This post is about pro basketball, but it goes deeper. Sports offers meaningful insights into American society. Two teams reveal compelling stories about failure and success.
The New York Knicks long have been woeful. Owner James Dolan—who inherited the team—is noted more for dollars than sense. In 2011, the Knicks traded good young players for Carmelo Anthony, an all-star with Denver who scores lots of points but rarely makes his teammates better. They kept losing. Before the 2014-15 season, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who coached 11 champions, as team president. Jackson, who gets $12 million a year, never held a front-office post. He hired a rookie coach fresh from the player ranks and insisted that the Knicks play his triangle offense. Last season they finished 17-65. This season they’re currently 30-46—better but still bad.
The Knicks long have hung their hopes on luring superstars free agents they assume will sign contracts since New York is the center of the universe. More than a year before Cleveland’s LeBron James became a free agent in 2010, New Yorkers considered him signed, sealed and delivered. LeBron chose Miami.
The Golden State Warriors’ principal owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber also are rich but run the team as they did their other businesses. As president they hired Rick Welts, who served in a similar capacity with the Phoenix Suns. They brought on NBA legend Jerry West—a Hall of Fame player with years of front-office success—as a consultant. In a daring move, they selected Bob Myers—an agent—as assistant general manager in 2011 and promoted him to GM a year later. They acquired players many observers questioned.
Seeing the limits of coach Mark Jackson, who helped the team improve but did not relate well to management, they hired Steve Kerr—a rookie coach who passed on joining Jackson in New York. The key: Kerr was long removed from his playing days on five championship teams, three in Chicago under Jackson and two under San Antonio’s remarkable Gregg Popovich. He’d served in Phoenix’ front office and been an outstanding TV commentator.
Last season, Kerr’s first as coach, the Warriors finished 67-15 and won the NBA title. This season they’re threatening the all-time record of 72 wins set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls on which Kerr played. They did it by gathered talented players who sacrifice parts of their game for the team.
Importantly, the Warriors claim no sense of entitlement. Top free agents—like Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant—may want to sign with the Warriors. Or not. The team makes no assumptions. It already has a superstar in Stephen Curry—once a question mark. If Durant signs elsewhere, the Warriors will attempt to keep their own free agents and seek solid role players to strengthen their roster. They’ll remain a team with character rather than characters.
Egos fill American sports, business and politics. People in the spotlight often claim success as a right. For pro sports franchises, glitter and glamor go only so far. Small-market teams often produce bigger results. I hope the Knicks and New York lower the noise and turn things around. I’m proud that the Warriors go about their business without proclaiming that they’re special. Which is one reason they are.
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