F self- belief
or most of us, the chance to finally retire, put up our feet and watch the world go by would be like music to the ears. Not for John Dabrowski. At 62, the former pro basketball star from Nottingham, England, is only “warming up” to a new career as a motivational speaker and mental toughness expert — and he has no plans of slowing down.
The idea to reinvent himself as an inspirational speaker has its roots in his childhood, when John suffered from an utter lack of confidence as a young boy. Born to Polish parents, he struggled to read aloud from English texts in class and remembers how the “children laughing and giggling destroyed [ his] confidence” in school. “I didn’t have any friends either, because I couldn’t communicate with them,” he recalls.
It didn’t help when, once during PE class, he was the last to be picked on a team. “I was 11 years old, and six foot one; very gangly, very uncoordinated. The boys picked their favourites to be on their teams and I was the last. No one wanted me and that affected me badly.”
But a trip to Poland to meet his uncle that year changed his life completely. “My uncle played for the Polish army’s basketball team,” he says. “It was just a moment when he was talking to me and shooting the ball into the basket at the same time — but I was hooked. I begged my mom for a basketball, and practised the best that I could… There came a moment, a couple of months later, when we were lined up for basketball in PE class again. The boys were choosing teams and it was down to two of us. I thought, here we go again. This time, however, I got picked first. For the first time, I felt wanted. I looked back at the kid by the wall, and decided I’d never be that boy again.”
John went on to work very hard at playing ball. “My dad had the best garden in the entire street in those days,” he notes. “I persuaded him to build a basketball ring for me in it. A few weeks later, the flowers were completely destroyed. They were his passion — but he saw his son growing in confidence for the first time, and he considered it worth the sacrifice. He passed away three years ago, but I’m grateful that I managed to say a big thank you to him before that.”
At 17 years old, in 1971, John was picked for England junior trials. He only got in when he tried again the following year, and started making his way up, by playing with top local leagues. In 1978, he played for England in the Commonwealth Games, and jumped at the chance to go pro the next year, at 25, when he was asked to play for Sunderland. It was a career high — that came crashing down, six weeks later, when John suffered a serious back injury. “One of the floorboards was wet during a game,” he explains. “I slipped and popped a disc in my back. The pain was unbearable.”
Though he could’ve given up and gone back to his one- time job as a teacher, John says this is where he had to practise resilience. With the help of some therapy, he managed to play for two more years before retiring at 27 — during which time he set the second highest record for the most number of points 4 I don’t mean showing off; just quiet inner confidence. When I was 18 and in college, I had to introduce a professor to four students at my table. I remember my palms were sweating, my heart was pumping, and there was a roaring noise in my ears. I was so scared. All I had to say was four words: “Please welcome Professor Brown”. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, I’m afraid. When the time came, the students turned to look at me and I froze. Professor Brown had to introduce himself. But the guy who couldn’t speak in front of four students speaks to crowds of 600 today. And that took self- belief.
BACK IN THE DAY:
John Dabrowski ( No 7) takes a shot; with Magic Johnson ( celebrating a semi- pro game win