There's No "I" in "Coach," Either

The stadium scene.
Aug. 7 2000 9:30 PM

There's No "I" in "Coach," Either

The Philadelphia 76ers recently made an abortive attempt to trade Allen Iverson. Under the terms of a complicated 10-player, three-team deal, they would have given up Toni Kukoc, Matt Geiger, and Iverson and received, in return, Glen Rice, Jerome Williams, and Eddie Jones. The deal, of course, never happened. Jones went to the Miami Heat instead. And it's a good thing too, because for Philadelphia it would have been a terrible trade. In exchange for one of the most exciting players in the game and Kukoc, a superb playmaker, they would have gotten an all-star (Jones), a journeyman (Williams), and an aging gunner (Rice), who, by all accounts, studied defense at the George Gervin Institute of Waving Goodbye. But the team made an argument for the deal that is worth exploring in some detail. Iverson, it seems, wasn't getting along with the Sixers' coach, Larry Brown, and in the case of an irreconcilable conflict between the star and the coach, the Sixers maintained that the coach had to win. This, in the world of pro sports, is what passes for the moral high ground. Philadelphia would not be pushed around by a petulant, pampered star. One player could not be allowed to damage the integrity of the franchise. There is no "I" in team—etc., etc., etc. Were the Sixers right?

Let's start by asking a general question: Is a coach ever worth more to a basketball team than a star player is worth? In cases where the coach is mediocre, the answer is easy. Gregg Popovich is not worth more to the Spurs than Tim Duncan is. Even in the case of great coaches, any comparison usually ends up on the side of the player. Who was worth more in Chicago—Phil Jackson or Michael Jordan? Clearly Jordan, because without Jordan there is no myth of Jackson the great coach. Jackson in Los Angeles is a tougher call, but to say that Jackson was the last piece of the championship puzzle for the Lakers is not to say that he was the most important piece. In football, by contrast, it clearly is the case that a great coach is worth more than even the greatest player. Bill Parcells was more important to the Giants than Lawrence Taylor was. So too for Joe Gibbs. He won three Super Bowls with three different but equally uninspiring quarterbacks. (First Joe Theismann; then Doug Williams, of whom it was once said, legitimately, that he was the only man who could overthrow the ayatollah; and finally Mark Rypien, who was as mobile as a goal post.) But basketball is not football. Great football coaches create winning cultures and systems. Great basketball coaches call plays that no one follows.  

There is a more important issue here, though, and that is what it means to be a great coach. Did the Bulls under Jackson or the Lakers under Riley ever present their organizations with the Larry Brown problem? No. And why? Because one of the main things that made Jackson and Riley great is that they didn't alienate their best players. The Giants never had to choose between Parcells and Taylor, because Parcells made sure he got along with Taylor. Lesser coaches don't understand this, because they are caught up in the idea that a coach is someone who imposes his personality and his standards on his players. Nothing could be further from the truth. In When Pride Still Mattered, his superb biography of Vince Lombardi, David Maraniss points out how extraordinarily indulgent Lombardi was of his star players. Contrary to his reputation, Lombardi was adept at understanding and serving each player's idiosyncratic needs. Paul Hornung was a legendary carouser who at one point was suspended from the league for gambling. Lombardi, the so-called disciplinarian, welcomed him back with open arms. Maraniss writes of Lombardi,

He knew that his quarterbacks were not to be yelled at: Bart took it as an affront to his leadership and Zeke was too nervous. Hornung could handle anything, absorbed all of the Old Man's heat and kept going. Marv Fleming, the new tight end, was hugely talented, but Lombardi thought he required constant riding to play at his best. Taylor played better when he was mad at his coach, if not the world. Willie Davis was above reproach. ... Skoronski was sensitive to criticism and best left alone. ... Max McGee, the seemingly carefree receiver who was notorious for challenging Lombardi's curfews, required special treatment.

This is what great coaches do. They accommodate their talent. Nothing could be further from the coaching style of Larry Brown. He chased off Tim Thomas because he didn't like Thomas' attitude. He chased away Larry Hughes because he didn't get along with him either. And now he's feuding with Iverson. Lesson No. 1: Iverson is worth a dozen Larry Browns. Lesson No. 2: If Brown were the kind of coach worth fighting for, you'd never have to fight for him.

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of David and Goliath.

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