There is no great secret to success. It's about hard work. It's about setting goals. It's about knowing that people are always watching, that your reputation is constantly being created by your words and actions. It's about seeing the blessings of your surroundings and making good choices.
And it's partly about knowing your history, your basketball lineage and watching others create the blueprint for success.
That was the message from Buffalo basketball legends as they told their stories to about 70 students as part of the ninth annual 411 All-Star Weekend held at New Era headquarters on Delaware Avenue Friday afternoon.
Generation to generation of players shared their memories of growing up in Buffalo and playing high school and recreational basketball throughout the city. Curtis Aiken, Rob Lanier, Trevor Ruffin, Jason Rowe and Ritchie Campbell all shared their definitions of success, offering inspiration, motivation and a bit of a local basketball history lesson.
Aiken kicked off the event, accepting the inaugural 411 Hall of Fame Award. Aiken, a member of the 2011 induction class into The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, was a standout at Bennett and went on to score 1,200 points with Pittsburgh in his college career from 1983-87. While he still keeps his hand in basketball as a radio analyst for Pitt basketball games, Aiken took his skills into the business world as founder and CEO of Pro Tech Compliance, Inc., a technology and services company in Pittsburgh.
But his beginnings were in the gyms of Buffalo, watching the best basketball players in the city, working to not only emulate them, but to become better than them. He wanted to be the best and to be the best meant hard work.
"My friends liked to party slightly more than I did so they would walk me to the Masten Boys Club at 10:30 at night, lock me in the club and go party until two or three in the morning," Aiken said. "They'd come back, knock on the door and walk me home. I understood what it took to be the best. I'd shoot a thousand jump shots and that was just the start.
"In my era, I was the best. Not just in Buffalo or the region. I led the nation in scoring, averaging 41 points a game because I watched other guys and wanted to be better than them. In order to be the best, you have to be willing to do what it takes to be the best. I'm no different than any of you sitting out there. I was raised on the East Side of Buffalo, from humble beginnings. My hands are no bigger than yours. I'm not 6-8. From a physique standpoint, I'm not much stronger than anybody. But I had heart. I believed if I worked as hard as I could, I could accomplish anything."
The rest of the panel shared their own stories, a generation to generation of basketball legends, passing on their wisdom and experience to the boys.
Lanier, who played at Mount St. Joseph Academy and St. Bonaventure and is now an associate head coach at the University at Texas, discussed the importance not just of developing individual skills but in being able to fit into a team.
"Power is not the best word, but I have a certain amount of power in that I can offer scholarships and I'm trying to find guys who can help a team win," Lanier said. "It's important to work on individual skills but I need to find out if you can take those skills and put them in a team setting and help us win. It's nice if you can handle the ball or shoot [the jumper] or whatever, but it doesn't matter if you can't help my team win. Aspire to be good, focus on individual skills but can you help a team win with other good players on the floor?"
Ruffin, like many on the panel, recalled his days playing at the Masten Boys Club and playing games at local parks. The former NBA player said one of his keys to success was watching what the older players were doing and following in their footsteps.
"I was never really a dreamer," Ruffin said. "Everybody has goals. I just wanted to be the best. I got a lot of my motivation to make sure guys like Curt and Rob and the other guys who went before us saw that we were listening, that they had an impact on us. I'd go out and shoot a thousand jump shots almost in homage to those guys, because that's what they did. I knew what the blueprint was, so let me honor what they tried to give us and do the same thing."
Ruffin, however, implored the kids in the audience to be enthusiastic and involved with their passion. While he and other members of the panel thought their hometown could use some directed leadership when it comes to mentoring basketball players, Ruffin encouraged the players to take the initiative themselves.
"I wish the kids in Buffalo had a bar, something to strive for," Ruffin said. "You can't compete if you don't know what you can strive for. What we have [in Buffalo] is substance and it needs to be cultivated.
The 411 All-Star Weekend continues today at City Honors, beginning at 9 a.m. with a clinic for boys and girls ages 10-17, run by Lanier. At 1 p.m. there will be two elite youth basketball games pitting Western New York teams against Toronto teams. Those will be followed by an All-Star Legends Game and the 411 All-Star Game featuring Western New York players against all-stars from Albany. Admission is $5.