From Mike Jacobs' column, Evansville Courier Press, June 19, 2011
At a time when Isiah Thomas is referenced more for his lack of coaching and management success than for his brilliance on the basketball court as a player, a story offers a lesson from Thomas into being a part of a championship team.
Bill Simmons of ESPN recently wrote an outstanding book for fans of the National Basketball Association titled, “The Book of Basketball.” Simmons writes about a chance meeting with Thomas years after his playing career was over, when Thomas shared what he learned from the great Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s and then applied it to his Detroit Pistons teams that eventually won NBA championships as well.
Thomas had studied those Boston and Los Angeles teams that were winning titles while his Pistons weren’t able to get over the hump. What he learned from Lakers head coach Pat Riley was a theory that appeared to explain why some teams win consistently in all team sports and why others don’t accomplish their goals.
Riley preached what he describes as “the disease of more.” What Riley found was that a team that found some form of success one season had the potential to have team members worry more about getting more for themselves the next season — more minutes, more shots and more money. That kills a team and prevents it from reaching its ultimate goal or repeating that same level of success.
Thomas noted that it’s hard not to be selfish from the standpoint that most players want more accolades, more playing time, a larger role, and more money. He found that the teams that were able to fight that were the ones that were able to reach their end result.
On the Pistons’ teams that won championships, even though Thomas was an NBA All-Star, he didn’t behave like he was any better. Rather than look at his own statistics, he would look at his team’s win-loss record as the most important number. He felt that, on his team, it would be hard to tell who the best player was because so many of them found ways to contribute to their team’s success — and they also didn’t care who was given the credit. When you have a special team, every player contributes something special. With that level of contribution from a group, the opposing team has to worry about containing eight or nine players rather than two or three.
Thomas felt that the key to basketball had less to do with basketball and more to do with the buy-in of teammates and the ability to sacrifice for the greater good.
He also credited Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey and coach Chuck Daly for their ability to place a premium on a player’s mental skills as well as his physical skills. Those Pistons’ teams had great players who were physically gifted, but they also had a nucleus that was very mentally tough and committed to sacrifice individual accolades for the good of the group. Both men found a way to integrate players who were flexible and versatile and sought out interchangeable parts willing to give up minutes for other teammates to help create chemistry in the group.
In the end, the Detroit Pistons’ teams that Thomas led on the court became champions because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won because everyone was on the same page.
Isiah Thomas has not been able to mirror that same level of success in management, but he does offer a unique perspective for groups in both sport or business to find success and sustain it.
Teams that are special not only have talented players, but have players that are willing to place the success of the group ahead of the individual.