Become “fighters” rather than “floaters” or “flee-ers,” NBA great Jerry West urged graduates of WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences Sunday (May 16), saying passive personas greatly inhibit professional and personal growth.

West, the West Virginia University legend and NBA Hall of Famer, outlined three distinct personality types for about 150 CPASS graduates and their families, including West’s son, Jonnie, a member of the Mountaineers’ Final Four basketball team who earned a degree in sport management.

“In 2006 I had the privilege of giving another commencement speech at WVU,” he said. “During that speech I quoted a friend’s description of the three types of people in the world. He observed that everyone is either a ‘floater,’ a ‘flee-er’ or a fighter.

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“Floaters drift through life, going with the current, but seldom determining their own fate. They lack the courage to follow their hearts and intuition. They let other peoples’ opinions drown out their own inner voices. They often avoid outright failure, and they often make a lot of money, but the success they have is never really fulfilling,” he said.

” ‘Flee-ers,’ ” West said, “flit from job to job, relationship to relationship, avoiding both challenge and opportunity. ‘Flee-ers’ love to blame others, to make excuses, to point fingers when things don’t go their way. Alone, a ‘flee-er’ is fairly harmless to anyone but himself. Only when they latch onto a ‘floater’ do they begin to have real impact. A ‘flee-er’ will bring down a ‘floater.’ A ‘flee-er’ believes that misery needs company. A ‘flee-er’s’ worst nightmare is a ‘fighter.’ A ‘flee-er’ and a ‘fighter’ are at opposite ends of the spectrum of self-determination.”

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West reflected on his own life as an example of how to become a fighter. He was shy and introverted as a youth but those traits allowed him to focus intently on the sport of basketball. Through determination, persistence and force of will, he made himself one of history’s greatest players.

“I spent much of my spare time shooting at a hoop nailed to a neighbor’s storage shed,” West said. “I played incessantly, in the cold and the twilight, and then listened in bed to Mountaineer radio broadcasts. I was so preoccupied with playing my own private game that I often forgot to eat. I didn’t weigh much to begin with, and so I had to take vitamin injections to preserve my health.”

Despite attaining some of the sport’s greatest achievements – college All-American, Olympic Gold medalist, NBA all-star and champion—West was not an unqualified success. He remembers vividly each of the eight defeats he suffered in the NBA finals while with the Los Angeles Lakers. Even moreso, he is haunted by a one-point loss to California in the 1959 NCAA championship.

Click below to hear West's advice about failure:

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But through failure, West learned humility, which, he says was essential in his personal growth. At times at WVU, he said, he felt like a social outcast because of his shyness. Today he is comfortable with who he is and with his legacy to his sport, WVU and West Virginia.

“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I was more strong-willed and more disciplined than I had suspected. I also found out that I had friends whose values were truly above riches,” he said.

Some of those friends were on hand Sunday. Former teammate Willie Akers was in attendance. WVU Coach Bob Huggins gave West’s introduction. Bonds between friends and family, West told graduates, are to be cherished and were included in four lessons he passed on to graduates that, “life and the world of sports have tried their best to teach me.”

Along with enjoying life, West urged graduates to show kindness to others.

“Smile, laugh and be pleasant. This may sound banal and na�ve. It’s not. It is a profound occupational and personal advantage,” he said.

It is also not a sign of weakness to admit to not having an answer at times.

“When you don’t know or understand something – and such a time may come even after the superior education you have received at West Virginia – when you don’t know, say so. Don’t guess. Don’t fake it. If you don’t have the answer, say so. The following seven words often work very well: ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’ You won’t mislead your colleagues, and people will respect your honesty and self-assurance,” he said.

Lastly, West reminded graduates to take time for their families.

“This one is a special shout-out to my wonderful son, Jonnie, who is graduating today. Remember, life is too hard to be lived alone. Find time for your family; you only get one. ‘Thank God,’ I can hear some of you saying out there.”

By Dan Shrensky
Communications Specialist
WVU News & Information



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