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Communication, Trust, and Listening

Contrary to what the title of this post might imply, Rethinking Basketball is not going to become a relationship advice blog.

Trust me, you don’t want any of that stuff from me anyway...and I could probably find an ex-girlfriend or two to confirm that.

Anyway, as I was reading an article in the Oregonian by Jason Quick this morning (via TrueHoop), I was reminded that the building blocks of a strong relationship are also essential to building a strong team, starting with communication. The NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers were introducing recently signed point guard Andre Miller to the media and Miller repeatedly emphasized the importance of communication to his job as a point guard.

You may be aware of my obsession with point guard play and figuring out how to describe the intangibles that separate the good point guards from the great ones. Miller was easily one of my favorite college point guards ever (and strangely, one of the few college point guards I liked who has made a solid pro career). He was not only the floor leader of the University of Utah team that made it to the NCAA National Championship game, but he was a triple double threat every time he stepped on the floor.

So given that I admire Miller's game, I find it interesting that Miller emphasized to both the media and coach Nate McMillan’s summer basketball camp that communication is part of what makes him a good point guard.

"And my thing is when I talk to little kids I tell ‘em communication and helping each other get better is my number one goal in the NBA. I’ve been playing ten years now and every team that I go to my job is to help guys get better and to communicate. So my role won’t be too much different comin’ here."
Andre Miller talks to coach Nate McMillan's hoops campers

Miller reiterated the point to the media while also describing how poor communication (and egos) can inhibit the performance of even the most talented teams.

"…I got traded to the Clippers, that was a talented team but it was too many egos I felt and it was tough to win in that situation. And like I said earlier, about observing this team and the way they play well together, they compete and there’s no big egos. I think when you add a little communication to that as a point guard, it makes the job a little bit easier. And I can tell you, just from being on those different teams, every meeting was talking about ‘We need to communicate more’ and that helps a lot. That helps a team get over the hump. Communication, understanding each other, and that’s a big part of basketball."

Blazers introduce Andre Miller

Cappie Pondexter made similar comments to ESPN columnist Mechelle Voepel the other day and really complements Miller’s thoughts well by articulating how she communicates with her teammates as a team leader and de facto lead guard. An excerpt from Voepel’s article:
"One thing I've learned is to continue to push my teammates," Pondexter said. "Especially as one of the leaders of the team. I don't think I did a good job of keeping everybody together last year, and that's something I've focused on since training camp this season."

When she and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi would see each other during their playing stints in Russia, they would discuss what had to be different for 2009 when they got back to Phoenix.

"I'd say, 'We need to challenge everybody each day, as well as demonstrating it ourselves,'" Pondexter said. "Sometimes I am a very quiet person and can be to myself. And I've learned to be more giving to my teammates.

"You never know if someone's having a down day, so if you extend your hand and listen to that person, that can affect things on the court. There are a lot of things that happen off the court that affect what goes on on the court."
Pondexter not only articulates more precisely how she communicates with her team, but also describes two different types of communication – basketball related and just plain ol’ collegial how-ya-doin-today? communication. As a leader, the combination is what education scholars might call the disposition of a "warm demander" – building a relationship with students that lets them know that you are challenging them because you care about them and their growth as human beings.

Whoa…this is getting sort of touchy feely…and yet I continue…

Fundamentally, what a warm demander is doing is building trust between themselves and the student. But something else that Pondexter mentions that seems essential to being a good leader of any type – on the floor or off -- is listening.

One way to read Miller’s comments with Pondexter’s comments is that no matter how much you talk about the importance of communication, it won’t matter if people’s egos prevent them from actually listening to one another.

Sadly, listening is not something people in an individualistic society do very well. When I talk to pre-service elementary school teachers about the oft-ignored need to teach young children listening skills explicitly, I remind that although it’s fundamental to human interaction, it’s not something that just happens naturally – we all know adults in our lives who completely lack the capacity to listen.

Obviously, communication, trust building and listening aren’t the only things a point guard (or leader) has to do – it would seem to really help to be able to dribble, pass, and run as well, if not shoot the ball. Furthermore, possessing these traits does not automatically make one a good leader – the ability to apply these skills in a particular context and know how to actually accomplish goals takes more, whether in basketball or a "real" workplace. (I particularly like Prof. Robert J. Sternberg’s WICS model of leadership – a synthesis of wisdom, creativity, and intelligence – although some academics have critiqued it. That's what academics do.)

However, underlying both of these player’s description of what it takes to be a great floor leader or team leader off the floor is a notion of humility – you know, that thing that sort of happens when you put aside your personal hang ups, realize there’s something bigger at work than your narrow perspective of the world, and start having a little concern for the needs and growth of others.

And hey, the world could certainly stand a little more humility, on and off the basketball court.

Transition Points:

Nate McMillan was a pretty solid point guard in his own right for the Seattle Supersonics back in the 90’s. I sort of imagined myself as more of a Kendall Gill-type player growing up, but McMillan was just one of those guys that I think every player should aspire to be – he knew his role, worked hard on both ends of the floor, and just struck me as someone who was a real student of the game. So it’s quite interesting to hear about what he values in a point guard for this young uber-talented Trail Blazers team.

I just received an email today about an article Bill Maher wrote in the Huffington Post a few days ago about healthcare and he brought up another one of those nagging issues about living in a world with other human beings:

How about this for a New Rule: Not everything in America has to make a profit. It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures. Some things we just didn't do for money. The United States always defined capitalism, but it didn't used to define us.


Yes, I know all this Pacific Northwest hippie thinking is leading right to a silly and dangerous statement like all we need in the world is more love…or something like that. Thankfully, the Beatles have already lyrically covered that topic in depth…and Love Actually was one of those movies that brought it all to life.