I love the game and the history of the game and at different points throughout my life I have had different roles when it comes to the game of basketball.
I've been a player, coach, fan, league coordinator, parent of players and gym rat.
I have had many good experiences with the game, but also many frustrating ones. Probably more frustrating ones than good.
You're reading this and thinking "What does that guy know about becoming a winning team?" For years, I have enjoyed watching basketball games, whether kids, junior high, high school, college or pro. Each level is unique, but at it's core, basketball is pretty simple. Five guys (or girls) working together for one goal. Sounds like Coach Dale from the movie "Hoosiers" doesn't it?
In watching teams and players come and go, there are things you pick up. There are some intangibles out on the court that are hard to find in a stat sheet, but essential for a team to be a winner.
I've been a part of winning teams. My high school coach, Ken West, was one of the winningest coaches in the state of Texas. If I remember right, he won his 750th game my senior season. We presented him a painted basketball with our names on it and a big 750 painted on it after the victory. I remember this because our assistant coach gave me the task of painting the ball and carrying it around until we won that game.
My short career in college ball was for a winning team (at least the first year). There were things to learn from this coach (Richard Hoodendoorn) and mostly from the team dynamic. Great friends developed that season. Then, there was that one day when I was coached by the legendary John Wooden. Our team (Texas Wesleyan Rams) were the sample team for a one day coaches clinic Wooden was having in Arlington, Texas. It was an honor just to meet Coach Wooden. He knows more about winning and basketball than every other coach and player in the country combined (that's my personal opinion.) Just check out his uncanny record.
Anyway, those things don't make me an expert. I know this, but then again, this is my blog and I thought I'd share my opinion on this elusive task of creating a winning basketball team.
I'm reading a book given to me by my secretary called "The Book of Basketball" (no points for creative book titling) by Bill Simmons of ESPN.com & ESPN: The Magazine. He's a Boston guy and shares his opinions about the NBA and especially about the Bird-era Celtics. For a guy my age who grew up watching Bird and Magic and then MJ, this is a fun read. At one point (the point I just read last night) Simmons is talking to Isiah Thomas. This is funny because Simmons had been slamming Thomas in his magazine articles for about a year regarding the mess he made with the NY Knicks. Anyway, the talk with Thomas goes back to when he was still a superstar point guard for the Detroit Pistons in the age when it seemed that either the Celtics or Lakers won the NBA Championship each year. The topic was how a seemingly under talented Pistons team with only one superstar compete each year and even defeat the perennial NBA favorites for a championship (not once, but twice.) Isiah said that's "the secret."
THE SECRET TO WINNING
What is this elusive "secret?" Well, I guess if everyone knew, it wouldn't be a secret. As I read Isiah's answer, it clicked with me. I was immediately taken back to the 1985-1986 Richland Rebel high school basketball team. This was my senior year. It was a great season and we had some good players on the team. When I think about our team, though, I must admit we probably weren't the most talented in the district. I know our center wasn't (yep, that's me.) Our point guard Mark Benson was one of the best ball handlers and game quarterbacks I'd ever played with. Our shooting guard David Cook could put up the points, but all in all, we weren't the fastest team, we weren't the strongest team, we probably didn't have the best grasp on the fundamentals. . .yet we were winners. We won over twenty games that season and captured the district title and even the bi-district title (that's the first round of the playoffs for you folks not in Texas.) We lost the next game and many times I have wished that one could be replayed. Nevertheless, there was something about that team, about that season that was unique.
"The Secret" - Well, here's what Isiah says "The secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball."
Wow. Deep, huh?
It's true, though.
Think about what's happened to basketball in this era? Due to superstar highlights, Top 10 plays on ESPN, marketing strategies and the like, the ultimate team game has been morphed into a showcase for individual talent. Don't get me wrong, I love watching LeBron dunk over the opposing team then steal a French fry from a fan, but there's so much more to the game.
Apparently the late 1980s Detroit Pistons figured this out. Now, I wasn't a Pistons fan then and am not one now, but like I said earlier, I love the history of basketball and as I look back on this team, Isiah was right. Team mattered, at least for a few years, more than individual stats.
Now, I go back to that senior year in high school. More than anything this group of guys wanted to win. Texas is a lot like Florida - football reigns. So, to get noticed as a basketball player or team, you have to win. More often than not it was Benson or Cook and sometimes Matt Pruitt who led the team in scoring, but not always. I had that honor a couple of times. The point was that the ball was spread around. The focus wasn't so much on individual numbers as it was on winning.
I've played basketball many years and for every year of organized ball, except one, I was on the bench. I rarely was put in a game in junior high (only if it was a blowout.) In ninth grade I made the team and played just a handful of minutes. Then, in tenth grade I was on the JV and saw some playing time. My junior and senior years was my time on varsity, but it wasn't until my senior year that I became a starter.
LIFE ON THE BENCH
Here's what I noticed about team dynamics. You've all heard the sayings "There's no 'I' in TEAM" and the like, but what happens on the bench in a basketball game is something sociologists should study. It's kind of like watching Survivor. Everyone's on the same "team" but everyone is looking out for themselves. This is the first problem teams must overcome to become winners.
As you sit on the bench, you cheer your teammates, but in the back of your mind are hoping the guy on the court who plays your position does terribly (some may wish for an injury, but that's not very nice). Why? So the coach will get mad, look at that bench of players, who as soon as the coach turns around scoots to the edge of the bench looking up with big eyes like the puppy at the pet store as if to say "pick me" with hopes of being put in the game. It's pretty cut throat.
Then, when the coach puts another player on the bench in for the position you play and feeling of animosity and anger and the thoughts "I did so much better than him in practice yesterday" and "I can't believe the coach puts him in" and "That guy is such a jerk. I hate him (well you really don't but you start to because he's playing and you're not)" come to mind. Great for team unity, huh?
Life on the bench is difficult. Maybe that's why winning teams have a "Bench Coach" to work with the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of this group of players.
PLAYERS WITH ATTITUDE
This is the killer. I've seen it on numerous teams. Yes, there's a fine line between cocky and confident, but the reality is that no one wants to play on a team with someone who thinks they're better than everyone else (even if they are.) Something about wearing the same uniform as a jerk that makes this one hard.
Often the player or players with the worst attitude are either the most talented or the upperclassmen (or veterans). There's that obvious "I deserve to play" look that's given to the coach and other players. Every team I've ever watched that has the talent but doesn't win consistently tends to have a couple of "cancer" players on their team.
I've been on teams like this and the very best thing that ever happened, and looking back, the catalyst that pushed those teams from hovering around .500 to being winners was cutting out the cancers. Some players were kicked off the team. Others quit. The end result? A better team.
Back to that senior year. This was the first team I was on that didn't have one of these "cancer" players. I never heard so many teammates saying "My bad" or "My fault" when things went wrong in a play. Most teams I get to watch now have at least one or two players who have the perpetual "whiny face" on - either to their teammates or coach or the refs. I hate watching players who "never do anything wrong" in their own minds and blame everyone else. I just want to run out on the court and "set a hard pick" on them (I was going to say slap them upside the head, but as a pastor, I didn't think that would go over too well. . . yet, that's what I want to do.)
This is probably the biggest thing, right behind getting rid of those "cancer" players that keeps a team from moving from perpetual mediocrity to winning. Most often this is disrespect of the coach.
It's easy to say what I'd do if I were the coach. I'm not, so I can't be certain, but I can tell you that I think I would be a coach that would not put up with disrespect to me, assistant coaches, refs or other players.
My high school coach was one of the winningest in the state, but like any coach-player relationship, we didn't always agree. I thought I should play every minute of every game. He didn't. At the end of the season, he gave me an award at our banquet. He said it was the first time he'd ever given out this award. It was the "Most Verbal Abuse by a Coach" award. My coach was about 5'6" tall. He most often had some snuff in his bottom lip. Now, my ears are big and stick out and the coach used these to his advantage. He would grab my ears, pull my face down to his level and then with little pieces of tobacco spitting out of his mouth, yell in my face about what I did wrong or needed to do better. My response? "Yes sir." I guess I just thought that's how you were supposed to respond. I didn't roll my eyes. I didn't talk back. I didn't storm out of the gym because "I'd been disrespected". I knew my role. I was a player. It was a privilege. I knew his role. He was the coach. He was a winning coach and I wanted to be a winner to. So, I figured he knew what he was talking about.
Another thing. Our first practice back in my sophomore year with Coach West, he made one thing very clear. He said that if our parents had problems with our playing time or his coaching style that (and here's where I thought he'd say "My door is open. Have them call me." Right) they had better not contact him. He said it was our job as his players to listen to him and be coached by him and, get this, to make sure out parents knew his role and didn't bother him with that stuff. Wow. That message stuck. I told my parents that and they said "He's the coach." So, though they never like the amount of minutes I played, for the next three years, they were cordial to the coach and let me play. This was pretty much a big deal for me. It was as if the coach was saying "You're growing up. Be a man. Don't be a little kid."
So, the secret of basketball is not about basketball.
It's about understanding the roles of each player and coach. It's about chemistry as a team. It's about putting others first, rather than yourself.
This is what turned the Lakers around when Magic arrived. This is what turned the Celtics around upon Bird's arrival. It's what allowed the Pistons to win in the midst of these other dynasty times. It's what propelled a group of guys at Richland High School to victory back in the mid 1980s. I'm convinced it's still the secret.
Some things I've discovered through this.
- Teammates do not have to be best friends. I liked all my teammates back on that Rebel team. However, we weren't all best friends. We didn't all hang out all the time together. Sometimes coaches and parents think this is key. It's not. People are unique and have different likes and dislikes. Hey, I was the weird, tall Christian guy on the team. I wasn't the partier or connected with kids from other schools. My best friends weren't even on the basketball team. In fact, they had graduated a few years earlier.
- The coach cannot make this happen for the team. At some point, the players have to get a clue. At some point, the players have to agree that winning is more important than individual stats or personality differences.
- Coaches have to recognize when animosity among players is killing the team. Some "cancer" removal may have to happen. Watch the bench dynamics. I love watching players jostle for the seat next to the assistant coach so they can either suck up or hope to be noticed first for substitution. Happens on every team. Funny, but detrimental.
"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable." - Coach John Wooden
"I play, Coach stays. He goes, I go." - Jimmy Chitwood
"If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we're gonna be winners." - Coach Norman Dale
"Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team - no one more important that the other." - Coach Norman Dale
"Tarkington! You have to block out! Get in there and get that rebound!" - Coach Ken West