A Wider Lens
I attended my first NBA Basketball game last year. Oklahoma City Thunder played the Golden State Warriors in a semi-final match at the San Francisco Coliseum. Greg and Katie, the friends who invited me, were buzzed with excitement particularly about one player, Stephen Curry.
According to Greg and Katie, he was a maestro, a genius, an incredible ball-handler, a game changer. On the way in on the train, I got into a conversation with two Warriors fans. It was all Curry, Curry, Curry: the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, possibly the best shot of all time, most wins in a season….the plaudits were endless.
When we took our seats, the first thing I noticed was the physical size of the opposing players. Steven Adams’s attendance, suggested that the Dothraki were down a man for the night. Kevin Durant’s 7.5 feet arm span reminded me of a huge raptor. Both guys were typical of the well named thundering visitors who seemed to be enjoying the boos of the partisan crowd.
Only once the game started I observed what looked like a teenager, shuffling around the court. Perhaps he had ambled into the wrong locker room and found himself bustled into the game. I assumed he was wearing his Dad’s vest. Chewing on one end of his gum shield, the other side sticking out his mouth like a mini snorkel, he had the ennui of a high-schooler in detention. This was Curry.
Then he touched the ball. Magic sparked. Round-the-back passes, threading through the defence to the basket, three point scores (nothin’ but net), bewildering set plays; he electrified the game whenever he took possession. Many times, we were jolted to our feet, roaring at his genius choices and laughing delightedly at the best player in the world at the top of his game.
His hands were clever and moved like lightening, controlling the ball in ways I’d never seen before; yet something was incongruent about his eyes. They were languid, distant, like he was watching a game somewhere else. His body was wired and highly energised but to see his face, it looked he was only partially present.
I sat up and thought, “Yes. I’ve seen that before. I think I know what that is.”
Walking back to the train, all three of us remarked how Curry seemed to supernaturally affect the game whenever he stepped on court. Of course, we were rabid fans by that stage and may well have had our perception coloured but it did feel like Curry was playing a different game to everyone else.
Later that evening, I watched a documentary about him that was linked to the highlights of the match. It turns out that he is intense and playful. There was footage of him being a goofball with his wife and daughter, totally committed to being with them. He enjoyed teasing his team mates with weird dances and sloshing water over them in interviews. In all of these activities, he was entirely present; no languid eyes; no far off detached stares just an energised, lively young man.
His interviews were shy but composed and he was clear about what he wanted to say. His engagement with fans, reporters, coaches, public figures and large audiences were executed with clarity, cut through and creativity. He was intensely present in all his interactions. Detachment and ennui were not parts of his character.
I realised that his apparent trance on the court was not disinterest. It was the opposite.
It was a master extending his consciousness beyond the moment: scanning for the levers in the game, working the crowd, pushing his team, deflating the opposition, aware of all his observers. Stephen Curry was playing the system, not just the ball. He was changing the context as well as the game.
Experiences from his deeply engaged life provided him with systemic knowledge: self-awareness, insight into the pundits, distinctions about his team mates, choice of plays that make headlines. When combined, this knowledge produced a psychological posture that controlled the game. In his best moments, Curry was engaging with the whole system. This was the structure of his magic.
Whatever you would call that multiple placement of focus, I have brushed up against it in other arenas. I have met leaders, who are game changers in large multi-nationals, who appear, on the surface, to be naïve. They are pleasant to be with, empowering and a little detached from the details. They leave the rest of us to get on with playing our parts because their eye is on the bigger picture. They are somehow engaged in the wider ecology of the organisation: planting the right seeds of thought, cultivating brilliant ideas, bolstering key relationships, framing the bold conversations and shining only when needed; only when their hand is on the ball.
I can’t name it yet but I am starting to notice the components of leadership mastery. Curry’s semi-final match was a prod: leaders have to play the bigger game to win the match.
It was a reminder that no one ever won a basketball match by focusing on the scoreboard.