The Curious Case of Steven Gray, Part Two

Note: There will be no column next week in celebration of Thanksgiving.  Look for a new column Friday, December 3.

I need to know what “leadership” is and what it is not.  I need to know why a team needs leadership and when.  And, I need to know if conventionally-held ideas of leadership are valid.  Is a leader the guy who wins the most championships?  (Trent Dilfer, one Super Bowl.  Dan Marino, zero Super Bowls.)  Is he the guy who just wins the most games?  (Brett Favre, 181 wins.  Joe Montana, 117 wins.)  Or the one who, like Brian Dawkins, gives the best pregame speeches?  (Denver Broncos’ record with Brian Dawkins: 11-14)  Everyone says Michael Jordan was a great leader because he was intense and worked the hardest and willed his team to victory; maybe he’s the perfect example of leadership.  (Michael Jordan to Kwame Brown during a 2003 practice: “Stop crying, you flaming f—-t!”)

The thing is, we have no idea what leadership is exactly.  It is, by definition (“the capacity to lead”), subjective so any number of people will have any number of their own ideas of leadership, but that doesn’t stop us from using it to rate (and ultimately overrate and underrate) athletes.  Derek Jeter’s a great leader! (Doesn’t hurt that he’s got $150 million dollars worth of talent surrounding him.)  Ray Lewis is a great leader! (Yeah, for a guy who had his friends take a murder rap for him.)  Player X Who Will Come to My Team in Y Years is a great leader! We decide that our team needs a leader and then look at the roster for interesting candidates while deciding, in a blink, which players have what we deem “leadership potential.”  Such potential is easier found in super heroes and terrible generals, but that doesn’t stop us from giving out merit badges in advance to our favorite leader-looking players as well.  Of course, a leader needs to win, or at least lose with dignity, and if he does neither, we take away the merit badge we just gave him and instead shake our heads and wonder what might have been.  In every case, what might have been are championships, or at least Sweet Sixteens, because after all, just one good leader (as we define the term) takes the place of a solidly executed game plan or rebounding.

In case you haven’t given out your leadership merit badges for this season yet, a quick look at the Gonzaga roster will tell you that Steven Gray is the team’s only senior.  This makes him, by default, The Leader.  Perhaps it’s natural to figure seniors as leaders (except for Will Foster, whom Mark Few hated); they’ve been there the longest and they’ve been through the most tough situations so they’d be the ones to lead a team out of trouble.  This was essentially the argument of a preseason preview article (appropriately titled, “Is Steven Gray ready to lead?”) on the GU blog, The Slipper Still Fits.  The article argues that Gray needs to be the team leader in order for the Zags to “maximize their huge potential.”  This implies of course that if GU lives up to its “potential” (the definition of which is also extremely subjective), it did so because Steven Gray emerged as the team leader.  Not because Mark Few coached a decent tournament  game or six.  Not because Robert Sacre added a new post move to his repertoire of one.  Not because Elias Harris proved he is one of the (insert adjective) players in the country.  No.  Gonzaga lived up to its potential because Steven Gray became a leader.  And if it doesn’t reach that elusive potential, again, it’s all on Gray.  Seems about right.  I mean, there’s an elf who has convinced people he’s a good Major League Baseball player because he’s “gritty”; why not pin the fortunes of an entire team of highly-recruited, highly-talented basketball players on the “leadership” of one guy whose dedication was publically called into question by his head coach just last season?  Ready to lead?  You can’t even tell me what “to lead” means (outside of admitting that “everyone has their own definition of what a leader should look like”), but you’re willing to argue that the whole season rides on whether or not Steven Gray is ready to do it?

Here we are, though, three games into the season and the discussion has shifted from “Is Steven Gray ready to lead?” to “He’s got it!”  Got what?  And, whatever it is, how did that he show he “got” it after only three games?  If we’re going to make final decisions based on only three games, here’s what I’ve seen so far: the same team as last year.  They’re all too willing to let one player take over, they struggle to rebound (somehow), they don’t know who to play at small forward, and in general, they look alarmingly unprepared for their opponents.  And since Gray currently averages 26 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game, I have to wonder at what point his mysterious leadership qualities kick in to make this year’s team different from last year’s.  We could imbue Steven Gray with the leadership qualities of everyone from Maximus to Captain America and things won’t be any different from last year, at least not until the other twelve guys on the roster step up as well.  But the way it’s set up now, whether or not those guys step up is dependent on Steven Gray.  If they do step up, he’ll go down as a Great Zag Leader, and if not, well, you know.

My suggestion to you, Joe Zag Fan, is to stop the insanity.  You’ve spent the entire recorded history of Gonzaga basketball (read: the last ten years) using Zag Material and all its subjective intangibles (Heart!  Guts!  Want-to!) to pick your favorite players while leaving the ones you don’t think measure up behind.  In the process, some good players get overrated (David Pendergraft) and some great ones get underrated (Jeremy Pargo).  Steven Gray is perhaps the most talented all-around player Gonzaga’s ever had.  He’s got an NBA body with (perhaps borderline) NBA quickness and strength.  He can shoot.  He can defend.  He can rebound.  Plus, he does all kinds of cool things off the basketball court that should have you petitioning the university to build a statue of him on campus.  But if you keep judging him by whether or not he’s a “leader,” you’ll never fully appreciate him, no matter what he does.

Go Zags.

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8 Responses to “The Curious Case of Steven Gray, Part Two”

  1. leadership is a term people like to throw around [much like ‘team chemistry’] when they don’t know what to say. chemistry, leadership, all those stupid intangibles don’t mean anything.

    give me talent and ability and my team will beat your team that has ‘heart’, ‘chemistry’ and a ‘senior leader.’

    i love when people say “i would never want barry bonds on my baseball team! he’s such a bad guy to have in the clubhouse.” or insert other maligned sports stars here – manny ramirez, michael vick (possibly a whole other story). talent > leadership/chemistry/intangibles, every day of the week.

    it’s just a lazy way for people to think they sound intelligent when talking about sports, nothing more.

  2. Agreed. There’s too much information too easily at hand for us to be so elementary in our thinking. Plus, evolution should have by now made us smarter, not lazier.

  3. I generally/wholeheartedly agree with the gist of your piece, but I want to offer a few qualifications to it. I am completely on board with your main contention, that 99 times out of 100 all the rhetoric of “intangibles” and “leadership” and “grit” is a manifestation of lazy, poor analysis and outdated thinking; I’ll take Barry Bonds and his ‘choking in the clutch’ over david eckstein’s scrawny little ass any day of the week. And when I see comments like, “Steven Gray didn’t lead the team! he just scored points! [and grabbed rebounds, dished assists, and played good d, but never mind..] David stockton is the only born leader on the zags!!!” it makes me want to claw my eyes out with darning needles.

    That said, I think we should bear in mind that basketball, unlike baseball, isn’t just an aggregate of individual events. Things like communication, cooperation, covering and assisting your teammates do play a significant role team performance and outcomes, and thus I think that we should at least recognize that “intangible” qualities of leadership may in fact play a significant role. A player who was locked in on being excellent in his own game might not make some of the same contributions that a player who was taking an active role in exhorting, focusing, and communicating with his teammates. Is there a middle ground that we can articulate between the empty rhetoric of leadership and the idea that numbers are the only bottom line?

    My second qualification is more tonal, in that it seemed to me that you somewhat shanghaied the SSF article’s contentions in order to prove your point. Obviously, the success of Gonzaga this year will depend on players and coaches nutting up and striving for excellence individually, and won’t just be a function of Steven Gray’s mysterious floor-generalship. That said, I don’t think the analysis in the article was a particularly egregious example of the message-board brain-dead fodder you’re haranguing against, nor is it unreasonable to contend that a player who is as gifted (and, to date, erratic or intermittently tentative) as Steven Gray might need to raise his game a notch, become more assertive, “carry the team” in stretches, etc.

    Very glad to have you back and writing.

  4. I should’ve proofread before submitting. There are some ugly-ass sentences in there.

  5. “Steven Gray is perhaps the most talented all-around player Gonzaga’s ever had. He’s got an NBA body with (perhaps borderline) NBA quickness and strength. He can shoot. He can defend. He can rebound. Plus, he does all kinds of cool things off the basketball court that should have you petitioning the university to build a statue of him on campus. But if you keep judging him by whether or not he’s a “leader,” you’ll never fully appreciate him, no matter what he does.”

    Amen.

  6. Hoft, I dig your point about leadership playing a unique part in basketball, but mine about the subjectiveness of “leadership” remains where I want it. Maybe it’s the nascent sabermetrician in me, but I don’t think it’s OK to rate an athlete in any sport based on such an intangible (or any intangible, for that matter). “Leadership” as a wanna-be stat category plays to the lowest common denominator: that sports fans are Disney movie-lovin’ rubes (which I suppose they probably are).
    As for shanghaiing the SSF argument, I don’t think I did. As convoluted as the writing there can be, their argument (in the form of a rhetorical question) that SG must lead to get GU at its potential was pretty clear. (But, yes, I agree that SSF is, at least outside of the comment section, not generally message-boardy.)

    And, thanks. It’s good to be back.

  7. If you’ve ever been on a team–sports or otherwise–you should have some sense of what leadership is and who possesses it. The leader is most simply described as the one the rest of us defer to, especially in a clutch. They respond to our need for them. Matt Bouldin was, and Steven Gray is, the level-headed, cool-under-pressure, solidly reliable players we consistently count on. They’re the guys you want on the court when the score is tied and three seconds remain on the clock. They’re the guys you want on the foul line when it matters most. Their occasional failures do not in the least disqualify them as leaders.

    I don’t think Steven was always that guy though. He has natural leadership tendencies, but they emerged with some urging. Part of that urging probably included a request, perhaps a demand, to cease particular habits. (Who among wasn’t more than a little suspicious he was partaking in certain “leisure activities” his sophomore year? His demeanor was CLASSIC pot-heat. Probably what Few meant when he made his “hippie movement” remark.) Making behavioral changes for the good of the order is certainly a leadership trait. And everything we admire about Steven on and off the court (your own Part I of this story) are the very things that will make him an ever more exceptional leader: discipline and practice, self-reflection, becoming who he truly is, developing his full self, having a real sense of priorities, etc.

    Players, even at the college level, do have some obligations to their fans. One of those obligations is to suffer our ignorance and idiocy with grace. “Picking up and leaving behind” certain players really isn’t a function of the fans. We have our favorites and preferences, to be sure, but they aren’t what ultimately carry players to fame or ignominy. Pargo wasn’t eschewed by the NBA, after all, because of a faction of the fan base’s disdain for him.

    Defining a team leader doesn’t remove the onus from the rest of the players or the coaches. It’s true that fans, commentators, and bloggers will throw terms around recklessly and assign blame for losses without any real understanding of what they actually mean, but that in and of itself doesn’t negate the concept of leadership. Nor does it disqualify the power of very real intangibles like “heart” and “grit”. When you add those to skill, you get something that looks a lot like leadership. And you get a guy like Steven Gray.

  8. What you’ve described is entirely subjective (even and especially the “CLASSIC pot-heat [sic]”), which is the problem.

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