Beyond maintaining its chemistry, a champ must cope with the special defenses that rival coaches throw at it every night. Russell remembers how the Celtics required a certain contribution from Heinsohn. But if the defense was giving shots only to the guards, Auerbach would move Heinsohn from forward into, say, Sam Jones's spot and run the guard plays for Heinsohn. "Red always knew why the team was winning," Russell says. "Every guy has a psychological need for a certain number of points, be they two or 22. You need role stability as well as personnel stability."
Bruce Ogilvie, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State, has worked closely with several NBA teams, and he believes something he calls "performance arrogance" undoes many defending champions. "You find a segment of the team, often reserves, who don't receive the follow-up recognition the superstars do," he says. "The next season there's a subtle resentment."
One of Ogilvie's clients, the 1977-78 Trail Blazers, suffered through the most extraordinary string of injuries any defending champ has had to endure. Portland was 50-10 at the end of February, 1978 and poised to tear through the playoffs once more. Then Bill Walton suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. Over the next two months, Bobby Gross, Lloyd Neal, Dave Twardzik, Maurice Lucas and Larry Steele all went down. Portland, which needed a special league dispensation to sign enough free agents to field a team, finished 58-24 and was eliminated by Seattle in the playoffs.
Why do injuries always seem to strike a champion? "As a champ, pushed to such a high level by everyone every night, you're going to be more susceptible," Laker coach Pat Riley says. Adds Atlanta Hawks general manager Stan Kasten, "To win one title you have to be relatively free of injuries. To have that happen again pushes the odds."
And several general managers, Kasten among them, believe that defending champs are mentally soft, and thus more physically vulnerable. "Players may get hurt because they're enjoying their success from a year ago and aren't as well prepared physically or mentally," Kasten says. As your high school football coach said, go 100% and you won't get hurt.
Complacency isn't something players have much control of. Quite simply, they win one and then seem to contract a sort of virus on the banquet circuit. The '80-81 Lakers and last season's Sixers both suffered from acute cases of it. " 'Winning it all' is like one great orgasm," says Ogilvie, a Freudian no doubt. "A number of players must go through a quiescent state before they can reach 'psychological erection' again."
Sixers general manager Pat Williams remembers "the state of euphoria, peace and contentment" he entered after Philly won its 1983 title. For three months everyone was transfixed by the achievement. Then on opening night the following October, the Sixers received their rings. "For a solid week I stared at that ring," Williams recalls. "It was so distracting I couldn't focus on my job. I finally put it in a box on my bureau."
"Moses didn't have nearly the year he had when they won it," says Sonju, comparing last season's 76ers to that 1983 club. "Nobody wants to win more than that guy, but it's hard to come back with that insatiable urge." The management of a title team may let up, too. After losing in the finals to Portland in '77, Philly marketed itself with the theme WE OWE YOU ONE. After finally winning the title, the Sixers released a poster of Julius Erving and Malone above the legend PAID IN FULL. Clever, but smug.
Somehow, coaches have to find new means of motivation. Auerbach recharged his players with a training-camp philippic. "The speech was spontaneous," Auerbach says, "but it usually began something like: 'Oh, so you've had a hell of a summer. You guys think you're great, huh?' And it went on from there."
There's a flip side to complacency: the opposition's motivation. "Last year opponents weren't trying to take the rings off our fingers," says Williams. "They were trying to rip them off." And coaches have no trouble selling their players on the role of the feisty underdog. "You can rally behind that so easily," says Bob Bass, the Spurs' general manager. "It builds up emotion, which breeds intensity, which is what you're looking for." Adds coach Stan Albeck, commenting on his Nets' ouster of the Sixers last spring, "We just played with enthusiasm and fervor. That's what it takes for a young team to defeat a champion. Then we hit a 'wall'—that's what marathoners call it—in the next round against the Bucks."