Sports: Where I First Fell in Love with Teamwork (Part 5 – The Fab Five)

Mergers and acquisitions don’t work. Statistics show that between 70 and 90% of them are categorized as failures. This seemed to be the case when a massive merger brought together a veteran squad of players and five young, highly touted men to the University of Michigan in the 1991-92 season, until they figured it out.

Long before Kentucky made a surprising run in this years’ NCAA Tournament where their group of Freshman led them to an almost National Championship, a group of Five, the Fab Five, fought even greater odds to fall short, just short (well they made it to the title game but were blown out by 20 points, so call it what you want). This was one of the most amazing seasons for any team as chemistry, leadership, and style of play were part of an ongoing battle for which identity would shape the team – from the moment the five youngsters made it to campus.

the fab five

While I wish I could tell the whole story, there is no point of trying to hit more than a few high points, if you don’t know the story or were too young read Mitch Albom’s The Fab Five (not only is the greatest chronicle of the team, it is one of the greatest basketball books in history – in my opinion). The story of recruitment, practice, transitions, and coaching are amazing. An overly confident, highly skilled group of players met with resistance and won (mostly).

Given that this is a blog about teamwork, I want to point to some things that I learned from The Fab Five:

Find people who believe in the mission.

It was Jalen Rose that made this team happen. Really it was. Once the Detroit native had committed he did everything in his power (no money jokes here MSU fans) to bring together the rest of the class. Growing up in Detroit, the son of a famous basketball player (though he didn’t really know his father till later in life), Rose loved Michigan. His friend and Detroit rival, Webber was stuck between Michigan and Duke. Howard, a Chicago native was a big catch, as were Texans Ray Jackson and Jimmy King. He was a recruiter and champion for the Michigan brand (and still is).

Rose bought in to the possibility that they could do something amazing. While most people look at Webber as the leader of that team, it is without a doubt Rose that set the tone for the swagger, confidence, and “us against the world” mantra that made the Fab Five what it was. He believed that it could happen and frankly he helped make it happen (well, almost).

Conflict can be tough at first, but often it can bring about a positive outcome.

If you read the story of what happened when the five freshmen first got on campus for basketball practice, you will understand this one. The 1988-89 team riding the wave of interim coach Steve Fisher, pulled off a major coup by winning the National Championship behind star performers Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, and Terry Mills. In 1989 most of the team returned except Rice. By the 1990-91 season all of the stars of that magic year were gone and a batch of players who had grown up under them underperformed and fell to a sub-.500 record. Even though they had solid players like Eric Riley, Michael Talley, Rob Pelinka, and James Voskuil who had all played big roles in earlier teams, the Fab Five came in with expectations for themselves to make their own mark on Michigan basketball.

Albom chronicles how the youngsters challenged the older players to a scrimmage early in the season, but the coaching staff was hesitant. Talley, Riley, Pelinka, and Voskuil could have (and all did at varying points in the season) started. But the brash youngsters pushed them hard and thus the team experienced a great deal of conflict.

It wasn’t until later in the season that it became apparent that the freshmen were all ready. Webber started every game, Rose started 33 of 34, Howard 31 of 34, King 21 of 34, and Jackson 15 of 34. When the momentum had swung to the younger guys the team truly gelled and began rolling. As they went 11-4 with the Fab Five starting together, the team began to embrace each other (even the former starters) and recognize the potential they could have when they were all moving in the same direction.

Establishing a consistent identity is of extreme importance, even if getting there is hard.

Often times, when people write about identity, they make it seem easy, however anyone who has agonized through a branding process knows that this is a very challenging issue. The Michigan basketball team that year had three separate identities. First was the coaching staff’s idea of the team, second was the veteran players’ idea of the team, and finally the freshmen’s idea of the team.

Ultimately this team is best known for its baggy shorts, black socks, and cocky attitude. Yet it was a merging together of the three ideas of the team that made them successful. Players like Riley, Talley, Voskuil, and Pelinka after struggling initially (as described in the previous section) ultimately embraced their roles and the minutes they received and played major roles in minor opportunities during that first run to the NCAA Finals.

Success brings buy-in.

When you win, people get on board. When you lose dissension can easily creep up. Michigan had a tremendous amount of talent that year, but it is likely that the internal squabbles early in the season actually brought the team together to the point that they could succeed as the season went along. It is said that girls have to be friends to fight for one another, but guys have to fight one another to be friends – that was exactly the case with this team. As they battled each other early, then battled other teams, they began to recognize the value and they became a team.

By the time the 1992-93 team took the floor, there was no doubt that this team was going to be good! Through the battles of the previous year, and the successes they found in them, all the players began buying in, not just to the Fab Five, but more importantly to the image of team that Coach Fisher was preaching. All total during the 3 years that at least 4 of the 5 guys were on campus, the won a total of 80 games and brought about a change in the way that Michigan was thought of in regards to basketball (sadly the Ed Martin scandal also tarnished that image leading to a long string of sub-par records before the recent uptick under John Beilein).

Maturity is important, even when the immature are the star performers.

The Fab Five were brash, overconfident, and really good. But it was the upper classmen who helped settle them down and give them perspective. Many times when individuals come into an organization as hotshots, they have never experienced failure. It often takes someone older and more mature to put failure in perspective. That is exactly what occurred as the older guys who had experienced both the great year of 1989-90 and the very poor season of 1990-91 were able to do.

They may no longer have been the stars, but they understood that they were being called on as mature mentors to help guide the process. This is an important and often undesirable position for people who have themselves enjoyed the spotlight. Rather than passing on the torch and helping to bring about a new era of success, they often balk at the chance and keep their learning to themselves. Talley, Riley, Pelinka, and Voskuil taught some great lessons during that time, cementing themselves as part of two of the most amazing seasons in Michigan basketball history. (Side note, Talley is now a teacher and coach, Pelinka is one of the top agents in the NBA, and both Voskuil and Riley had solid careers overseas).

So many other stories that could be shared, but these lessons are of tremendous value!

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?