In Daniel Coyle’s great new book “The Culture Code,” he visits some of the most successful organizations in the world. One of them is the San Antonio Spurs, who he spends a significant amount of time with, digging in to their championship culture. I highly recommend the book – it’s terrific.
When talking to everyone in the Spurs organization about their culture, he asks them about their greatest moment of team cohesion. He says almost all of them point to the same night – June 18th, 2013 – a night when the Spurs suffered probably the worst loss in franchise history. This was the night they had a 5-point lead in a potential clinching game 6 with 28 seconds to play, only to blow the lead when Ray Allen hit his famous 3 in the corner, and lose the game in overtime. The Spurs had rented out one of their favorite restaurants that night for what they hoped would be a celebration, but everyone after the game was gutted. They all said the locker room was the worst they had ever seen it. Tim Duncan was laying on the floor unable to move. Tony Parker had a towel over his head and couldn’t stop crying, and later he would say “I have never seen our team so broken.”
Everyone assumed they would scrap the plans to go to the restaurant and go back to the hotel to regroup. But Pop had other ideas. He ordered everyone on the team to go straight to the restaurant. Popovich left right away, before the team. He went to the restaurant and started rearranging it, moving the tables out of the center of the room so there was just a big open space where the players and the coaches could be close to each other. He ordered a bunch of food that the players liked and bought bottles of wine and had them opened. Sean Marks, an assistant GM, was with him and described what he saw next.
“He looked as sad as I’ve ever seen a person look,” Marks said. “He’s sitting in the chair, not saying a word, still devastated. Then – I know this sounds weird – but you can just see him make the shift and get past it. He takes a sip of wine and a deep breath. You can see him get over his emotions and start focusing on what the team needs. Right then the bus pulls up.”
Pop goes up to the door and meets each player individually. Some get a hug, some get a smile, some get a joke and some get a light touch on the arm. The drank wine and sat and ate together. Pop moved around the room connecting with each player. Later, the people in the room said he looked like the father of the bride at a wedding. There was no big speech, just short, intimate conversations with each guy. They talked about the game, some of them cried. But the started to connect and get past the loss.
I loved this line from Coyle: In a moment that could have been filled with frustration, recrimination and anger, he filled their cups.
He filled their cups. What a great way to describe what our players need from us on a daily basis, especially after a brutal loss.
R.C. Buford, the teams GM, had this to say: “I remember watching him do that, and I couldn’t believe it. By the end of the night, things felt almost normal. We were a team again. It’s the single greatest thing I’ve seen in sports, bar none.”
The Spurs played very well in game 7 but could not overcome the Heat. They won their 5th championship the following year. They kept the unopened champagne from 2013 and used it for their celebration in 2014.
On Wednesday night we played our first league game at Stony Brook. We were 3-12 in the non-conference schedule, playing 6 money games and 11 of the 15 games away from home. It feels like we’ve been on the road for two months. We opened league play at Stony Brook and would go from their to Binghamton, starting with 13 of 17 on the road.
Midway through the second half at Stony Brook we were down by 20. We weren’t playing well at all, but our kids kept fighting for one another, and we started to chip it away. We kept saying in the huddle that if we could get it to 10, they would start to get tight. We started stringing together stops and knocked in a couple of shots, and we got it to 10 and just kept going. We continued making plays and found ourselves up 2 with one free throw and 19.5 seconds to play. We had battled back to gain control of the game.
We missed the free throw and had to get a stop with a 2-point lead. We snuffed out what Stony Brook was going to run and defended it well. They had to freelance, and one of their guards when behind a ball screen about 25 feet from the hoop at the top of the key and pulled up to shoot. We contested the shot well. There was no way it was going in. And then it did. We tried to race the ball up the floor to get a shot, but the whistle blew. The table had failed to stop the clock, so they had to reset it. So now we had to play against a set defense. We never got a shot off and lost the game by one point. It turns out there was also a replay review with 46 seconds left that should have been our ball. Somehow, the officials gave the ball to Stony Brook, and they scored 2 points on that possession. We couldn’t have felt worse about the loss.
We had done some great things in that game and found a competitive spirit, playing for one another, that really carried us. No matter how bad we were playing or what happened, we just wouldn’t let them kill us. We never gave in. It was something to feel really good about.
But we lost the game. A game we knew we should have one. And given the lack of success in our program and some other really tough losses that we’ve had this year – at least 3 other games we felt we should have one – it was easy to think we were just never going to win. Most of the evidence pointed towards that fact, that no matter what we did we would just find a way to lose. I didn’t want our kids feeling that way.
So back at the hotel, we all took our food and sat in a big room, and we talked. We talked about the key plays in the game, and we cracked jokes. Aaron had gotten dunked on in the second half, and we made fun of him about that. I asked him if he got fouled on the last play (he says he did, but the video was hard to tell), and guys were joking that he just slipped. Eventually the mood was pretty light. I just didn’t want guys sitting in their own rooms with their thoughts to themselves, thinking we were just never going to win. All the coaches were in there, and we tried to fill their cups.
A couple of veteran guys mentioned that they “felt like we won the game.” It’s such a delicate balance. I didn’t want the players feeling like we’d never be good enough to win. But you also can’t have them accepting a loss. We made sure we talked about that. It’s okay to bank all of the great stuff we did in the second half when we came back from down 20. But we also have to win that game. Every time. That has to create a bit of fire in the pit of our stomachs, a determination to never let that happen again. But I took the risk. I wanted our guys feeling good about the process we had gone through, and the way we stuck together. To know that we were good enough to win, even if we didn’t get the result. We say it all the time, that we evaluate ourselves on the process, not the result. But it’s very hard in practice, especially when the results you keep getting are negative.
Were some of the guys concerned that we were signaling that it was okay to lose, or we were happy with a loss? Probably so. But it was worth the risk to me. We had to go to Binghamton and be ready to win, and I didn’t want to wait until Friday to address and let the horrible feeling of losing take over our program.
We took a 9-hour bus ride through a blizzard from Long Island to Binghamton on Thursday, and barely arrived in time to practice. We just got the guys loose with some stretching to shake off the bus ride, and we got some shots up. We didn’t do much. But we talked about how we felt, and about the competitive spirit we displayed. I told the guys that we’d know whether or not we were mentally tough enough to process that Stony Brook loss not on Saturday when we played, but on Friday morning when we had practice. To our guys credit, we had the same competitive energy that we shoed Wednesday night on Friday at practice. We were alive, loud and together. It felt like we handled it well.
On Saturday we played a poor first half and were once again down double digits in the second half. We couldn’t really get anything going on offense, but we were battling defensively and we refused to give in. But we were still down 8 with under 8:00 to play. And then we went on a 14-0 run over 4 minutes to get control of the game. We made the plays down the stretch and found a way to win. If we were feeling sorry for ourselves after that Stony Brook loss it didn’t show – and we wouldn’t have been able to win the game.
Dealing with losing is hard, and a tough, stinging loss makes it even worse. Everyone feels awful. But as a coach, you need to figure out what your team needs. Sometimes they need you to fill their cup.