Championships are Built on Relationships

Julie Field, Retired District Court Judge, Co-founder of The Consilium Institute.

You, see, it’s not just about the X’s and O’s.

“[Coaching] sure ain’t about drawing up (bleeping) plays. It’s about building relationships and instilling belief.” Michael Malone Denver Nuggets Coach

Coach Malone is right. Technical knowledge can only get you so far. Championships are built on relationships. And belief. And focus on the future.

Those who know me well (or even not so well) know this: I. Love. The. Denver. Nuggets. Since 2017, I have driven the round trip between Fort Collins and Denver (75 minutes each way on a good traffic day) more times than I can count. And I have a hard time deciding which of my collection of Nuggets t-shirts to wear on any random Saturday.

Now, lest you think I’m just an NBA junkie, let me explain. My family was a baseball family. We traveled the country to see the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Giants, the Braves, the Sox (Red and White). We drove hours from our Nebraska home to see our closest local team, the Kansas City Royals. I still love baseball, and I’m late to basketball. Before my son invited me to go to a Nuggets game or two with him in 2017, I had only seen one NBA game ever – in person or on TV. It was the Celtics vs. the Warriors during the Larry Bird era, when a friend in Oakland took me to see Larry Legend.

But the more I saw this Denver team grow and evolve, the more I wanted to know. About the sport, about the players – many of whom were not obvious stars when drafted or when traded for from other teams where they had floundered – and about how they persevered through some really challenging times and events.

I try to understand leadership, so I really wanted to figure out the “secret sauce” that built and brought this team together to become the NBA Champions this year. The first NBA title in the history of this team.

See, the Nuggets are a little like the Island of Misfit Toys from the 1960s animated Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Players, rather than playthings, looking for their place to shine.Just a few examples of those misfits from the many members of this team – Center Nicola Jokic, without question on a path to be one of (if not the) best basketball players in the history of the NBA, a then-pudgy Serbian who was famously drafted in the 41st round during a Taco Bell commercial. Michael Porter, Jr. – a good shooter with a fragile back. Jamal Murray – a fierce Canadian – who battled back better than before from a torn ACL, a two-year-long ordeal. Back-up center DeAndre Jordan bounced from team to team – six in total – before joining the Nuggets and becoming a leader in the Denver locker room. And Coach Malone himself – hired and then soon fired from his first head coaching job with the Kings before finding his place with the Nuggets in 2015.

My beloved misfit toys, those Denver Nuggets, are now the champions of the world. What is their “secret sauce?” Great leadership. Getting beyond the transactional and focusing on the relational. Building trusting relationships within the team. Believing in each other as players and coaches, and not jettisoning either when there were setbacks, as there were in 2018, 2019, and 2021. Being a team, rather than a collection of individual stars. Finding the right fit for each one of these misfit toys. Never giving up. And never, ever feeling sorry for themselves, individually or collectively. And, most of all, keeping the long-term goal in sharp focus.

As lawyers who handle family law cases, we are generally great at drawing up the X’s and O’s. And we excel at being able to focus on the case in front of us.

But the Nuggets’ approach can teach us that we can do more, and be more effective, in exploring, understanding, and enabling our clients’ long-term goals and that, by doing so, we win, too.

We gain more when we focus on the relationships we have with our clients. We learn more, and are more impactful, when we keep the focus on our clients’ long-term goals. And we can maintain that focus even when the clients seem to be losing hope. We can build a team that connects with the client and each other. We can understand our clients’ challenges, and their strengths, and help them build on those strengths to create resilience. And we can remind ourselves and our clients to be patient with setbacks. And that we can adapt to the situation at hand, even as it changes.

Two-time MVP Nicola Jokic described the relational aspect of this team succinctly: “We won because we are not rooting for ourselves…we are rooting for the person next to us. I’m winning for Jamal and everyone else, and they are winning for me. We believe in each other and the relationship that we have.”

As you build your team, and as you start stepping away from just drawing up the X’s and O’s of your legal strategy, you’ll find that you will be rooting for your clients. And you will set the stage for a championship outcome for your client’s family and future.

Thanks, Nuggets. You’ve taught me so much.

Let’s do this again next year.

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