4 Key Lessons From An Unforgettable NBA Season

NBA action. It’s fan-tastic.

Some of you reading this will remember those words from an ad campaign that ran during the 80’s and 90’s. That was when I fell in love with the game of basketball. Over the years, it’s been the source of so many great memories for me, but this season has produced more unforgettable—and unexpected—moments than any season in history.

Business is a lot like basketball, full of unpredictable challenges and obstacles beyond our control. Every year, teams facing elimination fight to keep their season going and push themselves to reach new heights. This year, the whole world is in that position. As businesses everywhere work to persevere, adjust their strategy, and innovate, the NBA has beaten expectations time and time again. It’s been inspiring to watch the action unfold, on and off the court. This season, the NBA experience comes with four valuable lessons on how to raise your game.

1. Listen, learn and lead.

In an amazing example of conscious leadership, the NBA suspended play due to concerns over COVID-19 way back on March 11, 2020. They sought out information from the world’s leading experts on infectious disease and acknowledged that the pandemic had made it impossible to guarantee the safety of everyone involved in the game. They had a responsibility to all their stakeholders, and until they knew more, the season had to be put on hold. Period.

The possible cancellation of the basketball season had a seismic impact that put the crisis in perspective. In the days leading up to the NBA’s announcement, we had already completed a companywide remote work trial at Civic and instituted a flexible work location policy. On March 12, our office went full-remote. Like many of you, we’re still working that way today.

The NBA’s decisive action made it easier for others to do the same. A good test of leadership is to ask yourself, if you didn’t have your position, title, or authority, would people still join with you to help you accomplish your goals? Would they still follow you? In this case, the league led, and the world followed. That kind of leadership takes courage. It’s hard to know if you’re making a mistake when you take the first step into uncharted territory, but putting people first is always a safe bet.

2. Communication is the key to building community.

This pandemic has reinforced the importance of communication, not just for marketing and public relations, but as a mission critical tool. When people are separated, communication is vital to create community and support a common sense of purpose. For us, virtual town halls have proved instrumental for providing updates and setting goals, but also for connecting with each other. Our discussions with guest speakers and internal variety shows have been a real highlight of the remote work experience. An opportunity to share who we are individually, and come together around what is important to us as an organization, even while physically separated.

We have all had to adjust to working in new ways. The NBA has had their own version of that, working remotely in the Orlando bubble. None of it could have been implemented without world class communication. Once it was clear that “getting back to normal” wasn’t a realistic option, the NBA laid out a plan to get as close to normal as possible. They outlined rules and safety measures that had to be followed in order to resume basketball operations. Their efforts were guided by the best scientific minds and greatest probability of success, and they made it clear that success depended entirely upon the safety and health of their people.

After getting buy-in from the Players Association, the NBA approved a plan to continue the season, inviting 22 teams to play in a controlled environment with no fans in attendance. Next, the league reached out to fans, sharing details of the plan in their own virtual town halls. Speaking openly and honestly with their most loyal customers, teams acknowledged the 2020 season would not be business as usual, but committed to finding ways to elevate the presentation of the game with new experiences.

3. Inside every crisis is an opportunity for growth.

Not only is it possible to adapt your business in the midst of extreme disruption, it is the only way to win. Big shifts and transformative moments reset our perspective, enabling us to redefine what can and can’t be done. We’ve seen this in the NBA this year, and we’ve seen it in our own business.

The last six months have forced us to come up with new ways of delivering for clients. Taking massive experiential projects, originally designed for execution at Comic-Con and SXSW, and turning them into engaging social media campaigns. Or, taking national conferences and leadership summits for some of the most iconic brands in the world, and transforming them into high-end virtual programs that welcome thousands of people in dynamic, entertaining, and informative environments. We’ve pushed ourselves, as always, to find the intersection of brand, audience, and cultural context, tailored for this unique moment in time.

The NBA also moved quickly to turn challenges into opportunities. A play-in tournament was added to the playoff structure to generate excitement in a shortened season. And, rather than allow empty arenas to detract from the viewing experience, the court was transformed into a studio for the game. Broadcasts were optimized for the fan-free environment with new camera angles and virtual backdrops that featured real people watching at home in real time—myself included!

In addition, the NBA embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, supporting players as they utilized their platform to amplify the call for racial justice, and respected their right to protest, even when it meant the possibility of a boycott and permanent cancellation of the season.

In the past, these developments might have been hard to fathom, but today we recognize them as thoughtful responses to a devastating pandemic, and what will hopefully be a turning point for society. Safety measures and social distancing guidelines are not rights being taken away, but behaviors that serve the common good. Mutual respect and a united stance against racism and hate is not optional, but the bare minimum we should expect from one another. This crisis comes with the potential for growth on many levels. Collectively, we’re more willing to work together and give new ideas a chance during times like these. The challenge is to keep that spirit of innovation and togetherness alive once the crisis has passed. That’s the final lesson.

4. An aligned culture can overcome any challenge.

It’s been said that sports are the reward for functioning society. If this is true, I would go a step further and say that right now, the NBA is what a functioning society looks like. I have watched this season as a fan, and I’ve watched it from a business point-of-view. I’ve seen some of the best basketball in recent memory, and I’ve seen strong leadership, clear communication, and most importantly, proactive concern for the impact the business has on society. Concern for individual safety and the health of the league—not as separate entities, but as mutually dependent and equally important priorities. The focus on health was also not limited to containing the virus, but took into account mental health, wellness, and the avoidance of burnout. The emotional weight of everything people are going through right now cannot be ignored, and the value of leadership that brings people together cannot be overstated. Those of us fighting to keep our respective seasons alive and thriving must never forget that.

Tonight is the first game of the NBA Finals. In basketball, the best team wins every year. I believe that. The winner has to prove it on the court by surviving a long, grueling season, advancing through the playoffs, and taking four games against the best competition in the world. It doesn’t come down to one play, one possession, one bad bounce, or one “off” night. The championship goes to the team that is more than the sum of their parts. The one that not only has the most talent, but also comes together in service of a collective goal. When every player understands how their individual role contributes to the team’s greater mission, nothing can keep them from the title.

My favorite team, the LA Clippers, didn’t make the Finals this year, but the fact that games are still being played at all gives me hope when I think about our chances on a societal level. That’s the team we are all part of. The NBA will finish this season on the strength of inclusive leadership, transparent communication, common purpose, ingenuity, and respect. If we take the right lessons from this pandemic—and don’t allow ourselves to forget the lessons of similar challenges throughout history—we too can meet this moment in business and in life. As we continue to evolve our culture and create the type of environment and society we aspire to be, we know it can be done. If you have any doubts, tune in tonight. The spirit that makes it possible will be on display in Game 1.