In another period of my coaching career, there were many sports scientists attached to our program. One was particularly attached to the team. He was smart and hard working and personally close to some of the players through one of his other roles. One day, out of the blue, he quit working with our team. The reason that he gave was a disagreement over training programs with another of our service providers. We were of course disappointed, but as is the way of things we moved on with his replacement. Some time later, under the influence of alcohol, he cornered me at a function and among other things demanded to know why we had let him go, as he “… would have done anything for the team.” My reply was that obviously he wouldn’t have done anything for the team, otherwise he would have found a way to work with his colleague for everyone’s benefit. Nothing in the ensuing years has made me change my opinion.
I have been reminded of that conversation by Kobe Bryant many times in the last few months. As he closed in on his retirement, there were many stories about his legendary obsessiveness and commitment and ‘competitiveness’. Reading through the litany of compliments one phrase would invariably wander through my mind. ‘Yeah, he would do anything to win… except work with his teammates.’ This may seem somewhat churlish of me given his success but it somehow seems important. Basketball, like volleyball, is a team game, the ultimate expression of which is the combination of different parts in order to reach a level greater than the sum of those parts. While Kobe clearly possesses many highly desirable qualities, to deliberately ignore the fact that he apologetically wears his selfishness as a badge of honour is to ignore a vital part of his story and sells the game short.
This touches on the broader point of competitiveness and what competitiveness actually is. Noone would ever suggest that Kobe is not competitive. But to be competitive implies an overarching desire to win. But his actions do not actually support that thesis. One comment that I was once told may help clear up the discrepancy
“It is not enough for me to win. Winning by itself is not interesting. I want to be the reason that we win.”
And there is the difference. I have met many people over the years who would say and have said that they were highly competitive. But I would argue that I have actually met very, very few people who are actually competitive, people who would really do anything to win. If you are prepared to do anything to win, you will work with others and you won’t take credit. I don’t think Kobe passes that test.