I've been a sports fan since I was a kid, and living in Boston now has made it fun and easy for me to continue following teams I love. I grew up in a town that had lost its NBA franchise and did not have a major league baseball team so I have adopted the Celtics and Red Sox as my own. As a child I watched Celtics and Lakers games religiously and loved Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were both such great leaders, so talented and incredibly passionate players to watch on the court. They were paid well and treated like stars but they still seemed connected to their fans even though at that time there were no online communities like Facebook or Twitter. Magic and Bird became the face of the NBA, and both took their leadership image to heart. They are both still senior statesmen for the league today in how they live their lives, the real super stars almost transcend their teams and become icons for the NBA which they both certainly are.
Now even the oldest NBA players are younger than me and the contracts they are offered are astronomical. The stars today take celebrity to a whole new level. Their annual endorsement contracts can dwarf even the top payrolls in the league. It is a strange phenomenon to consider that they grew up playing a sport they love and prefer to any other activity for pure passion and love of the game, not money. Then when they turn professional and hire agents to represent them, it quickly becomes a business and they hold out for even bigger contracts. At some point it is clearly more about ego than the actual paycheck, but stakes just keep getting higher for the game they used to play just for fun.
This year has been so interesting to watch from the fan perspective. You do not have to be an NBA junkie to know that LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers when his contract ended and joined the Miami Heat during the off season. He held a prime time press conference to announce his big decision. From a marketing and PR perspective I think he handled his decision incredibly poorly, but he made it abundantly clear that he wanted to win a championship at all costs, even if his home team could offer a bigger paycheck to stay put. LeBron carried the team for years but as a one man show he could only get so far. Instead of trying to recruit others to join him at home (he actually grew up in Akron) he left to join other stars on their turf.
Now Gillette has dropped him and his main sponsor Nike is running the ad What do you want me to do?(the same company that brought us the Tiger Woods spot post scandal with Tiger's dad's voice from the grave). As LeBron screams his question over and over angrily into the camera, I just want to yell back I want you to shut up and lose LeBron you will never be a champion!I do not think all athletes are spoiled brats, in fact many make contract choices that signal they have a higher purpose and bigger goals in mind. Of course they want to win championships but they also see themselves and their families as part of a community and they do everything in their power to build the right ecosystem and infrastructure for a successful life (think Ray Allen of the Celtics).
When I look at the other star athletes who really seem to take their leadership roles seriously, my favorite this year is Shaquille O'Neal, the oldest player in the league. Shaq (or as he now calls himself the Big Shamroq), like LeBron, was the main event when he was first drafted. The weight of the team was on his broad shoulders. Alongside Kobe Bryant on the Lakers and Dwyane Wade in Miami he was able to win 4 rings (so far) but he felt tremendous pressure to perform at all times and he has played the minutes to prove it. Shaq is nearing the end of his career after 19 years in the league but I'd argue he is, in many ways, at the top of his game this season and is the new senior statesman for the league. He has really matured into a respected leader in the NBA. Shaq is making a small percentage of his previous contracts but obviously having more fun than ever before. With teammates Rajon Rondo and the Big 3 on the court with him now, the pressure is off him to carry the full load. He is a role player who knows the role so well after decades of honing his craft. Shaq has been embraced by the community even before he played his first game in The Garden in his new green uniform. I truly believe if (when!) the Celtics win this year he will be wearing green in the Hall of Fame because this championship would ultimately mean more to him than any of the others. He will have ended his career on such a high note here. Boston fans adore him posing as a statue in Harvard Square, riding the subway in drag for Halloween and handing out toys to kids as Shaq-A-Claus. Shaq is a star on and off the court but he does not take himself so seriously. He is cheered in every arena he plays in, and is incredibly warm and friendly despite his size. He has chosen his sponsorship deals well over the years remember his Radio (Shaq) Shack, Pepsi, KFC and Taco Bell ads?
LeBron is booed and despised not just in Cleveland but everywhere outside of Miami and even there people prefer Gloria and Emilio Estefan. That has got to rattle his psyche and negatively impact his team's performance as evidenced by the slow start of his team this season (he had the most number of turnovers ever in his first game this season). I think when LeBron retires (without his a ring I predict!) he will look back and regret that he did not choose love over money and fame. His sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola only gets him so far. Although few will ever have the opportunity to accumulate the kind of wealth these athletes have, every one of us mere mortals faces forks in the road every day where we must decide whether to follow our heads, our hearts or our wallets. The next time you find yourself at that juncture in your career, please think of the Big Shamroq and choose wisely. You might just get lucky too and no matter what, you will have a great time wherever that road takes you. The leaders and players who decide with their hearts never have to keep asking what you want them to do because they already know in their gut and they are in fact already doing it! So what can we learn from Shaq as a leader:
- You don't have to make the most money on your team to earn people's respect. If what one of my professors used to say, happiness is positive cash flowis true then that makes Shaq one of the richest guys in the league. To earn respect, you have to (over)deliver every chance you get. Whether you are Shaq joining an all star team with a great coach or a manager or president of a company, the same rules apply. Be (over)prepared, know your audience, and come to work every day with a positive attitude.
- Don't let your ego get in the way of a great opportunity. Shaq could have easily retired last year instead of taking a relatively small contract to play a backup role on the team but he still had the energy and drive for more and just may well end up with his most satisfying season of his career. What if Andrea Jung at Avon had left the company after being passed over for CEO originally?She believed in the future and ultimately got the top spot. In Massachusetts Martha Coakley lost a very high profile senatorial race for Ted Kennedy's seat but she checked her ego at the door and ran again for Attorney General and won a few months later. Conan O'Brien took a risk leaving a major network to go to a cable station and his audience used their remotes to flip the station so the advertisers followed as well so he is back on late night TV in the time slot he wanted. Ego could have easily derailed any of these folks from a great career opportunity, they are all now at the top of their respective fields and command the respect they have earned..