That sudden revelation occurred to me after watching the formerly hapless New York Knicks drub the best team in basketball, the Chicago Bulls, at Madison Square Garden. A key management change made all the difference.
A week or so before replacing the coach of the last 59 games, Don Nelson, the Knicks were in turmoil. Coach Nelson was publicly feuding with one of his best players, John Starks. The New York papers had a field day. "The Knicks are lucky to win two straight games over .500," wrote Peter Vecsey in the Post. "Why? Because almost everyone-certainly not just Starks-would rather complain about Nelson's play-calling and convoluted combinations than sacrifice shots, status or minutes."
The new head coach, 34-year-old former assistant Jeff Van Gundy, is now the toast of Manhattan. He restored the team's intensity and confidence by getting back to fundamentals-preparation, hard work, selfless play. "He's got us back to defense and rebounding and the little things in the effort area," said point guard Derek Harper.
It's amazing to me that highly paid, professional athletes will slack off or start squabbling among themselves if they don't have a decisive and authoritarian coach. And it's equally amazing how fast and well they respond when they do.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Time and time again I've seen troubled publications turn around when we've put the right person in charge. And the process starts to happen almost immediately, just like the Knicks' metamorphosis.
That's one reason I don't believe the hype about baseball's comeback. What's different now? The owners and players are still deeply suspicious of one another, and the owners still have the head-in-the-sand Bud Selig as interim commissioner.
Marketing is the name of the game in professional sports, yet baseball owners are relying on the Fox Network, which will telecast games nationally, and Nike to refurbish the game's image. They've just appointed an ad agency and have yet to hire a marketing chief. "Here is a game that if it were any other business based upon the slings and arrows foisted upon it in the last two years, would be out of business," a former team marketing director told The Wall Street Journal.
Ego, of course plays a gigantic role in all of this. Nelson and Starks should have kept their traps shut instead of mouthing off to the press about each other. What will eventually undo any baseball revival is that the owners won't allow the players to be heroes-unlike the National Basketball Association, which understands its primary job is to build myths.
It's exceedingly difficult, in sports or business, to let yourself become subservient to the good of the team or the company. But corny as it sounds, that unsimple gesture is one of the key ingredients of lasting success.