The Golden State Warriors just won the NBA national championship. I wrote about my fascination with them while chronicling the strange behaviors of ESPN. When I wrote that post I told myself I would come clean and explain my fascination with the Warriors if they won the championship. That time has arrived.
I am not a basketball expert, merely an observer. I do, however, know a good deal about human behavior, organizations, leadership and group cultures. My fascination with the Warriors is grounded in my belief that organizationally, they are NBA outliers. Their culture is not the NBA norm. It also is almost gratingly in conflict with many basketball “experts” beliefs and values about the game of basketball. It has seemed to me all this bothers many of these “experts” quite a lot, especially those who are older and physically large.
My first clear insight into this outlier status occurred when I learned of the head coach, Steve Kerr’s values about playing basketball, explained to every player who joins the enterprise. The first time I heard the values I was startled: Mindfulness, Compassion, Joy, and Competition. Kerr posits that if you take care of the first three, the fourth will take care of itself. Clearly not the NBA norm (though the shadows of Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich lurk).
Then there is the way they play the game, and who plays it. They focus on skill, finesse, basketball IQ, practiced tactics and strategy. Success is achieved through discipline and persistence. Others often try to dominate them through physical force. They know this. They continue to operate from their game plan. And they play a lot of “small ball”, a reference to the absence of a dominant tall player controlling everything (with an affectionate nod to Kevon Looney). They are more invested in team work than in physical assault.They play “unselfish” basketball where no one hogs the limelight or the ball. Everyone can and does make a contribution to the outcome. And their leader, Steph Curry, models all of this and makes it happen by who he is and how he treats others.
This is described by others who often sound either confused or jealous as “changing the game forever”, requiring other coaches to “scramble” to try to find a way to defend when playing this team. Shooting the “3 point ball” is blamed, but it is more than that. Others mutter that the Warriors style of play is “soft” even while they are winning in games where physical force is the goal of the other team. They discount the talent of the players since they do not have either the capacity or inclination to embrace excessive brute force as a central basketball skill.
The acceptable norm is often explained as the need to “impose your will” on your “opponent”, to play “aggressively”, to physically dominate, to “rough others up a bit”. Force is more important than skill. There is a habituation to looking for the “best” player, and size is the key predictor: the “best” are big, tall, physically intimidating and control “everything”. The rest of the team are there to make the “best” person succeed. There is always a low-grade undercurrent of “violence” in all this imagery. Clearly, the Warriors are outliers.
As I watched the post-game celebration, some things seemed striking. Here are examples:
They asked the coach to explain how he achieved his championship goal, he responded that he wanted the general manager on the stage since he created the conditions for the success.
They then asked the general manager how he achieved his goal. He acknowledged that this didn’t answer the question but wanted to take this time to thank the wives and families who accommodated demands on the teams’ time and who provided so much support.
They announced the Most Valuable Player, Steph Curry; before he accepted the trophy, he high fived every teammate in sight and reach as the Joy became communal. He then explained that everyone on the stage had contributed to the championship.
Klay Thompson, who overcame two devastating injuries and fought his way back to his team was acknowledged and honored; he didn’t have a great game: he was just a great human evoking pride and joy at his determination and resilience.
Draymond Green, the Warriors designated “bad boy” or chronic irritant systematically went to the key players on the Celtics team and spoke to them, paying a quiet and purposeful respect.
One player, Andrew Wiggins, was once nationally denigrated, then with the Warriors given a second chance at realizing his significant potential. He had a great game and was highlighted and recognized with warmth, humor and gratitude. A Canadian, he unfurled his national flag while his teammates serenaded him with “Oh Canada”; he then carried this flag with him for the duration of the celebration.
There was a generous sprinkling of infants and kids everywhere, and players knew the names of other player’s kids and chatted with them. The kids appeared to know that this was their tribe and they were comfortable in it.
There was deep personal emotion and it was simply true; media seemed more ill at ease with this intensity of emotion than the players or the collective community.
So yes, there is a Joy, a Compassion, and a Mindfulness in this celebration of successful Competition. Imperfect, incomplete, even fragile, but there.
Responses to the achievement seem to me to reflect the ambivalence of a social system where dominance in sports is dependent on size, physical force, certainty of self-serving decisions, control, and winning at all costs. In many ways it has seemed to me that in the US, sports are treated as primarily male activities that women are merely encroaching upon (despite the lip service claiming otherwise). It has also seemed to me that often the indicators of value assigned to sports are mirrors of the indicators of value assigned to males in our social systems. I think much of what the Golden State Warriors model challenges these established norms: they are outliers.
And I support the changes they model, so for one sweet and very golden moment, these countervailing values and norms prevailed, and I celebrate that with every other human who hopes that we might opt for more Mindfulness, Compassion, and Joy as we pursue Competition.
“If you put enough good people together good things happen.”
~Bob Myers, President of Operations and General Manager of the Golden State Warriors when interviewed at Warriors Championship Parade, June 20, 2022