When you’re coaching global superstars, players that know every trick of the trade there is, you have to come up with something new. You have to reinvent yourself, find a philosophy that players can buy into. A little tweak here or there won’t do; it has to be something powerful.
Phil Jackson practiced a zen-master style of coaching. You have to admit it was something extraordinary if it kept Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman in check in Chicago, and Shaq and Kobe (for some time) in LA. Jackson was the type of coach that didn’t jump on a time-out when his team was getting back-to-back buckets. He let his players dig out of that hole by themselves. And he often led zen-like sessions before or after regular workouts with his players so he could teach them how to find a way out in nerve-wracking moments. When you think about it, that was pretty clever considering the magnitude of the players that he was coaching. Jackson managed to put all those pieces together and shaped them into a championship mosaic.
Doc Rivers needed something similar to Jackson’s zen approach in 2008. Coming off a 24-58 season, the franchise created a superstar trio – Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. But, as Rivers explained in the Netflix sports docuseries „The Playbook,” that didn’t mean the job was done. Those were three great individuals who had to pull the brakes on individual statistics and take one for the team.
“The concern was that all three were leaders. I told them, if we’re going to win, we’re going to have to sacrifice. You’re going to have to change. That was the challenge: getting them to buy into being a team.”Doc Rivers, The Playbook
Then came Ubuntu, an ancient African philosophy that ended up uniting those new, sexy Celtics. Ubuntu comes from the Zulu phrase „Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which you could translate to „a person can only be a person through others,” or simply “if you’re not happy, then I can’t be happy.” It was widely popularized by Nelson Mandela.
Rivers heard about Ubuntu from a colleague at Marquette University, where he was a longtime board member. After researching it, Rivers knew: Ubuntu is going to win him a championship. Rivers wisely implemented that „I can’t be all I can be unless you are all you can be” philosophy through his rookies. They were his messengers. And Ubuntu eventually caught on. The team used it as their pregame routine. Pierce, Allen, Garnett, and Rondo were all in sync yelling „1,2,3 Ubuntu!” before games, which led them to win a championship.
So if you think that Garnett’s ability in the paint, Allen’s shooting, or Pierce’s clutch gene was all it took for the Celtics to win a ring, you’re mistaken. It was something that was invented thousand’s of years ago, and that Rivers said is carved into the Celtics championship title.
Who would’ve thought that you could find a connection between ancient Africa and one of the best NBA franchises in history.