In athletics, “character” is often equated to mean “virtue.” They aren’t synonyms. Character is the product of all a person’s traits, good and bad. Virtue is adherence to a standard of good, be it a religion, code, personal ethic, or what have you.
It would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to build an elite “virtuous” NBA team. Oklahoma City looks to be a new standard in terms of elite talent and respectability—this was particularly true when they had James Harden in the sixth man role. And no team is better respected for “doing it the right way” than the San Antonio Spurs, even amidst reports of Tony Parker’s “improprieties” leading to his own divorce from Eva Longoria and former teammate Brent Barry’s divorce from his wife.
Whether it be Kobe Bryant’s Colorado crucible or Michael Jordan’s gambling and pettiness, many elite players give reason to suspect they fall short of the simple characterization “good men.” Yet every team in the league, including the Jazz, would give nearly anything for a package of such vices with such talent. A desirable NBA character does not require that a man be virtuous. The supreme traits of professional athletics are talent and competitiveness. Combine enough of both, and anything short of a criminal disposition can help produce wins.
That being said, I believe that virtue, or at least some specific virtues, have significant enough competitive value to justify taking character into consideration when it comes to player assessment and development—and not only in looking to avoid scandal.
Some virtues commonly recognized across many cultures hold, to my mind, legitimate value in an NBA player, and could well prove to be assets in the young Jazz players trusted with their team’s future. I highlight three in particular I feel have a chance to dramatically affect the future of the Jazz.
The ability to restrain one’s self from indulgence of any impulse or appetite is recognized as a near-universal virtue. It is also a foundational element of serious sport.
Players unable to discipline themselves are unlikely to achieve the fitness and skill level needed to be elite. They are quicker to reach discouragement and prone to serious lapses in judgment, both on and off the court, that can hamper or even ruin their careers.
Almost never does an undisciplined player reach his potential. For example, see Shawn Kemp’s decline due to weight gain or the current saga that is DeMarcus Cousins. A professional athlete without discipline can succeed if his competitive nature is incredibly great (Allen Iverson), but typically, lack of discipline in the player will produce major negatives on the court.
One Jazz player I think can benefit greatly from discipline is Enes Kanter. With the body of a Turkish deity and the personality of a seventeen year old American teen, Kanter feels a great deal like a package with a lit fuse. With fortune and fame only looking to increase in the future, how will the exuberant Kanter react?
His physical conditioning shows that some discipline is in place, but much of that statuesque physique is the result of lucking out in the genetic lottery. Will Kanter have the discipline not only professionally but personally to avoid distraction and maximize his potential? This is a major question when considering the Jazz’s future.
The Greeks had four words for love or affection, and philia is that love shared among friends. It suggests strong relationships with trust, loyalty, and the ability to invest emotionally in another person. It may seem strange to suggest that friendly affection is an asset in the NBA, but it certainly is.
All team sports require that players know and trust one another and, to one degree or another, invest in the success of others. Sometimes this virtue is what separates the extreme elite from players with every bit as much potential but who never quite reach the same heights.
Philia for teammates could be invaluable for young Trey Burke. The reigning College Player of the Year is used to being the center of his basketball world. Rarely did he play in a game last season when he wasn’t been the best player on the floor, much less his team.
He is not the best player on the Utah Jazz. There is not much chance he will ever be the best player on the Utah Jazz. And so Burke’s chances of maximum greatness, particularly as a point guard, lie in his ability to embrace philia for his teammates.
If the shoot-first, scoring point guard can transition to a team-first floor leader who values the success of the “we” equal to the success of his “me,” he will share a much brighter future with that of the Utah Jazz.
Professional basketball is egomaniacal.
Men in their early and mid twenties are paid millions of dollars and granted worldwide fame for their skill at the same actions children around the globe do for fun. Frequently, professional athletes have radiated their rare talent since boyhood, causing those around them to faun, coddle, enable, and permit them in every way at every turn. That creates pride. Sometimes raging, irrational pride that pairs increased success with the increased probability of a tragic fall.
The world’s great codes of morality and ethics often proscribe humility as the antidote to pride, but I’m not foolish enough to believe that is realistic in the NBA. But if humility is too much to ask of NBA celebrities, respect for others is not.
Respect for other people, perspective, and processes is essential to functioning on a team. An NBA player without respect for his teammates will not trust them to handle the ball, take important shots, or have his back with help defense. He will not bend his preference and obey the coach or accept the authority of a referee to make a call.
An NBA player without respect for others is always in competition with everyone around him about everything. That doesn’t work well in any sport, much less the team variety.
Perhaps even more importantly, avoiding excessive pride is a key factor in the ability to learn. Learning requires admitting one’s own limitations, fallibility, and ignorance, which serve as room to grow and improve.
A player without respect for others will never be better than he is currently. He has set himself up as his own standard, with no room to achieve beyond himself. He does not recognize the superior skills of other players and how those give advantage in a game. He does not perceive the value of the coaching he is given, either in regard to his own skill set or how to integrate into a team.
While pride is a potential pitfall for anyone successful and prominent, which includes every single player in the NBA, the Jazz stand to benefit from one of their player’s already established ability to temper his pride with respect: Alec Burks.
In what was a difficult year for nearly everyone on the Jazz, Alec Burks takes the cake for roughest go of the 2012-2013 season. He failed to get a second of game time in 18 contests, instead having to content himself with five letter justifications: DNP-CD. When he did play, it was out of position at point guard nearly half the time.
It would have been a tough year for any young player. For the confident, borderline-arrogant Burks, it must have been agonizing and infuriating. Last season gave Burks plenty of reason to check out on his team, to become bitter and resentful and disregard everything the coaching staff told him.
Instead, he had enough respect for them to work hard and learn from what they said in spite of ample reason to rebel.
Coaches required smart, controlled play with the ball in his hands. So he ran the offense and played off the ball. They demanded superior defense. He played tough, active defense, got yanked frequently for mistakes overlooked by other players, and gave the same effort next time on the floor. The aggressive penetrator wedged into a sniper’s role even increased his three point percentage from 33% to nearly 39% (.386) following the All-Star Break. In that same span, Randy Foye shot only .002 better.
In one unpleasant season, Alec Burks has answered or begun to answer the questions he carried into the league, including outside shooting ability and willingness to commit on the defensive end when not the center of the offense. But to my mind, the question answered more definitively than any other is whether Burks has enough respect for his coaches to listen and learn even when he disagrees.
Based on last year, the answer is yes. And that respect may turn Burks’ nightmare 2012-2013 season into a key steppingstone in both his own career and the construction of the next championship-contending Jazz team.
If some of his young teammates follow his lead and develop key virtues, the future of the Utah Jazz is very bright—even if it falls short of virtuous.