Jason Byassee: You are what you do regularly, excellently

Practice doesn’t make perfect. But as the Duke basketball team shows, with good practice we can teach our bodies to act well without having to think first.

The cliché that ‘practice makes perfect’ is, of course, wrong. Yet practice can habituate to the point that we’re more rather than less likely to do the right thing. And good practice means we don’t have to think about what to do.

I saw this recently at an open practice of the Duke basketball team, offered as part of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s leadership seminar. You may recall last spring that my Blue Devils had a bit of athletic success on the hardwood. In the last moment of the title game against upstart Butler, Duke was on defense, up a mere point, with the seemingly unstoppable Gordon Hayward primed to play the hero. He slipped past his man and had what looked like a clear lane to the basket. Until, that is, Duke’s 7’1” big man Brian Zoubek leaped out at him and altered his path and his shot. Hayward missed long by inches and Zoubek grabbed the rebound (see the play at 4:20 of this clip).

It was a simple, unglamorous and glorious play.

Afterwards Zoubek was remarkably unimpressed with himself. He attributed his heroics to a play the Blue Devils run every day in practice called “closeout.” The moment when the national title was on the line and Hayward saw his way clear to the basket, Zoubek didn’t have to think. His body knew what to do. He stretched himself out and forced Hayward to take a tougher shot than he would have liked. Hayward swore later the shot felt like it was good.

At practice, I got to see the drill for myself. Four defenders go up against five offensive players who are charged to pass until one has an open shot. The defenders’ role is to scramble as best they can to guard the shooter -- simulating helping against an opponent who’s just beaten his man. Just like Hayward beat his man last spring with the game on the line.

The drill’s glory is its very ordinariness. Close out on the open shooter? Cut down nets on a Monday night in April? Yeah, we do that here.

Another point of practice that impressed me was the players’ talking. The 500 or so in the stands weren’t nearly as loud as the 10 on the floor. To hear K tell it, talking is the most important thing the players learn how to do in practice. “We can’t call a timeout every time we’re in trouble,” he said. “They’ve got to figure out their problems on the court.” Here K made the clear connection to the organizations represented at the conference -- the teams in our (less athletic) organizations also have to learn how to trust each other to talk through our problems on the fly.

I was struck by how the practicing Dukies could run a play perfectly, and K or one of his assistants might still fuss at them for failing to talk. As soon as they broke into a new drill or scrimmage, the players broke out in song-like unison, chattering, encouraging, shouting, cajoling, demanding excellence from one another. “Mason! Andre!” K called out to two sophomores at one point -- both of whom made contributions last year, and from whom more will be expected this year. “Kyle and Nolan [the team captains] are down there. You guys have got to talk.” Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins did nothing but dunk and rain threes all day. But it wasn’t good enough if these budding floor leaders didn’t talk.

Maybe that’s what leadership, what excellence, is: knowing when to talk and when not to. Zoubek didn’t talk up his heroics after the championship. But this basketball program -- which K often calls a family -- insists on talking non-stop in practice and in games. K is a great coach. But the greatest coach never leaves the sideline. When games are on the line next spring, he won’t be out there hunting for that next title. The players will. And you can bet they’ll be talking. And closing out.

And winning titles? Yeah, maybe that, too.