Bad Boys and the Fab Five: Business Lessons from Basketball History 1

Isiah Thomas led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships. Chris Webber and The Fab Five narrowly missed NCAA championships.

Costly mistakes in basketball history reveal important lessons for your business.

In 2009, to commemorate their 30th anniversary, ESPN released a new sports documentary series called “30 for 30.” The series included 30 full-length documentary features that highlighted sports history’s most memorable moments and personalities. The series was so popular that ESPN decided to release a second volume of 30 more documentaries, produce 30 new digital shorts, and even released a “30 for 30″ selection of soccer-related features in time for the 2014 World Cup.

ESPN’s strategy demonstrates the importance of being able to adjust your business plan in real-time as you receive positive (or negative) feedback from your target market.

In April of 2014, ESPN released its latest entry in the “30 for 30″ series, telling the story of the Detroit Pistons during their infamous “Bad Boys” era. Being a Michigan native myself, the documentary gave me a heavy dose of nostalgia for my state’s late ’80s and early ’90s glory. So, of course I moved right on to watch another “30 for 30” documentary: “The Fab Five,” a chronicle of the University of Michigan’s most notable men’s basketball team.

The connection between these basketball documentaries and good business practices may not be immediately evident, but by taking a closer look, I was able to find some key takeaways that are worth considering for your business:

“Bad Boys”—The 1987 Eastern Conference Finals

If you’re older than 30 and even remotely aware of NBA history, you may remember that the NBA championships of the 1980s were dominated by the dueling dynasties of the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird, and the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson. Together, the two teams accounted for eight of the 10 championships during the decade. These two basketball programs were like Coke and Pepsi, or Apple and Microsoft—major brands with deep pockets that attracted top talent.

You also may remember that the main narrative of the ’90s was that Michael Jordan, arguably the NBA’s greatest player ever, took the Chicago Bulls to six championship titles between 1991 and 1998. But there, sandwiched between dynasties and legacies, the Detroit Pistons had built a championship team on the back of Isaiah Thomas. Their legacy should be an inspiration for startups and small businesses everywhere—even in markets with well established leaders, smaller companies still have the opportunity to etch out a comfortable space.

Isaiah Thomas began his NBA career in Detroit in 1981, and for the first half of the decade, the Pistons struggled to build a team that could support his talent. With the help of Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson, the Pistons made it to the playoffs in ’84 and ’85, but didn’t advance beyond the second round. It wasn’t until they added Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, John Salley, and Rick Mahorn that the team took on a more aggressive style of play, a “win-at-all-costs” attitude, and acquired the “Bad Boys” moniker.

Entrepreneurs may recognize a key lesson here: one highly talented person is rarely enough to help a business make it. It takes a team of talented people who are all driven to give everything they have to succeed.

For the Pistons, all these ingredients combined into a winning recipe, and they found themselves at the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals facing Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. The series was tied after four games, and Game 5 was headed back to the Boston Garden. If the Pistons could pull out an upset in Boston, they would have a chance to wrap up the series in Game 6 back in Detroit and advance to the NBA Finals.

With 36 seconds left to go in the game, trailing the Celtics by only one point, the Bad Boys were given the opportunity to pull off the upset. Isaiah Thomas hit his jump shot and put the Pistons ahead by one with only 17 seconds left. The Celtics called a timeout to plan what looked like their final play of the game.

“I’m excited, the whole team is excited. We go to the bench. We know it’s going to Larry,” Thomas recalls.

Larry Bird received an inbound pass, drove it to the basket, and the Piston defense sprang to action. Dennis Rodman blocked Bird’s shot, and amidst the mayhem, the ball grazed a Celtics player and landed out of bounds. With only five seconds left on the clock, Detroit had possession of the ball once again, and the lead.

The Piston’s victory was all but a sure thing at this point, but what happened next should serve as a good reminder for any business…

“Everybody’s looking around, like ‘what do we do?’” Thomas remembers, “I look over and I see the official holding the basketball. I run over and…I panicked.”

The play took four seconds. Boston went back up 108-107, Celtics fans tore the roof off the Garden, and a shocked Detroit team was left with only one second on the clock to recover. “It was over just like that,” Thomas says, snapping his fingers. Game 5 slipped out of their grasp.

If your product or service is leading the market, that’s a great feeling, but it’s important to remember that the “game” isn’t over. 

Don’t rest on your laurels, and don’t abandon your need for a strategy just because you’re on top. If you’re business is struggling to compete, take a note from Larry Bird’s veteran playing skills. He kept his head in the game, understood his competition, and was ready to take advantage when an opportunity presented itself.

Although the Pistons would win Game 6 back in Detroit, Game 5 was the turning point of the series, and Boston would go on to win Game 7 and move on to play the Lakers (once again) in the NBA finals.

In the locker room after Game 5, Pistons’ coach Chuck Daly responded to Thomas’ strategic error by telling reporters, “personally I would have liked to have called a timeout, but we didn’t get it.” The reporters then asked Thomas, “were you aware you had a timeout left? Coach said he would have liked to call a time out.”

Thomas replied, “I was aware we had a timeout left, but I didn’t see anyone signal for one, and I didn’t think to signal for one,” my emphasis added. It was a mistake made in the heat of the moment, where perhaps cooler heads and more experienced players would have prevailed.

Timeouts are a tricky thing, especially with regards to a small business. As an owner or entrepreneur, you may feel like each day is a struggle just to keep your business running. The idea of pausing to reflect on your business performance may sound like a good idea, but how often do you actually set aside the time to do it? Why is it important to look back? If you do, you may realize that you’re spending your limited time and effort on strategies that won’t yield the greatest results. It is much easier to pivot your business when you actually have a defined strategy, but you can’t correct your course if you don’t know what path you’re on.

John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men’s basketball team to seven consecutive NCAA championships says it best: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?” The Pistons failed to take a moment to reflect on their strategy, and it ruined their playoff hopes in 1987.

The next year, the Pistons would beat the Celtics, but lose to Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the ‘88 NBA finals. However, in 1989 and 1990 they took home back-to-back NBA championship trophies, something only five teams in NBA history have been able to accomplish.

Failure is rarely the end of the story, especially for businesses. It presents an opportunity to learn from mistakes and, as the Detroit Pistons demonstrated, come back stronger than ever.

“The Fab Five”—The 1993 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship

Fast forward a couple of years and the spotlight of basketball history would once again shine on Michigan, this time at the collegiate level. NCAA Division I Basketball was rocked by the University of Michigan in 1991, when the college recruited a group of talented freshmen, and then started all five of them later in the season.

Bucking the tradition of starting upperclassmen wasn’t the only action that took people by surprise. All five freshmen (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson) were black. They chose baggy shorts for their uniforms (instead of the conventional short shorts), sported shaved heads, and wore black shoes and black socks. The guys were brazen, talented, and brought a hip-hop influenced swagger to the game that people were not accustomed to seeing on the main stage of college basketball. When they backed up their behavior with dominating performances on the court, making it to the NCAA championship in their first year, the group became known as “The Fab Five.”

As you research your market and consider the competition, ask yourself what assumptions are being made about how things are “normally” done.

Some of the best innovations occur when a problem is approached from a unique angle rather than an already established path. It also presents an opportunity to differentiate your product or service in a competitive market.

Although Michigan lost that 1992 championship game to Duke, The Fab Five surprised everyone by making it as far as they did. Conventional wisdom was thrown out the window, and, for the most part, it had worked. As sophomores, the team once again survived the early rounds of the “March Madness” tournament. By beating the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four round, The Fab Five entered the championship game again, this time to face the University of North Carolina, a team they knew they could beat.

On April 5, 1993 the two teams went head to head. North Carolina came out strong on both offense and defense and took an early lead. Michigan kept the score close though, and entered halftime trailing only by six points. The game remained close and Michigan came within three points of UNC, with only 46 seconds remaining. They took their last time out, and planned their strategy.

After an error made by UNC turned the ball over, Chris Webber made an offensive rebound and quickly scored two points to bring the Michigan Wolverines to within one point. With no remaining timeouts, the Wolverines were forced to begin fouling North Carolina for a chance to slow down play and try to find an opportunity to win. With 20 seconds left, they fouled junior Matt Sullivan who made his first free throw, but bounced his second shot off the back of the rim. Chris Webber rebounded the missed free throw and, with 15 seconds left on the clock, ran the ball up the court—veering into a trap set by two defenders in the corner. Unsure of what to do, Webber raised his hands and signaled a timeout.

In college basketball, if you call for a timeout when your team doesn’t have any left, it’s a technical foul. Chris Webber had been given a chance to set up a play, but instead made a mistake that cost Michigan the game. North Carolina was given two free throws as well as possession of the ball, and easily secured their national title.

With 35 million viewers watching the game, Chris Webber’s mistake was devastating. In the ESPN documentary, Webber declined to be interviewed, but other teammates and coaches report that Webber discussed the play in the locker room after the game. He excused his actions by noting that other players on the bench had yelled for Webber to call a timeout.

Chris Webber, like Isaiah Thomas in 1987, made a mistake, but unlike Thomas, his response was to shift blame to his teammates on the bench. How does your business respond when a mistake is made? Does your team shift blame and dodge responsibility? When a customer complaint comes in, is your business willing to admit a mistake and respond with humility? If you or your business makes a mistake, how you respond reveals your character to investors, customers, and your team.

Again, John Wooden’s words of wisdom poignantly reinforce the takeaway, “Never make excuses. Your friends don’t need them and your foes won’t believe them.”

These differences in character between Isaiah Thomas and Chris Webber reveal themselves further in the documentaries. Both players were involved in other controversies throughout their careers. In each case, Thomas demonstrated efforts to make amends and find resolution, while Webber continued to shirk his guilt or justify his actions. These actions will impact the reputation of both men for years to come.

Isaiah Thomas has been inducted into the basketball hall of fame, while Webber (and the entire Fab Five team) had their NCAA victories revoked due to allegations of accepting monetary support during their college careers, a violation of NCAA regulations. Their banners have been removed from Michigan’s basketball stadium.

There has been an offer to reinstate the team and hang their banners once again, but there’s one player who still refuses to admit his wrongdoing and apologize for his violation: Chris Webber.

The Fab Five never made it back to the NCAA championships, as three of the five players left college early for the NBA draft, including Chris Webber (who went on to become a five-time NBA all star). They made their mark on the game, but the thrill of an NCAA championship evaded them.

What about you? Is there a time when you or your company made a mistake, but experienced greater success by owning up to it? Or have you seen that taking regular time outs to reflect on your business has helped avoid costly mistakes and take advantage of opportunities? I’d love to hear your business experiences in the comments below. 

  • Candice Landau

    Jonathan, I really liked that you called out when the story was important to business. Personally, I never look to sports to understand business but am beginning to see why I might. I highly recommend reading the first chapter in the book, ‘Unthinking’ by Harry Beckwith. It’s another example of what businesses can learn from from sports and if you enjoy reading about players like Kobe Bryant, a must read! :)

About the Author Jonathan is the Community Manager for Bplans.com Follow Jonathan on Google+ Read more »

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