Sports: Where I First Fell in Love with Teamwork (Part 2)

Yesterday, I opened this week long series on what I learned about teamwork from sport growing up in Southeast Michigan with a view on the Detroit Tigers magical run in 1984. Based on the conversations that arose from this post, I wasn’t the only one touched by this amazing team, manager, and season.Image

Today, the focus shifts to a team that was either loved, or hated, no in-between. If you were a fan of the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers, Bucks, 76ers, Bullets, Cavs, Hawks, or Trailblazers during the late 80’s and early 90’s you absolutely hated the Bad Boys. What is really odd about that statement is that this team had some really likeable people that were major contributors, including Chuck Daly who is one of the most respected coaches in NBA history (remember he was the coach of the first Dream Team), and Joe Dumars who was such a good example of sportsmanship that the NBA named their sportsmanship award after him.

How does a team with such highly respected professionals like Chuck Daly and Joe D become known as the Bad Boys? Recording fines from the NBA triple the amount of the next most fined team sure does help, especially when they come because of Bill Laimbeer, Isaiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, and to a lesser extent Mark Aguirre and James “Buddha” Edwards. This team was the most physical, defensive-oriented team in the league for 1987-1991. Back when the NBA let teams play defense, and by defense I mean the no-blood-no-foul days, the Pistons were masters. They regularly agitated teams to their breaking point and caused retaliations by some of the league’s most notable players (i.e. Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley, Bill Cartwright, Brad Daugherty, and nearly the rest of the Eastern Conference).

This team personified the spirit of Detroit (as did the later Goin’ to Work Pistons which I will post on later). They were tough, blue collar in their approach, sometimes undersized (starting backcourt of Isaiah and Joe D was pretty short even in those days, add in Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson coming off the bench and they were pretty short, but boy were they good), and downright chippy! What was amazing was that while they were so different as people, they all rallied around the team identity to the point that they were able to take on one of the best archetypes for any epic “us vs. the world” and they were able to go out and win!

What amazed me as a kid was how even though Isaiah was a great player, and Joe D. was a Hall of Famer, it was the amazing ability for every player on that squad to play an important role.  They had six players in the 1988-89 season (this includes Dantley and Aguirre who were traded for one another halfway through the season), and every player that played real minutes on that team averaged at least 7 points a game. Even though they were known for their defense, their team FG% was .494 and they were a collective .769 from the Free Throw line. The following year the numbers were very similar. In both seasons in which they won the NBA Championship though, their numbers were league average in most categories. How did this team win?

The takeaway from the organizational perspective is that you don’t have to be the biggest, most expensive, flashiest, or most highly recognizable to be a winner. This team defined its purpose, recognized its goals, embraced their individual roles, understood who was leading them, and lived out their culture to great success. They were not the most loved, appreciated, or understood group, but they were a team that functioned together against the odds to become a historic team that is now remembered in documentaries.

Do you know your team, purpose, role, culture, and leaders? If not, don’t expect to succeed even with more money and flash than others.  

What did you learn from the Bad Boys?

Sports: Where I First Fell in Love with Teamwork

As a product of Southeast Michigan born in the early 1980s, sports were a very important part of my life. I grew up with what I believe are some of the most amazing “teams” of all-time. I truly believe that a large part of my interest in teamwork as a social researcher was formed in watching the amazing feats of connection and collaboration that took place during my formative years.  

For the next few days, I will be pointing toward some of the key reasons I am passionate about both teamwork in general, and sports in particular. Recently, ESPN has participated in a spotlight on Detroit highlighting the 25th anniversary of the Bad Boys and so I thought it fitting to pick up some of the memories and people that have shaped the way I think about teamwork.  

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Today – the 1984 Detroit Tigers

As a three year-old I was a witness to the Roar of ’84 in which the Tigers went wire-to-wire in 1st place and defeated the San Diego Padres to win the World Series. Though I was only three, the impression that team left in my consciousness was deep and important. This team carried such an amazing blueprint for success.

When you think about the team that toiled on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull that year, players such as Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Willie Hernandez, Chet Lemon, Darrell Evans, and Tom Brookens come to mind. Even now after 30 years, I still recall the poetry in motion that these players brought to the diamond. In my world they were larger than life, though even to this day the only member of that team to make the Hall of Fame was their manager.

When you think about the quintessential players of that generation, you think of Boggs, Yount, Molitor, Murray, Rice, Henderson, Carter, Davis, Fisk, Murphy, Sandberg, Schmidt, Garvey, Brett, Smith, Ripken, Gwynn, Strawberry, Gooden, Ryan, Eckersley, Puckett, Fingers, and Hersheiser. Unless, that is, you are from Detroit. Then you think about how this team was powerful in the mid-80s, put together with such amazing depth, complementary parts, and lack of weakness.

Roving the infield as a youngster, Sweet Lou and Trammy were my heroes, leading me to play 2nd and SS for much of my baseball (and now since I am older, softball) career. These two were the greatest double-play combo ever (don’t just believe me check out the stats), they taught me the value of continuity (played together from 1978-1991) and trust. This team never boasted the best player, though Gibson, Morris, and Hernandez were amazing in those playoffs, but brought together a wonderful collection of players who understood their role and had an amazing leader (Sparky Anderson) to guide their collective journey.

What I love about this team is that while there were some real personalities (see Gibson, Kirk; Hernandez, Willie; Allen, Rod; and Lemon, Chet) this wasn’t in anyway a ‘me-first’, or superstar-oriented team. They didn’t have any hitter with 100 RBI and no one with 35 HRs (Lance Parrish surprisingly led Detroit in both categories with 98 RBI and 33 HR). Further, they only one regular player who hit over .300 (Alan Trammell). They had 5 pitchers though with double-digit wins, a closer who had 32 saves (which seems almost pedestrian today), but not a single starter with an ERA south of 3.20 (Dan Petry had a 3.24 ERA the lowest of the starters).

Stats thrown out, when you watched this team they had chemistry. Right from Opening Day they went on a 35-5 start that has never been (and might never be) duplicated. They seemed to enjoy being together, having such an interesting collection of players that each brought something different to the table. To me they are the quintessential team. No megalomaniacs (Gibson’s later run in LA doesn’t factor in at this point), no serious in-fighting, a good deal of diversity, and consistency that led to greatness.

What teams (whether they be sports or not) formed the way you think today?