By: Jeffrey Newholm
Golden State was the team that set the NBA on fire. They were, without hyperbole, called the greatest team of all time. Through 73 regular season and 15 playoff wins, the Warriors seemed assured of the crown. But in the next two games, something seemed amiss. The Cavs played with more grit and intensity. The dubs had lost that champion’s swagger that all great teams have. The Warriors played their hardest in the finale, but it proved to be too late. The greatest team of all time became just the best team not to win. How could such a thing happen?
When experts analyze a championship team, usually the nuts and bolts of the roster are given the most credit. Sometimes those teams are credited with having a wizard of a head coach. But for certain teams I watch, it’s obvious that those teams are not just playing well. They’re playing differently. They’re playing with a passion and hunger that their opponents can’t hope to match. The 2016 Warriors certainly fit this bill. So did the 2015 Carolina Panthers. They didn’t just win-they dominated. Championship teams seem to be playing on a singular plane of brilliance. Yet as we saw with the Dubs and Panthers, things can still go sour fast. All winning teams are motivated by something. The difference between dynasties and flash-in-the-pan flukes is what that motivation is.
At the highest levels of competition, the primary goal is superiority over other teams. As Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. Lombardi later came to regret this line, but it sums up the professional mentality perfectly. Winning brings big contracts, media attention and championship parades. It’s what fans focus on above all else. And it’s undeniably a powerful motivator. But it’s one that’s incomplete. One that ultimately fails. And I think that’s why there aren’t dynasties anymore in successful leagues. A team will play hard to get on top, but it won’t play hard to stay on top. College Football provides a pristine example of this. Specifically, it’s useful to examine the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes.
In 2014, Urban Meyer lead his team to an unthinkable national title with three different quarterbacks. The cupboard was so full the next year, it was overflowing. Ohio State had so much talent throughout the roster the Big Ten seemed wanting of a mercy rule. But the Buckeyes had to scrape and claw to get past much lessor foes. Their fans insisted that close calls against Northern Illinois and Indiana were no cause for alarm. The team would get their act together, the nation was assured. Well, it never did. Inevitably, a close call turned into a close loss. And the Bucks’ championship hopes went up in smoke. The same scenario was fulfilled almost exactly by Florida State a year earlier. Those two teams had the talent to win, but not the drive. In D1 college football, teams are fueled by a drive for physical dominance. Football is geared for hyper-competitive men obsessed with their masculinity. But if this drive is fulfilled. the team and its athletes become satiated. The defending champ is easily knocked off by a challenger who wants it more. But this needn’t be the case. In lower and purer levels of competition, motivation is more wholesome. And those more wholesome factors lead to more astonishing success.
The most successful teams know the secret to true success in sports and in life. They know success isn’t about winning or gaining advantage over another. Bob Ladouceur, the old coach at prep dynasty De La Salle, insisted his school’s success wasn’t about winning. Yes the team won 151 games in a row. But Ladouceur stated that if his goal was winning, the streak would have never gone anywhere. Great teams consist of athletes who focus on self-actualization. Each game and possession is an opportunity to grow into a better player, athlete and person. And I think the best basketball teams are the most beautiful examples of this. Certainly Golden State was. Each pass and shot has a purpose. No games or possessions are taken off. A basketball dynasty is poetry in motion. The result is victories, and many of them. But that’s not, and must not be, the goal.
Sadly, in their last three games, the Dubs lost what made them great. Not even the greatest team of all time can play for the right reasons all the time. I doubt if any overly popularized and over-hyped team can. The quest for an admirable and lovable juggernaut remains a Quixotic one. True beauty is hard to find in an era of complete media saturation of every sport. But every now and then such a team breaks through the muck, if only for a short time. And for that short time that team is, and should be, celebrated. Because the greatest teams all play with heart. The heart of a champion.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.