“The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.”– Bill Russell
THBA on Winning Championships: The 1st Secret of Basketball
(three part series- 10 min read)
In the summer of 1994, I was 15, weighed 120 pounds, and figured out the secret to winning basketball championships after almost throwing fists at my best friend (and teammate’s) face. After that day, these basketball secrets spread into who I was during my high school, college, and professional teams. That day made me sit down and think about what winning meant to me. I may have forgotten a few (there was my 6th grade recreational championship, but I left that one out), but I counted over 12 high school, college, and professional championship teams that I’ve been a part of. Yet, these basketball secrets grow from within and over time, like a slow rising tide start to become part of who you are, part of the team’s identity, and the feeling is undeniable.
Isiah Thomas referred to one of these basketball secrets in a meeting he had with Bill Simmons in the Book of Basketball. He said, referring to why his Piston’s teams won championships: “…Cause everybody does something good. That’s what makes us good… we created an environment that won’t accept losing.” See, in my opinion, winning in basketball isn’t only about basketball. It’s about you and your teammates. It’s about chemistry. It’s the family atmosphere that despises laziness and bad work ethic and unauthentic players. It’s why teams and coaches like Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs have won so many titles. They get basketball players that have high character, know their role, and check their egos out at the door.
Championship teams can’t be built without players that understand human nature and are self-aware of their egos.
But where do you start in building championship caliber teams and programs?
Start with yourself.
Start with caring.
Start with being authentic in every encounter you have with anyone on your team from this point on.
If you start with yourself and you care, you are off to a great start.
Bill Russell used to throw up before big games. Caring is why players throw up, it’s why certain players can’t watch certain losses after their season is over and why championship teams always have a bond and feeling that remains intact for decades. It’s why I still haven’t watched my Elite Eight game loss against Indiana (this is actually my Sweet Sixteen win, see, I won’t even let you see it!) or my loss in the Michigan Final Four in high school to Marshall. It’s why I would shut my eyes for 30 minutes before every game and try to visualize giving everything I had to win the game and execute our game-plan and ask for guidance from the Universe (God, higher power, whatever you label it) instead of vomiting into the toilet.
It all starts with you caring.
And when you care, you are starting on a good foundation, but it takes more than just caring to create championships. So let’s talk about that, because we all want to win. I’m going to break down my three basketball secrets so you can do your part to help bring a championship to your team or program.
BASKETBALL SECRET #1: BE AUTHENTIC, BE SELF-AWARE OF YOUR EGO, AND UNDERSTAND HUMAN NATURE AFTER YOU WIN
Pat Riley talks about “The Disease of More” and it refers to process NBA teams and players go through when they win titles and the change in psychology that happens after success comes to you. I had to learn the hard way after winning the championship title in one of the biggest Gus Mackers in the world (Belding, Michigan) as a 14-year old teenager. We came back the next year and “The Disease of More” had started to seep into me. And that’s just it, it’s human nature to expect more after winning.
More shots. More newspaper clippings. More popularity. More ego. More attention from your classmates and the kids that are labeled “cool” at school. But I learned that summer, (rather quickly) that the secret to winning championships isn’t always about basketball talent or athleticism, it is about understanding human nature and then being self-aware of your ego WANTING MORE.
So let’s rewind to our Gus Macker title defense when I learned this lesson. My teammate Johnny was a better scorer than me. He could shoot from anywhere. He was relentless in his accuracy and creativity around the hoop. But I wanted to squabble over who was better, who could score more, who could do this or that better. I wanted to prove it to him, to our teammates, to anyone that asked, and to myself. Basically, my ego wanted to be known. It wanted to be stroked. It wanted to be told it was better.
It wanted more.
Right before the game started, as we argued on the court about who was better, who could score more, right before I threw a haymaker, his mother stopped us, yelling, “What are you two doing? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
I put my head down and walked off the court. Fifteen minutes later, still humiliated, we tried to pull it together and play our game.
We got smashed.
Our title defense looked like Jordan’s Bulls whipping on the Charlotte Hornets without Larry Johnson or Alonzo Mourning and worse, this was a classic case of Riley’s “The Disease of More.”
It was the disease of me and the disease of more.
Yet, losing can shine the light on growth and self-awareness. And as I was watching ego self destruct team chemistry, I quickly realized that winning took precedence over everything.
On the ride home, watching the highways unwind out my window, I thought about Johnny’s strengths, about mine, and the rest of the team’s. Johnny was higher up on the food scoring pyramid. No if’s, ands, or buts about it. He was just a better scorer than me. Little did I know, he would be one of three players to go onto score over 2,000 points in high school and college.
Maybe Shane Battier did that as well?
Who knows (lucky for me, four years after our Gus Macker loss, I got to guard Mr. Basketball Battier in the Michigan Final Four of my junior year, eh hem, we held him to single digits, but he had the flu, so much to my chagrin, we can’t take full credit for that defensive effort).
My teammate Johnny and I went onto to fully realize our full potential (as well as our team’s potential). We won three league championships, three district championships, three regional championships, and had two final four appearances. Now, we didn’t win the ultimate goal of a state championship, but we were one of the only Northern Michigan teams to ever have that much success.
This happened again in my college career.
And again in my pro career.
And every year, after winning championships, I would have to reflect and look for that ego finding a way in. And every time I thought about wanting more, I started to reflect and utilize my self-awareness. Was I rationalizing for my ego? Was I being greedy? Was I doing enough to make my team better? Myself better?
With letting go of my own ego, of wanting more for myself at the expense of the team, I gave up “The Disease of Me” and got more winning and team success in return. And the funny thing about winning is that you get more individual accolades this way. Ironic isn’t it? That when you actually focus on the team success, you actually get more individual success.
And this can only happen if your team has a certain chemistry, trust, and bond with your team. This takes authenticity. From you. From others. From accepting differences, but never accepting losing or poor effort.
If someone got out of line, a leader on the team spoke up.
If you are wondering how to create team chemistry for your team, start with authenticity and letting go of your ego.
Go first. Be the change you want to see in others.
Rebound for someone.
Play one on one.
If you are the coach, bring in your leaders. Make them set the tone and make it expected that losing is unacceptable and that anything less than 100% is unacceptable. Make that your culture. Ensure team building and opportunities for your team to grow outside the court. Take them on a trip. Show them a new city against a new team. Take them to Europe in the summer.
Are you the leader of the team?
Demand them to make the extra pass and demand the same in return.
Only accept 100% effort from yourself in every drill and workout, and then demand the same from your teammates.
Talk to them.
Ask them to pick it up.
And in the end, when you are authentic, you are aware of your ego, and you don’t allow human nature to creep in after your have success, you can focus on what really matters.