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Learning from the Game: Bradley, Jackson, and life after the NBA Championship

Learning from the Game: Bradley, Jackson, and life after the NBA Championship
Karl Miran

One of the great professional sport teams was the 1970 New York Knicks, often remembered for the dramatic entrance made by their injured captain, Willis Reed, hobbling onto the floor of Madison Square Garden minutes before the start of Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers. Even fans of other teams recognize them as a special group of men.

Maybe more than any other high-achieving team, the players on 1970 Knicks exemplify the principles of Social and Emotional Learning, not only for their basketball accomplishments, but more for what they did after their playing careers. After all, we believe that the true value of a Wardlaw+Hartridge education is its lifelong impact on our alumni: their ability to be lifelong learners, to manage their own emotions and to communicate effectively. We see our graduates putting those skills to work in their lives and careers, creating positive relationships with others and ameliorating social problems. 

We trust that W+H coaches play similar roles in the personal development of the individuals on their teams. Lee Nicholls, W+H coach and Physical Education Department Chair, summarizes the value of coaching the whole person:  

“Due to the challenges of the pandemic, SEL has never been so important.   Its principles have always been key to team success and individual wellness. Throughout the season, deliberate attention and awareness to building community, communication, cooperation, problem solving and trust among athletes has encouraged a better and more whole self, in turn creating a better team climate and social experience beyond the competitive arena.”

Many athletes who “hang up their cleats” at the end of high school or college will later credit their resilience, teamwork skills and work ethic to the lessons learned in athletics.  Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson were two players who clearly internalized the values of SEL during their playing careers, and put those values to productive use afterward.   

Bradley graduated from the Knicks to three terms as a Senator from New Jersey.  Although he at times passionately espoused the values of his Democratic party, particularly in the areas of racial equality and civil rights, he is also remembered for his ability to create meaningful, pragmatic compromise legislation, notably with the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

In 1991, in an extraordinary speech on race and civil rights before the National Press Club, Bradley demonstrated his vision of American progress in terms borrowed from his basketball career. He criticized the weaknesses of both liberal and conservative approaches to race, and reminded us that a true meritocracy, grounded in mutual respect for others, is the surest way to avoid zero-sum results.   His model, clearly, was his relationship with his Knick teammates.   

Although he returned to pro basketball as a very successful coach (11 NBA championships), Phil Jackson was seen as unique in the sports world for his willingness to integrate Eastern and Native American spiritual truths into a management style.  The goal was not spiritual enlightenment for its own benefit, but to produce the highest performing team – a group of athletes from diverse backgrounds who could overcome egoism, the temptations of wealth, and the criticism of the media in order to consistently triumph over the outstanding athletes on the other teams.  

One story concerns his outward equanimity in the face of both victory and defeat.  Questioned by reporters about his next steps after a particularly difficult loss, he told them he would go home and enjoy dinner and a drink with his wife.  He added that, had his team won the game, he would have also gone home to enjoy dinner and a drink with his wife.  That response was borrowed from his former coach on the Knicks, Hall-of-Famer Red Holzman, whose spiritual background reflected his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn during the Depression.  Jackson and Holzman both are remembered for fostering selfless team play in the most individual of sports.  One summary of Jackson’s coaching methods can be found here:

Our own W+H coaches are aware of the importance of building SEL within their athletes and teams. Mike Romeo, who has been a successful soccer coach leading the Rams with the boys’ program in the early 2000s and girls’ program in the past five years, works hard to promote this aspect:

With the girls’ varsity soccer team, our primary goal is to create an atmosphere where our girls feel emotionally safe. No team can be truly unified unless everyone shares equally in the team’s success and failures. On our most successful teams, a player that spent all game on the on the bench feels the same emotional investment after a thrilling victory or a crushing defeat. It takes constant care and attention to details to achieve this level of social emotional investment throughout your team.” 

As Walt Frazier and other members of the 1970 Knicks have recounted, their strong bond as teammates made Reed’s heroic decision to play Game 7 such an inspiration.   The careers of Bradley, Jackson and others reveal that the enduring and beneficial nature of their team.