NBA Culture Part III: Lessons from the Bubble

This is Part III in an NBA culture series. Read Parts I and II:

How to Build Company Culture? Lessons From the NBA.

The Blueprint: Lessons from the NBA Part II

The NBA Bubble proved to be a well conceived, carefully organized and meticulously executed model for pandemic control. The NBA presented a how-to model that other sports and organizations now seek to replicate. The salvaged NBA season was historic.

This historical dimension was also magnified by the long-awaited comeback of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise winning its seventeenth championship title, while the mournful pall of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s deaths heavily cloaked the psyche of the team. Adding to this, the Lakers along with the other Bubble teams were beset by the explosive atmosphere of social unrest triggered by the racially charged slaying of George Floyd, which was further exacerbated by the diseased politics of our nation-splitting presidential election.

The NBA not only influenced the entire nation in its reaction to the pandemic, it also led all professional and collegiate sports to a level of social activism not evidenced by athletes since the Civil Rights era of the late 1950s through the late 1970s. Social tensions became even greater stress multipliers for teams confined to the Bubble, some for more than three months, as the ongoing threats to public safety and social stability increased the psychological liability of living in a restricted communal setting, separated from family and friends. This culminated in a work-stoppage following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a disruption in play that briefly threatened the continuation of the playoffs.

Though attention was concentrated more intensely on the NBA, its sister league was no less impacted while operating its Bubble in neighboring Bradenton. Some WNBA players are mothers who had their children in tow, with all of the childcare stresses and Covid safety protocols also packed along in their luggage. And like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Seattle Storm had to worry, sacrifice, manage and live through the same pandemic, isolation and nationwide turbulence to win their championship.

Also, the women of the WNBA were no less challenged to complete their season than their NBA brothers, despite having lesser equipped training facilities and fewer amenities. Neither were they any less responsive to the social justice movement that became the obvious intention both leagues made a pledge to address. In some respects, WNBA players and teams demonstrated more cohesion, message unity and first-step leadership in leveraging their platform. And they did so without a work stoppage or media reports about star players lashing out at others, and without the level of league, organization and media support given to and garnered by the teams of the NBA. With mothers often being the grieving parent of focus in many of the tragedies resulting from the repeated racial injustices being spotlighted, the WNBA is equally deserving of being highlighted for its conviction in confronting this issue.

The NBA took the lead on reacting to the spread of Covid, shutting down before any other major enterprise would, and restarting in a way that no other enterprise has. In large part, this was enabled by the league’s culture, already amongst the best in all of men’s professional team sports. The Bubble magnified that. The high-character, hard work ethic, shared commitment to a goal, dap-bonding fraternity that typifies the work environment of most teams became even more concentrated, accentuated and appreciated inside the Bubble.

Players benefited from having greater visibility into the workouts, recovery and nutrition practices of their peers. They shared viewpoints and expressed what they stood for as individuals, as a team and as a league. Mentor-mentee relationships were sparked and deepened, and an extraordinary informal cross-cultivation of ideas and insights decisively displayed the “union” of the players’ union. And while many players chronicled the physical, psychological and emotional stresses of isolation and separation from family and normality, many also favorably attested to how this dramatically different setting enhanced some advantages beyond what more routine seasons yield.

Principal amongst these enhancements was a by-product of more proximity: interpersonal connection. The Bubble physically brought players together in a communal way they don’t experience during the course of a routine season. In the Bubble, players across teams were around each other all day, every day.

This connection was the main reason that players inside the Bubble, more so than those outside of it, were able to coalesce and leverage their platform as they did during the nation’s racial reckoning. Their ability to be in constant contact with each other allowed for an impressive degree of solidarity and call to action. A greater depth of camaraderie and fellowship was forged as players interacted with each other with more frequency and purpose. Such meaningful shared experiences are invaluable to any group of people in any sphere of interaction because they are the ingredients of bonds. The more bonding interactions are experienced, the more bonds are created. The stronger the bonds become, the greater the connection amongst players.

This connection also translated onto the court. When players are more physically connected off the court, they are more mentally connected on the court. This collective connection, the psychic sustenance of the team, is what nourishes the cohesion of the squad. All players feed into it and draw from it. This is why some teams surprised us with their performance in the Bubble. Their upward trajectory was less a factor of players playing above their talent level, but more owing to them playing up to their team’s strengthened connection, something made possible by being together more often, and by learning more from each other and about each other.

In January of this year, Mark Medina of USA Today conducted what turned out to be Kobe Bryant’s last sit-down interview. Five years earlier, in 2015, Medina also conducted an interview with Bryant, while covering the NBA beat for the Los Angeles Daily News. A critical insight offered by Bryant, during that interview, supports the importance of this connection:

“The biggest thing about being a leader and winning a championship is understanding how to put yourself in other people’s shoes. It’s not necessarily the individual skills you possess. It’s about understanding others and knowing what they may be going through…Bringing the best out of people isn’t passing the ball and giving them open shots. It’s about how to connect with them and how to communicate with them, so they can navigate whatever issues they may face. That’s a very, very hard thing to do…People who have very limited knowledge of sports always say, ‘Passing the ball makes everyone better. No. That’s not it…If you want to make them better, you don’t just hand them the ball. You inspire them to be the best versions of themselves, and I do that by sharing things which are very personal to me, things I’ve struggled with, and letting them relate that to their own journey.”

A great opportunity is present for organizations to replicate and continue the fellowship found in Orlando, as a culture pillar supporting their teams rather than a tentpole for a one-off event. Training camps begin on December 1st, and the shortened 2020–2021 season commences on December 22nd. To capitalize on this opportunity, teams need to act now. By Christmas, next level seeking organizations can gift their teams the Bubble bonus. This time it will not necessitate sequestering players in an isolated environment for compulsory interactions. There are more practical and palatable steps to take. But before doing so, organizations will need to counter their inclination to uphold and preserve their passé, trapped-in-time, business as usual patterns and traditions.

Despite many recent innovations to the game, the CBA, contracts, scheduling, equipment, training methods and rehab protocols, an enduring NBA culture remains remarkably resistant to evolving and elevating how organizations regard and interact with their players — — as people. A hands-off, don’t get personal, show up, do your job, act professional convention remains the pervasive approach governing the rapport between players and the organizations they play for. The commodity of a player continues to be valued more than the person of the player. How else could flesh and blood, heart-pumping, soul-searching, thinking, feeling, passionately speaking human beings constantly be referred to as “pieces”? That word, like the military term “collateral damage”, has the intention and effect of emotionally distancing and detaching people from the human reality of others. NBA players are sons, grandsons, brothers, cousins, uncles, husbands, fathers and citizens — — all terms that refer to the human value and merits of a person and not just their presence and utility on the court.

This is equally true of WNBA players, who like their athletic sisters of the United States Woman’s National Soccer Team, continue to be relegated in all manner of consideration to their brothers in the NBA and the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, respectively. But all of these women are more than gender in jerseys serving the public relations aim of equity in sports. They are daughters, granddaughters, sisters, cousins, aunts, wives, mothers, godmothers and citizens. Combined, the entirety of the NBA and WNBA is based upon and dependent on one determinant more than any other. People. And the people who matter most are the performers of the game, the players. In the vernacular of the workplace, they are the most valuable human resource in the league. But the most valuable resource to humans is communication.

This was wonderfully demonstrated in the Bubble, particularly when the combined voices of the WNBA and NBA players demonstrated their feelings, thoughts and actions regarding the nation’s racial upheaval. It was their constant communication with each other that brought about their unprecedented collaboration. And through that constant communication and collaboration, we saw people who could do more and were worth more than just shutting up and dribbling. And we were rewarded for watching a team like the Miami Heat band as brothers, battling odds and higher ranked teams to make it into the Finals. The connection they gained in the Bubble will likely continue to evolve and elevate them in the upcoming season.

The development of interpersonal communication between players and team personnel should never have an offseason, or a multiple game suspension, or load management rest or a misused timeout. It must be always ongoing, and earnestly and honestly promoted and advanced. When team organizations realize and embrace this, they will maximize the connection yield of whatever their players give their energy and effort to. Then those organizations will realize the maximum upside of a culture that sees people instead of pieces, and they will get closer to their desired destiny of one day embracing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. And finally, they will realize what Kobe Bryant said during an interview, when Ernie Johnson asked him what advice he would give to his younger self:

“I would say, focus on human nature. You have to balance out understanding human nature with the obsession to understand the exact tactics of basketball. And as I’ve gotten older, I understood that you could execute until the cows come home but if you don’t understand human nature, if you don’t understand how to relate to others, if you don’t understand what makes them tick, you’re never going to win a championship.”

Special advisor to leaders, recipient of NBA Championship ring for her role as special advisor to the President, GM and Head Coach of the Toronto Raptors.

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