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The Real Game Changer

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“Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?”

“No, but I served in a company of heroes.”
– Major Dick Winters – WWII soldier featured in HBO’s“Band of Brothers” Seriesimage_basketball200

This quote sums up an idea that has been lost in our society. In a day and age of celebrities, stars and “selfies,” the idea of a “team” doesn’t get the honor and highlights it used to; until recently, when the Spurs showed once again that teamwork –not individual super-stars –is the best formula to win.

I have been a long-time Spurs fan, even back in the day when they had David Robinson. They have always been such a class-act organization. Yet when they drafted Tim Duncan in 1997 out of Wake Forest, my alma mater, that just sealed the deal regarding my loyalty. After watching the team and their coach for so many years, there is so much that every type of organization can learn from the character by which they win and lose. But their system typically wins; in fact, they are the winningest team in all of the big 4 professional sports since the year Duncan joined the Spurs. So maybe there is something that can be learned from them.

So how does one of the oldest teams in the league, that sits their starters out more than any other team, come through and win the championship against a another team known for their superstars? Not only did they win, but they demolished the HEAT. They say the Spurs win because of their “system,” but just want does this system look like?

  1. Value Diversity and Relationship. The Spurs have the most diversity in the NBA with over 10 international players. Many view this as an obstacle, but the Spurs have mastered it and their communication on the court is unparalleled. The players were able to embrace their diversity in race, nationality, and skill-sets. In fact, they utilized their diversity as a strength. The leaders of the Spurs are Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. They are from three different countries, they play 3 different positions, and represent 2 different races; yet they have played together for 13 years. Their respect, care, and love for each other is obvious. They say that they are even better friends than teammates and that their relationships will last far beyond their basketball careers. Their leadership, comradery, and the appreciation of each other’s skills has led to four championships together.
  2. Team over Individual Talent. The Spurs are definitely not lacking talent; however, they realize the importance of playing with a team instead of depending on one or two superstars. They operate on the idea, “I have a shot, but you have a better shot,” whereby a lot of teams have players that will take whatever shot they can get because they believe they are the best option (not to mention many want to pad their individual stats!). Also, instead of paying several players an exorbitant amount of money, many of the greats on the team like Parker, Duncan and Ginobili, make less than they could with another team to allow for the Spurs to have more good players across the board. They realize that life satisfaction is not all about the money; being an important part of something great together while making enough money is much more meaningful.
  3. Humility and Teachability. Coach Popovich is quoted with saying that he coaches a “great group of people who have gotten over themselves.” The Spurs value each other equally; each individual knows they need the others to really perform their best. Because of their humility they are also teachable, which allows Popovich to continue to mold them into the team that wins championships. The team leader Tim Duncan sets the tone for teachability; Popovich will show intensity towards Duncan in the same manner as he does towards the young players on the team. If this future Hall of Famer is willing to be coached, the other players step in line and do the same. The players are all willing to be pushed and to work hard, because they all want to win. One of the Spurs best players, Manu Ginobili, is willing to not be an official “starter” and come off the bench because it makes for a better rotation. That type of unselfish attitude is literally putting others before yourself!
  4. Get the little things right. The Spurs are the best team in the league in making the extra pass and running the “pick and roll.” They literally “cover each other’s’ backs” by setting picks and getting everyone into the action. They wait for the right shot for the person who is most open! Sure, the dunks are great and the fancy plays are always fun to watch; but it’s the good passes, the shots they wait to take and then make;, that’s what wins the championships.
  5. Belief in each other. I find it interesting that the person who won the MVP for the tournament was not one of the team-leaders of Duncan, Ginobili, or Parker. Instead, one of the youngest players on the team, 22 year-old Kawhi Leonard, walked away with the trophy. Leonard is not someone who exudes a lot of confidence. Unlike Duncan who was the #1 player drafted, this young player was not selected in the draft until the 15th pick, and he did not come from one of the top college programs known for their basketball. Yet the Spurs saw something special in Leonard and were willing to invest in him because they believed in him. When Leonard was asked how he won the MVP, he basically said, “my teammates and coaches believed in me and therefore were willing to push me.” People will work hard and exceed expectations when they are believed in by others they respect. Kawhi was very humble when he received the MVP trophy, because he knew that he was just one part of the team; he knew it took the whole team to win the big prize. The Spurs won the championship because no one viewed himself as an MVP, but because they saw each other as a team of MVP’s.

Tim Duncan, the five-time NBA champion who probably will go down in history as the greatest power forward to ever play the game of basketball, summed up this system for success in a past interview: “As good as you are, as good as you feel, you can’t get it done yourself. It takes a team; it takes relying on people, believing in people, and trusting people … Giving yourself to your team.”

The Spurs do so much right and, in the end, their diversity, work ethic, teachability, and humility brought together a TEAM of champions. It took all of them to win it, so all of them shared in the glory. Some people say it’s just a game, but I believe we can learn a lot from the Spurs. How would our companies be different if we operated the same way? I think it would be a game changer.

Take a look at the this video highlighting Spurs Championship Tribute – it is very inspiring to see a true TEAM in action.