SALT LAKE CITY — I was a young photographer working at a studio that contracted with the Utah Jazz PR department in 1991 and spent a fair amount of time photographing the team and the individual players for various internal and external media events and publications. When the United States Olympic Committee decided to field a basketball team of active NBA players for the Olympic Games in Barcelona that year, we were regularly photographing Karl Malone and John Stockton (two of the original 10 players on the Dream Team) for the Jazz PR department’s media needs.
The reason I bring it up is because I was very aware, almost in the thick of things locally, when Stockton and Malone were named as part of the team in September of 1991.
A friend of mine and I were talking about the Dream Team and a book he’s been reading, "Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever" by Jack McCallum. I think we were all excited to see what the Dream Team would do, but I don’t think we were prepared for the impact they would end up having on the game of basketball internationally. Nevertheless, that’s not what I want to talk about today.
In case you don’t remember, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the team’s co-captains. The book’s author, as a senior staff writer for Sports Illustrated, lived, ate, golfed and partied with some of the greatest basketball players to ever sink a basket. He described a conversation Coach Chuck Daly had with Michael Jordan as they formed the team. Daly asked Jordan, arguably the best basketball player to ever play the game, if the Dream Team should have three captains: Johnson, Bird and Jordan. Jordan shrugged it off.
“Magic and Larry are obvious choices to be captains, but so are you,” said Daly. “I just want to know if you’d be interested in a leadership triumvirate.”
“No way,” Jordan told him. “It should be Magic and Larry. I have too much respect for those guys. I’ll hang back.”
And the team knew the score. Magic was the sun, but Jordan was the North Star.
In the book, McCallum writes, “'So far as leading the team out, talking to the press, representing us, all that stuff, it was Magic,'” (Chris) Mullin told me years later. “But once we got in the gym? It was all Michael.' ”
I don’t want to put words into Michael Jordan’s mouth, but I guess he figured he could best lead the team on the court. He didn’t need to be a team captain to do that. We’ve all worked with people so anxious to be the boss they sometimes forget the importance of their current role on the team. I’m sure we also know a few Monday morning quarterbacks who think they know more than the boss and could even do a better job — but are no more prepared to pull on his shoes than I am a pair of Michael’s Air Jordans.
Speaking of Monday morning quarterbacking, I can’t help but think of last Sunday’s Super Bowl. There’s no question that Ray Lewis is the guy who gets most of the attention, but Joe Flacco demonstrated himself the leader of the team in Sunday night’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers. I have to admit, I was hoping the Niners would pull a victory out in the end, but the Ravens deserved to win that game.
This years Super Bowl MVP wasn’t very flashy; he may never throw 40 touchdowns in a season or be my pick for a fantasy football league, but in crunch-time, when it mattered, he showed up to win.
Over the last 30 or so years of my career there have been times when I was the boss and times when I needed to play a role and contribute to the success of the team. I think there’s a lot we can learn from Michael Jordan and Joe Flacco:
You don’t really need to be the boss to be a leader. Like Michael, leaders don’t rely on titles or position to lead. Their influence extends beyond their specific role and draws people looking for leadership to them. I can’t think of another basketball player I’m aware of that had more ability to consistently lead his team to victory than Jordan.
Individual efforts fall flat while teams win. It doesn’t really matter if it’s football, basketball or business, teams win when everyone pulls together. It was obvious last Sunday that the Ravens just wanted it more as a team. Flacco stepped up to lead the team to victory, but he would probably be the first to tell you it was the team running routes, making catches and blocking tackles that won the game. A leader shares credit for the victories and is often not in the limelight.
You gotta play the entire game. Both Jordan and Flacco are great examples of showing up to play the entire game. Like some of you, I was hopeful when the 49ers made their comeback push in the second half of the game — I even entertained the thought that they might win — but you’ve gotta show up for the entire game. They didn’t.
I think the biggest accomplishment of the Dream Team was the ability of some of the biggest egos in professional sports to work together to dominate their competition. I’m convinced a big part of that was their leadership both on and off the court.
Over the 20 years since 1992 other Dream Teams have come and gone, basketball has become an internationally loved sport, and the iconic play of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Chris Mullen, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Christian Laettner and Clyde Drexler actually outperformed the hype.
As a Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for Lendio (www.lendio.com).