Sunday, June 18, 2017

Winning Time = Joyful Time?

First, it was a wonderful piece of work, one that I will likely be sucked into whenever it comes on, which, to my family's dismay, will likely be often. Any talk of the demise of ESPN will have to reckon with the fact that it continues to produce work like this, and others can't really match it, no matter how much talent is let go.

A couple notes:

  • They should make documentaries about everything Bill Walton was remotely involved in, so they can include his talking head interviews (and if there's a way to include Kevin McHale impersonating him, even better). Do another documentary on the Wooden UCLA teams, the 1977 Blazers, NBA and NCAA teams Walton covered as a color announcer, teams Luke Walton was involved in, etc. Have some of these already been done to death? Sure. Will we have to endure things like the anecdote of Wooden teaching the UCLA players how to put on their socks that we've heard a million times before? Sure. I don't care. I want more Bill Walton in my life.
  • Having said that, the coverage Walton relative to some other figures was probably disproportionate to their impact on the rivalry. I don't think Mychal Thompson's name was even mentioned, though he provided to front line bulk to deal with the Celtics' front line. Michael Cooper, who was on all the Lakers teams in the 1980s, got some talking head interviews, but was never discussed as a player. Robert Parish was discussed a bit when he was acquired, but then forgotten.
    Again, it's hard to blame to producers for leaning too heavily into a figure as compelling as Walton, but considering that Walton was only active for one Celtics-Lakers series, and was injured during it, it was probably a bit off.
  • Was Cedric Maxwell's agent involved in the production? Yes, he was the MVP of the 1981 Series, and led the team in scoring in Game 7 of the 1984 series, but he was not regarded as the fourth member of the Big Three. 
  • This may be coming from a place of privilege and having lived through it, but I thought the racial angle was laid on a little thick. I didn't need to revisit the Isiah Thomas controversy. And even that coverage failed to note, say the Red Sox troubled history with race. I was a white Sixers fan, and hated both teams, with an extra edge to hating the Celtics. Maybe elsewhere, people took sides based on race to a greater degree. But as the Celtics started kicking the Sixers ass every year, I don't recall a sentiment of, "at least we're getting beat by the White team." But maybe it was different elsewhere. Were white New Yorkers cheering for the Celtics? I kind of suspect not. (Plus racist Celtics fans would have to account for the fact that they were coached by a black man).
The thing that stuck out to me the most was the joy with which Magic Johnson played the game, and with which he continues to talk about it now.

It's a joy I haven't seen in any professional player in any sport, save for perhaps Brett Favre. The Warirors' game in general, and Steph Curry in particular, are almost joy personified. They are a joy to watch.

But, in general, the players seem to carry themselves with a more business-like manner than the joy that personified Magic. I've written before how LeBron James almost always seems to be carrying some unbearable burden. I think the Warriors are having fun, but I'm not as sure as I am with Magic.

Why is this? Magic was certainly under pressure. He was the #1 draft pick. He signed a big contract and forced his first coach out. He had the Lakers' legacy on his shoulders, as well as, the documentary would have you believe, an entire race.

Some mitigating factors:
  • He had Kareem, who would not take on the media burden, but was the best player to begin with.
  • He had Bird and the Celtics. There is not much shame in losing to a team like that.
But I think the biggest factor is that the template for modern superstars is not Magic but Michael Jordan. His competitiveness bordered on the pathological. He berated his teammates, and even had to step away from the game for a time. To this day, he remains bitter at those who slighted him. That's whose legacy LeBron is chasing, not Magic's.

Jordan eclipsed Magic in terms of NBA accomplishments. But if I had a son with elite NBA talent, I'd want him to emulate Magic's attitude rather than Jordan's.

It may seem that I am placing an additional burden on James -- not only do I expect you to win championships, but I expect you to look happy doing it. But I want LeBron to enjoy what he accomplishes, and if that means, he accomplishes slightly less, that's fine with me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

That Championship Feeling

(Memory of below may be a bit hazy as the events happened when I was a child, but looking them up would ruin them).

As the Philadelphia 76ers entered the 1982 offseason, they had had the following results in their past 3 seasons:

  • 1980: Lost in Finals on rookie Magic Johnson's 42 point game substituting for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center
  • 1981: Lost in Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics, blowing a 3-1 series lead.
  • 1982: Lost in Finals to Lakers
They were reaching the end of Julius Erving's prime, but otherwise had a young core of guards Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney, and big man Darryl Dawkins.

So, that season, they signed reigning MVP Moses Malone to an offer sheet, leading to a trade in which they acquired Malone for Caldwell Jones. They let Dawkins go, and went on to a dominant regular season, 12-1 record in the playoffs (coming just short of Malone's prediction of "Fo Fo Fo"), beating the injury-depleted Lakers in the Finals.

History has not been kind to this team, despite its dominance, and that it was the last professional championship until the Phillies won the World series 25 years later. Erving continued to age, Toney's feet gave out,  and there were some horrendous trades that the acquisition of Charles Barkley could not overcome. Boston solidified their team with Dennis Johnson, and the story of the 1980s NBA was the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, with 76ers as an afterthought, despite making three of the first four Finals, and winning one in the most dominant fashion.


In the past several years, I've become a sap for championship celebrations. I tear up watching athletes I hardly know achieve the pinnacle of success. Perhaps it's because our regular lives offer few of these moments of undiluted success. There's always the next task, something that could be improved or could have been done better. But if you win a championship, that's as good as it gets.

But I had little interest or emotion seeing the Warriors cap off their championship last night. When you win 73 games in one year, and then you add an one of the best 5 players in the league, aren't you supposed to win the championship? I'm guessing this is now non-Sixers fans regarded the 1983 76ers, except that the non-Durant Warriors had already won a championship two years earlier.

Look, Kevin Durant seems to be a great guy, and he has the right to guide his career toward whatever he wants (just as I can with mine). I just don't find it as compelling as, say, the late 1980's Pistons overcoming the Celtics, and then the Lakers to win a championship, or the 1990s Bulls overcoming those same Pistons, and maintaining their excellence for six championships.

Does this mean that the Warriors are destined to the same fate as the 1983 Sixers? I don't know, but I think it's more likely than them dominating the league indefinitely and joining the ranks of best teams ever.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Responding to Defeat

In the last week, I came across, two articles about how teams responded to mistakes that led to defeat in the championship round:

It certainly seems that the Warriors have done a better job of responding to this mistake than the Seahawks have. The Warriors are on the verge of winning the championship, and the Seahawks have been on a slow decline since. But why? Some possible reasons:

  • Team Culture Because Steve Kerr espouses political opinions that are popular among sports commentators and supports his players in doing the same, (and also because his team is so successful), he is currently the darling of that community. The thrust of Lowe's article is that because the Warriors have a team culture based on compassion and letting its players be individuals, they were resilient to this type of setback. Ok, but...

    If there's a Steve Kerr of the NFL, it's Pete Carroll. Nobody gives his players a longer leash, and in fact Kerr sought out Caroll as a mentor. So I'm not sure it's all about letting the players be themselves.

    Also, the most successful organization in the NFL is led by Trump buddies Robert Kraft and Bill Belichik.
  • The offseason As Lowe notes, in the offseason following Green's error, the Warriors added Kevin Durant, one of the five best players in the league. After their defeat, the Seahawks got a year older. They did add Jimmy Graham, but he has often been injured, and came at the cost of key offensive linemen. It's a lot easier to forget about the past when the future looks awesome.
  • Branding While Green's error was egregious, it was in line with his character as a player and what he brought to the team. His job was to bring in energy, emotional intensity, and stand up for his teammates. In this instance, he took it a step too far.

    The Seahawks' mistake, on the other hand, was out of line with their brand as a football team built on defense and a bruising running attack. They were going away from what the other players saw as making them great. The opportunity to win on their strengths was taken away from them.
  • Finality The consequence of Green's mistake was that he was suspended for Game 5. The Warriors could have still won Game 5 without him, or Games 6 or 7 with him. There was a chance to overcome this mistake; they didn't do it.

    For the Seahawks, the interception gave the Patriots the ball with less than a minute to go in the game, essentially ending the game. There was no overcoming it.
  • Intention In this piece, I've been referring to "Green's" mistake as well as the "Seahawks." That's because the Seahawks error was mainly the choice of play calls which many in the organization had a hand in, as well as the interception itself, whereas for the Warriors, it was a sudden impulse from one player. That's probably easier to bounce back from.
  • The Story The Warriors lost to the Cavaliers, who were led by other-worldly performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, bringing the city of Cleveland its first championship in memory. The Seahawks lost to the Patriots, who are organizationally savvy and led by the brilliant Tom Brady, but are also kind of a default champion. This was the year of Deflategate, and I don't think anyone would pick that year's team as the best of the Brady-Belichik era.

    The story was that Cavaliers won their championship, and that the Seahawks lost theirs.
  • Popularity and Resentment Draymond Green is probably the most popular guy on the Warriors. He does the dirty work that enable the other Warriors to do what makes them great. And as noted above, his punch was taking what his teammates appreciate about him so much. Also, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, who were unable to contribute much in the series, were let go to make room for Durant, so there were scapegoats available.

    I'm not sure the same is true of Russell Wilson. Yes, he's a winner, and his teammates certainly appreciate how he helps them succeed. But I kind of suspect his goody-two-shoes no-time-to-sleep act can grate a bit. If the Seahawks were the Mecury 7 astronauts, Wilson would definitely be John Glenn.

    Bigger than that, over the past several years, the team has gradually come to be defined more by Russell Wilson, and less by the defense and running game, and this game was probably the center of gravity.  The Seahawks were in the Super Bowl because Wilson had led an unlikely comeback in the NFC championship game against the Packers. They were in this situation because the defense had allowed the Patriots to score two fourth quarter touchdowns. Had the pass found its target, it would have been Wilson's victory, and I'm not sure the team was excited about that.
  • Football vs. Basketball While it's true that succeeding in basketball required players to sacrifice for the good of the team (hence Bill Simmons writing an 800 page book based on that theme), the sacrifices for football players on a successful team are more immediate, visceral and profound. It's probably not an exaggeration to measure it in years of life lost.

    In particular for the Seahawks, Richard Sherman will likely never be regarded the same way as shut down corners like Darrell Revis and Champ Bailey. He is part of a successful system in the Seahawks secondary, and it's not clear whether he, Earl Thomas, or Kam Chancellor is the most crucial part of it.

    To make those type of sacrifices, and then be deprived of victory by a mistake, must be an embittering experience.
So, what does this mean? A number of these factors are outside of a team's control, especially after the fact. So I'm not sure there's many lessons here for other teams looking to bounce back from key mistakes, like the Atlanta Falcons as Lombardi suggests.

So what's the prognosis? Well, the Falcons have some of these factors going for them, and others against them. They didn't sign the NFL equivalent of Kevin Durant, but their key mistake (keep throwing with a big lead in the 4th quarter) was consistent with their identity as a team.

I think the larger lesson is that I'm not sure it's possible to create a team culture to inoculate yourself from the effects of a bad mistake. If I could summarize what the Seahawks problem was, it is that they were unclear about their identity. The defensive players believed they were a team based on defense on ball control; their decision to throw from the 1 yard line revealed that the coaches believed differently.

So, my lesson on recovering from a mistake, or more precisely on how to avoid mistakes that haunt you is:
  • Be clear about your identity and core principles as a team.
  • Act consistent with those principles.
A mistake that is consistent with your shared identity can be forgiven and recovered from; one that goes against your identity, or reveals a dissonance, will be more difficult.