In winning the NBA championship in a 4-1 game stomping of the LeBron James-dependent Miami Heat, the San Antonio Spurs disproved the old saying that there is no “I” in team.
While that is literally true, it is not figuratively so. The “I” in team is the concept of “interdependence.” Interdependence is what separates and distinguishes great “teams” from their counterparts.
You can win a championship but still not be a great team. You can have many great players and not win a championship.
That’s because the whole is less than the sum of its parts. On great teams, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts and the synergy that is achieved magnifies the results.
The San Antonio basketball team proved that in spades and as Spurs. They did it on the court in this championship run in as magnificent a demonstration of interdependence as may have ever been seen on a professional basketball court — or on any American professional sports field for that matter.
Here’s how Michael Lee of the Washington Post described the Spurs’ performance on a play during Game 4 of the championship:
Tony Parker darted into the lane and whipped the ball out to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard drove and knocked down Dwayne Wade before passing the ball off to Boris Diaw near the basket. Diaw flipped an underhand pass to Tim Duncan. By the time Chris Bosh turned around, Duncan was already throwing down a one-handed jam.
Four players touched the ball, two dribbled and one dunked. It was a typical offensive possession for the San Antonio Spurs, who are always looking for a great shot over a good shot, and an open teammate over a hero.
That’s not to say the Spurs don’t have their heroes or superstars. During this playoff season, the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili broke the record for the most playoff games ever won by a group of three players on the same team by reaching 117 post-season victories. The old record of 110 games had been held by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the fourth game of the championship against the Heat, future hall of famer Tim Duncan broke Kareem’s all time record for playoff minutes and passed Magic for the most double-doubles in postseason play getting 10 points and 11 rebounds for his 158th double-double.
When informed of his accomplishments, Duncan was unimpressed responding, “I can appreciate you saying the names and having passed them in anything. It’s an honor to be in that position. Having won helps, obviously, but the focus is winning one more and once that one more is done, then I can look back and say, ‘Hey, that’s truly an honor.'”
Duncan’s attitude regarding the importance of winning the next game mirrored that of his head coach, Gregg Popovich. After his Spurs took game four playing another exceptional game, Popovich remarked, “I’m pleased that they performed as well as they did while we’ve been in Miami and that’s about as far as it goes. Now we’ve got to go back home and play as well or better.”
That was vintage Popovich, the task master and tactician who has instilled “teamness” into his Spurs and made exercising their collective will and collaborative spirit the defining hallmarks of their approach to the game. This has enabled them and him to win four championship rings since 2003.
In stressing teamwork as the key ingredient for success on the court, Popovich resembles Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, who owns 11 rings. In his book with that title, Jackson observes:
Basketball is a great mystery. You can have the perfect mix of talent and the best system of offense in the game. You can devise a foolproof defensive strategy and prepare your players for every possibility. But if the players don’t have the sense of oneness as a group your efforts won’t pay off.
Call it oneness. Call it interdependence. Call it the “I” in team. When teams realize that “I” they achieve another “I” — that “I” is invincibility.
That is true in team sports, in business and our democracy. This is a lesson that we, as citizens and members of team America, would all do well to remember.
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