You’ll Never Guess Who’s Writing About Leadership Again

December 23, 2010

That’s right, it’s Andy Katz.

In his most recent column, Katz attributes the Kansas State Wildcats’ troubles to an absence of leadership. Apparently, seniors Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly – who both displayed their veteran savvy by getting suspended by the NCAA – do not have the leadership necessary to lead a team. To fair to Katz, this wasn’t his idea. He’s merely parroting and expanding upon what coach Frank Martin said:

“Everyone said Jacob was our leader last year,” said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, a day after the suspensions were announced. “But last year it was [departed seniors] Denis Clemente, Luis Colon and Chris Merriewether. Jacob talked. The media talked to him. Denis didn’t like talking to the media because he was challenged in English. Luis scored two points a game so no one talked to him. Denis, Luis and Merriewether taught people how to work. Those were the guys when the game started that got us through games. We lost that.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop Katz from interjecting his own brand of contradictory silliness into the discussion. Even though Pullen and Kelly are apparently inadequate leaders, “the absence of Pullen and Kelly, the only two seniors on the team, is a crushing blow for the Wildcats.” Why is their loss crushing? Presumably because Pullen and Kelly are the team’s first and second-leading scorers. That is, their loss is crushing because they are arguably the team’s two best players. Not best leaders – best players. Then later, Katz writes: “But what [Pullen and Kelly’s suspension] has underscored is the issue of where Kansas’ State leadership is going to come from if it’s to achieve those goals.” This is after he writes in the second paragraph that Pullen is not performing as a leader on this year’s team. So the Wildcats need to replace the leadership that Pullen and Kelly weren’t providing?

Katz doesn’t know it, but he is inadvertently arguing the same point that I’ve been hammering away at for a while now: that talent, not leadership, wins games. He can repeat and agree with Martin’s words all he wants, but Katz is singling out Pullen and Kelly not because the team will have trouble replacing their leadership, but because the team will have trouble replacing their production.

As for coach Martin, I hope he actually knows that a lack of leadership isn’t why the Wildcats are struggling (if a 9-3 record can be called struggling). They’re struggling because their offense is light years worse than it was last season. They hit a below-average percentage of their twos and threes, turn the ball over constantly, and absolutely, positively cannot shoot free throws. That’s all there is to it. It has everything to do with the loss (or immaturity) of talent, and nothing to do with the absence of leadership.

 

 


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The Arbitrariness of Leadership

November 24, 2010

The euphoria of Vanderbilt beating #8-ranked North Carolina on Sunday night was short-lived. After several hours of reflecting on how far Vanderbilt basketball has come – this victory would have been unthinkable my freshman year – I stumbled upon a column that quickly snapped me back to my default state of crankiness.

ESPN.com’s Andy Katz posted this, a column titled “Disappointing Tar Heels Lack A Leader.” As you might expect, his thesis is that UNC lost because a leader hasn’t emerged yet, because no players have stepped up and assumed control of the young but talented team. Then, following #2-ranked Michigan State’s loss to unranked Connecticut, Katz penned a column that was essentially the mirror image of the UNC version. In this piece, titled “Walker Now UConn’s Unquestioned Leader,” Katz argues that a big factor in the Huskies’ upset is Walker’s maturation and his willingness to accept a leadership role that he rejected last season. Yes, it would appear that Katz has got it bad for leadership in the early going.

There are, of course, huge problems with forming a causal relationship between leadership and winning. Take Vanderbilt and UNC, for example. Did last year’s Tar Heels not have enough leadership to win? Both Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard were seniors, and I can distinctly remember hearing broadcasters tout their leadership. Since the Tar Heels finished with a 20-17 record, why was their leadership so clearly inadequate? As for Vanderbilt, the Commodores lost senior point guard and universally-recognized team leader Jermaine Beal to graduation. And yet Beal was leading the team when they were ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Murray State, the second year in a row the Commodores lost to a 13-seed. So what happened there? Why wasn’t Beal’s leadership enough to get them over the hump?

Connecticut and Michigan State are open to this kind of questioning too. If leadership is so important, then why did last year’s Huskies finish with an 18-16 record, even though they started seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards? Dyson, in particular, received consistent and effusive praise for keeping the team competitive and assuming the scoring load during such a disappointing season for the powerhouse program. Was his leadership a myth? Furthermore, why did Michigan State lose that game to UConn? After all, the Spartans are led by senior point guard Kalin Lucas, who has consistently been heralded as one of the elite leaders in the country. Aren’t we told that having a senior point guard on the court, an extension of the coach’s will and wishes, is a tremendous advantage? Why didn’t it work this time?

While Katz’s arguments are already absurd, he detracts from them even further by pooh-poohing the narratives he and his peers worked so hard to construct last season. In the UNC column, he writes:

The Tar Heels lost an unthinkable 17 games last season. Williams called the season the most frustrating he has had as a coach. Carolina had leadership — at least some outspoken types like Deon Thompson — but could never mesh.

And in the UConn article:

“It wasn’t my role,” said Walker by phone from Maui late Tuesday. “I was a sophomore. I tried to let Jerome [Dyson], Stanley [Robinson] and Gavin [Edwards] be the ones to make the big plays and lead us to victory. It wasn’t my role.”

Those three seniors clearly weren’t capable. And maybe Walker wasn’t then, either.

This is awfully frustrating to read because it’s so revisionist and arbitrary. Because those teams failed, Katz decides that their leaders “clearly weren’t capable.” So does that mean leadership only exists if the team wins? Is it not possible to have leadership on losing or struggling teams? And if the assignment of leadership is so flimsy and transient – “Thompson and Dyson were leaders last year, now they are not because their teams weren’t so good” – then why are we wasting our breath talking about leadership in the first place?

As usual, my point is that there are so many questions, inconsistencies, and logical pitfalls involved in the idea of leadership that any discussion of the quality is rarely worth the time and energy. It’s an analytical crutch, a way of looking at success or failure when you don’t have much else to say or are too lazy to do some work. North Carolina didn’t lose to Vanderbilt because they lacked a leader. They lost because they had 22 turnovers, shot 27.3% from three, and played bad defense. UConn didn’t beat Michigan State because Kemba Walker is the team’s new leader. They won because Walker scored 30 points on over 50% shooting and because they crashed the offensive glass against a typically dominant rebounding team.

That’s the truth. But if you want arbitrary, revisionist, and lazy mysticism, you can feel free to keep reading Andy Katz.

 


Leadership, Narratives, and Chauncey Billups

August 30, 2010

“I just signed onto twitter to complain about billups. Then saw your fine work”

This is the text message I received at 4:14 PM today as I watched the United States’ men’s basketball team go down to the wire against the hot-shooting Brazilians. Its sender is a friend of mine from high school, a brilliant Swarthmore graduate and the biggest, most knowledgeable basketball fan I know. He is to the Knicks what I am to the Yankees, except he deserves far more credit due to an obvious difference in strength of schedule.

Evidently he had stumbled onto my Twitter feed and its maniacal real-time documentation of Chauncey Billups’ persistently questionable decision-making. He also evidently agreed with my complaints (as did ESPN’s Jorge Arangure), which helped assuage any fears I had of me being too hard on Billups. Now, from reading my tweets and my past thoughts on Billups, you might assume that I hate him as a person and as a player. But that’s not true. It’s what he symbolizes and elicits that I dislike so strongly. Read the rest of this entry »