Thursday, October 02, 2008

Are You that ONE Person?

Words of wisdom from one of my mentors:

Harvey Mackay's Column This Week

USA basketball's real slam dunk

A leader may sometimes climb to unparalleled heights in perhaps a single sport and in just one competitive arena. Doing it in two is extraordinary, and my friend Jerry Colangelo did exactly that by winning the World Series as chairman of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and now the Olympics. Virtually single-handedly, he assembled "The Redeem Team" that won the Olympic men's basketball gold medal in Beijing.

In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, I saw the USA team barely capture the gold, but the handwriting was on the scoreboard. En route to defeating France, we barely eked out a win against Lithuania 85-83, the first time a squad of U.S. professionals couldn't score a double-digit win. In 2002, the USA ranked a pathetic sixth in the World Championships. By 2004 in Athens, fellow Americans and I witnessed past USA dominance at the Olympics hit a brick wall as we mustered only a bronze. USA Basketball was reeling. In 2005, the outfit in charge of U.S. international competition put Jerry at the helm.

Jerry knew why the excellent USA coaches and All-Star players were having their heads handed to them. It was the absence of team play. From the moment Jerry took command, you could go to the bank and borrow knowing we would capture the basketball gold at the 2008 Olympics.

Jerry picked Mike Krzyzewski of Duke as coach. What folly, many thought, to tap the college ranks considering the NBA's wall-to-wall coaching talent. Jerry knew collaboration was key to a USA comeback. Coach K's philosophy: The winning go-to guy is Team! Already in 2006, the USA had inched back to third place in the Worlds.

Jerry rivals a New York Philharmonic maestro when it comes to picking talent. One at a time, he quietly CAT-scanned the NBA superstars to find those 12 who had skills-plus, including the work ethic, team attitude, and sportsmanship to represent America on and off the court. These are all the traits Jerry admires in his book How You Play the Game.

Jerry screened out the ones who had heart from the ones who didn't. He demanded each give a three-year commitment from the 2006 Worlds through the 2008 Olympics. When I saw him at the Olympics, Jerry's confidence knew just one limit. "Harvey, there's only one force that can defeat us," he confided, "and that's ourselves."

When John Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, he designed a team contest. Not a showcase for pampered NBA glory hounds with chapped lips from kissing the mirror too much. International basketball is a totally different sports species from the NBA version. NBA icons have to adjust to excel in it. Ours did:

  • Referees made pathetic calls, but each time USA players just got on with business. The whining, hanging heads of past years vanished.
  • USA players extended helping hands to our opponents who were knocked down on the court.
  • At time-outs, USA players jumped off the bench as if their pants were on fire to offer words of encouragement to their teammates.

Coach K and his staff steered the ship with a steady emotional keel. During the game and time-outs, you couldn't tell whether the USA was up by 30 or down by 30. Through seven undefeated games en route to the championship duel, the USA played ferocious defense as if each contest was an NBA final.

The USA had trounced world champion Spain by 37 points in the preliminaries. Facing the Spanish team again for the gold, they could have easily buckled in the closing minutes. Outside a sprinkling of Americans, 18,000 screaming fans rooted for the Spanish underdogs. With four minutes to go, no one on this planet could tell you who would win. When the USA triumphed 118-107, that win owed as much to the gruelling years of preparation as it did to inspiration on the court.

When the horn sounded, I zeroed my binoculars on Jerry Colangelo. Make no mistake: tears were trickling down his face. Notwithstanding his All-Big Ten play at Illinois, building the Phoenix Suns into an NBA powerhouse, bringing Major League Baseball and a world championship to the Valley of the Sun, and earning a reputation as Phoenix's most able and charitable businessman . . . this still had to be his finest hour!

Mackay's Moral: One person can make all the difference.

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