What can basketball teach us about the importance of teamwork?

Basketball - a game many know, but few understand. The game where freakishly tall men and women throw that orange ball into a hoop. It’s littered with superstars, such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. I’m sure many of us have shouted ‘KOBE’ as we’ve thrown a piece of rolled-up paper towards the bin.

But to win an NBA championship will take more than a superstar. It takes teamwork.

To show how central teamwork is to basketball, let’s look at the legendary 1990’s Chicago Bulls. The feats of the Bulls dynasty were shown in the Netflix documentary called ‘The Last Dance’. (If you’ve not seen it yet, then I couldn’t recommend it enough). The Bulls won SIX championships between 1991-1998, winning 3 in a row on 2 separate occasions. That’s right. Six.

Sure, they had one of the game’s greatest ever players in Michael Jordan, which always helps. But subsequent franchises have struggled to emulate this success, even with stars of their own.

What made the Bulls so special was the emphasis that was placed on the team over the individual. This came from the head coach, Phil Jackson – who has the highest ever win percentage of any coach in the history of the game. It’s important to note that Michael Jordan was already a star before Jackson became head coach. He won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the 1987-88 season, but that had not brought a championship to Chicago.

Jackson changed the culture at the Bulls - not just on the court, but off it too. On the court, Jackson deployed the ‘Triangle Offense’, which was revolutionary at the time. Think of it as like the ‘tiki-taka’ system used by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Players work in triangles; passing, moving, with each part planned so meticulously that it becomes poetry in motion. Synergy. It involves all the players working together if it is to come off.

This wouldn’t have been possible if not for the work off the court. Jackson shifted the culture towards trusting the team. One of my favourite quotes of his is:

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

This perfectly encapsulates the fluidity between the individual and the team. Jackson never said there was no room for individuals; he was simply shifting the mentality towards more trust in the team.

This idea was put into practice in Game 6 of the 1997-1998 NBA finals. Now, Jordan had won a lot of games for the Bulls. As said before, individuals can win a game or sometimes many games; but they can’t win it all in a team sport, and Jordan knew this. He trusted his team more. And so, in that game, where the Chicago Bulls took on the Utah Jazz, Jordan did something he rarely did in the final seconds of a game with it all on the line. He passed to someone else. This someone else was Steve Kerr, who was what you’d call a “role player” – someone is usually on the bench, but can come on and do a job when needed. For Kerr, this was to be his shooting.

Jordan of old would have shot every time, even if it was impossible. But with the new team ethos, he passed to a wide-open Kerr, who floated the ball through the hoop from 17-yards to bring the Bulls another championship.

I love this story so much. It gives a brief glimpse into the importance of the team over the individual if you want to truly succeed. Putting aside your ego for the good of the team can bring great rewards. Visionary leaders balance the individual and the team, allowing all individuals in the team to thrive, but never getting too carried away. Poetry in motion.

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