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The Disease of Me (Originally Published March 3, 2003)

I stole that line from Pat Riley, the legendary NBA coach of the LA Lakers and later, the Miami Heat. But I really like it. It's a disease that afflicts sports teams. Successful athletes in individual sports must have the "disease of me" to be successful - some just hide it better than others. But in team sports, the team - not the individual - must come first. This is a learned skill. The "Disease of Me" is what happens when individual agendas start to override team harmony and goals. Individual agendas are best controlled when there is an athlete on the team that is so skilled, AND has such a strong personality, he commands respect without saying a word. I was reading last night about Bobby Orr, the greatest hockey player of all time (in the 1974/75 season Orr was on the ice for 124 more even strength goals than the other team scored - first all time, Gretzky is second at 100). Orr won the scoring title - as a defensemen! Anyway, they were interviewing his teammates, who all pretty much said the same thing - they didn't want to make mistakes because they believed they were playing with the best player of all time and wanted his approval. To get his approval they had to do their job and stick to their role. Individual agendas were set aside. You hear the same thing about Michael Jordan. Dennis Rodman is currently on Celebrity Apprentice. You can already see that he is not going to be able to work with anyone. After some successful early years on Detroit playing for Chuck Daley, a father figure, Rodman became all about the "disease of me". When he finally spiraled so far out of control that despite being one of the best rebounders and defenders in the league (the two most coveted skills) no one wanted him, the Bulls, gambling on Jordan's charisma and leadership, picked him up. All of the sudden Rodman is a team player, and the Bulls were achieving record win seasons. Jordan and Pippen were so good, that even Rodman wanted their approval - and the more he conformed, the more he got it. Rodman with the Bulls brings another coaching lesson. From the beginning Phil Jackson, the coach of nine NBA champion teams, did not try to hide from the fact that Rodman would treated differently. "Just as every family has weird Uncle Lester, every Indian tribe has what they call "he who walks backward". We have room for one but not two. So unless you can guard Shaq without help, or get 20 rebounds a game, you better walk forward." Teams can have one maverick but not two. (Boy, Sarah Palin ruined that word.) When coaching your team be on guard for the "disease of me'. It is a virus that can take many forms, and it must be taken care of before it affects the whole team. Most teams are not lucky enough to have a Bobby Orr or a Michael Jordan (it's more common to have people who THINK they are Bobby Orr or Michael Jordan but aren't) so the leadership in controlling the virus has to be spread across the team - everyone has to monitor themselves and their teammates to keep the disease in check. Little things, like not agreeing with a teammate when they are complaining about the coach, "well, coach generally knows what he's doing", can stop the virus in its' tracks

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