Victory is a fleeting bird. You can cage it, you can cup it in between your two hands. Then you open the cage door to feed it, or unlock your hands to admire it, and it vanishes. Whooshing away into the horizon. Indeed, the hardest part of success isn’t finding it, it’s remembering where you put it. Sustained excellence is the ultimate victory. It’s more than a result — it’s a way of life.
When the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat in a lopsided five-game mashing that’s still impossible to fathom, it felt like the canonization of intelligent, lionhearted warriors and the re-calibration of a Just World. It felt that way, anyway, because you could feel it in the canned media reaction to it.
“The Spurs wanted it more.”
“The best team beat the best player.”
“Substance over style.”
No model of sustained excellence can be boiled down to such rudimentary cliches.
Before we delve into why … let’s first agree that to regurgitate those tired talking points gives short shrift to the Miami Heat. They are, by any conceivable measure, the class of the NBA, with an owner who takes great pride in assembling smart people to create an environment conducive to championships. Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra. These are amongst the best at their craft not just in this current “Big 3” Era, but all time. History will prove them to be as such.
LeBron James, (the ghost of) Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are a legitimately fearsome triumvirate, and they’ve been flanked by a supporting cast that does what it does about as well as any supporting cast could. They defend well, they shoot well, they play an insane “amoeba” offense that features a point forward, no natural center, a stretch-4 and a point guard who thinks he’s a sniper. Ray Allen is buried somewhere on that depth chart. You have to tip their cap to them. There’s a lot of steak in their sizzle and an unheralded yeoman-like dutifulness to the way they approach the game of basketball. They’ve also, by the way, made four straight NBA Finals and won two rings. (Three, if you count the Shaq-Wade title from 2006. You should.)
The Spurs beat that team, and nearly beat them twice. Oh, and they’ve just completed their fifth title in 15 years, and have won 50+ games every season since. That kind of sustained excellence is unheard of in professional sports and, frankly, in life. How did they do it? Here’s three key ingredients.
Make the right play.
QUESTION: What’s better, an open corner three? Or a reverse-360 layup between three defenders?
ANSWER: If you’re a producer for Sportscenter, it’s the latter. If you’re trying to win a basketball game, it’s the former.
Often times, we fall in love with our own talent. This is called hubris. And, while, in a pinch, a belief in our own superhuman abilities (not to mention, superhuman abilities to begin with) can bail us out of trouble, this is not a strategy for repeated success.
The difference between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, two well-run organizations with immensely talented players and finely tuned blueprints for success, can be distilled thusly:
1. The Miami Heat do basketball things better than other basketball teams.
2. The San Antonio Spurs do the right basketball things.
My Dad always used to tell me, “Just because you can … doesn’t mean you should.” And although LeBron James CAN turn into a one-man wrecking crew on both ends of the court, going coast-to-coast and whipping cross-court passes and throwing down thunderous dunks …
Well, like his first quarter in Game 5 …
Doesn’t mean he should. The rest of the team becomes disengaged with the work that needs to be done. The floor spacing becomes awkward. The ball doesn’t flow around the zone as quickly or as crisply as it should. Open shots become contested shots become missed shots become transition points the other way.
So … like quarters 2-4 in Game 5 …
Sometimes it doesn’t take a buzzer-beating fade-away from 30 feet with four arms in your grill. Sometimes all it takes is an extra pass. Or a drawn-up play out of a timeout that gets an open look for your garbage-time point guard. Hall of Fame players make Hall of Fame plays, but Champions make the right play.
Surround yourself with the best and get out of their way.
Never heard of Peter Holt? Most people haven’t. He’s the Spurs’ owner. No one would ever accuse him of micromanaging. Personnel decisions are handled by R.C. Buford, who graciously accepts input from Gregg Popovich, who swears the secret of his success is Tim Duncan, who acts as the great stabilizing force anchoring the free-wheeling theatrics of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who constantly dish and kick out to Danny Green and Patty Mills, who are so open because Kawhi Leonard is drawing attention away from them on both ends of the court.
The San Antonio Spurs are not a dictatorship, or an autocracy. They are a Board of Directors — a series of committees that each lord over One Major Detail, and everyone else answers to whoever’s responsible for that key metric. Think of Tim Duncan as “VP of the Low Block,” and Tony Parker as “VP of The Drive And Kick.” Everyone’s got a clear role, and within that role they are given autonomy to achieve their desired outcome however they see fit. There’s no micromanaging. There’s no duplication of effort. There’s simply collaboration, creativity and most importantly, trust.
Trust the Process
I know he isn’t a Spur, but I want to go back to Ray Allen for one minute. I think he would have made an excellent addition to a Popovich roster. Some time ago, at the height of the “Big 3” era in Boston (I think we should retire “Big 3” and raise it to the rafters, as we are on at least the fifth iteration of that term, and it’s outlived its useful life), Jackie McMullan wrote a lengthy piece on the World’s Sweetest Jump Shooter that warrants a read if you never got around to it.
In it, she waxes poetic about Ray Allen’s meticulous, fanatical obsession with work, detail, principle and routine.
“He will line up for the tip exactly as he has for his other 73 games. His pregame ritual does not waver: a nap from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., a meal of chicken and white rice at 2:30, an arrival time at the gym at precisely 3:45 to stretch. Allen will shave his head, then walk out to the court at exactly 4:30. He will methodically take shots from both baselines, both elbows, and the top of the key.”
And, of course, straight out of something that could easily double as the key takeaway from a million sales conferences:
Allen’s mantra is that you must walk, talk, eat, and dress as though you are the best.
Based upon these insights, it seems success does not find those who seek it, but rather finds those who craft it. It is succeeding that gives Ray Allen that rush, instead of finding joy from success itself. In puritan terms, Ray Allen fell in love with a verb and not a noun.
Imagine a team of 12 Ray Allens. I don’t mean 2014 Stand-at-the-wing-and-drain-corner-3s-and-hope-someone-covers-for-you-on-D Ray Allen. I mean 12 of his mind inhabiting 12 athletic bodies of all ages and skill sets. That’s San Antonio. Tim Duncan’s refinement of his game and carefully-constructed weight loss to reduce wear-and-tear on his knees. Tony Parker’s endless work on crafting a jump shot that’s eons better than the one he entered the Association with in 2001. Kawhi Leonard’s tireless film study that’s morphed him from a defensive stopper to a two-way dynamo with in-the-gym range and incredible paint presence.
It’s an entire team of people obsessed with excellence in work and in life. It’s about process. Pounding the rock. Chopping wood. Scheming and innovating and creating and making sure things are done not just the same way each time, but the best way each time.
There’s a sage old axiom that reads, “Some people claim they want to be matadors, but when they’re staring down two tons of bull, they find what they really wanted was to wear red and hear the roar of the crowd.”
The Spurs really want to be matadors. They get off on dancing with the bull. They relish those hours away from the stadium spent polishing their game for when the lights shine brightest. Whether the crowd roars or not is ancillary. But they do anyway, because that’s the funny thing with success …
… if you do it well enough and often enough, it doesn’t matter how you do it. People are going to cheer.