Tag Archives: The Secret

The Secret About The Secret

‘The Secret’ is the central theme of Bill Simmons’ epic book about the NBA.  As revealed to him by Hall of Fame player Isaiah Thomas, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball”.  That is, while the collective skills of a basketball team are important, what is most important is the collective, the interactions between those skills and the personalities of the players.  If you ask virtually anyone close to basketball, or any other team sport, his opinion on the topic, I am extremely confident that virtually all would agree with Thomas’ sentiment.

‘The Secret about the Secret’ is that while virtually all agree that it’s not about (name your)ball in the abstract, almost no one actually takes it into account in practice.  In the vast majority of cases, clubs do not build teams, but collect players or, even worse, ‘assets’ or ‘pieces’*.  While clubs talk about the importance of the team, they will always, always take the slightly better player or slightly bigger name regardless of how they fit into the current team and without considering the mix of personalities**.

I have had the extreme good fortune to spend a large portion of my career working with Scott Touzinsky.  Scott was a pretty good player, especially in reception and defence, but by no means a top level player.  However, every group that Scott was involved in became a team, and most likely won or came very close to winning. His list of (team) achievements includes championships in five different countries, and an Olympic gold medal in 2008.  Yet I personally experienced two different clubs not re-signing him after the team had a great season, because he was not good enough. The drop off in performance on both occasions was catastrophic, but at least in the second case the club was smart enough to correct their mistake.  One of the highlights of my career was being able to bring him to Poland, and listen as real volleyball experts instantly recognised his contribution.

The reason that clubs don’t take into account The Secret is really simple.  Their goal is not to win.  Logically if someone acknowledges the importance of an element and yet systematically ignores it in practice, then they cannot have the goal of winning.  Their actual, hidden, motivation’ is not to look stupid or be criticised for their decisions. If a club takes a ‘worse’ player over a ‘better’ player, they will instantly be criticised and if they also lose, they will likely be sacked.  Karch Kiraly, picking the roster for the 2016 Olympics acknowledged The Secret and took a third setter instead of a fourth receiver.  This was questioned at the time, and continues to be questioned after his highly favoured team faltered in the semi-final.  But the reality is his team led that semi-final 11-7 in the fifth set.  The presence or otherwise of a fourth receiver would not have made a difference in that match.  If you look at the playing time of the fourth receivers in the men’s tournament, you will find they were essentially meaningless (in terms of points scored).  And yet he is still criticised for making that decision.

As he had the first word, so should Isaiah Thomas have the last word.  He knows The Secret, but as the General Manager of the New York Knicks he aggressively ignored it in building historically bad teams, including signing multiple stars who played the same position.  He himself could have predicted the outcome***.


*In the case of the AFL, they don’t even call them ‘teams’ anymore. What the f*** is a ‘playing group’?

**It goes without saying that it becomes the responsibility of the coach to mould these disparate, ill considered pieces into a team.

***He was criticised at the team for his team building. It is still not clear what his hidden motivation was.  One writer judged him as the second worse General Manager of all time.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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‘Life After The Secret’

I have referenced and quoted the works of Bill Simmons many times now over the last couple of years.  specifically I have referenced his opus, ‘The Book of Basketball‘ numerous times, most recently in a post outlining the secret of success in basketball, as revealed to Simmons by Isiah Thomas.  As we recall, ‘the secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball’.

I wrote in my original post that two chapters (Chapter One – ‘The Secret’ and Epilogue – ‘Life After The Secret’) should be published together and sold as a coaching resource.  The second of those chapters is a visit and discussion with Bill Walton, another alltime great basketball player and another whose reputation included comments like ‘made his teammates better’ and ‘understood the game in a different way from others’.  When Simmons told him Isiah Thomas’ theory, his response was another elegant and perfect description.

“It’s not a secret as much as a choice.  Look at the forces fighting against that choice.  Look at the forces pushing you to make the other choice, the wrong choice.  It’s all about you.  It’s all about material acquisitions, physical gratification, stats and highlights.  Everywhere you go, you’re bombarded with the opposite message of what really matters.  And you wouldn’t even know otherwise unless you played with the right player or the right coach: the Woodens, the Auerbachs, the Ramseys, the Russells, the Birds.  How many people get that lucky?  Kobe was blessed to have Phil (Jackson) and eventually realised that.  With a truly great coach, it’s not about a diagram, it’s not about a play, it’s not about practice, it’s the course of time over history.  It’s the impact a coach has on the lives around him.  That’s what Phil done for Kobe.  This history of life is that most people figure it out.  Most of the time it’s too late.  That’s the real frustrating part – the squandered opportunities that you can’t get back.”

And there it is.  The secret is not a secret, it’s a choice, and most people ignore it until it’s too late. It’s always a choice…

‘The Secret’

Bill Simmons loves basketball, specifically the NBA.  He also loves to write.  When you put those two things together, you end up with an exhaustively researched, incredibly informative, wildly entertaining 700 page book on the NBA, ‘The Book Of Basketball’. The overarching theme of the book is what he calls ‘The Secret’.  ‘The Secret’ is apparently the secret of sucess in the NBA, by extension basketball (and by further extension) all team sports, and was revealed to him by Detroit Pistons legend, Isiah Thomas.

“The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”

That’s it.  A 700 page book boiled down to its essence.  “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”  There are two incredible chapters of the book that address the issue directly… Chapter One – ‘The Secret’ and Epilogue – ‘Life After The Secret’.  In fact if those two chapters could be packaged together I would recommend them as required reading for every team sport coach (and everyone who loves good writing about basketball).  There are so many bits and pieces that I could quote that I really don’t know where to start.  So I will just cut and paste a series of quotes from Bill Russell and Bill Bradley.

Russell: “By design and by talent the Celtics were a team of specialists, and like a team of specialists in any field, our performance depended on individual excellence and how well we worked together. None of us had to strain to understand that we had to complement each other’s specialties; it was simply a fact, and we all tried to figure out ways to make our combination more effective… the Celtics played together because we knew it was the best way to win.”

Bradley: “A team championship exposes the limits of self-reliance, selfishness and irresponsibility. One man alone can’t make it happen; in fact, the contrary is true: a single man can prevent it from happening. The success of the group assures the success of the individual, but not the other way around. Yet this team is an inept model, for even as people marvel at its unselfishness and skill involved, they disagree on how it is achieved and who is the most instrumental. The human closeness of a basketball team cannot be reconstructed on a larger scale.”

Russell: “Star players have an enormous responsibility beyond their statistics—the responsibility to pick their team up and carry it. You have to do this to win championships—and to be ready to do it when you’d rather be a thousand other places. You have to say and do the things that make your opponents play worse and your teammates play better. I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I’d played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.”

Bradley: ” I believe that basketball, when a certain level of unselfish team play is realized, can serve as a kind of metaphor for ultimate cooperation. It is a sport where success, as symbolized by the championship, requires that the dictates of the community prevail over selfish personal impulses. An exceptional player is simply one point on a five-pointed star. Statistics—such as points, rebounds, or assists per game—can never explain the remarkable interaction that takes place on a successful pro team.”

For the record, I happen to believe that volleyball is an even greater team game than basketball.

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Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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