The NBA finals are around the corner, and they’re providing some fuel for my spiritual awakening – from the Golden State Warriors! Yes, I’m a fan and that’s a photo of me and my family at a game with the famous Kevin Durant – well, you know, the cardboard version. *wink*
Sure, I live in the SF Bay Area, so it’s easy to love our home-town champions (and even when they weren’t champs). But ever since Steve Kerr took over and the Splash Brothers have wowed us with 3-pt performances that have revolutionized the game, I’ve found more to love about this iconic team than their championship reputation. Even if you hate the Warriors, or couldn’t give a fig about basketball, there’s a lot to benefit our own personal and spiritual evolution from how this team works and plays.
The Warriors, to me, are more than a basketball team. They show us how an organization can lead, compete, and do business with higher principles. Steve Kerr, the team’s head coach, built the team around 4 core principles that shine through everything they do, and are the keys to their success: Joy, Mindfulness, Compassion, and Competition. These 4 principles reveal several spiritual qualities in how they work together and support each other.
The first value that coach Kerr holds shines through every game and practice: Joy. It’s clear that the Warriors play for the love of the game more than anything else. They love to win, but more so they love the moment-to-moment challenges of a high-flying dunk, the perfect assist, a blocked shot, and of course the signature swish from beyond the arc.
These guys have fun! They bring a child-like enthusiasm to every moment on the court. And it makes them so watchable. Sure, their Achilles heel is taking so many chances that they can appear to be sloppy or lackadaisical. But they do those shots because they’re out there to have fun. To see what’s possible, and to have the best time, ever! Those few games when they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves are usually ones they lose.
This commitment to joy, fun, and a sense of humor is what gets this team through losses. They’ve had losing streaks, just like anyone else. They’ve faced elimination games in playoffs. But because they have the foundation of joy in their team (and their ability to laugh their less-than-desirable moments off), they find their center again and bounce back – sometimes to make their famous come-back wins. And when they don’t, they re-focus on bringing the fun back.
Whether they’re practicing double-dribbles or on the court going to toe to toe with a rival team, their heart is fully invested in joyful play. It’s contagious. Imagine what each of us could do with a commitment to working, playing, and living with joy. I know that when I’m filled with joy, work feels like play and my productivity and creativity soar. Not to mention that my heart opens and I feel more connected to the Divine all around me. That’s how I want my life to evolve and grow – joyfully!
Mindfulness – Focus on the Present
The Warriors are trained to maintain their focus in the present moment – the hallmark of Mindfulness practice. After the stunning come-back win in game 6 against the Rockets earlier this month, Steph Curry remarked that you have to have a sense of ”amnesia.” He described this aspect of the mindfulness philosophy a number of times over the years.
Curry lets go of the fact that he may have missed 10 shots – or that he was scoreless in the 1st half of that game – and focuses on the here and now. Because of that, he’s able at some point to find his groove again. It doesn’t matter if it takes 20 shots; Steph keeps coming back to the moment and keeps shooting.
The rest of the team also embodies this practice of mindfulness. If they aren’t shooting well, they turn to amping up the defense. If one player is hot, they pass it to them. They look at what is workable in this moment, how they can make a difference right here, right now.
We can all benefit from this lesson of Mindfulness. It’s in the present moment that we have choice and empowerment. Right now, we can take action and make a difference. We can create positive change and open our hearts in this moment. Think of the possibilities available to us if we had amnesia about our mistakes and past actions, and only remembered how capable and Divine we are, right here, right now. We’d move mountains – and on more than one occasion, the Warriors have.
Related to Mindfulness, many of the key players on the Warriors embody Neutrality. Sure, they celebrate a big win. But the next day, they’re back to work again, and having fun in the moment.
They don’t take themselves too seriously. While they own their championships and everything they did to earn them, there’s no resting on their laurels. Even when they have a big win, and take time to celebrate, they know it’s just a special moment in time. The next day, the Warriors are back into the present moment, enjoying whatever is – whether a champions parade, a flight back home, or back into the gym for weight training.
Steph along with Kevin Durant, the reigning Finals MVP from 2018, and Klay Thompson, the other half of the Splash Brothers duo of Steph and Klay, all demonstrate Neutrality. They stay even-keel. It takes a lot to get to any of them. When Durant stays calm and focused through the game, he’s usually at his best.
Thompson is known to be the most laid-back of the team. Nothing gets to him. He doesn’t worry about the score, or about missing shots. Yet he works as hard as anyone else, both on the defensive as well as offensive side of the court.
Paul Flannery, in an article about the 2017 finals game, described Klay’s mind as “uncluttered.” He doesn’t think; he immerses fully in the play of the game. He also isn’t attached to the attention or the need to be the star of the team. Flannery says, “He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he doesn’t shy away from the moment either.” That’s true Neutrality: OK as the center of the attention, OK on the sidelines.
Because they don’t ride too high, the Warriors also don’t get too low. This prevents them from sinking into the downward spiral of despair, hopelessness, anger, and depression that so many of us are susceptible to when things go awry.
That’s how they’re able to bring themselves up when they’re down, when all seems lost. Like their history-making loss in second game of the first round of the playoffs against the LA Clippers in April. They dropped a 31-point lead and allowed the Clippers to tie up the series. Most of us mortals would hang our heads in shame and crawl under a rock. But the Warriors let it go. Using mindfulness to achieve a more neutral mind allowed them to remember who they are and secure the next 3 games to move on to the next round.
It is possible for each of us to develop Neutrality. Letting go of the highs and lows, embracing what is, and stepping into the moment fully, we become less agitated by the events of life and more capable of bringing our best into each moment.
It seems antithetical to professional sports, but compassion is at the heart of the Warriors’ success. Rather than a cut-throat mentality (as Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets, who the Warriors beat in the 2nd round of the playoffs, affirmed was his philosophy) that we see not only in sports but in business, the Warriors value Compassion.
I don’t know how much it extends to teams they play against, but it is actively cultivated in the organization. Coach Kerr instills this caring understanding in his staff for the pressures, injuries, and challenges the players face, in the players for their support staff, who have families and pressures of their own, and from the top of the roster to the bottom. The 15th man on the roster and the starters have different kinds of pressures, but they’re both under pressure, Kerr said. To have understanding for what each player is going through creates an atmosphere of community and caring – which creates a strong organization.
Gratitude is a key component of the practice of compassion, Steve says in an interview with the Positive Coaching Alliance. He emphasizes awareness of your own circumstances and that of others, and to focus on what we feel grateful for.
Have you ever noticed that the Warriors look happy to play together, and happy just to shoot some hoops? Happiness and Gratitude are strongly correlated according to Positive Psychology, an approach to mental health that focuses on strengths and virtues instead of disorders. Gratitude also bonds the team and the whole organization. So it isn’t only the value of Joy that creates the Warriors’ infectious mood when they play. An attitude of gratitude creates a sense of connection and elevates their mood even when the going gets tough on and off the court.
More than any other team in the NBA, the Warriors play as a team. Yes, they have more than their share of all-stars; but the team isn’t focused around one main stellar player. They share the ball and play in whatever way is required to elevate the team as a whole, not just one player into the history books. This relatively selfless attitude (sure, they want to win!) to support the team as a whole is a highly regarded spiritual quality.
It’s no surprise that the Warriors were number one in the league in assists last year. They love to share the ball, even with the bench players. They encourage the entire team to participate and make a contribution. Passing the ball to someone else may be the best way to score rather than driving solo to the basket, and everyone on the team is happy to give the glory to another because they know that they all win when everyone is selfless and shares the limelight.
While it would be easy for Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, the top scorers, to hog the ball all the time, it isn’t in their nature. Each member of the team feels joy in the success of the others. When bench players are on a roll and making scores, Coach Kerr will keep them in. Some players sit on the bench for several games; most of us would be upset. But they trust in the game plan that the coach has created for that particular series, and when they’re finally put in, they know they have a job to do and they do it. It’s rare that you see a disgruntled Warrior. They love each other and practice selflessly supporting everyone else and bringing out everyone’s best.
It’s this selflessness that is a result of Compassion combined with Joy. Each other’s happiness is just as important as their own – maybe even more so. After winning the 2017 championships, Draymond Green, the NBA defensive player of the same year, was asked how he felt about two veteran players on the team that had never won a championship before. “To see them celebrate, that was an even better feeling than just celebrating it [myself].” This is known as “empathic joy” – experiencing another’s happiness as your own. Selflessness incidentally has some great side-effects for our mood and well-being, and the Warriors embody it.
The Warriors win consistently because they play not for the fear of losing, but for the joy of winning – together. We can all take lessons from their playbook. Selflessness is the fabric in which society is made from, and a key quality of those who make a difference in the world.
Their Highest and Best
Of course, Golden State values competition. They are, after all, a professional sports team. But above all, they are going for the best they can be.
I don’t think it’s just about excellence that drives them. Certainly they have a great work ethic. But it’s the excitement of what is possible. In addition to all their usual drills and practice games, they also have fun attempting shots from the other side of the court. During games, they often appear sloppy when attempting a fancy pass behind the back or a wild assist across court that becomes a turn over. But it’s because they are encouraged to explore their edge and new possibilities.
The Warriors look to what more they can do, how they can make the impossible possible. They constantly strive for the highest and best of themselves and how they can bring it to the game. It’s why Steph and Klay changed the game with the 3 point shot – they had the audacity to go for it, again and again. And amazingly, they knocked those shots down. They believe they can do more and so they take more risks. It’s why their main problem is turnovers.
But the path to success and to our highest and best selves isn’t paved with staying in our comfort zone. It’s often riddled with mistakes, because we don’t learn, grow, or step beyond ourselves by playing it safe. Our spiritual awakening is, by definition, going beyond our previous limitations. The Warriors are always exploring that unknown territory, that realm of what else they could do to be their best. If they can step beyond their comfort zone, so can we.
Lastly, the spiritual quality that the Warriors may embody the most is Faith. I’m not talking about religious faith, although Curry is well-known for his strong Christian foundation.
They never, ever give up on a game. Somewhere deep inside themselves, they believe that they can win – even when they’re down 20 points in the 4th quarter. How many games have we seen them come back from crazy odds, from playing three crappy quarters riddled with turnovers and missed-shot “bricks”? You can never count them out.
They believe, deep in their core, that anything is possible. They have faith in themselves, both as individuals and as a team. Their belief in each other is palpable. It’s that rock-sold faith that, perhaps more than any other quality, wins them games and championships.
Know that anything is possible in your life. We can all use Golden State as an example of the power of believing in life, Spirit, and ourselves. When you have strong faith, the Universe responds in kind.
The Warriors and Spiritual Awakening?
I’m not claiming that the Golden State Warriors are enlightened. But they sure have a lot of gifts to give us on the spiritual path. If we can bring the qualities of Joy, Mindfulness, Neutrality, Compassion, Selflessness, our Highest and Best, and Faith to our spiritual practice and the way we live, I have no doubt that a transformation will occur for each of us, maybe even the world.
I guess that’s the Golden State of Mind. *smile*