Networks and Pickup Basketball

When I read about or listen to others talking about networks, I often find the examples people cite to be too narrow. They’re either Internet-mediated networks (which are interesting) or organizational networks (which are not). I wish that more people would consider things that look like the intersection of the two — networks that look similar to the Internet, but are not primarily mediated by the Internet.

One of my favorite examples of this also happens to be one of my passions: pickup basketball — casual, just-for-fun (but sometimes highly competitive) games that anyone can start or join. Not all games are open, but most of them are. You can find a pickup game pretty much anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that the rules and norms — mostly unwritten — are almost identical, with some common variations. Half court or full? Ones-and-twos or twos-and-threes? Winner takes ball? Win, you’re in?

Still, each game is made up of different people, and as such, has its own culture and practices. Some games are unapologetically meritocratic — as long as you win, you stay on the court. Other games are more inclusive — if you win two games in a row, you sit and let others play. In my game, we stop play when someone falls. There was never any up-front agreement about this. Someone started doing it in the early days, and it was highly appreciated by the older players (i.e. me).

I’ve had many regular pickup games over the years, some of which I’ve started, some of which I’ve joined. In some cases, I accidentally stumbled upon them and just kept showing up. In other cases, people would add me to their mailing lists or online forums.

One of my favorite organizing models was a game a colleague invited me to join in Menlo Park in the early 2000s. We generally played on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. Someone had set up a mailing list, and on the morning of, someone — it could be anyone — would send an email to the list with the number, “1.” That meant they wanted to play. If you were up for joining, you would respond to the list and increment the number. In other words, the next person would respond, “2,” the next would respond, “3,” and so forth. If you hit, “4,” you had enough to play, and the game would officially be on.

I currently play every Sunday morning at Julius Kahn Park in San Francisco, a hidden gem with views of the Bay and the Presidio. We’ve been playing every Sunday for four years. Originally, a few friends and I invited others to come play. After a few sessions, someone started a Facebook group and invited more people that way. Initially, he would set up an event every week. One weekend, he was heading out-of-town. He didn’t tell anyone, but I noticed that he hadn’t set up the event as usual, so I decided to do it. For a while, I kept doing it. Then, I needed to head out-of-town. Sure enough, someone else stepped up and set up the event without anyone asking.

We also have gotten a good number of folks who accidentally came upon the game and kept showing up. Some of them are on the Facebook group, but many are not, not because we’re trying to exclude anyone, but because it’s largely unnecessary at this point. We’re consistent enough that if you show up, we’ll likely be there.

How is pickup basketball like the Internet?

First, there’s some basic infrastructure — a hard surface, a backboard, a basket, and a ball.

Second, there are protocols. Some of them are formal and unshakeable. For example, on the Internet, there’s the Internet Protocol, the base-level protocol that everything on the Internet uses. With pickup basketball, there are the basic rules of basketball — between 1-5 people per team, dribble with one hand only, once you stop, you have to pass or shoot, whichever team scores more wins, etc.

Some of them are informal and loosely enforced, such as the aforementioned pickup basketball variations. Most of the protocols on the Internet began as RFC’s (Request for Comments) — informal technical specs and design documents. Many — such as HTTP, the basis for the World Wide Web — were widely adopted before ever becoming officially standardized.

Third, they’re both decentralized and open, which leaves a lot of room for experimentation and different kinds of leadership (both good and bad). I’ve already mentioned the different cultures and kinds of organizing you’ll find at different pickup games. Another important form of leadership worth noting is the role the NBA plays. It can’t directly dictate what happens on the thousands of basketball courts around the world. However, its athletes and teams have been very intentional in investing in infrastructure — building and maintaining courts, for example — and for acting as ambassadors. The league as a whole has created many channels via media (both old and new) and on-the-ground work to create more exposure for the game all across the world. That ultimately enables the NBA to do what it does best — inspire people all over the world to watch and play the game.

The NBA doesn’t hold meetings for “representatives” of the pickup game network to try to align around a shared vision or to discuss pickup game governance. It doesn’t do social network analysis to try to demonstrate impact. It articulates its own vision of the game by stewarding and showcasing the best players in the world, it invests in infrastructure so that more people can play, and it invests in visibility so that more people are inspired to play.

Folks who are attempting to professionalize networks could learn a whole lot from pickup basketball.

“If—”, by Rudyard Kipling

In his excellent book, Coach Wooden and Me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mentions one of John Wooden’s favorite poems, “If—,” by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Wooden recites the second stanza of the poem to Kareem, then explains:

“The lines I’m referring to, Lewis, are that Triumph and Disaster are the same. They’re both impostors because they are momentary. More important is becoming a man of convictions. Lasting joy comes from that.”

—p90

Sidenote: Wooden, Kareem, and a whole slew of legendary NBA centers filmed a series of commercials for Reebok in 1993, featuring then-rookie Shaquille O’Neal. In one of those commercials, they recite the poem to Shaq. I couldn’t find the one with Kareem on YouTube, but I did find this version, which is nice because the person reciting the last line is Shaq’s father.

Relentlessly Doing Your Job

As painful as it is for me to write anything laudatory about the Boston Celtics, they are a very good, well-coached team. The common refrain, given that they’re missing their best two players, is that they have been performing above expectations. However, that may be unfair, as Zach Lowe’s article, “Brad Stevens and the Celtics have a special brand of toughness,” explains.

Brad Stevens, Boston’s brilliant coach, cited the following definition of “toughness”:

Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.

and added (emphasis mine):

If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way? If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?” That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.

Lowe remarks:

This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since [Kyrie] Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme.

Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.

[Danny] Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” [Al] Horford said, “they just won’t play.”

Kevin Durant makes a similar point in Baxter Holmes’s article about the Golden State Warriors, “When The Dubs Hit The Turbo Button”:

That’s what is tough about the NBA — to focus every possession. That’s hard as s— to do. It’s not the physical part. It’s not making 3s. It’s not how many sets can we run, how many dunks can we get. It’s about staying focused every play.

I’ve written before (in a non-sports context) about the importance of constant striving and execution (versus strategy) to high-performance. It’s a theme that seems to come up over and over and over again in sports as well.

Here are more gems from Lowe’s article on Brad Stevens’s leadership style and the culture he’s created in Boston.

On communication:

In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline. Stevens removed Larkin at the next stoppage. He didn’t play again until garbage time. “I learned right away,” Larkin said. “If you don’t get a 50-50 ball, you are coming out.”

Stevens didn’t upbraid Larkin. He approached him calmly and told Larkin why he had been taken out. In evaluating players, both during games and in film sessions, Stevens is careful with language, according to coaches, players and team higher-ups. He focuses on actions: We didn’t get this rebound. You should have made this rotation earlier. The criticism is never about the player’s character. No one is labeled lazy or stupid or selfish. Stevens simply describes what did or did not happen, and what should happen next time.

That has gone a long way in securing buy-in, players say. They feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them — and himself — to almost impossible standards. That is a hard balance to strike. It is not a show, either.

On accountability:

After losses, Stevens often approaches Ainge and apologizes for “blowing it,” Ainge said. “He is always saying that,” Ainge said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like listening to players blame themselves. He’s like a player. He never whines about the players, just himself.”

Even private kvetching about players among coaches and front-office staff can undo a team. Rumors start. Factions develop. That hasn’t happened in Boston.

On culture:

There are no bells and whistles to Boston’s culture. They don’t regularly host famous guest speakers or take field trips. They’ll organize occasional team dinners, but there are no ritualistic, hours-long nights of wine, food and storytelling. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created an environment of serious, hard, consistent work.

Stevens essentially has banned rookie hazing. He wants rookies to take as much ownership of the team as the stars — and to voice their opinions. (This is the same reason Stevens declines to name captains.) Pranks waste time. He was not thrilled last season when culprits unknown filled Brown’s car with popcorn. “Oh, Brad was not happy,” Brown said. “He had my back.”

“I’m kinda glad,” Tatum said of the hazing restrictions. “I don’t want popcorn in my car. I would flip.”

Lessons from Sports #738: Alignment and Long-Term Planning

Balancing short- and long-term strategic planning is hard largely because they often conflict. A great example of this is when the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005. It was a shocking choice, because the Packers already had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre, and they had short-term needs at other positions. Furthermore, Rodgers was far from a sure thing. The Packers were sacrificing their immediate effectiveness for a potential Favre replacement 3-5 years in the future.

In sports, part of how you enforce the discipline of balancing the short- and long-term is by separating the roles of coach (short-term) and general manager (long-term). Andrew Brandt, the Packers former vice president of player finance, described how this dynamic played out when choosing to draft Rodgers:

We get to 24 and we got one name staring at us, and it’s Aaron Rodgers. We know we have the most durable quarterback in football [Favre], so I can just sense [in] the room to my right were the coaching rumblings where you could just sense they’re like “Oh my God, are we really going to do this? We’re going to take a player that can’t help us this year, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, maybe never.” There was some rumbling. And I sense what was going on to my left side, which is more management oriented, and it was the same thing they always say, which is trust the board. We put in all our scouting, we’re going to take the best player available. And obviously management won out over coaching. It was one of those ultimate best-player-available decisions. But you look at the Green Bay Packers that year, that’s the last thing you would think that we’d pick.

It turned out to be the right choice. Rodgers replaced Favre three years later (while Favre was still good), has been two Super Bowls (winning one), and is almost surely a future Hall of Famer.

What would it look like if more organizations (especially smaller ones) had separate roles responsible for short- versus long-term planning?

(The article above is also an excellent case study on the imperfect science of decision-making.)

In other sports news, the historically great Golden State Warriors eliminated the Portland Trailblazers from the NBA playoffs, 4-0. Afterward, the Blazers star point guard, Damian Lillard (who had an outstanding series), commented on how “together” and “on the same wavelength” the Warriors play.

It’s extraordinary commentary coming from a great basketball player on a very good team. At this level, every team invests heavily on getting everybody on the same page, and all good teams achieve that. But there are clearly different levels of alignment, and when you reach higher levels, you play at higher levels. I think it speaks powerfully to the importance of alignment, which most organizations in other fields do not value as highly as professional sports teams.

(As an aside, my friend, Pete Forsyth, wrote a great article about Lillard, free licenses, and Wikipedia in 2014. I recently helped make Pete famous in the Oregon sports world this past week when the above, Creative Commons-licensed photo I took of him sporting his Lillard jersey at a Warriors game appeared in this Willamette Week article this past Monday.)