When, Why, and How There is an "I" in "Team"

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Early on in Hoops Culture class, my students read an essay by an established philosopher of sport, Professor R. Scott Kretchmar. He begins an essay on the moral qualities of different styles of basketball with a distinction between two kinds of basketball: one that he calls “purist” and one that he calls “modernist.” He draws up a table with two columns indicating the contrasting features of each style, touching on everything from the kind of offense and defense, individual skills, and even the pace that he believes characterize each one.

In the end, he argues for the superior moral virtue of what he calls “a modified purism” but along the way he acknowledges that he believes “purist basketball, generally speaking, is better than modernist basketball.” I don’t think it’s a particularly convincing essay and moreover the distinctions he draws are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) racialized. This is important and something I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, and something we talk about in class. But it’s not really what I want to emphasize here. What I want to focus on here is his claim that “purist” basketball is “centered on team capability” while “modernist” basketball is “centered on individual capability.”

It’s a commonplace in basketball culture, really in all of sports culture, to say that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'” And Kretchmar’s two column table begins more or less as a dressed up version of that cliche. But I disagree and want to challenge that truism. Among the things that stirred me so and inspired me in this year’s Michigan team was that they demonstrated very obviously, in my opinion, that there is an “I” in “team”, indeed that there must be an “I” in “team” and, in fact, that there must be and more than one “I” in “team.” But also — lest your own purist hackles be raised by that statement — they also showed that this “I” (or self) is of a very special kind, not the kind we usually have in mind when we carelessly assent to the cliche that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'”

The cliche, as it is usually given and taken, tells us that for that entity that is greater than the sum of its parts that we call a true “team” to emerge, the individual members of it must sacrifice their individual interests. We say they must be “selfless.” Or to put it another way, we say they must lose their selves in order for the team to emerge or form. A frequent image or metaphor for that process is that of the “finely tuned machine” that works “like clockwork.” I can understand why that image comes to mind, but I don’t care for it because it implies that the process of becoming selfless requires that an individual shed his or her humanity and become lifeless, inanimate, a cog. It is to me a sad ideal to impose on athletes, especially on adolescent athletes who are in the midst of precisely that time of life where we all begin to differentiate ourselves from our families and to explore just who we are as unique individuals.

Fortunately, it need not be this way. And the evidence of my own perception of watching this team over the course of the year belies that view and its depressing mechanical metaphor. They did indeed function beautifully as a team, and they did so to the degree that each individual player was “selfless.” But the inspiring beauty and elevating moral virtue of the team arose because that selflessness did not require the shedding of their unique human individuality, but rather the assertion of it. They looked and felt to me more like a flock of birds rising from a field — one and many at the same time, bursting with unchecked life — than like some soulless mechanical device.

This is what I saw — to take one example — when I watched Nik Stauskas, in the course of a single possession, a game, or the season as a whole, navigate the tricky dilemma of when to shoot and when not to shoot. He loves to shoot, understandably, as it is an expression of a power he has developed over countless hours already in his young life. The joy he experiences when he exercises that power, fulfilling himself, is evident in his expressive exuberance when his shot settles in the bottom of the net. And it serves the team. But of course there are times when the shot doesn’t fall, there are times when he doesn’t even see the ball. And at those times, Nik stands patiently in the corner, demonstrating his understanding (even if it is intuitive, it is an understanding), that him standing in that corner creates space for teammates to exercise the powers that they have spent their young lifetimes developing. And, moreover, it works that way because of the many, many times that he has expressed his individual capability and has reveled in it.

It’s what you see when Trey Burke — a player with a great variety of powers — carefully chooses which to exercise at which time. Perhaps for a whole half he will use his power to beat his defender off the dribble and draw other defenders in order to pass to teammates who are open for easy shots because he has actually exercised his individual power. We call this unselfishness and understandably so. But only rightly so when we understand that this unselfishness is a function of the individual player (in this case Trey) actually asserting his unique individual capacities. The very same dynamic is involved when Trey, as happened, for example, against Kansas in the Regional final, pulls up for a 30 foot jump shot. There again, he is exercising a capacity he’s developed his entire life, asserting himself, but the choice is no less unselfish than any of the times, say, in the first half of that game, when he helped create opportunities for his teammates; teammates who, in turn, themselves were constantly involved in this fluid dynamic of individual self-assertion, by moving without the ball, by setting firm screens, or by rolling to the basket.

I could go on and on: each player from the regulars (Tim, Glenn, Mitch, Spike, and Caris) to the edge of the rotation (Jon and Jordan) to the end of the bench (Corey, Josh, Eso, Blake, Max and Matt) demonstrated this. That’s why I feel this team — and not only this team, but this is the one I care about — provided a powerful on-court refutation of the specious dichotomy that Kretchmar establishes. For the players on the team demonstrated that one can be selfless and remain a distinct individual, uniquely creative and expressive. In fact, I think they demonstrated that to be truly selfless, and so to truly form a team, each player has to embrace his or her distinct individuality, and must create for themselves and their teammates opportunities out of that individuality, and must express that individuality in whatever way their temperament and personality dictate. There are fifteen “I’s” in “Team.” And the team that emerges as greater than the sum of its parts affirms the individual dignity of each of its parts.

And I will say more (though people may be tired of hearing me talk about it): this is what the Fab Five and the teams of 1992 and 1993 did as well. They exhibited precisely this same dynamic. This is why they were so good and it is, I think, in large measure, why they were so captivating and continue to be so captivating, including to the players on the present team. I mean to say because they had found that sweet joyful spot where the egotistical self dissolves and the true, human individual self emerges in its fluid, boundless form and from the combination of those selves — of those “I’s” — a true team emerges. The joy arises from freeing themselves from the prison of rigid dichotomies (like those in Professor Kretchmar’s essay) between “team” and “individual,” between “self” and “other” and between “selfishness” and “unselfishness.” And the joy and power we revel in when watching them arises exactly to the degree that we too let go and allow ourselves to participate in what they have set in motion. Call it what you want, but to me there is nothing more pure in the culture of basketball.

  • Yay go blue! Spike is my favorite (even before that great championship performance!) but I like the whole team. What a great year of basketball they had this year…can’t wait for next year!!! 🙂

  • Great article– thank you. What I feel is a tremendous appreciation for this team. I saw a parallel kind of individual / team dynamic in how they obviously played for themselves as a individuals and a team– but also for ‘Michigan’– all those people in the stands every home (like me and my son and my father-in-law) and those watching on TV. In the opening segment before the NC game, the ‘I Play for Michigan’ statement that a few of the players said struck me as especially genuine.

    It’s also part of what makes basketball such as great sport. I grew up as a tennis player (very individualistic) and became a basketball gym rat in college– and ever since. When asked what made me happy in a business school application, the first thing that I wrote was that feeling of being one with five other guys on a basketball court.

    • In the last sentence, I should have actually said, “combining our different skills and strengths towards one common goal” rather than “being one” 🙂

    • Thank you John. Of course, I agree (and with your second comment as well, amending your last sentence).

      I don’t usually feel “school spirit” very strongly, I have to confess. But it’s begun to grow in me over the past few years as I’ve gotten to know personally so many of the athletes, including the basketball players. And that, in turn, has given me a stronger appreciation for how so many Michigan students do who don’t participate in intercollegiate athletics, and so whom we will never see on TV or read about, put the same kind of effort, intelligence, and love into their work as musicians, engineers, writers, scientists, and so on.

      So yeah, #GoBlue!

  • Please tell Glenn and Mitch to come back next year, they are not ready just yet!!

    • Well, I don’t have any say on that one Matt. But I will say that *I’M* not ready for them to go just yet. But you know man we gotta let them do what they and their families think is best and trust and support them in that process, whatever the outcome.

      • Yes, they’re both great players, but I feel as if both have not shown their full potential just yet. I understand how hard they work, but I am confident if they come back next year, not only will improvement be shown, but I think their real potential will start to be shown, they both lacked a little bit of consistancy, but I do expect that from every freshman in the country, and I think if they came back then they’d make the best decision for them and for the team, regardless, if they leave I know they’ll have great NBA careers, and I only wish the best for them! If a miracle did happen, and all four potential NBA players came back, I think that team would be better than the ’93 basketball team.

  • Very interesting article… I believe everything you are saying is spot on! I think my outlook is very similar to yours, sir. If you take the “I” out of team by assigning or restricting players to specific and one-dimensional roles (i.e. Def. specialist, shooter, slasher, O-rebounder) to simply be cogs in a machine, you are most likely suppressing or stunting the growth of other areas of a kid’s game where he has plenty of potential to help the team. This will eventually negatively impact the team as a whole by making the team less likely able to adapt to different game situations. For example, if Stauskus was relegated to the “shooter role” and discouraged from penetrating with the ball because it wasn’t a strength of his, I don’t think we see the on-court growth (from both the individual & team) or the rise in confidence that see saw throughout the course of the season. Spike could have been told to just take care of the ball and distribute to his teammates in his limited minutes. Had that been the case, Spike doesn’t see himself making big 3’s throughout the year and more importantly the team doesn’t get the contributions it sorely needed from him in the tourney. Doing what Spike did in the NC game will be huge in his development as a crucial player for UM in the next few years. Sorry this was so long winded. I hope I got to my point somewhere in there.

    • Great examples! Another one might be Mitch building from “hustle player” (boards, loose balls) to put backs to go to finisher on the pick and roll to short jumpers to pivot passer and even leading the break. Two months ago, Mitch would grab a defensive board, take two dribbles and freeze, as if some internal voice were telling him either “you don’t know how to handle the ball,” “you aren’t allowed to handle the ball” or “it’s not part of your identity to handle the ball.” But the impulse and the desire were clearly there. On that magnificent coast to coast fast break, he showed the ability was there as well.

      • Perfect example!!! This article really hits close to home for me. I really haven’t ever heard or read much about it anywhere else.

        I just started following you on twitter this morning and have been reading some of your blogs. Your letter to C-Webb was intense. I look forward to your future contributions, Professor Colas.

    • Coach Beilein is the greatest thing to ever happen to Michigan basketball. This whole article is amazing, but not once did it give credit to where credit is due. JB is not only a great coach but great motivator/mentor to these kids and any kids coming in. Thank you coach Beilein.

      • Thanks for reading and I am glad you liked the letter You can actually like it even more now because he does mention Coach’s arrival as the cause of his feeling that the program was coming back; turning around after the dark years.

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