Teamwork in the Movies

Posted by jlubans on August 14, 2013

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A friend suggested I see a newly released Latvian movie, Sapņu Komanda 1935 (Dream Team 1935); it’s about the Latvian basketball team which won the first European Championship in 1935 under its unorthodox head coach, Valdemars Baumanis.
Sports films often are useful in teaching about teamwork because when well done - like Hoosiers - they can provide literal examples of how teams develop, how they overcome adversity and other aspects common to teams at work or on the playing field. But, teaching with sports films comes with risk; turning off the students who have little interest in sports and/or who struggle with sports metaphors and fail to see to see any connection to the workplace. Dream Team 1935 is longish, close to two hours, but is has several scenes showing team development, so I’d like to use it in teaching. It has English and Russian captions along with the Latvian dialogue.

And, it is fun to see how the game was played in 1935. There was no shot clock, so final scores were often in the low 20s. After each basket, there was a jump ball, further eating up the clock. And, free throws were shot underhand, from between the knees!

In spite of a number of crises (lack of financial and political support ) the “little Latvia” team manages to get in shape to play in Geneva for the European championship. While it is a “team”, it is far from playing as a team. Made up of jealous rivals from the University and Army teams, the team is, after several months of rigorous conditioning, physically fit, but still torn apart by past grievances and class distinctions. The University team players never fail to demonstrate disdain for the Army team members. For example, on the train to the first exhibition game in Lithuania, the Army players brown-bag their humble dinner in their 3rd class carriage while the University players eat high off the hog in the dining car.

After the exhibition game in Kaunas, Lithuania, Coach Baumanis issues a challenge. While defeating Lithuania (46-12), the Latvians argued among themselves, displayed poor sportsmanship to its overmatched opponent and failed to share the ball. The coach has had enough. The next day in the hotel courtyard, he tosses the team’s luggage off the van and tells them: “Become a team or we go no further.” The train leaves in 30 minutes; unless they run all the way, they will miss it and the trip to Geneva.
Almost immediately the players argue, push and shove and throw punches, a violent boiling over of mis-trust and resentment. Their team captain – who, to his credit, stays above the fray – intervenes and stops the battle. “The coach is right, ” he declares. “Are we going to Geneva or not? Are we a team?” Then and there they put aside their individual differences. They take turns running with the luggage, reach the station and manage to jump on the moving train.
This is a highly instructive example of the “storming” most work teams neglect to do. I am not suggesting an all out battle; rather, once a team is formed participant grievances, mis-trust, jealousy, and hidden agenda need to be aired, cleared up, and buried.
It won’t be pretty but consider all the gains that can come from teams that know how to do this. After an honest “storming” a team knows and commits to what it is to do and how to do it. Once the Latvian team got past the storming phase, the team knew it was “them” against the other teams in the European championship. Their focus became external and goal oriented.

Another teachable feature: Coach Baumanis’ wife plays a strong role in the film. She supports him from the first scene on. It is her undiminished confidence and certainty that help him get past the lack of support and other machinations of the Sports Committee. She orchestrates, with the help of her friends in the apartment building, making the team uniforms. Through a young well-connected student she is tutoring, the President of Latvia hears of the Sports Committee’s stonewalling and he personally intervenes. And, through the wife, a retired businessman-neighbor lends the team the money to get to Geneva. This recognition of the wife’s contribution is not just a tip of the hat to a very resourceful and supportive woman; the wife’s well-defined role recognizes those characteristics that enable women in Latvia to hold positions of authority and responsibility as many of them do.

Before the championship game versus Spain, Coach Baumanis tells the team: “Until now, I decided who would play.” But, for the championship game, the team will select the 7 players for the official roster; they will self-manage. This means that a few of the players will not dress to play. There is quick agreement about the first 6 but an argument erupts over the 7th spot. – a return to past enmities. The player vying for the 7th slot speaks up. He says: “No, it is not to be me – the other player has better skills against the Spanish team than I do.“ His honest assessment defuses the controversy. Touchingly, there’s a team huddle near the end of the game and the player that relinquished the 7th spot – in street clothes – is part of the huddle. Final score of the first European Basketball Championship: Latvia 24 Spain 18.

The end-of-film acknowledgements are sobering. All the players were caught up in the war, the Nazi and Communist invasions and within a decade four or five were dead. A few escaped, emigrating to Canada and Australia. Coach Baumanis went to the USA via Europe and died in Chicago in 1992.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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