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Gaming companies and other ‘teams’ can learn from Walker’s ‘The Captain Class’

By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

Gaming, historically, has been such a personality driven industry that it’s hard to tell exactly what makes a consistently winning “team.”

It’s more than profit at the bottom line. But is it a charismatic leader at the top who makes all the difference, or are middle managers the keys to pleasing shareholders and making the boss look good?

Perhaps one day someone with keen insight into the casino racket will write the quintessential study of what makes a winner in the evolving world of green felt. Sports fans, however, may find their answers in Sam Walker’s fascinating new book, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.

Walker is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor for enterprise, which produces the newspaper’s award-winning investigative reporting and front-page features. He’s knocked around locker rooms for a couple decades with an intellectual’s affection for sports. He’s also the author of Fantasyland, a best-seller about fantasy baseball.

The Captain Class is a compelling marriage of writer and subject. Walker gets behind some of the biggest cliches in sports and produces a study that is at once intellectual and entertaining.

He studies some of the greatest teams in sports history, and studies them in-depth, to see what set them apart. We’re not only talking about the New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Boston Celtics, but such beauties as the New Zealand All Blacks rugby dynasty and Collingwood Maples Australian Rules football club.

What Walker found – through what can only be described as a combination of statistical obsession and journalistic curiosity – is that the greatest of the great teams don’t stay at the top strictly based on talent or coaching. It’s the role of captain, often one who isn’t a statistical superstar, who makes the difference.

The great Boston Celtics dynasty provided prime grist for his theory. His analysis of the Celtics’ coaching and management revealed more showmanship than brilliance. The players were gifted, but other teams had lights-out shooters and prolific rebounders.

“All of this was confusing,” Walker writes. “If the Celtics’ burst of greatness wasn’t a function of statistical dominance, superstar talent, an aggregation of players with unusual ability, or the product of consistent and excellent coaching and management, then what was it?”

Oh, it was Bill Russell. But not only for the reasons most fans think of when they recall his presence on the court. Russell is clearly one of the NBA’s greatest players, but he wasn’t a great shooter, or a particularly pleasant guy. And with then-narrow free-throw lanes, a lot of players of his era picked rebounds like apples by the bushel. He wasn’t even liked — outside his team.

It was Russell’s tenacity, his intensity, that kept his team focused and made individuals into believers. His team would win, Walker observes, because he would not let his teammates lose.

“It occurred to me that Russell’s radically defensive, team-oriented approach to basketball and his prickly, credit-deflecting posture off the court were two sides of the same coin,” Walker writes. “His resistance to basketball awards was a rejection of the universal instinct to separate individuals from the collective. His brand of leadership had nothing to do with the outside world or how he was perceived. It was entirely focused on the internal dynamics of his team. So long as the Celtics won titles, he didn’t mind if nobody noticed his contributions.”

But, of course, they did notice. At one point, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski observes, “The single most important ingredient after you get the talent is internal leadership. It’s not the coaches as much as one single person or people on the team who set higher standards than that team would normally set for itself.”

During his lengthy study Walker finds that the most dominant teams in history rose to the top and stayed there without traditional leaders of the sort often deified in the sports pages. Buck Shelford of the New Zealand All Blacks certainly qualifies on that account. Shelford was one tough captain, in the way that, say, Gibraltar is one hard rock.

He was nearly killed in a particularly vicious rugby match against France and refused to quit his mates despite concussions, three missing teeth and a, ahem, torn scrotum that required 16 stitches to close.

Talk about a sackful of leadership with plenty to spare.

It seems half the life of any sports fan is arguing about the players and teams, and The Captain Class may start brawls in bars and pubs from Anaheim to Aukland.

It may not change the way you watch sports, or run your business, but I’ll bet it stokes lively conversation in season and out.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.