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How a Professional Basketball Player Copes with Mistakes

JR Smith’s Game 1 Finals gaffe highlights one of the harder parts of the game to deal with: how do you process screwing up? Former pro player Brian Freeman offers thoughts.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime in game 1 of the NBA finals Thursday. The most memorable moment of the opening NBA finals game did not come from a historic outing from LeBron James or even from Steph Curry or Kevin Durant. Instead, the Cavs backcourt tandom of George Hill and J.R. Smith held that honor...and not in a good way. George Hill missed a free throw with 4.7 seconds left in a tie ball game. Smith then rebounded the miss. Believing the Cavs were ahead at the time, Smith dribbled out the clock instead of calling a timeout or attempting a potential game winning shot. JR Smith has a reputation for both crazy antics (Examples one, two and three) and boneheaded basketball plays (Example one and two) but this play, at the most crucial point on the NBA’s biggest stage, will certainly be regarded as the biggest regret in either players’ basketball careers.

Very few players, arguably zero, have ever botched a game in as big of a moment as these two players did, but teams lose games due to missed shots, bad plays, and bad judgment quite frequently. As an ex-professional player in Europe for 8 years, I can plead guilty for a late game blunder in my career and I’ve had many teammates do the same. Most players that get to the professional level have had at least one game-altering play in their history that they would like to have back. So how does a player deal with those situations?

My late game screw up came when playing in Poland in 2009. We were down 1 with 3 seconds left and I stood at the line for 2 free throws— and missed them both. I still remember everything about it. I remember the foul that led to the free throws, my thought process while at the line, how the shots came off the rim, I remember the feeling in the locker room and who said what to me. I don’t think i’ll ever forget any of it.

It was a regular season game with very few immediate implications, but in the moment that didn’t matter. I had never experienced guilt and embarrassment like that in my life. I had to fight to not let that one moment change how I perceived myself as a performer under pressure. I knew that no one could approach me after the game without mentioning it. What else could someone say other than “Keep your head up” or “You blew the game”? Luckily I didn’t speak Polish so I only understood what my teammates were telling me, which remained positive and up lifting. If fans or teammates scorned me in Polish I never realized it.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to give a post game interview, another benefit of not speaking the language. Eventually, the feeling of guilt and embarrassment from the moment does fade, although never completely.

It’s my mentality that a game ends the morning after. Whether it’s an extreme high or an extreme low, I allow myself to get caught up in the emotion in the evening after the game, happy tears or sad ones. But the next day, I do my best to put the emotion from the game behind me. I learn from my mistakes but I never let myself get too high or too low. The season is so long, that’s how players need to operate.

After my missed free throws, I didn't discuss the play with anyone that night but the next morning, at weights, I addressed it multiple times with different people and was fine getting some flak and jokes from my teammates. But you can’t stay down forever. Instead I used it as motivation to not let it happen again. After weights, I went back to the gym and shot a pair of free throws 100 times and ran a suicide for every set that I didn't make both shots. The goal was simple: keep the lesson, learn from it, and try to leave the emotion behind.

Obviously that’s easier said than done. The media doesn't forget about games the morning after and neither do the standings.

A player doesn't need reminders, though. It takes a while before the mind can go quiet without immediately recalling the moment. There really is only one quick-fix cure— another game. After the next one, the narratives change and the focus shifts elsewhere. Player’s need to have short memories. So does the team as a whole.

I’ve never seen a teammate or coach act any way but supportive of a player going through this struggle. As I said, most players have failed in the clutch at one point in their lives and tend to sympathize with teammates going through it. The fans, media, and sometimes management will bring enough negativity that most players understand that it doesn't also need to come from inside the locker room. This may depend on the mistake, however. A missed shot is different from losing focus in the most important moment of the game. Missing a shot is much more excusable.

A situation like mine—or most players’ worst mistake moments—is incomparable to what Hill and Smith have had to go through. I can’t pretend to know how that feels. They have put themselves in the “Greatest Blunder in Basketball History” lists forever. I’m not sure anyone remembers my missed free throws other than myself. I’m sure at some point they struggled to sleep and have replayed the moment countless times in their heads. They’ll never forget even the smallest details. But their teammates haven't ostracized them and they both have a chance at redemption in subsequent games.

Short memories are part of the game.