Joe Courtney Interview: Courtney Discusses Playing With Michael Jordan/Charles Barkley, Being Coached by Phil Jackson, Chasing Your Dreams, His Book & More
For my parents, the repeated sound of a ball bouncing against the blacktop of a basketball court is a harsh reminder of a once quaint suburban neighborhood gone astray. It’s the sound that keeps them up at night and the sound that wakes them up at the crack of dawn. “The neighborhood didn’t used to be like this”, my mother will say as she peeks out the blinds. “It’s all these damn basketball players.”
For Joe Courtney that sound was nirvana, the court, his sanctuary. A late bloomer to the game of basketball, Courtney’s love for the sport was evident from the moment his Nike’s hit the hardwood for the first time as a 9th grader in Jackson, Mississippi. Soon enough, his love for the game evolved into an addiction; the NBA became his dream; Jordan, his idol. Against all odds, Courtney became one of the immortal few to play in the Association. Having teamed up with “Air Jordan” in Chicago, “Sir Charles” in Phoenix and “The Admiral” in San Antonio; Joe lived the dream that millions of kids around the world fantasize about every night.
At 46 – nearly fifteen years removed from his decade long career in professional basketball – the 6’8 former power forward is now a luxury home designer, motivational speaker and author of the bestselling book “Life Above and Beyond the Rim” who tours the country inspiring millions to maximize their full potential, chase their dreams and make the most of their time on planet Earth. For Courtney, a man who has made a fortune off of his business ventures; it’s never been about the money nor the recognition; it’s about the message: figure out what you love to do, pursue the hell out of it and never look back. The late Tupac Shakur once said, “During your life, never stop dreaming. No one can take away your dreams.” Joe Courtney never stopped dreaming, and $40 million later, I’d say things turned out alright.
Kee: You had a very unconventional rise to the NBA. Whereas, preteens nowadays are entertaining Division 1 scholarship offers – you on the other hand did not pick up a basketball until your freshman year of high school. Talk about what attracted you to the game at such an advanced age.
Courtney: Originally, I was a very gifted student in the arts program and my father said that he wanted me to start playing sports. So I went out for football and made the team, but relatively soon I realized that it wasn’t the right sport for me. At that time, I was starting to grow; I was 6’2 and a half in the 9th grade. One night, my parents and I were sitting on the couch watching TV and the Chicago Bulls were playing. My mother turned to me and said, ‘What about basketball?’ I remember watching Michael Jordan running down the court and something just triggered; there was just something about him that was so appealing. The next day, I went to school with a wristband on my arm [like Jordan]and when I walked into the gym – the basketball coach was there – and he asked me, ‘What are you doing with that wristband on your arm?’ I told him that I was going to be a basketball player and he said ‘Okay, let’s see what you got.’ So after school, I started playing and, admittedly, I sucked pretty badly. I knew it was going to be a long journey, but the coach gave me a shot and started working with me and by the time basketball season had come I was ready. My junior year, I broke the state record with 17 blocked shots in one game. I grew to 6’6 that summer and by my senior year I was 6’8 and putting my head over the rim. It was a fast track, but once I got started, I made the choice to give it all I had and never looked back. Then, before I knew it, seven years later I was playing with Michael Jordan himself.
Kee: In 92’, you went undrafted after concluding your senior season at the University of Southern Mississippi. You could have thrown in the towel right then and there. Describe that time period starting from draft night all the way to when you officially became a Chicago Bull.
Courtney: After going undrafted, I got into the best shape of my life, trained hard, got invited to play in the summer leagues and played very well there. I ended up going to Chicago after some agents called and said they were interested in me, but when I got there it turned out that the agents had quit. So I’m stuck in Chicago and found out about a gym where all of the NBA players played and trained at in the offseason. I went there the next day, played well and caught the attention of Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s personal trainer. The next morning I met with him at seven o’clock and worked out with him for about 45 minutes. Afterwards, he said, ‘your work out partner is coming’ and a few minutes later, the elevator opens up and out walks Michael Jordan. From that point on, Jordan and I became workout partners. After that, I got invited to the Chicago Bulls training camp; came in excited and ready to go, but when I entered the gym there were 67 other guys competing for one roster spot. Ultimately, I was the guy wearing that jersey. It was definitely an unconventional way of making the NBA, but my mindset was that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I ended up focusing all of my energy on basketball and that’s why I made it.
But when I initially signed with the Bulls, they had too many players, so they wanted me to go to the minor leagues for 30 days until they got everything situated and were able to officially sign me. I was really disappointed because I had played hard, played well in the preseason and basically thought that I’d never hear from them again. So I went down to play for the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the CBA (Continental Basketball Association), played really well and one night, the team announced over the public address system that I had been called up by the Chicago Bulls. When I heard that, I couldn’t believe it. I was so elated and excited. I jumped on a plane the next morning, flew to Chicago and felt like I was at home. It was great.
Kee: When you signed with the 93’ Bulls, you got a chance to play for one of the most celebrated teams in NBA history. At the time, did you realize how momentous of an opportunity it really was?
Courtney: Playing for the Bulls was truly an amazing experience. At the time, though, I didn’t realize how special it actually was. But looking back on it twenty-something years later, I often reflect and think to myself how unbelievable of an experience it actually was. It was really just an amazing point in time in my life. Phil Jackson was amazing because he led through influence and not dictatorship, which I talk about in my book as well. What I mean by that is Phil was never a coach that yelled at you, but at the same time, he made you responsible and accountable for your own actions. Playing with Michael, obviously, he’s the greatest talent I’ve ever played with. He’s the best to ever play the game. From the moment I stepped on the court with him, it was immediately evident that this guy was so far above and beyond everyone else. Sure, he was gifted, but the amount of work he put in behind the scenes to be great was unlike anything I had ever seen. He was just so phenomenal. Every time he stepped on the court his presence automatically elevated everyone else on the team. It was a special time in history and, obviously, a special time for me not only playing for the Bulls, but being in the NBA in the first place.
Kee: Fans are often deceived into thinking that life in the NBA is full of glitz and glamour. For many it is, but for others, there is a lot of instability being a professional athlete. As someone who played on a multitude of 10-day contracts, and internationally, what is it like knowing that you could be traded or waived at any given moment?
Courtney: It’s very stressful because as a player I was often labeled, and I was always trying to break that label. Coming off of the bench, I was faced with a lot of challenges. I was working hard and playing well in practice, but there are a lot of politics in sports. Sometimes it seemed that no matter how well I was playing, there was always a player with a big contract, who was not living up to that contract or their draft status, and unfortunately the team was stuck with them. If I got too many minutes, that player’s stock would diminish, which is bad for the team if they’re looking to trade them. It was very frustrating at times, but throughout my career I played on a variety of teams that I meshed very well with. Playing for the Bulls, in my opinion, was a great fit, but, of course, you can only have a certain number of players on a roster. Playing for the Suns was an amazing fit. That was probably the best fit I had during my career. Playing for Cleveland wasn’t bad either, but once again, playing behind players with huge contracts, I had to wait my turn. Ultimately, I enjoyed my career and had some amazing experiences, but it was definitely frustrating having to go through that. With that being said, I wouldn’t trade my time in the NBA for anything in the world. I’d much rather of gone through the journey I went through than to not try and wonder ‘what if’ for the rest of my life.
Kee: Basketball has taken you around the world and back. Over the course of your decade long career, you played for seven different NBA teams, the CBA, and internationally in France, Spain, Venezuela, and Slovenia. What lessons did you learn as a player that has helped you transition into the corporate world?
Courtney: The ability to be a team player with anybody; the work ethic; the creativity on my work ethic and goal setting were the biggest things. The ability to pick myself up after a bad game was also something I learned and is something that all successful businessmen are able to do. In the business world, a lot of times people are told ‘no’ and it crushes them. Well, the best business people get told ‘no’ more than anybody, but they never stop pushing and eventually those ‘no’s’ will turn to ‘yeses.’ There were just so many things I learned over the course of my NBA career that were beneficial. Every day I pushed myself to the limit to become one of the best in the world. That mindset became addictive and I was able to take that addiction with me into the business world. And, in my opinion, I’ve been far more successful in the business world than I was in basketball. I started my own design and build business and I scaled the business to over $40 million within four and half years, I was featured in numerous magazines, I’ve designed and built beautiful homes and have done very well since retiring from basketball.
Kee: You often hear the phrase: “Smart people learn from their mistakes, wise people learn from the mistakes of others.” As a player and as an entrepreneur, what mistakes have you seen others make, which subsequently, has made you more successful?
Courtney: Over the years, I’ve realized that you never know when your moment is going to hit and, unfortunately, I’ve seen so many people quit before their day comes. They put all this work in to reach a certain point, but they might have a string of setbacks and instead of fighting through them, they’ll give up. I was able to learn from this and because of it I’ve had some great successes. Sometimes, though, you have to know when to quit. It’s really a double-edged sword. On one end of the sword, you can really have some extreme successes by really pushing the envelope, driving full throttle and never quitting. But on the other end, especially with business deals, you have to know when to stop pushing the envelope and take what you have on the table and leave with what’s guaranteed; instead of being greedy and going for more money. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, but it’s something I’ve learned from over the years.
Another thing I learned is that in the NBA, there were a lot of players who absolutely loved basketball. Obviously, at that level, everyone loves the game to an extent, but for some players basketball is their entire life. It’s who they are. It’s their entire identity. Then there are others who play because it’s a means to an end. What that taught me was that if you do that you love – something that doesn’t feel like work – then you will be far more successful at it. That led me to laying the foundation of my book and that’s what I teach during my business coaching as well. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life then start with your passion and drive on that. If you are doing something that you once loved, but have lost the passion for, that means your focus has been redirected and you have to go back to the core root of why you actually started in that industry in the first place.
Kee: In basketball and in business, who are some people who have had a profound impact on your successes?
Courtney: I had the opportunity to have some great moments with some amazing people. First and foremost, obviously, Michael Jordan. Number two, I’d say Charles Barkley because he and I became dear friends through Michael. He’s another great player and great personality. He and I have remained great friends to this day. I actually learned something different at the opposite end of the scale from Charles than I did from Michael. Michael was intense and everything he did was profound, while Charles taught me to work hard and have fun at the same time. He made my life more fruitful in that way. After pro basketball, being around the likes of Mark Cuban and Donald Trump, I was able to learn a lot of things that had a huge impact on my life. For example, the language as you move up the chain is crisper and less based on emotion; it’s based on reality and what is. So a lot of times you’ll hear a lot of harsh words that are spoken. If you watch an interview with Mark Cuban you’ll probably notice that he’s very frank, which upsets a lot of people. But what people don’t understand is that the higher you move up the business ladder, the fewer things are sugarcoated. The same thing is happening to Trump right now where people aren’t used to hearing a presidential candidate speak so raw and unfiltered. But if you’re really trying to be a winner; if you’re really trying to be successful, you’d much rather hear the hard truth than have someone protect your feelings and lie to you.
Kee: Your book “Life Above and Beyond the Rim” is geared towards helping people maximize their potential, while encouraging them to pursue their dreams full throttle. Looking back, was there ever a time when you doubted your own NBA dream?
Courtney: Yes there was. People who say ‘I never had a doubt in my mind’ are lying. Everybody has negativity around them. The difference between those who make it and those who don’t are that the people who succeed make a conscious decision to never quit on their dreams. I, myself, had several days where I sat in a room and questioned my journey, but that didn’t last long. I have always put more focus and energy on how I’m going to make it and how I’m going to get things done, instead of consuming my head with negativity. Statistics show that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than playing in the NBA, but growing up, I didn’t care about percentages or how slim of a chance the statistics said I had. I think this mindset is a way of life and, in my book, I talk about the principles that have to be in place in order to complete the cycle of success.
Kee: Many people are fearful of the risks associated with chasing their dreams. Whether it’s because of money, the fear of failure or disappointing loved ones, there seems to always be something that holds people back. What advice would you give to a person who is at a crossroad in deciding whether or not they should pursue their life’s passion?
Courtney: I always say that once you’re able to reconnect with your passion, it’s time to choose and you can only make this choice once. In my opinion, whenever you choose a route to follow your dreams, there is no going back; the only choice you have is deciding how you’re going to turn your dream into a reality. A friend of mine said, ‘a person never has a money problem, they have an idea problem.’ On the other hand, if a person chooses not to follow their dreams, 30 years from now, they will have to be prepared to deal with the regret they’ll feel by not pursuing their passion. But if a person is at a crossroads, they need to read my book. Obviously, it’s my book, but it’s so much more than just my personal story. That’s part of it, but the book was a best seller in ‘Business and Money’ because it’s a principled 10 part system on organically connecting the dots that need to be connected in order to achieve success in anything you’re passionate about. There are also exercises that help each person reading the information to extract the correct information and keep them on track on whichever road they are choosing.
Kee: In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how people have lost the ability to dream. Why do you believe this has happened?
Courtney: My belief is that when we are childlike, at the beginning, our heart and our soul is moving first, while our social acceptance is the last thing on our mind. As we get older, the social acceptance becomes more and more important to us and our heart and our soul is suppressed based on what we have to do to get social acceptance. I think eventually, as we get out of high school and into college, we spend so much time trying to be socially accepted that we adapt and evolve into someone we are not. Then our value as human beings becomes based on what type of job we have, what kind of car we drive, the clubs we belong to, etc. Eventually, we get locked into making choices that are not indicative of our true integrity and who we really are. As a result, a lot of dreams and passions are thrown away. We get out of college and think we’re going to take over this new company and find out that a thousand people applied for the same job. So instead of making $150,000 a year, you accept $50,000 because you can’t find anything else. Then you tell yourself, ‘I’ll be at the top in five years’ and five years go by and all you’ve achieved is a couple of dollar raise. The next thing you know, that dream you once had gets pushed further and further away. People then lose sight of their passions and eventually give up on their dream entirely. If these people only knew that it was as simple as a choice because, like I said before, once you choose you only have to do it once.
Kee: Talk about the receptions you’ve received from people who have read your book. As an author, how electrifying is it to have someone tell you that your story has inspired them to live a happier life?
Courtney: That is the most amazing feeling of them all. The one thing I wanted to be sure of when I wrote this book was that it wasn’t just something for my personal gain. The book needed to be something that had a purpose, a reason and would impact people one way or another. I decided to write the book after the economy crash because I had noticed that people had lost so much, monetarily and emotionally, and subsequently, had lost their identities as well. People didn’t know who they were anymore. The feedback that I received was so powerful because it came from every walk of life from entrepreneurs looking to start up their first business to millionaires and billionaires that have read the book and have validated my system. One of the publishers that I received an award from actually said the book was a new and improved version of ‘Think and Grow Rich’, which is probably one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever gotten. I was almost blushing. To think my book would me mentioned in that light was surreal. Overall, the feedback I’ve gotten has been absolutely amazing. It’s changed so many lives. I’ve had people tell me that my book has helped their relationships with their spouses, their relationships in the community; and this is coming from all sorts of people from coaches to business leaders to CEO’s. It’s really been a profoundly gratifying process.
Kee: Aside from basketball, you’ve also been successful as a home designer and as a motivational speaker. Which field do you enjoy the most and which have you been more successful in?
Courtney: It’s hard to say which one I like most. I think I’m most gifted in design, but the impact I have when I speak is very consistent with the impact I have on a lot of the design work I do. The more I speak the better I’m getting at it and the more I’m impacting people. Pretty soon, it’s going to be hard to tell which one I’m better at. If I had to say which career I enjoy more, I can’t really give you a definitive answer because I love doing both. When I design and build it’s an outlet. When I do public speaking it’s an outlet. It’s a total sum of who I am and if you ask what makes me whole, it’s both.
Kee: And finally, for more information on your journey and your services, how can people contact you and where can they purchase your book?
Courtney: Regarding speaking engagements, please visit joecourtneyonline.com. As far as the book is concerned, it can be purchased at joecourtneysbook.com – where you can actually get a personally signed, special edition hard cover copy with an embedded signed photo – or on Amazon.com for the standard edition.