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Lessons from Basketball's Olympic 'Dream Team'

How do you manage talent? This entrepreneur says you should never forget the rise, fall, and redemption of the U.S. men's basketball team.
The Dream Team: (from left) Christian Laettner, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson.
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In 1992, the world came together in Barcelona for the Summer Olympic Games. For basketball fans, there was something special about this year. For the first time ever, the men’s basketball team was not filled with college stars, but instead the best superstars of the NBA. 

The roster read like a listing of Hall of Famers: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Charles Barkley. 

It was called the Dream Team and is widely considered the greatest basketball team ever assembled.

“It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together,” coach Chuck Daly once said. “Traveling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars. That’s all I can compare it to.”

As predicted, the Dream Team swept the Olympics, winning on average by 43 points per game. The team won the gold medal with a final 117-85 victory over Croatia. The Dream Team stole the hearts of Olympic fans.

But, what transpired over the next few Olympics was something no one expected. Although the American basketball team won gold in 1996 and 2000, in the 2004 Olympics, the roster of superstars--which included upcoming stars Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James--lost more games than ever before. Though the team still managed to win a bronze medal, it was nicknamed the Nightmare Team.

What happened? The fall of the Dream Team can be explained simply: Its members played like stars, not like a team, resting on their successes, not the task at hand. Some would say the Dream Team began to take its dominance for granted.

So, in 2008, the team widely publicized a return to fundamental team values-;putting the team before any individual player, no matter how good. Moreover, team members acted like Olympians, not superstars, staying at the Olympic Village and attending other events to cheer on their fellow Americans. They were better teammates, but also truly inspired other American athletes to be at their best.

The team, called the Redeem Team, won gold. 

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we can learn a lot from the Redeem Team:

1. Everyone can't be a superstar. A team of superstars who don’t work together will not be successful. Build the best team possible, but hire team players. 

As an entrepreneur, your first hires are most important. You are constantly trying to add value to your team to take your product to next level. A creative genius or online marketing guru who is not willing to put the team first and get their hands dirty will be a greater liability than asset. Team players are key.

2. Always create new goals...even when you’re succeeding. Even when you have a team of superstars, never rest on your laurels. Did Apple stop when they created the first iPhone? Always push to make better products, refine your offerings, and raise the bar.

This is especially important in the start-up environment. At my company, FITIST, we were the first to market a new form of gym membership to the best of the best boutique studios, but we are always taking a critical eye to our product and refining, so we don’t lose the gains we’ve made. 

3. Always lead by example, win by example.  It’s not about only about winning or succeeding, but winning in a way that makes the competition respect you.

What made the Redeem Team different is that they were leaders, not just superstars. It's why they supported the other American athletes (who can forget Kobe Bryant cheering on Michael Phelps), participated in the opening ceremonies and visited the Olympic Village to share in the true spirit of the games. Winners and leaders support others. 

IMAGE: Dimitri Iundt/TempSport/Corbis
Last updated: Jul 11, 2012

CAROLINE LIMPERT | Columnist | Co-Founder, FITiST

Caroline Limpert is the co-founder of FITiST, the first one-stop membership and bookings platform for specialty fitness studios in NYC and LA. Before FITiST, she helped build new businesses for NY-based VC firm Tricera Partners.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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