-coached men’s basketball squad in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles).
Alford continued with a laugh: “I can remember her coming up to me and saying, ‘Well, you really haven’t become a professional basketball player yet.’”
He would go on to play in 169 games in the NBA over four seasons, mostly with the Dallas Mavericks.
“My point is to believe in yourself. Believe in what you’ve done. I truly believe a lot of people never become successful because they’re afraid of failure. I’ve coached players like this. Very gifted players,” Alford said.
“They’re more afraid of making mistakes than they are of success. Failure and mistakes are all part of it.”
Alford leans on his own recent experiences.
Despite winning seasons in 20 of his first 24 seasons as a college basketball coach, his latest UCLA squad limped to a 15-17 finish and finished 10th in the Pac-12 Conference.
At one point a plane flying above campus pulled a banner with the message: “UCLA deserves better. Fire Alford.”
“I don’t look at that as it was this circumstance or it was that circumstance. Failure has opened up opportunities for me to grow. I understand that if I’m going to make my team better, I’ve got to make myself better first,” Alford said.
“I understand the mistakes I made. Now how do I get better? But it’s about believing in my talents and understanding that failure is just a part of growth. What you believe on the inside you’ll ultimately become on the outside.”
Alford incorporated a basketball analogy in addressing the 195 graduates.
“This degree has allowed you to get to the jump ball circle, and there are a lot of people who aren’t going to get to the jump ball circle,” Alford said. “When you leave today that ball gets thrown in the air, and now the game of life really begins.
“Once you find your purpose you’ll find your passion. You’ve got to love what you do. Passion is the first step toward your achievement.”