Key Takeaways:

  • Does Philosophy & Strategy Align with the Star(s)?
  • Stars Come in Different Shapes

The “Second Quarter” covers superstars and selflessness. Starting with the Zen Master himself, former Bulls and Lakers head coach Phil Jackson has had the opportunity to guide arguably some of the top athletes in the history of the game. An avid reader of philosophy, Coach Jackson looked to use a variety of tools to motivate guys like Shaq to become a better free-throw shooter through Aristotilean methods practicing proper habits without distraction. Or having to come up with the right words to tell arguably the greatest player/scorer in the history of the game – Michael Jordan – taking fewer shots will increase the team’s chances for success. Others like Kobe Bryant, were a lot harder to get in the spirit, “I don’t know why Phil keeps giving me those books; he knows I’m not going to read them.”

Philosophy is not for everyone. Sometimes it is considered to simply be all talk.

Lots of people in fact, think that that’s exactly what philosophy is: bullshit.

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While in fact, the “Second Quarter” of Basketball and Philosophy shows how philosophy can play a significant role in our ability to cultivate our most coveted reward: team success, and in part leaving an individual legacy.

Although it may initially seem useless and unappealing, philosophy promotes wisdom in our lives, nurtures the growth of the human spirit and fuels our imaginations.

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Aligning Philosophy & System with the Stars

This previous week I mentioned the 10 Lessons that I have learned from a decade spent coaching. One of those lessons shared was to take from our experiences to mold our philosophies towards a preferred system, style of play, and identity (culture). What is not mentioned during that resounding piece of advice is how to manage a superstar without compromising the core values of the program.

The final chapter within the “Second Quarter” section debates who is the better superstar between Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. The text reminds us how statistically superior Wilt Chamberlain was during his career; most notably scoring a 100 points in a single game (1962) and averaging over 50 points throughout the entire season. While, Bill Russell simply ran out of fingers to carry all of his championship rings winning 11 NBA titles during a 13-year career. Not to mention the five MVPs and averaging a meazly 22 rebounds per game, for his entire career.

What truly shapes the identity of a program: the players or the coach? At the amateur level, the longevity of any athlete within a program typically lasts up to four years, if you’re lucky. Therefore, pinning a team identity on the shoulders of one superstar can have costly implications for sustainable success. However, there can be some really bright moments during those years. While at the professional level athletes have considerably more leverage to influence decisions on-and-off the floor. Therefore, coaches are left making a decision on who really runs the show.

This is where the debate between Wilt and Russell diverges on the dependency of a superstar. With Wilt Chamberlain, the game plan seemed simple; get the ball to him as often as possible and he will take us to new heights. Rather, the author’s anecdotes on Bill Russell leaves the impression that despite possessing superstar talent to dominate a game individually, the real ability came from giving the team what it needs most to win games. Was this a coaching decision or how the team’s style of play naturally evolved? We don’t know. Here is a statistical comparison between the 142 matchups against each other:

Wilt Chamberlain28.728.7571
Bill Russell23.714.5857

Bill Russell lost the 1v1 matchup statistically but came out with more wins during the regular season and playoffs. We aren’t so dense as coaches to ignore other variables that come into play capable of influencing the outcome of games. However, ceteris paribus, right? All things being equal, the numbers don’t lie. And only one superstar, Bill Russell came out with the ultimate prize more often than not.

Stars Come in Different Shapes

So tie it all together, or else all this talk just turns out to be philosophy.

When coaches are lucky enough to work with a star, they are left with a choice. That choice often reflects their coaching philosophy. Is the team better by putting the keys in the hands of the super-star and giving them the freedom to drive all the way to ‘Titletown’? Or does the superstar have to find a way to make the most impact within the parameters of the program’s infrastructure?

One of the great philosophers of the last century, an eccentric Austrian named Ludwig Wittgenstein, said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” How we talk about something before we’re trying to be smart about it is often the key to becoming smart about it.

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Stars come in different shapes. Some possess the foresight of necessary sacrifice leading towards more success, collectively and individually. Others crave the control adamant that as the most talented player on the floor, the best decision is to get them the ball most so that at the end of the game everyone can be deemed a winner. Where players and coaches can clash is the shared vision or philosophy for what will produce the most sustainable success. The separation between perennial contenders or underachievers often comes from consistent buy-in from an entire team. If the coach can articulate why their philosophy will put everyone in the best situation to win games, yet the team isn’t on board with it. Then yes, that philosophy and the season will likely turn out to be bullshit.


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