The Best Leaders: Speaker, Standard Or Psycho

Being a fanatical O.J. Mayo fan (When I first interned at Dime, I got hyped at the site of the “vault.” I knew I could finally go back in time and rediscover the old Juice cover that I hadn’t seen in three years…), it was only natural that I was seduced by the mystic of Bill Walker‘s hops. You could call it osmosis; watch enough Mayo videos – and I certainly did – and eventually you’ll find yourself saying “Wow, they say that other guy is the best high school dunker ever, but all I ever really see are windmills.” It was one of those things where you didn’t really see it, but so many people swore to it and claimed to have eyewitness accounts that you just had to believe it. Like a middle school rumor. Before long, you were swearing the same truths, yet your only evidence was a few grainy videos from before YouTube took off, and a couple of DraftExpress scouting reports.

Soon, this wonder of Walker’s hops took on mythic proportions. You couldn’t call yourself a true hoops fans unless you had read a story somewhere that Walker once hit seven threes in a game and had nearly twice as many dunks. It’s like that story on Tyreke Evans, told by his high school coach, who swears his biggest weapon as a teenager was the trey. You don’t really believe, but you want to believe it. The unknown is always the most glamorous.

Sports Illustrated dropped a cover story on Walter Payton last week with excerpts from a book that detailed his background. It was supposed to be a “definitive” look at one of the greatest running backs ever, and if definitive means drugs, mistresses and suicidal thoughts, then I guess they were right on the money. But it was details no one knew, or stuff no one bothered to believe.

Payton’s image was always as a consummate professional and a prankster. He was maybe the greatest running back ever and an icon for 60 minutes every Sunday, yet a nobody the rest of the week. He was never considered more. Is that to say the revelations coming out in this book are facts? Who really knows. But it’s all strange… things we would’ve never guessed about him.

His perception became his reality during his career. Enough didn’t shed layers on Sweetness outside of the field, so we believed what we could. We had to.

Perception versus reality. You’ve heard it before, and nowhere does it hold more value than in the entertainment business and in sports. The constant coverage, the 24/7 media sponge and the obsession of fans all create a monster that doesn’t stop eating. If a story sticks, it’ll play out forever. Usually.

More than anything else during this past postseason, watching Dirk Nowitzki outmuscle and out-heart every other player in the league was shocking. Everyone in Dallas followed his lead. Almost overnight, he became the locker room sage, the run-stopper, the voice of reason during those 20-second timeouts in the dead of the fourth quarter. He changed. He learned. He grew up. Or did he?

Did he have it in him to be the core of a championship team? After unearthing the same chewed-up story for nearly a decade, I didn’t think it was possible. Then again, maybe that leadership and those guts of steel were in him all along. We just weren’t looking for them.

The same thing with Zach Randolph. I had him pigeon-holed as a black hole you couldn’t win with. If he was on your team, you weren’t going anywhere. A fantasy boom. A real-life bust. Not only did Memphis prove me wrong, but Z-Bo was the main reason why. He completely changed the culture of that entire organization, and managed to rehabilitate his image along with it. Yet it was all so sudden, and happened so convincingly that it’s forcing me to pause: How much of that extra fluff throughout his career was really Z-Bo’s fault, and how much of it was situational? How much of it was a story that keep rolling and rolling, gaining steam every year even as we overlooked the plot?

Where does all of this lead?

Michael Jordan was forever presented as the ultimate leader. He was tough. He was demanding. He was respected, and got the most out of his teammates because deep down, they knew they couldn’t disappoint him. We read this story again and again. It was just told with different words. For 15 years this went on, and it’s still going on even today. He’s Michael Jordan. The greatest ever. But should we really believe that punching Steve Kerr in the face or conspiring to freeze out Bill Cartwright at the end of a game is good leadership? Does winning prove it’s good leadership? Maybe he was just so talented that they won despite his leadership? Maybe. Is it all so black and white?

Kobe Bryant treats his teammates no differently now – cursing them out, criticizing their toughness – than he did when he was considered a selfish, robotic baby. But do those things hold more weight now that he’s won? Now that he’s a champion, having won twice as the best player? People may not want you to believe that. They want to believe he’s changed, that he actually talks to his teammates now.

In some leagues, like the NFL, leadership is easy to point to. It’s the quarterback, the man calling the shots, the one barking signals to tight ends, flankers and offensive linemen 50, 60, 70 times a night. It’s the middle linebacker, the one relaying the calls, the one protecting both the defensive linemen and the secondary.

But basketball is so different. One player can make a change. One great player has the impact normally reserved for dozens. One truly great leader can make a difference between 25 wins and 50. Ask Tim Duncan. Ask Steve Nash.

We perceive leadership to be a certain thing. It’s programmed into us. From our first introduction to basketball or football or baseball or any other sport – back when we were still playing – that frames our reference. MJ was psychotic. He was like a serial killer. Some of his teammates loved him for it. Others didn’t. I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t enjoy playing behind Nash or Duncan. But was Nash really ruthless enough? Did he command that something special, that thing you need that goes beyond respect? Was Duncan’s leadership just a product of his incredible talent and Popovich‘s genius? Or was he one of the first to figure out words mean nothing? Maybe none of us ever understood how he did it because he was too smart.

The best leader I ever had was a high school coach. He could make you bleed for him. He could also make you hate him. Sometimes that was the point. He’d bench me for a bad practice. There would be words spoken, and regrettable anger. Then, he’d thrown me into a game with two minutes left in the first half, knowing I had two minutes to earn more time. When it went right, we loved each other again. Two weeks later, the cycle would start anew. But that explosive personality was a part of him, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Leadership can work magic… and sometimes it can’t. The best leaders could be quiet. They could be speakers. They could even be nutcases. Our perception can trick us into assuming what is and isn’t there. The best… you really can’t put your finger on it. I guess we will never know.

What makes the best leaders?

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