Leadership Lessons from the NBA

Playing for yourself wins trophies, playing for your team wins championships.
Tommy Lasorda
…entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2.2

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At the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season, the National Basketball Association (USA) named its 1999 Coach of the Year. That honor did not go to the coach that had won the most games; it didn’t go to the team with the most marquis players or largest payroll; nor did it go to coach with the longest tenure. It didn’t even go to the coach with the most improved record.

Remarkably the Red Auerbach Trophy for Coach of the Year honors was given to Doc Rivers, coach of the Orlando Magic. The then 38-year-old coach selected was in his rookie year, coaching his team to a 41 win-41 loss season. Under his leadership despite having the best record in the Eastern Conference the previous year, the Magic failed to make the playoffs. It marked the first time in league history for a coach to win the award without leading his team to the playoffs. But Doc Rivers was selected because under his guidance, the team played far above its expectations and ability.

Before Rivers came, Orlando’s management launched a massive rebuilding project that began with the trading of four of the five starters from the previous year’s team, including popular All-Star Penny Hardaway. Starting four players who were note even drafted out of college, Coach Rivers worked with the players he had and kept the Magic in contention until the next to last game of the season! All 12 players contributed significant minutes to each game and the Orlando Magic relied on teamwork, hustle, defense and pride to compete on a level far above others’ expectations.

In examining the leadership style of Coach Rivers, there are at least four lessons he brought to the team that all of us can employ:

1.  Set the Bar High

Before the season began, Coach Rivers sent every player a Federal Express package that had a single message: “Are you committed?” A second package arrived a few days later with the pronouncement: “We are going to be the best defensive team in the NBA.”

Successful leaders set high expectations regardless of what the organization or church thinks about itself. Leaders are not satisfied with mediocrity, but with excellence. As football great Vince Lombardi observed, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence.”

2. Go With What You Got

Rivers didn’t have any superstars so he designed the team around things he could control. He designed a hustling, up-tempo style that relied on defensive pressure to create scoring opportunities. He made his players scramble after every loose ball.

Effective leaders consider things under their control and within their people’s abilities. They help their organization do small things with hustle, desire and excellence.

3. Play as a Team

Can you name a single player on the Orlando Magic starting five from that year? It’s doubtful that you can. Despite team management making 37 player transactions involving 38 different players throughout the year, Coach Rivers forced his players to play as a team and to know each of their teammates’ skills and specialties.

Rivers observed: “If I could explain our team in one word, it would be ‘care.’ Because that’s what they did. They cared about playing. They cared about being coached. They cared about winning. They cared about improving. They cared about being teammates. And they made my job easy.”

Great leaders instill a sense of teamwork. “One man can be a crucial ingredient on a team, but one man cannot make a team.” (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar )

4. Enjoy Yourself

Rivers’ philosophy can be described as “cheerful optimism.” He carries with him the invaluable ability to keep his head up when all those around are sagging theirs. When the  Magic were slated to finish with the worst record in the NBA, Coach Rivers could have joined the doomsday crowd but his optimism resulted in a .500 season, a near playoff berth, Coach of the Years honors and the respect of players across the league.

The privilege of leadership should be enjoyed, not endured!

Leadership can at times be a daunting task. The future is uncertain, the risks are great and the responsibility is unappreciated. But as a leader, called by God, your work has eternal ramifications!

Stay the Course,

Dr. Greg Morris

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