Continued success in team sports is achieved through sacrifice; the best squads accept this, understanding that individual achievements must sometimes be tabled for the betterment of the team—roll tape of Michael Jordan deferring to Steve Kerr in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
When great players are unwilling to make sacrifices, Jordan has confessed, individual goals and accolades are even tougher to achieve. So why do the stubborn Wizards, selfish by self-description, refuse to play team basketball? The better question asks what can be done to change their approach.
The answer might surprise you: ramp up competition for individual rewards.
As explained by Brian Mossop, former neuroscientist and current community editor at Wired:
“When small rewards become visible trophies of status within a group, male players change their approach in competition, sacrificing their own best interest to serve the needs of the team.
“If these results extrapolate to competitive sports, it’s possible that helmet stickers could be subconsciously driving players toward team behavior through deeply rooted psychological mechanisms.”
Mossop’s story shared the science behind college-football helmet stickers, citing a Public Library of Science (PLoS) study on how competition for trophies triggers generosity in males. Back in the ’60s, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes introduced the now-unmistakable silver helmets with a new policy: small buckeye leaf stickers would be rewarded for those slept-on little plays that helped the team win a game, like sealing the key linebacker on a touchdown run.
Those coin-sized stickers became Ohio State icons; the buckeye leaf is trademarked.
“What seemed like a simple nod of recognition has now become a time-honored tradition,” Mossop wrote. “In all, 22 Division I FBS teams currently use helmet-sticker rewards. Yet these decorations are much more than small tokens of thanks. They embody a rite of passage, with a player’s status among his teammates measured by how heavily adorned in stickers his helmet becomes during the course of a season.”
Here’s where the Washington Wizards come into play. Peer-reviewed science says there is an incentive for Wizards players to compete like winners. Before this 2011-12 season, the Wizards secured a new whiteboard to the far-right corner of the Wizards locker room: the Charge Board. Players who draw charges drawn in both practice and official NBA games are celebrated on the chart, now crowded with red and blue basketballs (like buckeye leaf stickers on a chrome football helmet), the new standard by which respect and status is measured in D.C.’s pro hoops franchise.
The Washington Wizards Charge Board replaced a dry-erase board of a different disposition, one humored by an array of game-by-game statistical benchmarks (holding an opponent below a certain field goal percentage, for example). The new board was a motivational tool invented by Flip Saunders in preparation for his third season as Wizards head coach, a “constant reminder of the little things that matter,” wrote NBC Washington’s Sarah Kogod.
Team-related objectives: erased; altruistic behavior: embraced. The players have bought in, fighting to earn trophies by making the most selfless play in basketball, by stepping into the path of a runaway freight train. Roger Mason, Jordan Crawford and Shelvin Mack have spoken of willingly sacrificing their bodies for the team, both young and old(er) eager to earn bragging rights by climbing the Charge Board charts.
It isn’t irrational. On the contrary, it’s natural. The innate drive for status symbols, like helmet stickers or Charge Board balls, is tied to the fight for the Alpha. From an evolutionary standpoint, the most respected individuals within a group, having separated themselves from other male competitors, had the best chance to reproduce. In traditional hunter-gatherer societies, it was common for the distinction as top-dog to be gained by social actions and unselfish deeds, instead of simply physical superiority. Over time, socially conscious behavior was reciprocated by others for the good of the tribe.
A second way for hunters to increase their status was to accumulate animal skins, tusks or horns from kills, suggests Xiaofei Sophia Pan, a doctoral candidate focused on behavioral game theory at Professor Daniel Houser’s lab at George Mason University—she designed the PLoS ONE study. Trophy-hunting in subsistence societies was a powerful motivator, and the practice may reveal why traditions like Ohio State’s buckeye stickers, and now the Wizards Charge Board, are treasured in the world of competitive team sports.
“But one key point that Pan and Houser have shown is that the value of rewards—even small ones—changes dramatically once status and competition are factored in,” Mossop said. “Stickers aren’t the only factor driving team spirit, but small rewards that boost status seem to blur the lines we typically define between ego and team play.”
In basketball, a team’s best player sets the tone in terms of attitude. Andray Blatche may have been named captain, but the players follow second-year point guard John Wall. Wall has always been a team-first kind of guy:
“That’s how I am as a person. I have a lot of goals for myself. But I’m more focused on the Wizards organization, D.C., representing them,” Wall said. “I just got to go play my game. That’s the main thing I’ve got to do here, but also do it in the right way to keep my team happy and keep myself happy and try to win games.”
It’s no surprise that Wall is the Wizards Charge Board leader. By the look of things, the Game Changer has bought into the new tradition; the rest can’t help but follow—the classic fight for Alpha is unavoidable.
“I just want to say that I’ve only played four games and I’m still tied for third,” Ronny Turiaf revealed to Kogod. “I just want to point that out.”
Ernie Grunfeld detractors take note: Ricky Rubio currently leads the league in charges drawn with 19, but DeMarcus Cousins (18) and John Wall (16) are right behind him. Don’t sleep on the charge, either. It played a big role in the Washington Wizards’ extraordinary upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“This is just the type of thing you do to help your team win,” Roger Mason told Kogod, crediting John Wall for his team defense. “It doesn’t show up on a stat sheet, the newspaper writers don’t write about it, but the coaches put it up there because they recognize how important it is in games. When we won against Oklahoma City, John Wall took a lot of charges and those are momentum builders. I think he had three charges that game. That’s six points off the board for them.”
John Wall drew four charges in that game, two in critical late-game situations, according to the Wizards vs. Thunder play-by-play.
Taking a charge is tough, especially in the clutch, where referees will typically swallow their whistles. ”You have to commit an act of violence maybe involving an animal or something deviant for them to call a charge there,” Shane Battier said after the Miami Heat’s narrow four-point win over the Chicago Bulls.
Even in the case of a no-call, attempting a charge is still worth the trouble. ”The charge is effective because it puts doubt into the offensive player’s mind,” continued Battier, speaking about Derrick Rose’s game-tying shot attempt in the closing seconds. “Is the ref going to call it? No, but Rose stuttered and any doubt you create is a win for the defense.”
When the referees do make the call, the charge does show up in the stat book … in more than one place.
In the NBA, drawing a charge often means taking a knee or shoulder to the chest. No pain, no gain. But the offending player is hit with a turnover and an offensive foul, costing his team a possession and points, which hurts that much more.
Believe it or not, respect for the “other” has always been a part of basketball culture. Just take a look at the first 13 rules of basketball, drafted by the game’s law-giving father, James Naismith in the winter of 1891:
5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed. The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
The charge has always been respected, even as the game (and its rules) has evolved. Basketball’s international governing body, FIBA, made history in 2008 when it introduced the no-charge semicircles—better known as the restricted area arc—to the world to better police the rule and protect the players. Last spring, the NCAA men’s basketball rule committee recommended the league adopt the restricted area arc. The suggestion immediately approved for Division I play. NCAA Division II and III schools will implement the restricted area arc next for the 2012-13 season.
Maybe things have already begun to change in Washington, D.C. Since the Wizards win over the Thunder, they have averaged 11 assisted field goals made at the rim, compared to the 7.3 they averaged in the 13 games prior. And despite losing to an Orlando Magic team in shambles (thanks, in part, to an unfavorable free-throw disparity), the Wizards had won two of their last four games. If that isn’t progress, it’s certainly something in the right direction.
Who will lead the charge next?
[photos: J. Townsend and K. Weidie, Truth About It.net]