Sunday, January 18, 2009

There is only one ball and every player does something a little different with it

As promised, here's another excerpt from the book "Unguarded" by Lenny Wilkens, the NBA's all-time winningest coach, with Terry Pluto, one of the nation's best sportswriters:

Before the 1978-79 season opened, I called the team together and said, "We don't have to love each other. It would look stupid if all twelve of us walked down the street holding hands."

That drew a laugh.

"But we do have to respect each other," I said. "We have to play together. We have to learn from each other. I realize that certain guys will hang out together, away from the court, and some other guys will go their own way. That's OK. We can't all be together all the time. But we have to be a family when we're at the gym. It's us against everyone else. When a teammate makes a suggestion to you, take it the right way. He's not trying to insult you, he's saying something to make the team better. And when you go to say something to a teammate, say it the right way. Don't insult the guy. Treat each other with respect."

The guys sat there, taking it in. You know how things get very quiet when a message is hitting home? How it gets so quiet, you can hear yourself breathe? That's how it was when I spoke to the team that day.

"There is only one ball," I said. "Each of us does something a little different with it. Some of us are better shooting it, some at rebounding, some at driving on the fast break and some at defending, taking it away from the other team. The way we win is to get the ball to the guy with the hot hand, the guy who can do the most with it right now. That guy often changes from game to game, even quarter to quarter. We have to be unselfish enough to keep finding that guy."

Players working together is more than coach-speak, and the coach can't do everything. This is part of what a coach means by chemistry. It's the players looking out for each other. It's veteran players spotting a young player who's spending too much time on the town, taking the kid aside, and explaining, "Hey, man, you gotta get your rest or you'll never last in this league."

Young players want the respect of the veterans, and they're more likely to listen to a veteran player than they are to some coaches. That's just a fact. It comes down to peer pressure, and when it's used the right way, it's the best thing for any team. For a couple years in Seattle, we had that.