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[NBA Player 1983-1996, NBA Coach, 90’s to Present – Magic, Celtics, Clippers] 

In Netflix’s new documentary series, The Playbook, elite sports coaches share their playbook for success, in sports and in life. Episode 1 features Doc Rivers, an NBA veteran. Karthik Reddy, a big fan of all things sports, provides his take on Episode 1, the first of a 5-part series.

I’ve watched Doc Rivers play NBA and have seen him as a coach on the sidelines. As a sports buff, my interest in the NBA picked up as its telecast came into India in the 90s and then peaked, with one of my few live games – watching the 76ers while at UPenn. Iverson was the prodigal son of Philly, spellbinding in his athleticism, despite his tiny structure. The Bulls’ journey through the eyes of Jordan, Pippen and everyone else in The Last Dance is one of the best sports documentaries I’ve watched. 

And now, as Netflix kicks off The Playbook through the eyes of many accomplished sports coaches, I’m grateful for the learnings it affords to everybody who has to deal with pressure and competition.

There’s a purity about sports that’s difficult to replicate in a startup. Structurally, each sport is different, but there are tight boundary conditions and rules – and they make for playgrounds that distill simplicity out of a myriad set of probabilities of skill, hard work, innate talent, teamwork, and luck – all coming together to win!

May the Games begin! The Doc’s prescriptions:

Recounting his childhood, Rivers says that he always replied, when asked: I never go to practice. I go to play Basketball.

Great founders don’t go to a workplace. They go to a playground. They go to build great products or services for their customers. They love the act of doing so everyday. They don’t see it as monotony but how to get better. Everything else in the work day is a means to that end. When everything is down, which is more than one bargains for during most weeks in a long startup life, that passion of playing the game for what it means to you is what keeps you going. The more you can instill this into everyone who comes along into the team, the more formidable a winning machine you will build.

Rule No 1: FINISH THE RACE

As a young kid, he wrote “Pro Basketball Player” when his teacher asked him what he wanted to become. He was asked to be realistic and the teacher would ask him to erase the goal and write a new one. His dad agreed with the teacher but added “… look, it’s a great goal. Whatever goal you have, and right now, it’s too early, but when you finally do settle on one, just finish the race.” 

When we meet founders, it’s such a deep desire for us to know if they are playing to ‘Finish the Race’ and if they’re writing up Goals which others think are absurdly unrealistic. We even have a moniker for them “They don’t know what they don’t know” founders – no one has told them what’s not possible or if they have encountered skeptical or cynical naysayers, they simply don’t care to listen. 

Rule No 2:  DON’T BE A VICTIM

Doc Rivers has been in the game 37 years now and works as hard every day. If you want to be at the top of the game, hard work is a given – he too misses kids’ stuff, misses things even when at the kids’ events – thinking about basketball plays. It’s tough. His parents taught him not only hard work, picking himself up irrespective of the beating life doles out, but also “not to be someone else’s victim”.

On the eve of a playoff game [post his boss’ (Clippers owner) racist comments], it came down to making a choice and making sure that no one can take you away from your goal. Doc and the players were expected to boycott the game – instead, they designed their own protest, made the statement center court pre-game, and went back to play the game.

We are never going to be victims.

Day in and day out, I continue to see abuse of power in our startup ecosystem. We were entrusted with the responsibility that we were going to be better than the old capitalists. But alas, there are more cheap shots. Aren’t we better than this? There are market forces, which I’m a disciple of and respect. This doesn’t give players with capital and leadership the right to abuse those privileges. And if you’re on the receiving end, remember: “Don’t be a Victim”.

Rule No 3: UBUNTU IS A WAY OF LIFE 

Getting Garnett, Allen and Pierce in the mega trade, mid season in 2007, at Boston Celtics was great for a team with a losing record, but could’ve easily turned into a game of egos and mismatches of the 3 superstars. 

If we’re going to win, we need to make sacrifices.

He got a tip from a Celtics well wisher. She said “Doc – you guys are going to do it – you just have to practice Ubuntu. Ubuntu; it’s not a word, look the word up and become it.” It’s a way of life! It’s the essence of being human. A person is a person through others. (Mandela and Tutu preached and practiced it with their Apartheid masters to revive South Africa.) 

The team started living Ubuntu – even if Doc still can’t pronounce it right today :-). That team went on to win the NBA the next year. Culture, goal obsession and playing to strengths for the team are all non trivial, but if you need to be the very best, it has to come together. In large organizations, culture can be even more potent and outlast the original protagonists. 

As a founder, Ubuntu can be a powerful culture to instill.   

 

Rule No 4: PRESSURE IS A PRIVILEGE 

Run towards pressure, expectations, legacy! Doc needed to get his superstars to not just dream of the title, but win it. In the arena, he had the management install a light that shone on a vacant spot, insinuating that they have to fill it with a championship banner. Pressure, No Pressure!  

As we build the beginnings of attempting that legacy at Blume – great startup stories being built from scratch, there is no resting on seeing the first of the winners emerge. Winners create larger expectations and then ever larger ones. Much like the Celtics shining a large spotlight on an empty spot on the wall, I feel tempted and ready to keep the empty spots marked on our wall of fame. As Doc says, it’s a privilege to be in that position – to even have a chance of delivering success. Pressure is indeed a privilege! 

Rule No 5: CHAMPIONS KEEP MOVING FORWARD 

Champions get hit over and over and over. Champions decide how much to take before Moving Forward. The NBA Finals in 2008 against the Lakers – how do you come back from a 24 point hole? Doc suggested cutting a 24 point lead by 5-6 points less each time, shrinking it to 18, then to 12, to 8, to 4 to 2.

When they cut it to 2, Jack Nicholson (an ardent LA Laker courtside front bencher) said “We are Dead Men Walking” (referring to LA Lakers). Doc says it was his favorite comment of the season. There was no looking back.  The team ended up playing for each other – the sacrifices made to win! 2008 NBA Champions: Boston Celtics.

Finale:

There were some fabulous one-liners towards the end; things I’ve learned too as mentor, coach, investor, friend to our startups. (I got similar advice when I got started out and as Doc says, it was awful advice – went against the very grain of who I am and who we are at the core at Blume. I admit that it’s a tricky balance, since we are also managing capital and playing the game to multiply it manifold).

“Don’t get too close to them.” | Yeah – get close to them.

“And the reason they said that is ‘cause you’re gonna get your heart broken. They will let you down” | Some do. So what?

Your job is to coach ‘em. Your job is to make them better players, better people, better teammates. How to be tough, how to be compassionate, how to be a good winner, how to be a good loser, if there’s such a thing. (I haven’t learned that yet). It teaches you life.

I’m not going to coach you to who you are, I’m going to coach you to who you should be someday.  

As I write rule after rule from this episode, Blumiers’ faces (Blume founders) keep zipping past me – there are always examples every day, every week from the tribe that teaches me with every interaction, on how to become an even better coach.  

Also read – Episode 2 (featuring Jill Ellis) and Episode 3 (featuring José Mourinho)

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