The Magic Johnson school of leadership

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
10:33
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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When people talk about being a leader in the NBA, a lot of times what they seem to mean is screaming at teammates who mess up. (Yes, I'm thinking of Kevin Garnett.)

Which always strikes me as a simplistic definition of leadership.

David Thorpe told me years ago that he defines leadership as inspiring people, or breathing life into them. Mess around with that idea for a while, and then try it in your own life, with people at work, in your pickup game, or with your kids. It's a powerful idea. If you define your best moments of leadership as when those around you are feeling most inspired, then that is something that really seems to help a team.

It also forces you to think of leadership as a flexible thing. Something that inspires one person is not the same as what will inspire another. It's your job, as a leader, to unravel that.

In that regard, screaming at a teammate can almost be seen as the opposite of leadership -- who feels inspired when they're getting scolded? The exception, however, is if that screaming is just one tiny part of a much bigger picture. If, say, Garnett has inspired Glen Davis day after day, for years. If he has led by word and deed in inspiring him to be the best he can be, then I can see that you'd end up with so much love and trust that a little screaming now and again wouldn't crush Davis. Basically, perhaps Garnett has filled Davis with so much love that he can afford to take some away as a motivational tool.

But it's hardly the only way to fire up your teammates. In that regard, consider what Jackie MacMullan writes in "When the Game Was Ours" about Magic Johnson's first year at Everett high school:
Magic's congeniality was a gift and a blessing to a school that was struggling to maintain order in the wake of the redistricting. There were incidents throughout Johnson's tenure at Everett between white and black students, yet the gifted young ballplayer defused much of the tension by coaxing his friends into becoming like him -- colorblind.

He showed up at parties held by his white teammates, even though he and his friends were often the only blacks in attendance. He convinced his white friends to listen to his soul music and coaxed the principal into setting aside a room to dance during free study periods. He organized a protest when no African American cheerleaders were picked for the school's squad, even though their talents were undeniable.

"For all his basketball skills, the biggest contribution Earvin made to Everett was race relations," said Fox. "He helped us bridge two very different cultures. He ran with the white kids, but never turned his back on the black kids. He broke down so many barriers. He was so popular the students figured 'Hey, if Earvin is hanging out with these guys, it must be okay.'"

It was an Everett tradition that after the first practice of the season, the players ran around the basketball court until the last teammate was standing. Two years in a row, that person was Earvin Johnson. The summer before his senior season, Johnson's teammates Randy Shumway informed Fox that he was out to beat Magic. The two ran around the court for more than a half-hour as their teammates dropped by the wayside. After 45 minutes, both players were panting, clearly exhausted, yet neither was willing to quit. Fox was contemplating how he should break the stalemate when he noticed Johnson whispering in Shumway's ear. The two did one more lap together before Magic announced, "That's it, Coach. We're calling it a draw."

"Earvin could have outlasted him," said Fox, "but he knew it would be better for team morale if he didn't."

Of course, this is just a fraction of the leadership moments from Johnson's life to date. But it's a powerful tale. Remember how awkward you were in high school? All those insecurities that ruled your life? Imagine the self-assurance it takes to walk into that environment and lead a successful and inspiring one-man race relations campaign, complete with protests on behalf of cheerleaders, a room set aside for dancing and passing up opportunities to prove athletic dominance in favor of team cohesion.

Even just reading about it I'm inspired. That's leadership.

Henry Abbott | email

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