Friday, April 08, 2005

Roundball Roundup; or, Basketball Blather

I posted last summer about Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, basketball coach and leadership studies guru. Time for an update: Separate from the fate of his team, Coach K has been getting some attention recently (not all of it positive) for showing up in a bunch of television commercials. One spot is for the American Express card, and Coach portrays himself as "a leader who happens to coach basketball"--much more than a guy with a whistle and a chalkboard, but rather someone imparting life skills to his young charges.

Today I stumbled across this Wall Street Journal profile of Krzyzewski. It's a puff piece for his leadership institute, and more generally for the relevance of team sports (basketball perhaps most of all) to leading in a business or other grown-up context.

The article alludes to the fact that college ball is more and more being raided of its best players by the pros, and college coaches have to do a lot of ego-stroking. The WSJ attributes the trend to the celebrity status of the players. But they don't mention the way the NCAA takes advantage of these kids. One thing I notice in the American Express ads is how Krzyzewski's face and even that of his assistant coaches can be shown, but no player can be identified (we glimpse a headless torso in a white-and-blue jersey). Coach K can pocket a fee, Duke U. can enjoy some incidental advertising, but the players remain faceless and uncompensated--the NCAA makes sure of it.

Celebrity status of the players? Somebody inform CBS. Personally I don't tune in a game in order to watch Bobby Knight or Krzyzewski in action, but to hear the college hoops media oftentimes, you'd think it's all about the coaches. But I have to admit, in the college basketball industry, the CEO is all-important, much more so than in most industries. The University of North Carolina won the Big Dance the other night, you may have heard, and the major story line was coach Roy Williams's success in keeping his core of talent (a) enrolled at Carolina and (b) pulling together. Roy didn't dazzle with X's and O's, and he didn't seem to inspire his boys to tap some previously unknown hidden strength. But he got them to raise their defensive effort just enough, and take turns in the offensive spotlight. (Sean May was a rock-solid contributor every game, and then one other guy, a different guy each time, would shine: McCants one day, maybe Felton or one of the Williamses the next.) He got them to keep their mouths shut in public and compromise their egos for the sake of the team enterprise. Each player did what we knew he was capable of, and didn't get in the way of the next guy. That's a mighty bland way of speaking about a championship team (Illinois, the runners-up, had a lot more style and synergy to their game). But what Roy Williams did this year was a pretty fair example of postmodern leadership in action.

Rashad McCants, after sitting on the bench the last few minutes of the title game because he couldn't guard anybody--McCants didn't even seem particularly happy after the buzzer sounded and the Tar Heels had won. He didn't quite seem part of the celebration. He seemed relieved. These Chapel Hill lunatics had gotten what they wanted, he hadn't screwed it up, and now he was free to move on and get the star treatment somewhere else that Carolina had withheld from him. He informed a reporter of his intent to turn pro and skip his final year at UNC before he had left the arena Monday night. Not that anyone is surprised, not that anyone necessarily blames him (his mother is ill, so the family probably needs the NBA money), but it would have shown class if he could have sat on his announcement for a week or two and not distracted from the team's celebration. McCants is a hell of a scorer, and Carolina couldn't have won without him, but he's an incomplete player and was sort of a live grenade all year--he couldn't wait to release the stress of having to behave. It'll be interesting to see if he can get his act together in the future.

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