The Holistic Organization – A look inside the OKC Thunder

Posted by jlubans on May 02, 2016

Caption: AFTER losing in the 2012 NBA finals, 4,000-Plus Thunder Fans cheer the Team’s return.

Up to the day of her death at 92 in 2013, my wife’s mother, LaVerne O. Anspaugh, was a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder. She never missed a televised game. A year before her death, she went to see them play. The Thunder kindly provided center seats (in the sold-out arena) and she and her party were met at the front door and escorted in. Her name was up there in lights on the Jumbotron.
At her memorial service, many in the congregation wore their Thunder T-shirts! She would have approved.
The Thunder have been in OKC less than a decade, arriving in 2008, thirteen long years after the 1995 OKC bombing which killed hundreds and depressed OKC’s economy.
Not that 2008 was a great year to move anywhere; nor did Seattle release this team (then named the Seattle SuperSonics) without a fight.
It was meant to be. From the git-go, the team was welcomed by OKC. It was as if both had something to prove, something to achieve, something to show the world we’ve suffered but we’re not down and out. As usual, some jeered, a basketball team in Oklahoma? It’s “like building an igloo in the desert.”
So much for the experts. Instead of failing, the Thunder has one of the highest winning percentages in major sports. Right now they are in the second round of the NBA playoffs; in 2012 they played in the NBA Finals.
And, in football-worshipping Oklahoma, the Sooner (OU) and Cowboy (OSU) fans put aside their mutual hate and converge as one into “Loud City”.
A story in the Wall Street Journal explores the Thunder’s success, the team’s culture and its place in the community.
Ben Cohen, the writer, credits the organization’s holistic culture for the team’s success. “Team” here means everyone; players, front office, staff, the fans, not just the super stars. There’s a prevalent culture of respect and inclusion, it seems, more so in OKC than in other NBA teams. It’s a realization by everyone that “what happens in the team office is related to what happens on the court.” Or, as lead player Kevin Durant said it:
“When you walk in the building every day and see things running the right way,” … “you go out there and practice the right way and play the right way.”
Of course, it helps to win.
More than a decade ago, I interviewed NASCARs Petty Racing team. They had all the latest fads – a fitness coach for the pit crews, film reviews of every race, and three teams running three separate cars and networking information during each race.
Everything looked great and sounded great. But, they never won. Why?
Micromanagement. One of the driver’s wives perched next to the crew chief during the race! Imagine an NFL quarterback’s wife on the sideline kibitzing the coach.
Un-cooperation. The three teams refused to share information before, during and after the race. Doing so might mean the sharing team’s driver could lose. So, all three lost.
Yes, it does help to win.
So, I am not always convinced that the latest fad (e. g. letting super star Steph Curry eat prohibited peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) or mental health counseling or resiliency training leads to a team’s success. I look to the intangibles that suggest a larger philosophy. An example: The way the team selflessly and concretely ($2 million) helped the community following the tornado disaster in 2013.

Caption: Russell Westbrook and fans “feeling it”.

Another example: Players regularly visit kids in children’s hospitals.
More? When Kevin Durant gave his MVP acceptance speech he mentioned - name-by-name - coaches, players and staff and explained why each mattered and that he loved them all. Not the typical acceptance speech by a MVP.
Does OKC do everything right? Cohen glosses over the firing of the OKC coach, Scott Brooks. I wrote about Mr. Brooks and his effective coaching style, a model for the rest of us in any organization.
Most fans liked “Scotty”. He was instrumental in identifying the team with the city. Of course, when you lose – regardless of explanation - some “fans” and sports pundits cast stones. During a losing streak, they second-guess the coaching (an “unsophisticated offensive scheme!”) or suggest that when a super star has an off night, they’re “not stepping up!” Infamously, the “Oklahoman”, a newspaper, headlined a slumping Kevin Durant, “Mr. Unreliable”.
Apparently Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, was listening to the critics. In a telling note, Cohen mentions that Mr. Presti is an architectural aficionado, keeping glossy architectural mags and bios of mega-architects in his office.
Sure, to build a legacy. I get the metaphor, but some architects or wanna-be architects develop an idée fixe; there’s one way to do this and it’s his or her way. Mr. Brooks describes the hardly holistic split-up: “Sam told me, 'We don't want you back.' I got up, I shook his hand and said thank you. And I walked out.’”*

The new coach, Billy Donovan, is doing well; I’d say he is wisely building on what Brooks accomplished. Indeed, one fan (my wife) told me, that Donovan initially was going to change the offense but now is pretty much using the Brooks design, and winning. I like to think that the players – the people doing the work - have had some influence on Mr. Donovan’s coaching and that he is more a player’s coach than a front office coach.
I am happy for the many Thunder fans, including LaVerne Anspaugh, that Brooks’ leaving has not led to the team’s demise. The Thunder’s continued success says as much about the new coach as it does about the former coach and about the caring Thunder culture for players, staff and fans.

*Brooks, after a year off, has been asked to repeat what he accomplished in OKC, this time in Washington DC. The DC Wizards may well have made the right choice. A player’s coach, a relationship builder, Brooks – if given freedom – just might turn the Wizards into a winning team.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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