How Basketball Works Best – John Nash’s “A Beautiful Mind” Theory on the Hardwood

by Kent Sterling

Adam Smith was wrong and John Nash was right. Greed is not good - in basketball or in business.  In both, the beauty must go home, or no one gets lucky.

Adam Smith was wrong and John Nash was right. Greed is not good – in basketball or in business. In both, the beauty must go home, or no one gets lucky.

Thinking about basketball is something I can never been able to escape.  Basketball is incredibly complicated and almost impossible to execute perfectly, and I love puzzles without a solution.  The combination of athletic fluidity, potential for selfishness, and need for specific activity make coaching the game an act of near futility.

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One of my favorite scenes in a movie is the epiphany John Nash has in “A Beautiful Mind” where he is with three friends, and five women – one who is beautiful – walk into the bar.  He tells the friends that the only way for all four guys to get laid is for all to choose someone other than the beauty.  All four fighting for the most attractive will alienate the other four, while all choosing one singular woman will cause her to feel special – thus all get lucky but the beauty.

The extrapolation of that lesson into economic theory won awards for Nash, and the story of Nash’s genius/schizophrenia won Oscars.

I think the theory can help win basketball games.  There is a facet of playing basketball that rewards self-centered behavior.  No sports allows fans closer access to the action, nor an ability to see the faces of the participants.  That leads to a more personal spectator experience, and that cuts both ways – meaning that the players are rewarded or penalized more personally for their excellence or folly during the game.

Fans ask basketball players more often about their emotional responses during a game because they can hear and see them.  That often provides access to rewards and penalties those in other sports never realize.

Here’s how Nash’s theory can affect a basketball team.  Each player must always choose to honor the needs of the whole, rather than to select the beauty that can only satisfy him.  If any of the five players on the floor lose the discipline needed to stay away from the short term selfish need, all is lost and the possession will most often fail.

The discipline that results in the success of the unit is in always believing in the activity that best benefits the team.

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and others refer to this as becoming a fist.  I like better the visual in “A Beautiful Mind” of four guys opting for collective success rather than being wooed by the false potential of pleasure from the lone beauty while the others are shunned.

The NBA makes choosing collective success even more difficult because the way the game is marketed best is by building a star system, and the path to becoming one of those those stars would seem to run through individual accomplishment.

And that’s just not so.  The way to becoming a star is by winning multiple championship, and the only way to a championship is through embracing the collective.

There aren’t many who can stay disciplined enough in their behavior to pursue a selfish desire by establishing collective excellence.

I wrote a little bit yesterday about a summer basketball team that throttled Derrick Rose and his Mean Streets Express team 61-19 in the championship game of the 2006 Adidas Invitational in Bloomington.  That team featured an amazing collection of us-first players.  Over the course of the four years that team was together, there was some churn on the roster that was driven by players (and their parents) who refused to embrace the team-first mentality that grew into that team’s defining culture.

The team won trophy after trophy because they refused to give into the temptation to love themselves more than the team, and maintaining that focus took all 11 players.  It was reflected in practice as everyone on the team showed up for practice 30 minutes early or more for every workout.  The new guys would walk in on time, see his new teammates already sweaty and hard at work.  They would either embrace the culture or leave the team shortly thereafter.

Obviously, this collective first mentality isn’t relevant only in basketball, but also throughout business.  Some managers believe that winning should involves enflaming internal rivalries and enforcing ego-driven competition, like the insane scene with Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”  The top salesman wins a car, second place – steak knives, third place – you’re fired.

Not only is that the wrong answer from a pragmatic perspective, it allows an environment of hatred to be fostered, which makes the workplace miserable.

Don’t mistake occasional successes with winning.  Even a dysfunctional and embittered team will stumble into wins occasionally.  Consistent winning requires a team-first mentality – on the basketball floor or in the conference room.

Either everyone get laid or no one does, and that means the beauty goes home alone.

3 thoughts on “How Basketball Works Best – John Nash’s “A Beautiful Mind” Theory on the Hardwood

  1. Jeff Gregory

    This is an excellent post – well thought out. That analogy applies to just about everything. As I was reading your Devin Robinson post, I was thinking how it appies to kids in the recruitment process. I have seen kid after kid play the celebrity and screw themselves out of the best situation for themselves (JaQuan Lyle comes to mind). Kids seem to have trouble accessing wisdom in their lives, or worse, turning their backs on it when it taps them on the shoulder.

  2. Keith Williams

    Solid analogy. Do you think there’s a point where a single player is so much better than his teammates that it makes sense for him to act selfishly for the good of the team?

    In case you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s an old game theory scenario called the Stag Hunt that runs along the lines of your post.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      If a player is that much better than his teammates, the problem isn’t on the floor; it’s in the front office. No player is good enough to win a championship on his own, so his performance should always be devoted to making the other four better.

      From a scoring standpoint, obviously the ball is best shot most often by the player that can best create shots he can make. But that is best done as a five man unit through solid screens and/or accurate passing.


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