Dave Paulsen had his George Mason team at attention last Saturday morning and was ready to tell them about embracing the process. There was a basketball element to his talk — about not being obsessively results-driven, about not living and dying on every shot, about accepting coaching and enjoying hard work — but it also tied into the upcoming second semester, and how the Patriots needed to embrace their academics with a certain verve.
“And all of the sudden the door opens,” Paulsen recalled. “I’m like ‘Oh who the heck is that?’ And I tell the managers to shut the door. And they’re like ‘Coach, it’s Spike Lee.’ ”
“We have guidelines, and we have rules,” Paulsen continued with a laugh. “For Spike Lee, it’s guidelines. He can come in and talk to our team.”
As it happened, Lee was on George Mason’s campus for the Envision Presidential Inauguration Leadership Summit, an event that brings socially engaged middle school, high school and college kids to Washington for events surrounding the inauguration. In addition to Lee, the scheduled speakers included Colin Powell, Martin O’Malley, Carly Fiorina, Abby Wambach, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.
So that’s why Lee was inside EagleBank Arena on Mason’s campus. Even before Paulsen’s talk, he had stopped by the basketball locker room, asking an assistant if he could go say hi to the players. The coach said sure, so while Paulsen worked on game plans in his office, Lee greeted the team. But a couple of players from the New York City area hadn’t yet arrived, so someone asked Lee if he could come back later.
Lee then left, and Paulsen showed up for the team meeting, which was supposed to precede film work and then a bus trip to Richmond. The coach asked his staffers if Mason’s players were all present.
“They’re like ‘Yeah, everybody’s there, that’s the good news,’ ” Paulsen said. “The bad news is you missed Spike Lee.”
So Paulsen began his talk, with “Embrace the Process” written on his grease board, and then Lee reappeared to say hi to the players he had missed.
“Where are my guys from Brooklyn?” the filmmaker asked, greeting Marquise Moore and Jalen Jenkins, two of the team’s leading scorers.
Lee was getting ready to leave for a second time when he looked at the grease board. “Embrace the Process,” he read.
“Yeah Spike, why don’t you take a crack at it?” Paulsen asked.
Lee then went on a five- or 10-minute monologue about what that phrase meant to him. He talked about the importance of fighting selfishness, in Hollywood or in moviemaking or on a basketball team. He talked about how egotism is poison, and the value of finding joy in the game, and the benefits of happiness, and the 1969 and 1970 Knicks.
“And our guys were absolutely mesmerized,” Paulsen said. “It was perfect. Perfect. You’re always trying to find the right time and the right avenue to get your message across, where you’re not too heavy-handed and the timing’s right.”
The coach still hadn’t finished his own talk, or his planned segue into embracing academics. But he figured Lee had pretty much covered it.
“I was like, ‘Whatever I have to say is very insignificant compared to what Spike just said, so let’s go to the film,’ ” Paulsen said. “Spike did it better than I could. I’m just gonna let that one alone. We’ll talk about the academics on the bus home.”
George Mason beat Richmond later that day, 82-77.