Jim McClellan: Willie's Bold Stroke

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Sometimes, no one finds fault with choosing the easier road to success. But for Jim McClellan’s summer camp director that wasn’t going to happen.

They say fortune favors the brave. I think there’s some truth to that, as I was reminded in a recent discussion about childhood memories.

I spent a few summers at a great camp for boys in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Willie, the camp’s director, was a larger‐than‐life figure. Like his love for the camp, Willie’s energy was boundless, and he made me feel like I was the most important kid in the world whenever he spoke to me. Everybody loved Willie.

One summer in the mid 1970’s, the camp had beautiful new outdoor basketball courts put in. They had been roped off so Willie could open them in a special ceremony. On the ribbon‐ cutting day, all of us gathered several rows deep around the courts. There were a few hundred of us there, and the air was abuzz with excitement.

Willie appeared and, as he was dribbling the ball around, thanked all those whose hard work had brought these courts to life. But all any of us could think about was when he'd take the first official shot; he made a few fake layup runs, keeping all of us laughing and delirious with anticipation. But then he moved toward the corner, stopped, spun around, and took a jump shot from about 15 feet. As the ball rose through the morning summer air, time slowed, and in that single beat of silence, with every pair of eyes willing it toward the hoop, the ball described the arc of our collective dreams.

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When so much was riding on a single act—when the world was watching—that was when our true selves were revealed. He seemed to be saying, live your lives boldly; courage transcends success and failure.

In many countries, the number 8 is considered the luckiest, and when I learned years later that Willie had died on August 8, 2008, I thought back to that shot, and knew that Lady Fortune had always been by Willie’s side.

The decision to take a hard shot when an easy one would have sufficed made a difference in the lives of every boy watching. And I'm sure that the roar that went up after the ball went in is still echoing across Lake Champlain.

With a Perspective, I’m Jim McClellan.

Jim McClellan is co-founder of a logistics software company focused on the wine industry. He lives in Marin.