When the Sum is Greater than the Parts

This is a great time of year if you are a basketball fan. High school state championships have just been played. At the college level, March Madness is beginning. The NBA playoffs are right around the corner. Even if you don’t have a favorite team competing in March Madness, the tournament is so much fun because there’s always a major upset or two, or three, four or more. We love to see the Goliaths of the sports world toppled by the little Davids.

But what I love most about March Madness is watching a team that plays, well, as a team. Too often the tournament is dominated by a handful of superstar players from a handful of teams who, yes, want to win the tournament, but are really playing to impress NBA scouts. But I agree with Duke’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who said, “To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one.” Through teamwork, the accomplishments of the team sometimes becomes much more than the collective talent of each individual player.

I experienced this phenomenon firsthand through my oldest son’s high school basketball team. They were a team of mostly slightly better than average players with no superstars. They were picked to finish fourth in their district, but somehow they made the playoffs. And then the magic really happened. Picked as the underdog in every game they played in the state tournament, playing as a cohesive unit, they won game after game (a total of six) against clearly more athletically talented teams. In each game, a different player stepped up and did something remarkable to help this team win. And after every game, the opposing team walked off the court shaking their heads, wondering how a group of “mostly short, slow, white guys” (to quote my son) could have beaten them. It was the movie, Hoosiers,[i] all over again, with my son even playing the role of Ollie, sinking two free throws at the end of one game to win it. Remarkably, this team of nobodies found themselves in the Texas Class 5A state finals against the number one team in the state, who had lost only one game all year, and who had demolished its semifinal foe by more than 40 points. No one gave my son’s team a chance.

 I love the way author Daniel James Brown describes the importance of teamwork in his book, The Boys in the Boat,[ii] the story of the USA 1936 gold medal rowing team:

“[T]he greatest paradox of the sport has to do with the psychological makeup of the people who pull the oars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen are necessarily made up of conflicting stuff…. The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it. And yet, at the same time – and this is key – no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort – the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes – is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.

“…Crew races are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types. In physical terms, for instance, one rower’s arms might be longer than another’s, but the latter might have a stronger back than the former. Neither is necessarily a better or more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and the strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat….

“And capitalizing on diversity is perhaps even more important when it comes to the characters of the oarsmen. A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up, overtly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl in a boat or exhaust itself in the first leg of a long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities; someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to think things through; someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way.”

Teamwork is not limited to sports competition. It is hard to find any accomplishment in life that is the result of an individual acting alone. Whether it is an assembly line manufacturing automobiles, consummating a business transaction, or filming a movie with recognized stars, none of us can accomplish much by ourselves. Someone said it this way: “One man who works with you is worth a dozen men who work for you.” Watch the launch scene from the movie, Apollo 13[iii] (in honor of my fellow Bill Paxton, who recently died at a far too young age) and notice how many different teams were required for the successful launch. If any one of those teams gave the “no go,” the mission would have been aborted:

Of course, the real story of Apollo 13 takes place after disaster strikes. We all know the famous line from the movie, “Houston, we have a problem.” The spacecraft undergoes massive damage from an explosion of an oxygen tank, and NASA must figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to earth. The true measure of any team, whether in sports, government or business, is how it performs under pressure – when things do not go as expected. And in life, few things go as planned. Fortunately, NASA was equal to the task and the astronauts ultimately returned safely to earth. Here is just one of the many scenes of the technical crew and astronauts working together to accomplish a needed task:

Defiance[iv] is the true story of the four Bielski brothers, who, during World War II, help a large group of Polish Jews escape from the Nazis. Here is one of my favorite scenes, emphasizing, in the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” even impossible tasks:

Unfortunately, even when we work as a team, sometimes our goals are not accomplished; we lose despite our best efforts. Manufactured goods sometimes have defects; deals sometimes don’t close; even great actors and the movie industry’s finest technicians sometimes make bad movies. As this scene illustrates from Friday Night Lights,[v] the story of the Permian Panthers’ quest for a Texas high school championship (I had to get a sports clip in here somewhere!), there is nothing harder than doing your best, but still experiencing “the agony of defeat.”


My son’s Cinderella high school basketball team met with a similar fate. Although the state championship game was tied at halftime, their opponents were two big, too fast, and too skilled, and my son’s team ultimately lost by six points. As I talked to some of the players after the game, as they choked back the tears, they told me the tears were less about losing and more about realizing their magical run was over – that they would no longer be part of a well running team that played better, bigger and with more heart than their individual skill levels gave them the right to.

May we all have such an experience, whether in sports, work or our other personal relationships, as we swallow our egos, recognize, utilize, adapt to and appreciate the abilities of others, and, working together, accomplish something great.

[i] Hoosiers

  • Production Co.: De Haven Productions
  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Writers: Angelo Pizzo
  • Stars: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper
  • Release date: February 27, 1987

[ii] The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Penguin Books, pp. 177-79 (2013)

[iii]Apollo 13

  • Production Co.: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment
  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Writers: William Broyles Jr. and A Reinert (based on the book by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger)
  • Stars: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Ed Harris
  • Release date: June 30, 1995

[iv] Defiance

  • Production Co.: Paramount Vantage, Grosvenor Park Productions, Bedford Falls Company
  • Director: Edward Zwick
  • Writers: Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick
  • Stars: Daniel Craig, Live Schreiber, Jamie Bell
  • Release date: January 16, 2009

[v] Friday Night Lights

  • Production Co.: Universal Studios
  • Director: Peter Berg
  • Writers: David Aaron Cohen (based on the book by Buzz Bissinger)
  • Stars: Billy Bob Thorton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke and Connie Britton
  • Release date: October 8, 2004


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