Teamwork is reciprocal

ReciprocityFirst, I apologize again for my absence from this site. By day I’m super busy helping a friend get his new business going, and by night I’m busy with family and basketball related matters that leave me no time for writing. Hopefully I’ll soon get a chance to get basketballogy and the book going again; I really miss it.

Meanwhile, I came across a great video (thanks to Joe Haefner of that I thought you guys would enjoy as well.

ReciprocityUsually when we preach about the importance of teamwork, what we are saying is that players have to subjugate their personal agendas for the good of the team — and that truly is an important part of teamwork. However, teamwork is reciprocal; the team should give back to each team member, as this cute video beautifully shows.


This “All for one and one for all” nature of teamwork reminds me of a few personal experiences: two as a volunteer coach in youth basketball leagues, and one from my days as a player.


ReciprosictyOne year we had a young man who struggled nobly with some fairly severe disabilities. He was such a great guy though and the team loved him. I’ll call him “Aaron” for the purposes of telling the story.

Because of “Aaron’s” disabilities, he struggled to run up and down the court, and was unable to catch a basketball unless it was almost handed to him.

To mitigate this limitation, we designed a special play for him (these are high school age boys). The play started with our team playing defense with just 3 players, while Aaron and one of our “bigs” waited under the basket at the other end of the court. Because we were defending 3 on 5, our opponents usually scored, but as soon as they did, we would immediately throw the ball the length of the court to our big waiting at the other end. Our big would catch the ball and then gently hand it to “Aaron,” and Aaron would attempt a shot.

Nearly always the shot fell very short, an air ball, so our big would rebound it and quickly hand it back to Aaron for another try. Aaron could usually get 1 to 3 shot attempts up before the defense got back to him.

And here is the beautiful part. Sometimes our opponents, perhaps realizing that we had just given them a basket on their end, would back off and let Aaron have shots until he scored, then everyone in the stands would cheer, regardless which team they were rooting for.

I know some would object to this, and some people actually did over the course of that season, but basketball-wise, no harm was done. We gave our opponents a basket, they gave us a basket, and we gave a good young man with a very heavy burden in life a meaningful experience with his friends. I thought it was great.

Aaron’s mother often expressed her gratitude to me, but the reality was I was just a small part of a very big group of people who just have their priorities right.


ReciprocityMy second story involves a young man I’ll call “Jason.” Jason was a great kid, humble and fun and loved by his friends which is why he played basketball with them. However, Jason wasn’t at all as experienced as his friends and not on the same skill level as them (again, high school age boys). To their credit, they didn’t care though; Jason was one of them.

The good news is that this team went the entire season undefeated. The bad news is Jason had not scored a basket in a game all season.

We swept through the tournament no problem, and had a comfortable lead in the second half of the championship game when our opponents called a time out.

I didn’t really have much to say to our guys. Basketball-wise, they were in control so usually I just use moments like this to praise what they are doing right (so that they keep doing them), and to remind them that the loss is hard on our opponents so let’s be gracious winners…

But instead, I said, “Guys, no one shoots until Jason scores.”

I was surprised to hear those words come out of my mouth to be honest, but the smiles on everyone’s faces told me I’d said the right thing.

Then again, the terror on Jason’s face told me I definitely had not. As Jason started to protest, his teammates talked him into it. “You can do it, Jason, come on. Let’s do this.”

Not wanting to let his team down, Jason played with more determination that I had seen from him all year.

Then we met with our first unforeseen obstacle to our new game plan: our own crowd. They howled at us as our team pushed the ball as usual on a fast break, only to dribble the ball all the way to the rim and not lay it up. Instead my guys would circle back out of the key and wait for Jason to get down the floor so that they could get him the ball to shoot.

Our second unforeseen obstacle was Jason himself. Jason was a fair shooter in practice, but the pressure we had placed on him in a championship game made Jason jittery and he shot with so much adrenaline, he repeatedly shot the ball completely over the backboard and out of bounds.

I started to realize I should have had this idea during a regular season game: then Jason would have scored during the course of the season and wouldn’t be under such pressure. Wishing I’d have thought of it during the season, I was becoming increasingly anxious for Jason as he valiantly, and futilely, tried again and again to score.

The jeering from some in the crowd just added to Jason’s embarrassment. Sometimes after a wild shot, Jason would shake his hand dramatically for us all to see, as if to show us all that he had hurt it on the shot attempt and that is why he missed.

I had put us in quite a spot. What once felt like an insurmountable lead was quickly, uh, surmounted.

Soon we were up by only 2 points with very little time left in the game. During a time out I asked the team how they felt about our game plan. Did we still want Jason to score? Or did we want to make sure we ended our season with a championship?

Jason was the first to speak. “Coach, thank you, but we don’t need to do this. I want us to win.”

Before I could say anything, our team’s best player, and by far the most competitive personality on our team blurted, “We will win! AND you will score. Just go do it!”

That statement shut the rest of us up and we all looked to Jason.

Jason thought a moment then nodded, and I thought I saw something click inside him. It was like he realized that no one was going to bail him out of this, no one was going to let him off the hook. For Jason, the only escape from this pressure was to step up to the challenge, and you could just see on his face and in his body language that he decided not to make any more excuses and just get it done.

We took the court and immediately turned the ball over trying to force a pass to Jason (it was obvious to our opponents that we wanted Jason to score, so they did what they could to prevent it). The turnover resulted in a layup for our opponents, tying the score with about a minute left to go.

The comeback had energized our opponents, making them much more formidable than they had been when they believed we were going to cream them. The comeback likewise energized their crowd, and it was quite loud. For 3 straight years the teams I had coached went undefeated — a fact I mention only because it helps you understand just how heightened the anticipation of an upset had become for this game. It was intense.

I remember what happened next like it was yesterday.

With great speed, determination and purpose, our best player took the ball the length of the court, right through the defense and deep into the paint on the right side, and it definitely looked like he was determined to score. I thought to myself, “Oh! I guess we have a new game plan!”

However, he somehow passed the ball out of the quintuple-team that had collapsed on him and kicked the ball out to Jason, who was standing all alone on the weak side, just outside the key near the mid post. You could almost hear crickets chirping he was so alone. My player had deliberately attracted the attention of the defense with his aggressive move (and reputation as our main scorer), and drew our opponents away from Jason so he’d have a wide open look. (By the way, I hope this young man will consider coaching one day; he’ll be much better than I am).

Without a second’s hesitation, Jason shot the ball. It banked hard against the glass and went right through the basket.

Jason made a quick leap as he saw it go through but did not celebrate; he turned and ran back on defense.

Not only did we win that championship game, but Jason made another basket as well before the game was done.

I don’t know if those boys remember that game — or what they think of it if they do. Moreover, I’m not sure that game meant that much to Jason either. He probably remembers it as that nightmare game we put him through.

But I’ll never forget the goodness of those boys who were determined to do something for their friend, even if it meant losing a championship game.

I’ve used that, “No one shoots until [so and so] scores,” many times since (in regular season games) with far less dramatic results. Usually that person scores over the course of the next few possessions and things are fine. I’ve even had some teams that could not step up to that test of character and teamwork. There have been instances where players chose to shoot the ball themselves even though we had a comfortable lead and were trying to get a less experienced teammate involved.

Again, when we preach about the importance of teamwork, what we are usually saying is that players have to subjugate their personal agendas for the good of the team — and that truly is an important part of teamwork. However, teamwork is reciprocal; the team should give back to each team member.

We coaches need to pay attention not just to what our players give to the team, but what our team is giving back to each player. Does each player on our teams feel like they are a part of something? Do they feel appreciated? Valued? Are they happy to be a part of your team, win or lose?


BasketballogyI remember one game as a player where our team was eliminated from a tournament thanks to my defensive lapse in the closing seconds of a game.

It was always my job to guard our opponent’s best player, and that suited me just fine. I loved that job.

We were up by 1 point with about 2 seconds left in the game, and victory seemed highly probable.

Our opponent had the ball out of bounds free throw line extended. I was exhausted and suffering from very severe back spasms that were so painful I literally could not stand up straight. I was playing through the pain, but looked like a caveman in the process, all hunched over. As their inbounds play executed, I was screened off my man… who caught the inbounds pass in a rhythm and nailed the jumper at the buzzer, handing us a crushing defeat. We thought we were the number one or number two team in our league and had a good chance that year of going all the way. And now we were done.

With the sound of the buzzer still echoing in the gym, I vividly remember the look on my teammates’ faces as they all turned to me. One asked, “What happened?!”

I wanted to say, “A screen…” or “My back….” Instead, I just fought back tears and said, “I’m sorry,” and hung my head. Although the degenerative disc disease in my back would soon be the reason I had to quit playing basketball altogether, it didn’t hurt me nearly as much at that moment as knowing I let my team down.

Before I could raise my head, I was surrounded by teammates, patting me on the back and saying it was okay.

That was decades ago. We are all still friends, and to this day they’ve still never mentioned how I let us down that game.

In retrospect, I should have done something smart like yell, “Screen! Switch!” or better yet, asked to be subbed out.

If I had my normal quickness and athleticism, I could have definitely jumped the screen to deny the pass, and probably deflected the inbounds pass if they tried it anyway.

Instead, I’ve had to settle for knowing that my teammates are truly great guys, and that honestly hasn’t been so bad. To this day, despite my colossal mistake that game, I’m truly glad I was a part of that team. I’d really hate to not have those (other) great basketball memories with those guys. I definitely got something of value playing on that team.

Teamwork, done right, is reciprocal. As coaches, we need to check ourselves from time to time to make sure that what we are doing with our teams results not just in wins, but in our players feeling like playing for us is worth it to them.

That said, I bet you guys have war stories of your own that illustrate the reciprocity of teamwork. Please feel free to share them here.

  1. SCNickersonSCNickerson03-21-2012

    Great post. I love team work more than anything (even winning) as one of your stories showed.

    I also love when some of the kids on my team who don’t get to play much, get on the court and can nail a few shots. Brings a smile to my face, and most importantly theirs.

  2. Tom7Tom703-21-2012

    Thanks. One of the things that struck me about the video clip of Gabe Puthoff is that someone took the trouble to make that video so we all could be influenced by his story.

    As I wrote in another article, to me encouraging our youth is the meat and potatoes of sports, and winning is gravy.

    I LOVE gravy, but it’s actually pretty gross without the meat and potatoes.

Leave a Reply