Ours is an individualistic society, and thus the American is obsessed with the extraordinary potential of individual initiative. We are drawn to the individual’s rise to the top—from rags to riches, from defeat to victory, from the shade of shadow to the shine of spotlight. The ability of one man to rise above the pack and distinguish himself is inspiring, inspirational, memorable. The story of the proactive woman, sparked by her work ethic and resourcefulness, is a courageous one. More importantly, it is one that deserves telling.
Those instances of individual initiative resonate with us, and that social phenomenon is certainly not lost in the world of sports. We cling to the successful athlete, the successful coach, the successful general manager. Even more so than team accomplishment, the ability of the individual to rise up from the ranks of the ordinary and experience something truly extraordinary sticks in our minds.
We’ll remember LeBron James down the road, not Mario Chalmers’ stingy defense and streaky shooting.
We’ll remember Tom Brady down the road, not that average running back or subpar tight end lining up next to him.
We’ll remember Bill Belichick down the road, not the entirety of his coaching staff on the sidelines.
That’s the nature of the game, and it can be a sad sight to behold. Lost in the glorification of individual initiative is the potential of the greater unit — not as a collection of individuals, but as a whole. That larger unit, an assembly of synced individuals coming together as one, gets lost in the shuffle when the onus is on the one and not the rest. Thus the team should take home the spoils, not any one player.
I bemoan the fact that professional basketball is simplified to its most rudimentary form, or when professional football becomes an individual’s sport instead of a team one. LeBron James didn’t win a championship — the Miami Heat did that as a well-oiled machine, sporting an explosive offense and stifling defense all at once during the on-season.
It wasn’t any one individual’s victory, as the sports punditry regrettably points out on daily talk shows and post-game recaps. Desperate for clicks and views, the pundit provides us with strikingly elementary “insight” and thoroughly superficial “analysis.”
LeBron won his title, they say. Brady put the team on his back, they say. Bill Belichick willed his team to victory, they say. They spew a whole lot of jargon and resort to nonsensical talk, with no breadth of thought.
In sports, the little things matter. The unnoticed details are not irrelevant — they may change the course of a game, a season even. As a society, we demand success and expect victory, but team accomplishment only occurs when all of those little things — those tiny little details — come together at just the right time and become something more. For that reason, “the little things” are actually really significant.
Rewind to 2008, when the Boston Celtics raised yet another championship banner to the rafters of TD Garden.
Sure, the intensity of Kevin Garnett made that success possible, the versatility of Paul Pierce and the savvy of Ray Allen — the big guns all figured large in the equation. But, what about P.J. Brown, who anchored the team’s defense for key stretches in the second quarters of close games?
What about James Posey, who helped the team’s primary scorers operate more efficiently by providing floor spacing in the fourth quarter of an important match?
What about Kendrick Perkins, who set the bruising screens that freed up Ray Allen in the corners during those crucial games?
Those supposedly peripheral contributions weren’t flashy. Most of the time, they weren’t even pretty to look at.
But they were vital. During that second quarter, P.J. Brown was absolutely indispensable. Just as he was essential to his team’s extraordinary accomplishment that season. So too was James Posey on the wing, and Kendrick Perkins in the paint.
Yet history won’t remember their names. We’ll remember Kevin Garnett, his turnaround jumpers and ferocious slams.
We’ll remember Paul Pierce, his ability to get to the line and finish through contact.
We’ll remember Ray Allen, his shooting stroke and crafty finishes around the hoop. The initiative of the individual — in this case, the superstar athlete — will resonate when all else fades away.
We’ll remember Rob Gronkowski’s towering touchdown catches in the end zone, not the fact that his elite blocking ability sets up running backs for big gains and prevents Tom Brady from getting sacked. Those little things — the key block at the right time — are lost in the shuffle, when the touchdowns and celebrations aren’t.
We’ll remember the evolution of Paul George from solid to superstar, not the fact that David West’s screens continually free him up in key situations. We won’t remember that clever Roy Hibbert screen which led to a thunderous dunk.
Should the Indiana Pacers reach the promised land this year, we’ll remember the smile on the superstar’s face—the coronation of Paul George, from a nobody to the real deal, will stick with us years down the line. But that culture of grit and sturdy cohesiveness on the defensive end will play second fiddle to the spectacular play by this guy or that guy. The chemistry of the greater unit, from George Hill to Ian Mahinmi, unfortunately won’t stand the test of time.
And yet, that is exactly what matters most. The tiny little detail—that solid screen at the elbow, the backup center’s energy on the bench, an all-nighter pulled by the coaching staff—makes all of the difference in the end because tiny little details add up to something larger in the grand scheme of things.
The little things are big things, even though the potential of the individual seems to trump all nowadays.
We’ll talk about this guy or that guy, and not the accomplishment of the team. The conversation will be one of praise and adoration, but not of the greater whole that brought it all together. It will be Paul George’s first title, even though he would be nowhere without the rest of the roster fighting in the trenches with him.
Ultimately, the individual is nothing without the team structure as the foundation, without those little things as the foundation at the heart of a functioning and winning team.
Too often, we lost sight of that.
Too often, we are blinded by the individualism that has deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society for years.
Too often, we lose sight of the little things that culminated into that beautiful bigger picture, and that is a shame.
People can tend to be shortsighted, and when we are shortsighted, it is a shame through and through.