"Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory."
- Douglas MacArthur
I'm not quite sure what a mid-life crisis feels like, but it's entirely possible I was in the middle of one driving up the windy roads that lead to West Point
last New Year's Eve.
I'd always believed in the power of athletics and teamwork, being part of a team taught me more about the world than any classroom ever did. School was generally easy: take the material you're given, commit it to memory, and then regurgitate it a week later. If you messed up, it was pretty easy to see where you went wrong and how to fix it.
However, being part of a team made the world three-dimensional instead of two. My default setting didn't like dealing with people, in school I didn't really have to. But the dynamic of having to work together toward a common goal forced me to be more extroverted. The real benefit and the true draw of sports to me is that you never see the same precise problem twice.
One day, a referee makes a bad call and you have to deal with it. The next, one of your teammates gets injured. Your coach decides to bench you. Your coach decides to play you more, and your teammate suddenly doesn't talk to you. I could keep going, but you get the idea. There's no multiple choice problems, no "I'll think about and I'll get back to you". The type of situations you see require immediate responses, just like most of the ones we encounter on a daily basis in real life.
But by New Year's Eve last year, I was beginning to doubt the value of teamwork in our society. I had long since given up on journalism to embark on a second career in teaching and coaching, trying to save the world one student at a time (with no one left behind, either
) but I seemed to be reaching my breaking point, especially on the coaching side. Selfish behavior, lack of respect for both teammates and opponents (and officials), and involving others (i.e. parents) to solve problems just went against everything I was taught and everything I learned through decades of playing sports and being part of a team.
And, to be honest, I saw this "me first" attitude seep, like a virus, into other areas of life. I'm sure you didn't come here to talk politics, but you probably know where I'm going. No one seemed to want to work together to solve problems, no one wanted to admit they're wrong, no one even wanted to look at the perspective of the other side to try to understand. Everyone wanted to blame someone else.
Couldn't they see the value of teamwork? Shouldn't these people know that if they can't even get along with teammates here, what is going to happen when they graduate college and get into the "real world"?
(As Atticus Finch
used to say, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.")
I got to the Army-St. Francis (NY) game early that day, walked around to look at historic West Point and then hung out in front of the Holleder Center until the doors were to be opened an hour before tip-off. Staring at me was Douglas MacArthur and the words above. I looked at it for a few minutes in the cold. And smiled.
Douglas MacArthur believed in teamwork.
MacArthur, one of the most decorated U.S. generals of the last century, is probably best known for making good on his "I shall return"
declaration after the Philippines were overrun by the Japanese early in World War II, or possibly getting canned by Harry Truman in Korea a decade later. But way back in 1919, MacArthur became Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the second youngest ever. MacArthur thought one of the biggest problems with West Point at the time was that the cadets were not well-rounded enough to be true leaders in the modern world. They could answer questions eloquently and repeat what they were taught, but in fluid situations outside the campus, that only gets you so far.
MacArthur budgeted more money toward athletics, and - as is still done today
- required that all cadets participate in intramural sports to help learn the value of teamwork to reach a common goal.
(MacArthur was also instrumental in prying a future basketball Hall of Famer - Harry Fisher - away from Columbia in 1921. He coached at Army for three seasons and went 45-5, including an unbeaten 1922-23 campaign.)
Many of the youngsters that came through West Point during the time MacArthur (who was also President of the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Games) was in charge went on to train and lead the Greatest Generation of U.S. soldiers in World War II.
I'm not sure if Paul Westhead believes in teamwork. But he should.
Westhead (or more appropriately, his team) is probably responsible for my love of mid-major basketball. For three seasons in the late 1980s, which happened to coincide with my impressionable youth, Westhead's Loyola Marymount team was the most exciting show in sports, any sport. They ran up and down the court and shot three-pointers at a pace no one has seen before or since. LMU was one game away from the Final Four in 1990, and went 74-21 (the last two seasons with a murderous non-conference schedule), never averaging less than 110 points a game.
Westhead would credit "The System" for his success, and the media would follow suit, giving a little credit to All-Americans Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble as well. The narrative involving Westhead and his coaching genius has never really changed, with ESPN devoting one of its "30 For 30" documentaries to Westhead as the "Guru of Go".
However, when Westhead took his much heralded "System" to the NBA with the Nuggets, it was an unmitigated disaster. He subsequently went to George Mason for four seasons and never had a winning campaign, getting fired in 1997 and replaced by some guy named Jim Larranaga, who obviously never amounted to much
, either. So is it possible, members of the somewhat impartial jury, that it wasn't "The System" that led to Loyola Marymount's success, and that while Gathers and Kimble were certainly necessary ingredients, it might have been a little thing called teamwork
that pushed LMU into the upper echelon of college basketball?
Westhead's Lions, especially the 1989-90 version, were a great example of how a "team" works. It seems easy enough. Everyone has their roles and does their job for the betterment of the group (that does sound a little like communism, too, I know, but stay with me). Gathers was the workhorse who averaged 11 rebounds per game and could get to the basket. Kimble was the scorer, who could light it up from just about anywhere.
Jeff Fryer was the pure shooter, Tom Peabody's nickname of "The Human Bruise" says it all, Per Stumer played almost exactly the same amount of minutes as Gathers and Kimble, but took one-third the shots. Terrell Lowery, Tony Walker, and Chris Knight were all essential pieces that are largely forgotten more than two decades later.
The key, as it is in any endeavor in life, was putting egos aside to reach toward a common goal. To do that, everyone not only has to sacrifice, but also understand their strengths and weaknesses. Sounds easy? It's not.
As Westhead soon found out the hard way after leaving LMU, good luck with that in the NBA (Westhead did win an NBA title, but he also had one of the best team players of all-time in Magic Johnson helping him as well).
We look at quotations, some of us read daily from the Bible, and we're told to commit acts of kindness by our friends on Facebook, but our egos make it hard on us as it relates to teamwork. Real hard. And it's only getting harder.
I'm supposed to shine. What's in it for me? I have to look out for myself. I. Me. I. Me. We say them more than we think. We're conditioned to.
Charles Edward Montague, a 19th-century English essayist once wrote something that John Wooden paraphrased repeatedly
, "There is no limit to what a man can do if he doesn't give a straw who gets the credit for it."
The great teams - whether it be a college basketball squad, Navy Seals sent to kill Osama bin Laden, or just a group trying to get more productivity to meet the quarterly quota - don't give a proverbial "straw".
Dave Bike believes in teamwork.
He's not a household name in coaching, but next week, Bike will coach his 1,000th game when Sacred Heart takes on Yale in its season opener. He's been the Pioneers' head coach since 1978, which for the first 15 years was only a part-time job (he was also Sacred Heart's athletic director). The Pioneers didn't go Division I until the 1999-2000 season and Bike has never been to an NCAA Tournament, although he did win the Division II national title in 1986.
While Bike's 520 wins rank him 20th among active coaches, his 479 losses put him at the top of the list. There have been more defeats than victories since the transition to the "big time" of Division I more than a decade ago, but still Bike comes back and Sacred Heart wouldn't want it any other way.
You see, being part of a team is about more than winning. Because in the zero-sum games that are most athletic endeavors, for every victor there has to be a vanquished.
And losing is part of life. A big part of life, too. You may not realize it, but you lose every day. It may be something small, like being late for an appointment. Sometimes, it's something bigger, like a car accident or - God forbid - even worse. There are times when you have control, when you feel like you let down your friends or your boss, other instances that you don't, and you have to take the heat for something someone else did or didn't do.
You win as a team, you lose as a team.
But the real key is how you react to your loss. Do you learn from it, correct what went wrong, and do better next time? Or do you act out, blame others, and never look at what you can do to improve yourself, and - by proxy - everyone else? There are also times - ones we can identify with very well on this site by just looking at the percentage of Red Line Upsets - where you just have to take your lumps and roll with them. It's times like those that you need your teammates and friends to pick you up, both figuratively and literally. And someday down the line, the gesture will be reciprocated. That's camaraderie. That's teamwork.
Bike says he dreams of walking away after bringing Sacred Heart to the NCAA Tournament, but he's realistic about his situation. He's surely comforted when he reads quotes like this (in the New York Times
) from former players, in this case John Stevens (now nearing the age of 50 himself), who played on the 1986 title squad: "Dave talks a lot about philosophy. The most important thing was things aren't going to be easy. You've really got to work no matter what it is you're doing, whether it's in your life, basketball, your job, relationship, whatever it is."
I'm not sure about that mid-life crisis - I'm pretty sure most sane people would judge the lengths I'm about to go to in the next few months to watch unheralded college basketball teams quite ludicrous - but my faith in teamwork has been restored.
Over the summer, I got to visit Indianapolis for the first time, and of course, visited Butler and Hinkle Fieldhouse
. I also drove 45 minutes east to Hoosier Gym and got to shoot around in the place that Hickory called home in perhaps the most classic basketball movie of them all
I stood in front of the Hickory bench, looked at my imaginary squad like Gene Hackman, and yelled the same word that's been in every huddle of every team that I've ever coached.