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I’ve always enjoyed basketball, both playing it and watching it.  Like most sports, there are lessons one can learn from basketball that are applicable to other aspects of life including business.

I used to be a devoted Knicks fan, dating back to the last championship seasons of 1970 and 1973.  From the Knicks’ history one can glean that in every organization it is the leadership that sets the tone and ultimately determines the level of achievement.  When the leadership of the team was Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, a certain tone was established – a tone of winning.  Since those teams the Knicks have suffered mightily, and one can easily draw the conclusion that it was because of leadership.

After Frazier/Reed came Spencer Haywood and then Bob McAdoo, both great scorers who could have been strong role players on championship teams but not the leader.  Then came Patrick Ewing who in college looked like the second coming of Bill Russell – a fierce defender and dominating rebounder.  As a Knick Ewing seemed to decide that scoring was more glamorous and better rewarded than rebounding or defending, and surely much easier on the body.  From that dominating player he was at Georgetown he morphed into a very competent mid-range jump shooter, averaging 21 points per game during his 15 seasons.  He never seemed to want to do the hard work that was needed to win championships, and, despite being surrounded by plenty of complementary talent, he won none.

Now the Knicks have a team centered on Carmelo Anthony, who while a potent scorer is clearly not the guy that a championship team will be built around.  When the ball goes into his hands his four teammates on the court may as well pull up seats and join the Madison Square Garden crowd as they are relegated to being spectators.  For those of you who have ever played the game, you know well how unpleasant that experience can be.  Jeremy Lin, who brought excitement and energy to the Garden for the first time in a long while, was exiled to Houston before last season reportedly because he had the audacity to shoot, and score, too much and thus steal the limelight from Anthony.  And, at the outset of this season, one that many had high hopes for, Anthony publicly announced his intention to test the free agent market at the season’s end.  Clearly, this was not the move of a great leader.

Business is a lot like sports.  An organization takes its cues from its leadership.  Does an organization inspire creativity?  A Steve Jobs led Apple did, but in the years of Jobs’ exile it did not.  When choosing to invest in a company’s stock, or go to work for a company, or negotiate a transaction with one, it’s best to know the leadership in order to anticipate the experience you’re embarking on.  Creativity cannot live long in a place that doesn’t foster it or appreciate it.  Integrity and honesty cannot survive in a culture that rewards short-term results without regard to the method with which it is achieved.  Excellence, or even competence, will be drummed out of an organization that is not a meritocracy.  Washington, D.C. provides us with a powerful example of this.  Sadly, the Knicks have done a good job here too.  The Garden has had a $1 Billion facelift.  What they need more than ever is a great leader, of which there are not too many – not in basketball or in politics, or maybe not anywhere.

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