What MJ Had That LeBron Does Not

Killer instinct.

Enter Bill Simmons:

Jordan was a ruthless motherfucker. Jordan was a killer. Jordan didn't care if his teammates despised him. Jordan never, ever, not in a million years, would have allowed his team to quit in the final two minutes of Thursday night's game the way LeBron did. His teammates feared him, loathed him, revered him and played accordingly. Bird had that same quality. In the second half of his career, so did Magic. Winning meant so much to those guys that their teammates almost didn't have a choice; they had to follow suit. Or else.

Partly, LeBron has never had a good coach.

To illustrate what he could have, Simmons relays this story of Pat Riley, coach of the Miami Heat, who in Game 6 of the 2006 NBA Finals, at halftime threw away the playbook and the X's and O's and took a different tack:

He screamed at his guys like a boxing trainer. You're tougher than them! YOU'RE TOUGHER THAN THEM! Don't let up! They are ready to quit! They are ready to fold! Keep attacking them! Keep getting to the rim! Keep knocking their asses down! No layups! No dunks! Stay together! YOU ARE TOUGHER THAN THEM! YOU ARE TOUGHER THAN THEM! That's what he did for the entire second half. Eventually, his players believed him.

Here's my post on the components of killer instinct. See Chris Yeh's comment about most great men and women of history being bastards. Here's Brad Feld's 45 second advice video to a portfolio company.


Some years ago I watched LeBron play as a high school athlete at the Adidas Big Time tournament in Las Vegas. The gym was full of NBA scouts and media. LeBron was playing for the Oakland Soldiers (he played on two AAU teams then — the Soldiers and his Cleveland club). After watching LeBron play no defense, score almost no points, and seem oddly detached from the game, I remember telling someone there that he would go down as "severely overrated."

It remains my greatest mis-assessment of talent ever.

Know Yourself: Principal or Lieutenant?

"Know yourself" includes knowing when you excel as a principal and when you excel as a lieutenant. Many entrepreneurs I know think of themselves as CEO material. Generic ambition points to the top. But not everyone is best suited for the top job all the time, even if they are sufficiently capable.

You are not either a principal or lieutenant. Teams and circumstances vary. Part of being a good team player is knowing your role within the team. Most of the time I find myself a principal / CEO, but there is at least one area where I excel and enjoy more a lieutenant role: basketball.

My sophomore year of high school and the spring league immediately thereafter was the peak of my basketball career. That year I started on the varsity team. I was a key contributor but a senior was the undisputed team leader. He was a talented player. Together, we worked well, and in a supporting role I consistently racked up 10-20 points a game. That spring I played in the Slam N Jam Development League in East Oakland. Our team consisted of a handful mid-major D1 college basketball prospects. I was probably the weakest on the team in terms of athleticism and skill, but I banged around down low, contributed 3-4 buckets each game, played good help defense, moved well without the ball, and helped communicate coach's instructions on-court. I was a solid role player on a thuggish team of athletic stars.

At most other points in my playing career I was the (or one of a couple) go-to guys. My final two years of high school ball I was a co-captain and more responsible for scoring and winning. Yet, I never felt I performed at my peak level, and our team results, despite one regional playoff birth, were mediocre. For example, I thrived offensively when I could get the ball well-positioned on the block for either a back-to-the-basket post move or a face-the-basket shot or spin. For this to work the guard with the rock needs to know how to pass and be well-spaced, the other post players need to be well-spaced, and everyone else needs to move to get open in the case of a double team. If all this happened and I had my shit together, I was effective. Otherwise, I wasn't good enough to make things happen on my own. On the defensive end, I was skilled at rotating and moving and orally coordinating a man-to-man help defense framework. This relies on the whole team moving in concert. But I was not capable of "shutting someone down" or playing intense in-your-face defense on their best player up and down the court. Finally, I didn't care enough about the sport to lead by example on the "killer instinct" front which is what "the guy" is supposed to do on a team.

By the way, this is just one example of a broader life lesson you can learn from playing sports….

Bottom Line: "Know yourself" includes knowing when you excel as a principal and when you excel as a lieutenant. Teams are most effective when each player knows his role.

(thanks to Andy McKenzie for his feedback)

The Perils of Youthful Fame (Tiger Woods Edition)

Bill Simmons on Tiger Woods and the effects of fame during one's formative years:

Did we underestimate the effects of fame in his formative years on Tiger? Become famous at an early age and invariably you "mature" into someone who can't remember anything other than being famous. Most (if not all) of your interactions are with people who are impressed by you or want something from you. You don't have to win anyone over. You don't have to work on being a better person, or funnier, or nicer, or anything. You don't want to make new friends because you can't tell if any prospective friends want to be friends because you're who you are, so you end up gravitating toward other famous people, most of whom are just as messed up as you. You can get away with almost any indiscretion and be forgiven. Your only responsibility is to stay yourself, but you became this twisted, self-aware version of you without even knowing it. And that's when the trouble starts.

Right. One problem with youthful fame in general is that it makes you risk averse at a time in life when you are supposed to be taking risks. Child stars who stumble in adulthood may do so because they did not acquire life lessons usually obtained in conventional youth, when the cost of failure is low and thus benefits of experimentation (of all sorts) are high.


Robin Hanson once asked Tyler Cowen whether increased influence and fame through his blog has made him less interesting and weird. Robin thinks it has. Here's Clive Thompson's piece in Wired about the Age of the Micro-Celebrity: fame dynamics are at work even on a very small scale.

Reasons to Follow Sports (and Bill Simmons)

Over the last ten years my interest in sports has shifted away from closely following teams and players and towards:

1) maintaining cultural literacy and facilitating social bonding by understanding the basics of the most popular sports and the most important facts associated with them (e.g. who Lebron James is or which teams are in the NFL Superbowl).

2) following how sports generally affects culture and the economy. What's the economic impact on a country when its team wins the World Cup?

3) using the rich examples in sports to learn about widely-relevant ideas.

#3 is most important to me. For example, I'd rather read about how Baron Davis manages side projects than follow the Warriors' specific wins and loses. Other examples:

  • One way to think about the general idea of whether you'd want to be universally loved or loved and hated to a greater degree is to compare Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
  • One way to think about the general idea of how superstar contributors affect group dynamics is by pondering Barry Bonds' impact on the Giants.
  • You can discover the power of framing by reading about the non-differences between dog fighting and the NFL.

General ideas found in sports are served up regularly by some excellent sports journalists whose writing you can admire even if you can't keep up with all the details. Frank Deford has interesting things to say on NPR. Gregg Easterbrook mixes smart commentary on sports with nuggets on economics and finance. Even if Rick Reilly is past his prime, he's wise and still finds inspirational stories.

But the most famous sports writer of today is Bill Simmons, who writes for ESPN.com. Here's a quick take on Bill Simmons' new book with this interesting nugget:

Mr. Simmons may be the first sports writer to see the games purely from the view of the fan — and a very modern, unsentimental fan at that. As Mr. Simmons sees it, his job is not to get into the heads of the players, but into the heads of his readers.

Tyler Cowen says, "Bill James and Bill Simmons are two of the greatest living social scientists. Seriously."

Bottom Line: Even if you're not a hard core sports fan there are still good general lessons to be taken from the sports world and excellent writers, such as Bill Simmons, who can deliver them to us.


If you want to experience the fascinating and under-researched phenomenon of goosebumps caused by an emotional reaction and not cold weather, watch this clip of ESPN highlights from the past 100 years. One word: goosebumps.

Of the 30 Teams in the MLB, 12 of the Managers are Former Catchers

Matt Blumberg cites a Harvard Business Review article:

Of the 30 teams in Major League baseball, 12 of the managers are former catchers.  A normal distribution would be 2 or 3.  Sounds like a case of a Gladwellian Outlier, doesn't it?  The authors explain their theory here…that catchers face their teammates, that they are closest to the competition, that they have to keep track of a lot of things at once, be psychiatrists to flailing pitchers, etc.  Essentially that the kind of person who is a successful catcher has all the qualities of a successful manager.

Catchers in baseball, by virtue of their physical place on the field and job description, are uniquely positioned to build the skills that later make them good managers of teams.

Matt advises businesspeople to identify similar types of "training ground" positions within their own organization, and to rotate high potential folks through those positions to build a leadership pipeline.

Every Group Needs an Outcast

The always interesting Bill Simmons, in his recent ESPN.com column, rejects the usual line that superstars like A-Rod or Barry Bonds, while cancers in the clubhouse in one sense, are on the whole destructive to team unity. On the contrary, the "guy everyone hates" can be helpful in fostering team dynamics:

There are undeniable positives to having one antisocial wild card in any close-knit environment. You know that one grating guy in your dorm hall or in your office? Don't you like bitching about him? You lob grenades at him as soon as he leaves the room. He's your running joke, an easy target. But he's also a galvanizing force, one of the few things that bring everyone else together: a mutual contempt for one human being that won't go away. You're stuck with him, so you make the best of it — by belittling him.

It's a common bond of sorts. Even as you believe he's tearing your group apart, he's bringing it closer and distracting anyone from turning on someone else. He's your mean decoy, your Paula Abdul, your Newman. He's your necessary evil.

As Simmons notes, baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one, so this theory plays better in the field than on a basketball court for example. But I do think there's something worthwhile here — the benign role of group outcasts — that's applicable in other settings…

Universally Loved vs. Loved and Hated to a Greater Degree


Chris Yeh asks a very interesting question:

Sports Illustrated recently conducted a survey of 190 NBA players (the NBA has a total of 450 players) in which they were asked which current player they'd most want as a teammate, and which player they'd least want as a teammate.

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant tied for third in the race for least desirable teammate, behind Stephon Marbury (22%) and Ron Artest (9%), and tied with Stephen Jackson and Gilbert Arenas at 5%.

Kobe Bryant came in second in the race for most desirable teammate (13% selected him) behind only LeBron James (32%) and ahead of famously unselfish point guards Steve Nash (8%) and Chris Paul (7%) and super-teammate Kevin Garnett (7%).

He is the only player near the top of both lists.

Would you rather be universally loved, like Steve Nash? Or loved and hated to a greater degree, like Kobe Bryant?

If I were honest, probably universally loved. (Most people downplay how much being liked by others matters to them.)

Email of the Day, Youth Sports Edition

A girls soccer coach in Massachusetts was recently forced to resign after emailing the parents of his 7 and 8 year-old players that he expects them to "kick ass." Here's the entire email. Below is an excerpt. When you read "kids" remember it's 7 and 8 year old girls.

Some say soccer at this age is about fun and I completely agree. However, I believe winning is fun and losing is for losers. Ergo, we will strive for the “W” in each game. While we may not win every game (excuse me, I just got a little nauseated) I expect us to fight for every loose ball and play every shift as if it were the finals of the World Cup. While I spent a good Saturday morning listening to the legal liability BS, which included a 30 minute dissertation on how we need to baby the kids and especially the refs, I was disgusted. The kids will run, they will fall, get bumps, bruises and even bleed a little. Big deal, it’s good for them (but I do hope the other team is the one bleeding). If the refs can’t handle a little criticism, then they should turn in their whistle. The sooner they figure out how to make a decision and live with the consequences the better. My heckling of the refs is actually helping them develop as people. The political correctness police are not welcome on my sidelines. America’s youth is becoming fat, lazy and non-competitive because competition is viewed as “bad”. I argue that competition is good and is important to the evolution of our species and our survival in what has become an increasingly competitive global economy and dangerous world. Second place trophies are nothing to be proud of as they serve only as a reminder that you missed your goal; their only useful purpose is as an inspiration to do that next set of reps. Do you go to a job interview and not care about winning? Don’t animals eat what they kill (and yes, someone actually kills the meat we eat too – it isn’t grown in plastic wrap)? And speaking of meat, I expect that the ladies be put on a diet of fish, undercooked red meat and lots of veggies. No junk food. Protein shakes are encouraged, and while blood doping and HGH use is frowned upon, there is no testing policy. And at the risk of stating the obvious, blue slushies are for winners.

These are my views and not necessarily the views of the league (but they should be). I recognize that my school of thought may be an ideological shift from conventional norms. But it is imperative that we all fight the good fight, get involved now and resist the urge to become sweat-xedo-wearing yuppies who sit on the sidelines in their LL Bean chairs sipping mocha-latte-half-caf-chinos while discussing reality TV and home decorating with other feeble-minded folks. I want to hear cheering, I want to hear encouragement, I want to get the team pumped up at each and every game and know they are playing for something.

Lastly, we are all cognizant of the soft bigotry that expects women and especially little girls, to be dainty and submissive; I wholeheartedly reject such drivel. My overarching goal is develop ladies who are confident and fearless, who will stand up for their beliefs and challenge the status quo. Girls who will kick ass and take names on the field, off the field and throughout their lives. I want these girls to be winners in the game of life. Who’s with me?

Go Green Death!

(hat tip to Andy McKenzie for the pointer)

Infidelity and Trust: Boardroom vs. Basketball Court

In an earlier post I asked, Would you trust less a business partner who cheats on his/her spouse? Or do you completely separate personal and professional?

My answer is I would trust the person less in a business or corporate environment, but would still trust enough to maintain a relationship.

Here’s a question for people like myself, people who do not strictly separate bedroom character from boardroom character:

Suppose that you were on an NBA team and you knew one of your teammates was cheating on his wife. Would you trust him less on the court? Trust is vitally important in basketball, just as it is important in business.

My answer to this new scenario is no, I would not trust my point guard (who’s cheating on his wife) any less on the court.

Why do I answer the questions differently? Is the trust required on the basketball court different than the trust required in most other professional settings? Is it that not trusting a teammate on the court would result in failure easily observed by coaches and fans, whereas trusting a colleague a bit less in the office is not easily known by others? Or do I just hold two contradictory views?

For those who said you would trust your business partner less if you knew he or she were being unfaithful in the bedroom, what say you to the NBA teammate scenario?

(thanks to Tyler Cowen for raising these questions.)

Being Behind by a Little Yields the Greatest Possible Effort

NCAA basketball teams that are behind by one point at halftime are more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead.

That's the fascinating finding of two professors who studied more than 6,000 games. The results are the same even when taking into account homecourt advantage, the team winning percentages and which team got the ball to start the second half.

So what may be driving this pattern? The reason is motivation. Being behind by a little leads to victory because it increases effort. Not only do teams down by a point at the break score more than their opponents in the second half, they do so in a particular way. They come out of the locker room fired up and make up for most of the point deficit in the first few minutes of the second half.

Let your imagination run wild in terms of how this could be applied in the world of business and leadership.

As the authors of the study say, "Companies competing to win contracts or research prizes would be wise to focus employees on ways their competitors are a little ahead. Similarly, strategically taking breaks…when one is slightly behind should increase effort."