Success can be the root of a contemptuous snort.
We're great, you're not. You love us, so give us your money. Because, did we mention, we're great.
The strange fate of success has descended on the Golden State Warriors at a time when most of their fans (disclosure: myself included) had run out of shrinks to consult and old t-shirts in which to weep at least three times a week.
(There is little worse than weeping into the same old Warriors t-shirt on back-to-back nights.)
Suddenly, the team is deep into the NBA playoffs. The Vegas bookies declare the Warriors favorites. This is like Patton Oswalt being the favorite to be Gwyneth Paltrow's next husband.
The team was bought five years ago by a group led by venture capitalist Joe Lacob. When he ventured onto the Warriors court for the first time, he was derided beyond the rafters.
Was this merely for having the virtue of being a venture capitalist? No, he traded Monta Ellis, a star who wasn't quite a star, for a giant Croatian-Australian called Andrew Bogut. (Who is now a star. Please don't argue with me.)
Many a wealthy man would gone full Donald. (Lacob, too, isn't blessed with an excess of natural head-hair.)
Lacob offered some astonishing modesty and decided to hire those who he thought would help him in his quest for success. In doing so, he acknowledged that he didn't know more than some thought he thought he did. (Please work with that sentence. I'm not going to change it.)
This was a remarkable sublimation of ego. By bringing together new general manager Bob Myers, new president Rick Welts and new consultant (and full-time NBA logo Jerry West), Lacob decided that he would be judged on pure CEO decision-making -- the decision-making of a number of high-profile individuals overseen by him.
As a decision in itself, this was astounding.
Sports team owners (like CEOs) can sometimes have heads even larger than the stadiums they build. (Sample: The Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, is actually the team's general manager.) They always know best. Lacob knew best that he didn't.
Changing What Seemed To Be Working
The fact that he understood he needed help surely contributed in his firing of coach Mark Jackson. Jackson was blessed with sublime sanctimoniousness, couched in a certain religious certainty. He didn't seem to be keen on hiring any assistants who might know more than him -- there are, I suspect, many. He had won more than 50 (out of 82) games.
Lacob realized something rather fundamental. That in a sport -- a business -- where egos appear to dominate, it's team that wins more often than not.
It's easy to fall in love with large egos. They want to be the story. They know how to become the story. Sometimes, though, their effect on the enterprise can be wind and noise, rather than results and poise.
The San Antonio Spurs, for example, had effaced their selves to a degree that most of them could happily walk down the streets of America and no one would recognize them.
The management hired half their players from abroad, because the concept of team was rather more familiar there than in showtime, individualistic, ESPN-highlight America.
And they won.
The Warriors hired a coach who used to play in San Antonio, Steve Kerr. He hired excellent and seasoned assistants. (This is Kerr's first year as a coach.) The Warriors now play as a team as well as merely being one, and have started to win big. 67 victories this year and now the Western Conference Finals.
Not Changing What Was Working
But it isn't just on the court that astute team management has shown remarkable progress. Sometimes making progress means not changing everything.
I went to Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. What was remarkable wasn't just the improved attention to detail when it comes to the staging of the show (Hollywood producer and Warriors co-owner Peter Guber knows how to make you feel things).
The true test of management also lies in the things that don't change, as well as the things that do. It takes a considerable lack of ego to accept and respect those things that customers love.
What the Warriors haven't, to my eyes, changed is the attitude of those who may not have ever met a member of senior management: the ushers, the concession stand employees, the security staff.
One of the characteristics of going to a Warriors game in the bad years (Google "Vonteego Cummings" and weep) is that those with whom you had contact at the arena were always wry, humorous, even uplifting.
Yes, they enjoyed gallows humor. But they were local people who felt like they were fans.
The Warriors were truly awful for a long, long time (most of the last 39 years). But these regular people who behaved a regular way might have been one small reason why the fans were astoundingly loyal.
Under a new regime, these staff could have been told to reflect a new attitude -- one redolent of a VC-owned company. They could have suddenly become slick, insincere, corporate. They could have suddenly tried to sell you, up-sell you, cross-sell you, or sell you until you were cross. They could have become officious or even superior.
Instead, the banter with the fans hasn't changed.
The security staff at the stadium store might be mean bouncers in another life. Here, they're welcoming beyond reason.
I took a t-shirt to the checkout.
"What, you don't want the free commemorative mug?" said the clerk with a peculiar knowing, smiling sincerity. Of course, I wanted the commemorative mug. Of course I bought the second t-shirt which got me the "free" commemorative mug.
This didn't feel like upselling. It felt like someone I'd met in a bar telling me that the local real ale was a lot better than the Budweiser my friend had ordered.
"Ain't you looking great tonight?" said one usher. To my companion, of course.
It wasn't at all unctuous. Instead, this was someone who gave an excellent impression of being glad to be there, and glad to make others feel good. Just because. Because, why not? Because that's what they'd always done, even when the team had been worse than a wart inside your nostril.
This could have suddenly been as scary as "The Truman Show." New corporate thinking can do that. New corporate thinking always knows better.
Instead, this was still the same local real.
The ushers' team commitment was so great that the one in our section couldn't help but get involved in what was happening on the court.
"Miss!" she hissed, as the Houston Rockets' James Harden aimed a ball toward the basket.
You might think this the normal reaction of your average fan. Yes, but this was during the warm-ups. Harden was still wearing sweats.
Having Human Intelligence Is The Power Of Business Intelligence
The management might have changed the brand for the better. But they didn't throw out everything as they did it. Now, in moving their arena to downtown San Francisco in 2018, they admit that one of their challenges is to keep that atmosphere.
The new place will actually have fewer seats than the Oracle Arena. It will also have only one row of luxury suites instead of two.
More, bigger, more expensive, slicker is always a management temptation. The Warriors understand their brand has roots in a very real, loyal, earthy Oakland. They don't want to lose the human feeling.
Human intelligence is often in rare supply when the supremely confident spend vast amounts of money to own something that involves (a lot of) vanity.
The San Francisco 49-ers just opened a new stadium in Santa Clara. It's desperately lacking in human intelligence. The management left it open to the sun. It gets very hot in Santa Clara. Many people don't bother to sit in their seats, instead wandering around the shaded areas where the beer and hot dogs are.
The morning after the Warriors game, I received an email from the team.
"Thank you for coming to the game last night," it said. Of course it wondered whether I'd like to buy more tickets.
Actually, I would. And not just because I'm a fan.