Nice Guys Finish First

As the greatest coach ever, John Wooden, said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
In: Column, Teamwork

June 14, 2011

About 30 years ago, Dad and Mom took Mary, our infant daughter, Danielle, and me to the first-ever Dallas Mavericks game. Danielle was outfitted for the occasion with a cute basketball uniform stretched over her diapers. Surprisingly, the expansion team Mavs won that first game for owner Don Carter and his big cowboy hat. Having grown up as a Laker fan with a poster of Jerry West on my bedroom wall, the change to a Mav fan was slow, but change I did.

In the interim decades, the Lakers hung a number of championship banners, but I wouldn’t trade it for celebrating the Maverick's first finals win over the Miami Heat this week. This win wasn’t just about the hometown boys making good; this win was a triumph for basketball purists, character, class, maturity, poise, hard work, persistence, mental toughness, and teamwork.

Playing small college basketball many years ago has, admittedly, made me biased, but I feel basketball is the ultimate team sport. Football is also a great team sport, but offensive and defensive players alternate, and positions are highly specialized. Basketball, as it was designed, empowers smaller, slower, less athletic players to compete if they have high basketball I.Q., use position to overcome superior strength, and consciously elevate team over self. Television, shoemakers, and the league have, in my opinion, worked to ruin the game with the emphasis on highly-athletic superstars, banging in the paint, and endless replays of gravity-defying dunks to the exclusion of the subtle things teammates do to help each other win.

The Dallas Maverick's unlikely and surprising championship run forced “old school” basketball into the limelight, much to the apparent chagrin of some commentators who, after character win piled up on character win, had to grudgingly acknowledge there was something special about this group of guys who refused to quit—even when down and seemingly out. Their fourth-quarter heroics, evident in each succeeding round, showed that poise, experience, trust, and mental toughness under pressure trump youth, flash, show, and extraordinary talent.

Heat players Dwayne Wade and Lebron James are among the most talented, athletic, and entertaining players in the league, consistently making unbelievable moves and shots. But they play as individuals taking turns going one-on-one to ply their skills. Sometimes they make excellent, difficult passes when forced by the defense, but there is a huge difference in the mental outcome and momentum for a team when five players work together to run a play for a shot versus occasional crumbs falling from the captain’s table. As the greatest coach ever, John Wooden, said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

In the end, even though finals MVP Dirk Nowitski elevated his game to a hall-of-fame level—and everyone is thrilled for Dirk and grizzled, unflappable veteran Jason Kidd—it took the entire team to win. Each man should wear his ring with pride and a sense of personal accomplishment. Moreover, in a society where it is uncommon to find positive role models for our kids, the Mavericks exhibited class and dignity throughout.

Finally, nice guys finish first!

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