Joe Rulewich is the director of college counseling and the head coach for boys’ varsity basketball.
But what about bad teams? Not the merely mediocre, but those that achieve transcendent, soul-sucking badness. Those types of teams also require their particular alchemy. And they also teach lessons, if different ones.”
This excerpt comes from a Sports Illustrated (SI) Longform article in which veteran NBA writer Chris Ballard chronicles the epic and harrowing journey of one of the worst college basketball teams in the history of the NCAA.
Not my favorite college team that I pick each March to help me win my NCAA tournament bracket. But MY Team. The one I played for – bled for, cried for, sacrificed for.
We were bad – very bad! Ballard’s article pulls no punches! He describes sustained futility which now serves as my athletic crucible through which I have come to define so much of my life’s work. Work which is so much less about basketball and sports and so much more about TEAM. Work is the wrong word. What I didn’t realize all those years ago as a member of the worst college basketball team in the country was that all of the frustration and disappointment I would experience on that team would push me closer to my purpose – what I now believe is my life’s purpose.
Loss – or should I say losses (and there were many!) were unforgiving teachers. My sophomore team finished the year 0-25, and we reached 40 consecutive losses before we finally broke the streak in December of my junior season. My incredibly bad team was actually featured in Sports Illustrated TWICE. On page 122 in the 1991-92 College Basketball Preview, the one with Duke’s Christian Laettner on the cover, and under the headline - Can the Fords Get Started? the article began: Haverford College almost has to have a better season than it did in ’90-’91.
This is my team.
Throughout all of these losses, I never once thought about quitting. Not once.
After that winless sophomore season, my coach approached me about transferring. He said he would help me get anywhere I wanted to go. My response: Not a chance, Coach! These are my teammates. This is my team. I’m committed to those guys.
I suspect that so much failure brought me and my teammates closer together. And even though a few of my teammates would choose to stop playing during their careers, the core group of guys who stuck together and the new players who jumped in, were as committed to our effort, our success and each other as much as anyone could ask of another person. I didn’t recognize that commitment while I was in it. I’m not sure any of us did. The daily grind of 6 a.m. practices, nagging injuries, extra time in the gym and the silent, three-hour drives home after yet another 34-point loss – didn’t leave much room or energy for deep reflection. We just put our heads down and kept going. Some days were easier – more than most were harder. But we kept going – together.
It is difficult to say that my teammates and I have only remained so close because we shared so much hardship together. There were fun times too! I have come to believe – and believe genuinely – that losing can forge or fracture a team. But for the former to occur, you must first actually be a TEAM.
All in, relentless commitment
You can’t join a team. You can join a roster. You COMMIT to a team.
Any team – in a boat, on stage, in the Fab Lab - is defined by shared commitment over time. Being a teammate (a true teammate) is a decision; a decision made daily - minute by minute. A coach, director, conductor or teacher can invite you to join a team, but an invitation is only that. The follow through on your part requires a commitment – to your teammates, castmates, bandmates and classmates. To whomever you commit to stand beside and whatever you commit to stand for.
In my universe, calling someone a teammate is one of the highest honors you can bestow on a person. Counting on and being counted upon by a teammate is the contract, both spoken and unspoken, that each member of a team agrees to when they commit to being part of something bigger than themselves. That commitment will be tested and rewarded – through challenges, which allow teammates to find strength and support in one other; in celebrations, which galvanize a group that has sacrificed, both individually and collectively, to stay together; and with choices made each day – tiny choices about being on time and being prepared, and bigger choices – that define your commitment to your team.
Commitment is not easy. Commitment is not always convenient. When it comes to TEAM, there are no levels of commitment. You either commit or you don’t. And that commitment demonstrates (screams!) how much you care about the team.
Teams don’t just happen. TEAM is hard.
...losing can forge or fracture a team.
As a teammate, you agree to uphold your end. That covenant is powerful but fragile and totally conditional. Teammates have responsibilities to the team, the coaches and one another. Those responsibilities must be met. Fall short of those, and you will be held accountable and your position on the team, as a teammate – may be in jeopardy. Being a teammate is an ALL IN, RELENTLESS commitment.
I still visit with and speak to a few of my college teammates – Chris, Seth and Jeremy. We feel like family – we were all in each other’s weddings, we have celebrated the births of our children together, given support through a divorce and mourned the loss of loved ones. We are the closest of friends (Chris and I are often mistaken for brothers), but we were TEAMMATES first. We were fortunate to commit to the same team at the same time and have now, continued to share that mutual commitment over time.
At Peddie, in this special community, I have found and pursued my life’s purpose: to build and be a part of teams. I get to do that in both the College Office and on the court; with my fellow faculty and with my counseling and coaching colleagues. Every morning, I try to renew my commitment to each of my teams with daily and deliberate decisions that demonstrate how much I care: about each of my teammates and the team we share together.
Finally, back to SI’s Chris Ballard:
“Week by week, the Streak grew: 27, 30, 32, 34. Even during those dark days, the team remained close. Haverford might not have been a big-time program, but its players possessed something that players at most big-time programs don’t: genuine affection for each other. They came from an array of backgrounds – sons, of pastors, Coca-Cola distributors, small-town teachers and big-city professors, but they were all smart. All committed, to a degree they would later marvel at.”
Good luck finding your team. Then commit.
Joe Rulewich is the director of College Counseling and varsity boys' basketball coach at Peddie.