This year, thanks to Kevin Pritchard and Tom Penn, I've talked "culture" more than a Sociology 101 class breaking down Season 5 of The Wire. Culture is one of those words that gets tossed about and co-opted for just about any purpose. In professional sports, we are witness to winning cultures, losing cultures, cycle of violence cultures, fan-friendly cultures... I'm sure there are others. Culture, even in the sports world, can be a dangerous word; it lurks close by our arch-nemesis "Image," a word most of us started rolling our eyes at when Andre Agassi was busy fluffing his air and hawking cameras (and not even digital ones).
Yet, if there is one thing that the organization, the media and the fans (myself included) can readily agree on, it's that the Blazers are building a great culture that is laying the groundwork for a championship run. I mean, who doesn't love the Blazers' culture these days? Seasoned, cynical fans have come around so far we are bordering on Rashneesh-esque devotion. Hmm, maybe call us the true-believing Pritchneesh.
Need more proof? On Friday night, I watched as perhaps the league's best player (and a 3 time champion) Kobe Bryant complimented our head coach and our young nucleus of players, stating quite clearly that this franchise was headed to the upper echelons of the league. Even our enemies love us after we defeat them. What the heck is going on here?
It's been more than 2 months since I began covering the team's home games, long enough, I would hope, to have a solid feel on what this culture business is all about. I've poked around the locker room, watched hours of pre-game warm-ups, seen Nate run the spectrum from flabbergasted to furious and observed as the power brokers --Pritchard, Penn and others-- move effortlessly through all levels of their franchise. I've even seen the uncomfortable Paul Allen smiling ecstatically at victories and avoiding all eye contact after defeats. After all of this, I got to brainstorming a list of adjectives to describe the team's culture. Some apply to individual players, some apply to the team as a whole, some apply to the entire organization.
Here are on my top 10, listed in no particular order:
[Disclaimer: Culture is one of those silent sociological phenomenons that you feel instantaneously but don't truly know until a body of experience has built up. If I were a researcher, the four or five hours I spent in the same building as the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night would be written off as insufficient evidence. Thankfully, I'm a blogger rather than a researcher so I can live up to the stereotype and run wild with my Lakers observations.]
The first thing I noticed about the Lakers, perhaps because it was printed in the front of their Media Guide, is that in the Modern Era of the NBA (1979-present) they are the winningest franchise in the league. That includes, by the way, the vaunted Spurs (who happen to be #2), the franchise who we are using as our cultural blueprint. However, it wasn't just the Media Guide that showed me exactly how important winning was to the team: Assistant Coach (and NBA champion) Kurt Rambis ran by, followed by Point Guard (and NBA champion) Derek Fisher, followed later by Assistant Coach (and NBA champion) Brian Shaw. All were focused and game-ready well before tip. Up and down the organization, the Lakers are completely loaded with people who know how to get it done and have gotten it done.
Hand-in-hand with their on-court success was a noticeable professionalism- a team that acted, man for man (including the rookies), as if on a business trip. They certainly weren't robotic (Jordan Farmar, at one point, broke out in song with a line from Usher's U Remind Me), but the emotional up-and-downs that we often see with the Blazers were not visible in the Lakers locker room. With only half his attention, Lamar Odom effortlessly said all the right things during the post-game questions, the other half was looking over the dinner spread; Sasha Vujocic was multi-tasking: talking on a hands-free headset seconds after stepping out of the shower as he dressed; and Kobe Bryant didn't even appear until he was fully "camera-ready," huge ice in his ear and pullover sweater perfectly arranged. Nobody seemed disappointed or disheartened in the least by a tough, win-streak-snapping loss to a conference rival. The feeling was palpable: we've been here before, heck, this loss was nothing.
Standing in the Lakers locker room felt different--most notably: colder, wealthier and more international--than the Blazers locker room down the hall. The contrast raised a number of questions:
- Is this what we'll look like in 5 years?
- Is this what it takes to be successful in the hyper-competitive NBA?
- If so, how does a team go about learning the ways and means of a truly championship culture?
- Who will be here when we achieve what we are setting out to do?
But when it comes to approaching the other questions, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into new questions: Which of the guys in our locker room has what it takes to be a champion? Which ones will handle the pain and adversity like a champion and which ones won't? Which ones will be the victim of a trade for veteran help or salary cap space, missing out on our little cultural experiment up here in Portland? How will our culture shift as we add and subtract parts?
Like I said, the questions are endless and I don't have solid answers. However, I do know one thing: when a franchise like the Lakers and a franchise player like Kobe Bryant compliment your organization's culture, you must be doing something very, very right. At least that's what I keep telling myself; as a member of the Pritchneesh I don't see any other way.