The symbol is the ring.
In the NBA, rings symbolize status and power. No matter how gaudy or cumbersome a championship ring may be, the dream of winning one is what motivates players to put themselves through the trials of a long NBA season. Jerry Krause, the former general manager of the Chicago Bulls, understood this. When I joined the team as an assistant coach in 1987, he asked me to wear one of the two championship rings I’d earned playing for the New York Knicks as a way to inspire the young Bulls players. This is something I used to do during the playoffs when I was a coach in the Continental Basketball Association, but the idea of sporting such a big chunk of bling on my finger every day seemed a bit much. One month into Jerry’s grand experiment the ring’s centerpiece rock fell out while I was dining at Bennigan’s in Chicago, and it was never recovered. After that I went back to wearing the rings only during the playoffs and on special occasions like this triumphant gathering at the coliseum.
On a psychological level, the ring symbolizes something profound: the quest of the self to find harmony, connection, and wholeness. In Native American culture, for instance, the unifying power of the circle was so meaningful that whole nations were conceived as a series of interconnected rings (or hoops). The tepee was a ring, as were the campfire, the village, and the layout of the nation itself—circles within circles, having no beginning or end.
Most of the players weren’t that familiar with Native American psychology, but they understood intuitively the deeper meaning of the ring. Early in the season, the players had created a chant they would shout before each game, their hands joined together in a circle.
One, two, three—RING!
After the players had taken their places on the stage—the Lakers’ portable basketball court from the Staples Center—I stood and addressed the crowd. “What was our motto on this team? The ring,” I said, flashing my ring from the last championship we won, in 2002. “The ring. That was the motto. It’s not just the band of gold. It’s the circle that’s made a bond between all these players. A great love for one another.”
Circle of love.
That’s not the way most basketball fans think of their sport. But after more than forty years involved in the game at the highest level, both as a player and as a coach, I can’t think of a truer phrase to describe the mysterious alchemy that joins players together and unites them in pursuit of the impossible.
Obviously, we’re not talking romantic love here or even brotherly love in the traditional Christian sense. The best analogy I can think of is the intense emotional connection that great warriors experience in the heat of battle.
Several years ago journalist Sebastian Junger embedded himself with a platoon of American soldiers stationed in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan to learn what enabled these incredibly brave young men to fight in such horrifying conditions. What he discovered, as chronicled in his book War, was that the courage needed to engage in battle was indistinguishable from love. Because of the strong brotherhood the soldiers had formed, they were more concerned about what happened to their buddies than about what happened to themselves. Junger recalls one soldier telling him that he would throw himself on a grenade for any one of his platoonmates, even those he didn’t like all that much. When Junger asked why, the soldier replied, “Because I actually love my brothers. I mean, it’s a brotherhood. Being able to save their life so they can live, I think is rewarding. Any of them would do it for me.”
That kind of bond, which is virtually impossible to replicate in civilian life, is critical to success, says Junger, because without it nothing else is possible.
I don’t want to take the analogy too far. Basketball players don’t risk their lives every day like soldiers in Afghanistan, but in many ways the same principle applies. It takes a number of critical factors to win an NBA championship, including the right mix of talent, creativity, intelligence, toughness, and, of course, luck. But if a team doesn’t have the most essential ingredient—love—none of those other factors matter.