‘The Secret’

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Bill Simmons loves basketball, specifically the NBA.  He also loves to write.  When you put those two things together, you end up with an exhaustively researched, incredibly informative, wildly entertaining 700 page book on the NBA, ‘The Book Of Basketball’. The overarching theme of the book is what he calls ‘The Secret’.  ‘The Secret’ is apparently the secret of sucess in the NBA, by extension basketball (and by further extension) all team sports, and was revealed to him by Detroit Pistons legend, Isiah Thomas.

“The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”

That’s it.  A 700 page book boiled down to its essence.  “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”  There are two incredible chapters of the book that address the issue directly… Chapter One – ‘The Secret’ and Epilogue – ‘Life After The Secret’.  In fact if those two chapters could be packaged together I would recommend them as required reading for every team sport coach (and everyone who loves good writing about basketball).  There are so many bits and pieces that I could quote that I really don’t know where to start.  So I will just cut and paste a series of quotes from Bill Russell and Bill Bradley.

Russell: “By design and by talent the Celtics were a team of specialists, and like a team of specialists in any field, our performance depended on individual excellence and how well we worked together. None of us had to strain to understand that we had to complement each other’s specialties; it was simply a fact, and we all tried to figure out ways to make our combination more effective… the Celtics played together because we knew it was the best way to win.”

Bradley: “A team championship exposes the limits of self-reliance, selfishness and irresponsibility. One man alone can’t make it happen; in fact, the contrary is true: a single man can prevent it from happening. The success of the group assures the success of the individual, but not the other way around. Yet this team is an inept model, for even as people marvel at its unselfishness and skill involved, they disagree on how it is achieved and who is the most instrumental. The human closeness of a basketball team cannot be reconstructed on a larger scale.”

Russell: “Star players have an enormous responsibility beyond their statistics—the responsibility to pick their team up and carry it. You have to do this to win championships—and to be ready to do it when you’d rather be a thousand other places. You have to say and do the things that make your opponents play worse and your teammates play better. I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I’d played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.”

Bradley: ” I believe that basketball, when a certain level of unselfish team play is realized, can serve as a kind of metaphor for ultimate cooperation. It is a sport where success, as symbolized by the championship, requires that the dictates of the community prevail over selfish personal impulses. An exceptional player is simply one point on a five-pointed star. Statistics—such as points, rebounds, or assists per game—can never explain the remarkable interaction that takes place on a successful pro team.”

For the record, I happen to believe that volleyball is an even greater team game than basketball.


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Cover v2


  1. I particularly liked these quotes from Isiah Thomas in the book:

    “But it’s hard not to be selfish. The art of winning is complicated by statistics, which for us becomes money. Well, you gotta fight that, find a way around it. And I think we have. If we win this, we’ll be the first team in history to win it without a single player averaging 20 points. First team. Ever/. We got 12 guys who are totally committed to winning. ”

    “Look at our team statistically. We’re one of the worst teams in the league. So now you have to find a new formula to judge basketball. There were a lot of times I had my doubts about this approach, because all of you kept telling me it could never be done this way. Statistically, it made me look horrible. But I kept looking at the won-loss record and how we kept improving and I kept saying to myself, Isiah, you’re doing the right thing, so be stubborn, and one day people will find a different way to judge a player. ”

    “Lots of times on our team, you can’t tell who the best player on the team was. ‘Cause everybody did something good. That’s what makes us so good. The other team has to worry about stopping 8 or 90 people instead of 2 or 3. It’s the only way to win. The only way to win. That’s the way the game was invented. ”

    Simmons then sums it up beautifully:

    “They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page. By the same token, they lost if any of those 3 factors weren’t in place. “


    1. As I wrote, I could have cut and pasted the chapter as a whole. There were too many good observations to quote. I ended up choosing that back and forth because it was the easiest.


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