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.

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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 4)

It was the early 90s and Emilio Estevez was gracing the big screen as Gordon Bombay, the redeemed lawyer turned pewee hockey coach. Hockey was coming in to the collective conscience of the average American for the first time since the 1984 Miracle on Ice. The NHL was packed with stars like Gretzky, Lemieux (the good one, not Claude – the despised one), Messier, LaFontaine, Hull (Brett of course, not Bobby), Roenick, Jagr, Bure, Mogilny, Borque, Sakic, Oates, Robataille, Coffey, Belfour, Roy, Brind’Amour, and many others.

A generation of young hockey fans were being turned on to the sport that had long been housed only in the ice rinks of cold cities of the North and Europe with the emergence of the in-line skate as a recreational endeavor. During that same time span, the Detroit Red Wings were beginning their streak of making playoffs (1990-1991 season) that is the longest such active streak in sports.

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In the late 1980s, “Stevie Wonder” or “Stevie Y” had already emerged as a scoring sensation, but the team found itself quickly bounced from the playoffs and then alternating years in, and out of the playoffs (28 of 30 seasons in the playoffs, yep that is why they are widely considered to be one of the top organizations in all of professional sports), before Jaque Demers was canned and Bryan Murray was brought in with the expectation he would right the ship.

The organization took a major step forward heading into the 1991-92 hockey season as they added the tough, scoring winger Ray Sheppard to the already potent roster that included Sergei Federov (who prior to coming to the NHL played on a line for CSKA Moscow with Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure – amazing!), Shawn Burr, Vlad Konstantinov, and three young players Keith Primeau, Slava Kozlov, and Nik Lidstrom that would go on to have great careers. That year a young Tim Cheveldae minded the net with the team winning the Norris Division and having the 2nd best record in the NHL.

While the Mighty Ducks movie franchise was the inspiration for young players to get out and play street hockey, it was the teams of the time that sustained this interest. The top of the leagues were full of amazing combos, I remember watching with amazement at the way that Jagr and Lemieux confused defenders and crushed goalies, how Robitaille, Kurri, and Gretzky made up one of the most prolific scoring lines in NHL history, how Roenick and Chelios somehow made the Defenseman and Center combo work so well, and Messier, Leetch, and Gardner flooded the stats sheets. But it wasn’t these lineups that inspired me (well ok I did want to be like Jagr and Lemieux), it was Yzerman, Ysaebart, and Sheppard, that got me hooked.

Over the next few years as the Wings would gain steam, their team became a who’s-who of the NHL. In 1993 the ineffable Scotty Bowman (was that a bit too much, not when you think about what he started) manned the bench as the Red Wings looked to be on an upward trajectory. By 1992, Paul Coffey the amazing Defenseman from Pittsburgh had joined the mix, as well as the veteran grinder Dino Ciccarelli (who would serve as the hero for every kid who couldn’t skate well but clogged up the area right in front of the crease). In 1993 a young kid named Darren McCarty would break through the ranks, alongside the newly signed Kris Draper.

In 1994 things would really ramp up. That year, during a lockout shortened season, Mighty Ducks 2 was released and the Red Wings made the Stanley Cup Finals only to be swept by the NJ Devils in what would turn into a major rivalry for the next few years. The following year, the Russian Five (or the Red Army as they were sometimes called) would grace the ice together for the first time (Federov, Larinov, and Kozlov as the scorers with Fetisov and Konstantinov manning the blue line). This team would win the President’s Trophy but fall short of the ultimate goal by losing in the Conference Finals.

It was the 1996-97 season and the early seasons acquisition of Brendan Shanahan that finally turned Detroit into Hockeytown. From top to bottom this team was amazing. Stevie Y, the Russian Five, Shanahan, a resurgent Mike Vernon, old faithful Larry Murphy (another former Penguin defenseman), Lapointe, Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Sandstrom and others brought about a great mix of toughness and scoring that propelled the Wings to their first of back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.

While I could go on forever about the masterful work done by Ken Holland (GM since the 1997 season and Assistant GM prior to that), focusing how he has been able to maintain excellence in the organization through two lockouts, the implementation of the salary cap, the retirement of star Captains, and the change of many of hockey’s rules; the key thing that sticks out is the way that they as an organization have been able to create identification with the people of Michigan.

A largely foreign-born, Caucasian group of players have held the interest of Detroit fans for over two decades. They have been recognized by various groups as the most professional organization, most fan friendly, best managed, and best scouting of any team in the NHL and even professional sports. The legend continues today as the Red Wings made the playoffs while playing much of the season without a smattering of their current stars including Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Daniel Cleary, and Daniel Alfredsson.

The organization has been amazing in understanding its identity and creating a collective identity, all the while they have gone from being a Canadian heavy team, to a Russian heavy team, to a Swedish heavy team and on down the line. They have won with Demers, Murray, Bowman, Dave Lewis, and Mike Babcock as coach. They have 4 Stanley Cups championships, during the present 23 year streak, they have also won the President’s Trophy six times, and a division championship 13 times.

Stong leadership and vision at the top make the Red Wings a model organization for examination if you seek to establish a strong company culture, with continuity, and a shared identity. From the longtime owner, Mike Illitch, through the GM Ken Holland, and down to the various coaches and players that have shaped the image of the Wings for the last two-plus decades, the Wings are prime example of how a strong culture creates winners, and winning helps maintain a strong culture.

What other organizations in sports have been good models for our examination of leadership, teamwork, and culture?  

Sports: Where I First Fell in Love with Teamwork (Part 3)

Thirteen years ago, still reeling from the departure of the “next Michael Jordan” (honestly weren’t there about 6 or so of Air Apparents?) the Pistons made a bold move to go back to the red, white, and blue branding that had been so central to their back to back championships. With the former Finals MVP as the architect, the Pistons began a transformation project that early on look more like a reclamation effort than a restoration effort. They turned the reigns of the team over to former Boston player, who had most recently been an assistant with the Indiana Pacers.

This hire, along with the introduction of new Pistons, Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace, brought about a change in identity to the Pistons. After seeing the Bad Boys era wane, the Pistons had embraced the MJ era of the NBA by trying to win with a team built around finesse and scoring. They had also recognized the value of rebranding and embraced a totally new look that fit with the wild color schemes of this era. Both decisions proved to lead to mediocre results.

In 2002, after a their first 50-win season since 1997, the Pistons brought in Chauncey Billups, traded their star Jerry Stackhouse for Rip Hamilton, and drafted a skinny kid from the University of Kentucky named Tayshaun Prince and an unknown Turkish Forward named Mehmet Okur. These moves bolstered a roster that also included veteran players with smarts and toughness like Clifford Robinson, Jon Barry, and Corliss Williamson.

Following another Central Division championship, but a tough playoff sweep to the NJ Nets in their first conference finals since the Bad Boys era, Dumars (now both President of Basketball Operations and GM) fired Carlisle and brought in the mercurial, but successful Larry Brown. As this team came together in 2004 the team boasted the same core, but also had added more fierce defenders in Darvin Ham, Mike James, Elden Cambell, and the newly returned Lindsey Hunter. The culture and attitude of the organization appeared set.

The season progressed with the Pistons inevitably coasting to what they hoped would be another 50+ win season, when on the NBA’s trade deadline, Dumars swung a deal to get Rasheed Wallace (who had just been traded earlier that week to the Atlanta Hawks). This deal created such a strong shock to the system that the Pistons went on a 20-4 run to finish the regular season. The era of Goin’ to Work had begun!  

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This Pistons squad would go on to win the 2004 NBA Championship, would lose in the 2005 NBA Finals, and in total would make the Eastern Conference Finals 7 straight years before eventually bottoming out. This rebirth of championship basketball in the D was built on an understanding of culture, fit, and teamwork.

When you examine the players that participated on this run, they largely bring with them a chip on their shoulder and a strong commitment to defense, instilled by the coaching of Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown. While most teams were trying to figure out how to bring together as many stars as possible, a la the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Pistons brought together castoffs who understood how to play a role and commit to being good teammates. They passed well, rebounded well, and certainly defended well, all while being tough and truly having great chemistry.

I remember living in the Suburban Detroit area during this time (where most of the Pistons players actually lived), it was not uncommon to see members of the starting five out together on the weekend hanging out, playing with their vehicles or going to their kids events. These guys truly enjoyed one another.

This group of players was one of the most enjoyable and frustrating groups I ever had the chance to witness. For all of their early buy in to culture and team, a few of these same players would ultimately bring about dissension, backbiting, and hostility that ended championship basketball in Detroit. For those that work in organizations, it is important to recognize that thinking a strong culture will lead an organization on its own is absolutely false. Culture is simply the outgrowth of leadership and teamwork. When these two areas lack, the wrong lessons and narratives will be cemented and things will inevitably fall apart.

The exciting, enjoyable, yet sad story of the Detroit Pistons (and I said it all without dealing with the pain that is Darko)!

Your help is needed!

While the name on the site is teamworkdoc, this site is really more about us than it is about me. Every day when I sit down to write, I think about what can truly bring impact to your life. While the process of writing is a positive way for me to get the research, books, blogs, conferences, and presentations to codify into a clear line of thinking, ultimately the only reason for this site is the desire to engage people in an ongoing pursuit of excellence.

So, after almost ten days in on the fun, I want to flip the script a bit. Rather than me pretending to be the sage with all of the great thoughts, I thought it would be beneficial as we chart the course, to ask you some questions (please answer in the space below).

Questions:Question_mark_(black_on_white)

1)      Of the blogs that you read, what type of content generally brings the most benefit to you?

2)      Do you prefer just the written word, or a combination of type, video, and images?

3)      Have you ever offered to be a guest blogger for a site? Would that interest you here?

4)      How much time are you willing to set aside when you read a blog?

5)      What one topic do you most want to see addressed here on teamworkdoc?

 

Thanks! I hope to stir up some discussion and co-create a space that challenges each one us as we move forward in our journey!

TG

Welcome to the Site

It has been a long time coming. Too many times we talk about doing something – but then continue to do nothing about it. To borrow the subtitle from Jon Acuff’s work, I have decided to “Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average and Do Work That Matters”. So this is the space in which that magic is going to happen.

I have a few posts in the works and will be posting regularly on leadership, innovation, teamwork, and other bits of culture as they stimulate my interest.

Thanks for joining me on the journey!

TG