Order On The Court: Leadership Lessons From Pickup Basketball

Pickup basketball—like business—requires a few simple ground rules if you're going to have a good game. A few tips from a seasoned baller.

Whether March comes in like a lion or a lamb, there’s always madness of the basketball variety. I suppose there are some great leadership stories playing out right now among the high-profile NCAA college coaches. But I believe in taking leadership lessons where you can—and I have learned a lot of mine from the local hardwood. There is a lunchtime pickup basketball game that has been going strong for 30 years. Three days a week a group of taped-up and liniment-covered former jocks and non-athletes get together in a local college gym. These self-titled Geezers go at it like they are playing for a spot in the Final Four.

There are two things that make it difficult to use basketball as a strategy to stay in shape. The first is finding a dependable game—somewhere where you can count on enough players showing up day in and day out. The second thing: finding a compatible playing style that makes the workout competitive and enjoyable.

That’s why I feel lucky to have found the Geezer game. If I’m not traveling or in a can’t-miss meeting, I’m there every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The players range in age from mid-30s to Old Steve (to differentiate him from the two other Steves that play) who just turned 73. Players come and go. Claire, our longest-term female player, just retired. Some move away, others get hurt and stop playing. New players show up, and the cycle goes on. What is it about this group that has allowed it to not only function for 30 years, but to thrive? Let’s frame it in business terms:

Focus on the mission. Our mission statement, if we had some reason to write one, would be: "Get exercise." We all have day jobs and depend on being able to show up, get into a game quickly, get a workout, then shower and get back to work before anyone notices we were gone. That means we don’t waste time. We have a highly organized system of rotating players into games as they arrive and rotating on and off courts so that no one waits for more than five minutes to play. On-court chitchat and small talk is frowned upon. Play ball.

Designate a leader. But if things are working well, stay out of the way. The Geezer Commissioner is a guy named Richie, a college professor and, on a good day, a deadly three-point shooter. He keeps things organized, communicates quickly with everyone if there is something we need to know between playing days, and every so often, breaks up an on-court argument.

Find the right fit. (And I don’t mean physically. There are enough spare tires in this game to outfit a tractor trailer.) What I mean is fitting in. Understand the mission and get behind it or go play somewhere else. The Geezer game isn’t for everyone. If you don’t play defense, never pass the ball, and berate others for making mistakes, you might fit in the NBA, but not this game.

Have some rules. Not a lot, but enforce the ones you have. The Geezer rules are pretty simple. Call your own fouls, no junk-talking, and perhaps the most important rule of all—honor the call. You don’t have to agree with it if someone calls a foul on you for hacking him on the shot, but don’t argue or complain, because the guy you are guarding probably just ran back down court and scored while you were whining. Arguments just get in the way of the mission, because they take time.

Confront problems. Let the group work it out first. We usually do. On the rare occasion Richie needs to step in he does it calmly and allows players to save face. Usually it just means switching defensive assignments so the problem doesn’t continue. Richie doesn’t try to mediate between the players or reach a resolution in the moment. That would take up valuable time and detract from the mission.

Leave it on the court. Whatever happens on the court that day, for better or worse, gets left between the black lines when you walk off. Arguments don’t continue into the locker room—unless they are political debates or good-natured ribbing about who launched the worst air ball.

If you manage groups, you could do worse than take a few tips from the Geezers. Just don’t forget the liniment, and don’t let Old Steve post you up low. He has a killer hook shot.

Craig Chappelow specializes in the development of effective senior executive teams at the Center for Creative Leadership , global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user Cirox]

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3 Comments

  • Eric Walton

    First question...Where is the game?  Would love to join:)  I played for years with a similar group, pickup ball is the best, and I agree has taught me an immeasurable amount about life and leadership.