Chicago Tribune – Dec 3, 2006 – KC Johnson – WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT BEN WALLACE’S HEADBAND: Signs of individuality can risk team unity – The red headband Chicago Bull Ben Wallace donned in defiance of his coach contains elastic, which seems fitting. After all, the line in professional sports between the individual and the team has been stretched.
In this age of multimillion-dollar guaranteed contracts and larger-than-life personas, entire sports leagues are marketed on individuals. Wallace alone makes four times annually what coach Scott Skiles makes.
So when Wallace broke the team ban on headbands Nov. 25 in New York, he kick-started a debate on what’s more important, the individual’s happiness and freedom of expression or increasingly antiquated notions of team and discipline.
Watch sports highlights. The dunk or the dinger is shown more often than not. The assists leading to the dunk or the coaxed walk leading to the home run are selfless, not sexy. Those acts, though, constitute teamwork.
One of the older cliches in sports is that there’s no “I” in “team.” Come to think of it, there isn’t one in “headband.” There are three in “discipline,” however, and that’s all Bulls general manager John Paxson sought when he instituted his no-headband policy.
Paxson served as an assistant coach and radio broadcaster during Dennis Rodman’s Bulls tenure. So he’s no newcomer to individuality.
Rodman’s eccentricities crossed the line on several occasions, and the consequences affected the team when he was suspended. But his outbursts always seemed more childish than churlish. They never demeaned his coach or upset the apple cart of authority inherent in team sports.
General managers manage. Coaches coach. Players play.
Johnny Damon won a World Series as one of the self-proclaimed “Idiots” with the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Long-haired and scraggly, Damon scratched, spat and chewed his way to helping end 86 years of suffering throughout New England. Some particularly starved souls even likened his long hair to Jesus’ locks.
When he left for greener pastures–i.e., more money–in New York the following year, Damon cut his long locks and shaved his beard. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner doesn’t allow facial hair below the lip or hair hanging low.
“Whatever the boss wants, [I’m] going to abide by the rules and clean myself up,” Damon told reporters at the time.
Damon hit 10 home runs and drove in 75 runs for Boston in 2004.He posted 24 homers and 80 RBIs the following season with the Yankees.
Wallace won’t play any better by not wearing a headband. There’s certainly a chance, given his petulance last weekend, that he could play worse. But when he consciously breaks a team rule, broader themes such as discipline and respect scatter like an errant shot.
Are these concepts important? The Oakland Athletics won three straight World Series in the 1970s with a mustachioed bunch that seemed to revel in chaos. The successful NFL Oakland Raiders from the same era coined the phrase “Just win, baby” to justify a team appearance that was more shaggy than strait-laced.
But those teams followed rules too. Granted, they were simple and short: Be on time. Play hard. But that’s what they did. Even in their seeming defiance, those teams complied.
Discipline is important in sports for many reasons, not the least of which is trust. One minute Wallace is blowing off a no-headband rule. What’s next? Blowing off a defensive assignment and letting his teammate get dunked on?
The Bulls’ rule probably is outdated. Especially after they committed $60 million to a player who thrived for years while wearing a headband.
But Paxson and Skiles didn’t change the rule. So Wallace needs to change his ways.
A reader who e-mailed the Tribune this week, identifying himself as a Bulls fan, related that he works 60 hours a week in a job that requires him to wear a nametag. He hates doing so, but he complies, or he’ll be written up. If he talks back to his boss, he gets fired–period.
Such rules exist everywhere: in the business world, schools, pro sports.
“A team is like an orchestra,” said John F. Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., who has worked with college and pro teams on optimizing performance. “The pieces form together to make a larger whole than individuals themselves. Lack of discipline subtly undermines what makes a team effective, which is selflessness and focus on the team as a whole. You hit bad notes.”
But can malevolence–or bad music–affect winning or losing?
“In sports, it’s often one play or one shot that can tilt the balance one way or the other,” Murray said. “If something is taking the focus away and players are thinking about Wallace’s headband, that might cause them to do something stupid. That can tilt the balance of the game. If you want to be efficient, teams have to be focused on one goal.”
When rules are broken, at the very least, doubt ensues.
The rule “is a small symbol of giving yourself to the group,” Skiles explained.
Just as Wallace can’t succeed on the basketball court playing one-against-five, the Bulls can’t succeed without him. That’s why his act goes beyond a simple piece of fabric and speaks to the very fabric of teamwork.
“I can’t try to put myself above the team or anybody else,” Wallace acknowledged last week.
That’s no stretch of the truth.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.