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Bill Bradley
October 31, 1977
True teams, such as those the former Knicks star played on, are a unique amalgam of talent and personality, in which each man fulfills his own role
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October 31, 1977

You Can't Buy Heart

True teams, such as those the former Knicks star played on, are a unique amalgam of talent and personality, in which each man fulfills his own role

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WANTED: a championship team—now. Will pay any price, test any law, sell any product, join any club, make any promise if it can be assured that champagne will flow over my head as the owner.

Pro basketball is a simple game. It is a sport in which success, as symbolized by the championship, requires that the community goal prevail over selfish impulses. An exceptional player is simply one point on a five-pointed star. Great individual players may earn dollars for the owner just as a sideshow does for the circus, but stardom is if anything a deterrent in the pursuit of a championship.

Only three teams in the modern era—the Celtics of 1957-67, the Knicks of 1968-74 and the Celtics of 1973-77—have played basketball and won championships by consistently exhausting the potentiality of team play. Next year Portland may become the fourth—or the Blazers may become another one-year wonder, such as St. Louis, 1958: Philadelphia, 1967; Milwaukee, 1971; Los Angeles, 1972; or Golden State, 1975. Each of these teams had unselfishness and clear coaching direction—and all gave a maximum effort. But these qualities did not last beyond the roaring chants of "We're No. 1!" A temporary unity apparently dissolved somewhere under the glare of postchampionship TV lights or in the sweat of the following year's training camp. As Bill Russell used to say, "It's easier to become No. 1 than to stay No. 1."

During the last 15 years, the nature of ownership in professional basketball has changed from personal to corporate, from the paternalistic to the mechanistic. The old owners were businessmen from the Depression. They were promoters who had not always known where their team's next game would be played or how they would meet the next payday, but they knew their players personally. They traveled with them and sometimes shared accommodations. A franchise was run as if it were a ma and pa drugstore, with all the accompanying inefficiency and love. The only person from that era still active to any great extent is Eddie Gottlieb, the former owner of the Philadelphia Warriors and one of the league's founding fathers. At age 78, he is now a consultant to the NBA, and the schedule is still his responsibility. He alone determines who plays whom, when and where, and he does it without the aid of a computer. A call in July to the NBA office, requesting next season's schedule, meets the response, "Gee, Eddie hasn't got to it yet. You know it takes time."

Nowadays, there are two types of ownership. One is a new class of entrepreneurs who typically have made their millions in something else—in real estate, rugs, cookies or fried chicken. They think that basketball is much the same sort of business. The game becomes a product, players become widgets and fans become markets. Occasionally these otherwise good businessmen ignore rudimentary business practices in the pursuit of their new hobby. But more frequently their accustomed methods of evaluation and review prove inadequate in dealing with the diversity of human problems involved in running a professional basketball team.

If new entrepreneurs create one style of franchise, linked corporate ownership creates still another. It frequently happens that a large corporation owns or acquires a smaller corporation, which in turn owns or controls a team. Several major U.S. companies participate in franchise ownership. Three layers of management sometimes separate a general manager (the basketball expert) from the man who controls the purse strings. Two phenomena result: the players get higher salaries, and in making decisions the general manager operates from fear. If a man who has played the game in dance halls hears a salary demand from an agent, he probably will laugh and say no. He remembers his first paycheck. He makes sure that if he does say yes he is paying for a great player. A corporate executive first calculates the bottom line: how much revenue, prestige or publicity the athlete will bring to the corporation. He often says yes because he believes that star X will add enough excitement to increase attendance and so pay the freight. If things don't work out, he can probably sell his team at a profit, particularly when one considers that he might have put down only 15% in cash for ownership.

A general manager who has that many bosses cannot make sound decisions. The owner wants a champion now. The general manager knows that it takes time and a little luck to assemble the right players. "You're the genius," the corporate executive says, "turn the team around." The general manager, however, cannot filter his won-lost record through accounting procedures that will make it seem as if he won more than he lost. His degree of success will be known by anyone who can count victories. But the desire to succeed quickly leads him to go against his better judgment. He suggests, "Let's buy a star."

The executive in charge now summons his public-relations adviser, his accountant, his lawyer and his basketball expert. The accountant suggests where the money to pay the star will come from. The PR man speaks of the benefit that the company and city will derive from the acquisition. The lawyer keeps everything within the law or advises on chances of winning probable litigation. The general manager, more familiar with locker rooms than corporate suites, does not feel secure enough to say "Wait." He nods yes and the deal is done. The owner feels he's getting quality because of his advice from the expert and because he can see that he is paying a quality price.

The general manager hopes the new star will prove to be a team player. Initial press releases refer to him as a savior, and if he is white, so much the better. As the season begins, large crowds expect the impossible. Soon it becomes clear that the savior can't play defense. He loafs every third game. He chokes in the clutch and develops a personality conflict with the coach. There is heavy rain on the parade to glory. Why did the general manager go against his better judgment? Pressure from a rug executive.

On a basketball team all players can't be all things. The essence of the game is selectivity, knowing limitations and abiding by them. Some players are capable of exercising many skills, but their team situation requires that they concentrate on one. A general manager alone, however, cannot effectively order a player to fulfill a certain on-court role with a team. When I was a rookie, management kept telling one of our guards to make the big play, run the middle on the fast break and set up the forwards for their best shots. For several weeks the player tried but we lost. The coach, who seemed to want more than a playmaker, benched him. Thereafter when he got into a game, the man shot every time he touched the ball. The role assigned to him by upper management could not be played without the support of his team and coach. A player can play an on-court role only if everyone agrees. Roles don't come from a job description sheet. There is more to them than physical skill. They must evolve within the context of the team so that creative spontaneity is preserved while at the same time self-sacrifice is volunteered. Inability to accept an on-court role has shortened the careers of many players.

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