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The ball went in!!!

Basketball in Net

Since we are in the midst of March Madness, it made sense to have a basketball story as part of this week’s Monday Huddle Up. We will, of course, try to tie the message back to the industry and the organizations we all lead. So here we go…..

Back in the mid-90s, before the sports tourism industry took off and brought me with it, I was coaching basketball at Pima Community College in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. I was an assistant coach there for three years and we had some good success over that time. My boss, Head Coach Mike Lopez, was one of the best bench coaches I’ve ever seen at any level. You could give him five guys off the street and he would find a way to make a game competitive. “Lopez” as most people call him, was also one of the best motivators in the business.

One night during a home contest, Lopez took one of our starters out of the game late in the first half for a bad defensive mistake. We were a team that depended on everyone doing their jobs individually to make our team concepts lead to wins. One person fails, the whole system breaks down. So when the player in question sat down on the bench, Coach kneeled down facing him to talk about what had just happened that resulted in the opponent’s scoring a basket. Key note here, Coach Lopez was facing the player, not the court. That is when this story takes an interesting turn.

As play resumed, and Lopez was still talking to our player on the bench, one of our players drives to the basket, gets fouled, and scores the bucket. It should have been a traditional “and one” play where we get two points and an additional free throw chance. An old fashioned three-point-play. When the official came to the scorer’s table to report the foul, he said, “Foul on 23, two shots.” This meant the official either didn’t see the shot go in, or he was calling the foul before the shot, in which case, we shouldn’t be shooting foul shots at all in this case.

Pima’s gymnasium is a small one and while we had a good following back then, any one fan could say something that everyone, including the officials, could hear. A group of our supporters started shouting, “The ball went in! The ball went in!” At that time, with Coach Lopez still taking to our player and with his back to the court, I leaned over to him and said, “Coach, the ball went in.”

Lopez, having not even seen the play in question, jumped to his feet, spun around, threw his arms in the air, and started yelling to the officials, “The ball went in! The ball went in!” The officials gathered to talk about what they each saw, then came back to the scorer’s table and said, “The ball did NOT go in, two shots.” Needless to say the fans and our players went nuts. Lopez turned to me and asked, “The ball went in right?” I said, “Absolutely.”

What transpired at halftime I can share with you at another time, but let’s say it was colorful. In the end, we won and whether or not the shot counted was moot.

So tying this back to our industry and to leadership, why was Lopez successful in galvanizing those teams when junior college basketball is often a challenging space to do so? I’ll give you three takeaways…..

  • Mike was unconditionally loyal to his players and those within the program (me included). When I said the ball went in, he didn’t question it at all and defended my position in the matter even though he didn’t see the play.

  • Our players always knew Lopez had their back. By defending them in this instance, he further solidified their buy-in.

  • If you take points one and two above, and apply them to how you support your tribe (be they work teams, your family, your organization), what do you think their response will be when the chips are down? Will they follow you as a leader or check out? Hint, it’s the former of those two options, not the latter.

Be loyal to your team (build trust). Support them even when you don’t know what is going on (if the ball went in or not). Use these traits to build your relationships so when things go sideways, they know you are in it with them. They will return the favor.

I wouldn’t trade those three years at Pima College for anything. Several of the lessons I learned there back then I still lean on today. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to take that ride with you Coach.

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