The Real Reason NBA Teams Win Championships

We believe it. We try to believe it. We want it. We wish for it. We pray for it. We scream for it. We think it’s there. We know it’s there. We aren’t sure if it’s there. And we will never stop searching for it.

You know what the strangest NBA phenomenon is? The elite player, and the misinterpretation everyone has of what actually makes an “elite” player. People have it in their mind that being elite doesn’t necessarily mean winning. To a lot of people – actually, to most people – an elite player averages 25 a night or hits the glass as hard as anyone or puts together All-NBA seasons or makes All-Star teams. They could do that. But here’s the kicker: statistics don’t matter. They really don’t.

We spend years watching and absorbing basketball, and yet it’s a constant mirage. The more hoops we watch, the more often players deceive us. Killers are fleeting. For every 40 miles in the jungle, you might find 450 spider monkeys, 346 cranes, 114 tapirs and one tiger. There’s a reason for all that.

Russell. Bird. Magic. Isiah. MJ. Hakeem. Duncan. Shaq. D-Wade. Kobe. And now Dirk (that felt a little weird). Killers.

Sometimes, you hit the perfect storm of events: a great player that feels underappreciated or pissed off at a career of first round exits or trades. Then the front office catches a couple of breaks, like say landing Rasheed Wallace midseason for nothing, after ‘Sheed endured years of playoff failures. You end up with teams that are completely united, if for only one season, hell bent on a championship, their motives so centered that talent can’t slow them, consumed by trust (Should we put the 2011 Mavs here? I’m torn.).

Normally, a championship is decided by a team, convinced losing is an impossibility, that they are destined to win it all. And it all starts with one leader and one trust.

The best game I was ever a part of, the best game I ever played in, was a season-ending, dream-killing, body-torturing, state tournament, should’ve-been overtime loss my junior year in high school. We were the No. 2 seed, the favorites, probably had the biggest upside of any team in the field (seven of us were legitimate college athletes). We had the home court, had the size inside, had a 16-point halftime lead, had everything you needed to win. We should’ve WALKED away with a W.

But then it all started to unravel. The tempo changed. We were warned all week about the refs – supposedly, one of them was “in the pocket” of the opposing coach. They went way back, had incentives to see each other do well. Up 16, we should’ve known. It was predictable. So the calls started rolling, our coach got into it with first the refs and then some parents (there was about a 20-minute delay where no one was sure what was going on except that people were coming down from out of the stands to throw down). This ended up costing him his job. Our leading scorers hit foul trouble; our younger players were caught up in mental games with the same parents who felt the need to interject themselves into the game (you know the ones I’m talking about…the rich ones who enjoy bullying young teenagers). And I didn’t step up, didn’t really do much of anything.

We lost not because of what the other team did, but because of what we didn’t. We didn’t close; we didn’t know how. We let an inferior team have a shot, and it bit us.

The one thing we lacked? No killer, no real trust. We had an awesome senior class, but none of them had won anything in high school. None of them had ever led a team deep into the tournament. We lacked a certain moxie. To win a championship you need three things:

1. A great, great player (an alpha dog)
2. A bunch of role players who’ll sacrifice not for the individual glory of saying they sacrificed, but ones who actually enjoy it…sacrificing because they believe in the principles and believe in the alpha dog (this might be the most important thing of all)
3. And a belief that it’s impossible to lose, that you’re unbeatable, even when you’re not

It’s not talent. Talent can backfire. We really should’ve been playing in the Boston Garden for a title. Instead, we lost early. The difference in basketball is miniscule: a fumbled pass here, a missed free throw here…in our case that night, a tip-in that was .2 seconds too late.

I can still remember the aroma of loss, the stench that never left. The crowd. The last play, when we should’ve gone to overtime. The locker room after. Down the stretch, the edge we held in talent didn’t matter. It all evened out. We felt the same pressures they did. Our minds raced just as fast. It came down to the depth of our motivation, how bad we really wanted it, whether if deep down inside we truly believed this run was something we would never get back, whether or not we could walk out of there with a loss and be happy with life a week later. We might’ve had it in us, but we didn’t know where to look, or better yet, how to summon that feeling and use it. They did.

Somehow Dirk (and perhaps more importantly, Dallas) bumped the odds. We thought after 13 years we had him all figured out. The right type of defender to put on him. Where to double-team him when he’s got it at the top of the key. Where to attack him on defense. Pretty much everyone with an opinion will try to convince us his game changed.

Except none of that really matters. As Isiah Thomas once told Bill Simmons: “The secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”

Dirk and Dallas won a championship on desperation. The doors were closing, the window seals tightening and bursting around them. But they all believed in their best player, believed in the importance of their roles and believed they were different.

You can’t measure chemistry. You can’t measure heart. A statistic can tell you fourth quarter numbers, but it won’t ever give you skips of the heart on the free throw line in a one-possession game in a Game 7. It can’t pinpoint how deep trust flows from one player to another.

It’s not how hard you push along the way. It’s having something in you to finish- Michael Jordan

It’s all about finishing. The championship teams finish in the final moments; the pretenders fall apart.

Everything about winning screams talent. From commercials to the media to the hype to YouTube to the way we are brought up to AAU to everything. But when was the last time talent won a title?

At the end of a game, with the crowd pulsating, the hearts pounding, no whistles blowing, foreheads leaking sweat, hands tugging on shorts, minds racing, talent might get you a shot. But talent isn’t making that shot. It’s something deeper, and that something is always on our minds. Can you produce it? Do you have to always have it? Where does it come from? Can you teach it? Learn from it?

The elite player in basketball is unlike any other in any other sport. A transcendent player in football can go years without sniffing a deep playoff run (ask Barry Sanders). A baseball player may only see the ball six times a game (maybe four at-bats, two balls in the field). But in basketball, that one leader, with a team that trusts, makes the difference.

It’s the most compelling element in sports, especially basketball. You can’t measure it. In a way, you can’t even describe it. There’s no word for it. People have tried to use heart or confidence or big balls to pin it down. None of those really do it justice.

Will LeBron ever learn this? Has he ever needed to? He grew up believing basketball was meant to be played one way. He was the entire performance, all rolled into one.

Is this something you are born with? Or can you learn along the way?

It’s clockwork. Every year, we will all fall in love with talent, with some team that just reeks of highlight plays, individual scoring, blowout wins when everything comes together for just that one night and players who don’t seem to get whatever “it” is. It happens every year, and it’ll happen next year too. You will see it coming, know that it’s only a matter of time before they succumb in a close playoff series but yet you’ll pull for that team anyways.

Ever since I lost that game junior year, I’ve been trying to answer those questions. I’ll never ace the test, but perhaps someday I’ll learn what happens when the game gets tight, and when teammates need a leader, need a hierarchy, need order and a routine to get it done…what happens when the only thing left is trust.

What do you think? What breeds winning?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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