Your mom might've told you to write thank-you notes once upon a time, and it seemed like such a chore, an exercise in obsequiousness. Typically, it was rote. Someone slides a sawbuck into a birthday card, you're condemned to scribble out a few lines of scripted treacle: Thank you so much for the money, I am going to save half and spend the rest on blah blah blah bling bling bling blah, thank you again. Sincerely, a kid expecting money again a year from now.
Children are people of low status. Similarly, so are job applicants, who also are exhorted to pen — to hand-write! — thank-yous to potential bosses after an interview. It's a rite that shows off your consideration and courtesy, even if it still carries that mercenary air of the strategic. Thanks again for taking the time to meet with me. Sincerely, someone who's reiterating a desire to be bossed around for years to come. Thank-you notes can still feel like a nuisance. They remind you of being a peasant.
But it doesn't have to be drudgery. If anything, it becomes a beautiful tool of diplomacy, especially as a person ages. When Bill Sharman died this week, the twice-over Basketball Hall of Fame coach and player (only John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens share that distinction) was remembered as a consummate professional and a gentleman — and, not coincidentally, a prolific writer of letters and notes.
Kobe Bryant's Instagram memorial to Sharman read as a thank-you note for thank-you notes: "Thank you for all you have done for the game as a player and as a coach. Thank you for your support and handwritten letters of encouragement over the years." Likewise, Mark Madsen tweeted:
Rest in peace Bill Sharman - a great man who lived a great life - will never forget his handwritten letter of encouragement as a player-thx— Mark Madsen (@madsen_mark) October 25, 2013
Now, it's one thing to treat your players with courtesy. Sharman went further, treating writers with a rare degree of courtesy. A former Los Angeles Daily News Lakers beat writer, Ross Siler, posted a Sharman letter to Facebook this week, explaining that it was the only handwritten note he ever received as a sportswriter. Sharman wrote it to him in gratitude for a reverent, thorough 2004 story Siler wrote about Sharman's induction to the Hall of Fame as a coach. (Salient details: Sharman was the first Lakers coach to show game film and hire an assistant.) Here's what the old coach sent him:
Notice the "belated" on there. The guy really was too much.
I asked Siler's permission to post this. He agreed, and added, "It was the first real feature I wrote after I got on the Lakers beat. I naively thought that every future subject was going to write me one after that."
No one does write, is the thing. Which is what makes the handwritten note so powerful. People remember when they receive them, especially from higher-status people, because it inverts the traditional thank-you-note relationship. Those are rare, of course. High-status people probably become high-status by writing thank-you notes up, not down. But a few, I suspect, are equal-opportunity thankers.
Some years back, I interviewed B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott for a piece I was writing for ESPN.com. It was probably a half-hour on the phone, something Scott has done at least a zillion times in his career. Not long afterward, a package arrived at my office. Inside was a copy of Scott's memoir Bass Boss and a hand-written note, on Ray Scott stationery, thanking me for taking the time. I'm not so green that I didn't realize what Scott was doing, to some extent; a brilliant self-promoter, Scott knew the value of making an impression on someone calling from ESPN. But it was hard not to be flattered. He was a legend in his sport, presumably rich, and three times my age. I guarantee he had better things to do with his time than to write me a note and send me a book. But then, it occurred to me: This is how Ray Scott becomes Ray Scott. Damned if I didn't go out and buy my own personalized cards. Because what if that thing really is so easy? Why not give it a shot?
What made Sharman so good at the art of notes was that if he was buttering his bread, he didn't make that evident. Plus, he seemed to know the best notes, like the best shanks, are the ones no one sees coming. Scott Fowler, the Charlotte Observer sports columnist, wrote this week that as a 7-year-old kid in Texas, he wrote a note to congratulate the Lakers on their championship in 1972. Sharman, then the Lakers' coach, sent a note back that included autographs from the entire team: Wilt, Riley, West, Hairston, Goodrich. Then, it got even better. Fowler writes:
I loved that sheet of paper.
I studied it to see which player had the best handwriting and which ones included their jersey number. I showed it around. I marveled over it.
And, of course, I lost it.
I told that story in The Charlotte Observer in 2002 — 30 years later — as part of a column about the power of autographs. Sharman’s son-in-law in Florida saw the column. He told Sharman about it.
Sharman, by then a special consultant to the Lakers in California, dug through his files. He found a picture of that 1971-72 team and signed it. He found a copy of the original set of team autographs from that season, which he Xeroxed for me.
Then Sharman stuffed all that in an envelope and sent it to me along with another handwritten note that concluded, “Thanks for bringing back some very nice, exciting memories!”
This, I suspect, is partly why Bill Sharman became Bill Sharman. Not because he flattered people, although clearly that happened. But because he made people feel noticed and important, especially when many of them — the kids, the writers, the writers who were then just kids — weren't accustomed to feeling either. Even Kobe felt extra special, and Kobe feels only special. Common decency does that, when it's so uncommon.
Why I will never forget Bill Sharman [Scott Says]
Photo credit: AP