By Ken Reed
From a spiritual perspective, I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful to watch in sports than a team seamlessly working together as a group.
I once saw it described as a “commitment to the Oneness.” I like that.
Helping a teammate — and in doing so, helping yourself and the team as a whole — is communitarianism at its best. It’s a collective commitment to the common good.
There’s a reason that former athletes almost universally cherish their team accomplishments more than any individual achievements they might have had during their careers.
They miss the connection of being part of something bigger than themselves. This collective commitment to the whole creates a powerful bond, whether the ultimate team goal is achieved or not.
“The best teams have chemistry,” said New York Knicks legend Dave DeBusschere, who played on two NBA championship teams with the Knicks. “They communicate with each other and they sacrifice personal glory for the common goal.”
Basketball might be the best example of balancing individual freedom and the responsibility of helping the group. As a player, sometimes the best thing you can do for the team is to use your individual one-on-one skills to score a basket. At other times, passing to an open player, or helping a teammate on defense, are the most important contributions you can make toward the common good.
Given that balance, it makes sense that basketball was invented in America, at a little YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. American society, like a basketball team, works best when individual freedom and the common good are effectively balanced.
“What are the American ideals?” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once asked. “They are the development of the individual for his own and the common good; the development of the individual through liberty; and the attainment of the common good through democracy and social justice.”
But basketball isn’t the only sport in which teamwork is critical, nor is its importance restricted to team sports played in the United States. Virtually all championship teams, from whatever country, exhibit a “commitment to the Oneness,” even if the personalities involved don’t always get along. For example, the Oakland A’s of the early 1970’s are remembered as much for the fighting amongst themselves as their three straight World Series championships. However, on the field they were a well-oiled, integrated unit because they knew that’s how they could achieve their goal.
Certainly, any team wants individual players to improve and play well, but the common good of the team has to take precedence if the ultimate goal, a championship, is to be achieved. This usually requires individual stars to make personal sacrifices in terms of statistics in order for the team to perform best as a unit.
However, the individual still benefits by the team’s success and is rewarded in multiple ways. Back to DeBusschere and his 1970 Knicks teammates Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier. All were good players but none of them were considered the best individual players at their positions in the NBA. Yet, they all benefitted (economically and otherwise) as members of a cohesive championship team in ways they wouldn’t have as superstars on losing teams. Nearly 50 years later, every living player from that team is still treated as a hero in New York.
“Helping someone be the best they can be helps yourself,” says Bradley, who became a United States Senator following his playing days with the Knicks. He said the lessons he learned with the Knicks – the importance of teamwork and giving up some individualism for the common good – informed his public service efforts.
Here’s the cool thing: People respond positively to selflessness. They begin to act more selflessly themselves. The common good becomes more important to them. That’s why when the best player on a team is also the most unselfish player on a team, the chances of success for that team increase significantly.
It’s the Golden Rule at its best.
Selfishness and out-of-control egos destroy more teams with the potential to be great than anything else, including injuries.
On the other hand, teams that are truly “committed to the Oneness” are a rarity. But when they come together great things can happen. The recently crowned World Champions, the Boston Red Sox, are an example.
After the Red Sox dominated the MLB playoffs and won the World Series, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey raved about how the team’s players put aside their egos and committed to a team-first mentality.
“This is an awesome team,” Healey said. “It’s all about teamwork, resilience and grit. This championship is about teamwork. That’s what we need in this world.”
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
A League of Fans Special Report