Recently, a post-game interview with Giannis Antetokounmpo caught the attention of NBA fans and well beyond due to his unique (and frankly, refreshing) comments on how he views success and failure as an athlete. While his press conference is certainly worth a watch (check out the link above), I have been surprised at how few people caught what I perceived to be an even more powerful press conference after a similar loss in an NCAA championship basketball game a mere 3 weeks earlier.
The date is April 3, 2023. The NCAA Men’s Basketball national championship game has just concluded and the #4 ranked UConn Huskies have just defeated the San Diego State Aztecs by a score of 76 to 59. The game itself wasn’t quite the battle that it seemed we were off to after the tightly contested opening minutes had multiple lead changes and displayed tons of grit from both teams. Once UConn took the lead making the score 12-10 just before the 8-minute mark, however, the game never got back within reach for San Diego State. This game capped off what had been one of if not the most statistically unlikely tournament bracket of all time. It was the first time in the 44 years of tournament seeding that no number 1, 2, or 3 seeds made the Final Four. This Final Four consisted of San Diego State (#5), Florida Atlantic University (#9), UConn (#4), and Miami (#5).
For those who are unfamiliar with the Men’s NCAA bracket format and might be confused by the duplicate #5 ranked teams, it’s important to note that the bracket is split up into four regions, each with its own #1-16 ranked teams filling out the field, creating four of each ranking. This means that there were actually twelve #1-3 ranked teams that entered the tournament expected to outlast every one of the teams that ended up in the Final Four. And that estimate assumes that each of the #4 and higher ranked teams was assumed to be equal, which is unlikely as well. Additionally, out of those four remaining teams, UConn was the only one who had ever made it to the Final Four before, which is something that hasn’t happened in an even longer span–53 years. And even though UConn has had a tradition of winning programs over the years, including 5 national titles in the past 25 years (this one being the 5th), they didn’t even finish first in their own conference this season (they finished 4th in the Big East) and only secured a spot in the NCAA tournament by winning their conference tournament. So, one might be justified in calling the 2023 Men’s NCAA Tournament the “Cinderella Tournament.” However, UConn’s “Cinderella run” isn’t what was most interesting about this tournament. In fact, none of what happened prior to the final buzzer of the final game of this tournament is what stood out to me most.
As is tradition, after a game like this each team holds a press conference where reporters can ask coaches and players from each side about the game they just played. Most often, the losing team’s sessions are filled with platitudes like, “They just outplayed us tonight,” or “We didn’t do all of the things we needed to win,” while the winning team usually calls out what strategic moves or brilliant performances allowed them to win, all while giving “credit to [Insert opposing team here] for a great season and a great game.” And while some of those things were discussed in each of these press conferences, San Diego State’s press conference, which included Head Coach Brian Dutcher, and four of his Senior players- Adam Seiko, Matt Bradley, Nathan Mensah, and Aguek Arop, was very different. In his opening statement to reporters, Coach Dutcher started by giving credit to their opponent and taking ownership for the loss, but soon after pivoted to this:
"I'm proud of our guys. These guys have given me everything they had. [Going down the line] Six years, five years, five years, five years. This is what all these guys are all about. It's about college athletics. They're good people, and they're good students, and they're really good players. We can feel good about the things we did. And we are. We feel good about the things we did. Disappointed in the loss, but there was a brotherhood in that locker room that will never be divided by a margin of victory or not winning it all. That brotherhood’s gonna last a lifetime. I told them that. I was in there with Juwan Howard (while at Michigan), and we were sad many years ago together, too, when I was an assistant coach and he played for us. And he was in here supporting us because that's the kind of brotherhood we all have and will continue to have. So, I'm proud of these guys.”
And this wasn’t just coach-speak, trying to find a way to cushion such a devastating loss. If that were the case, you’d likely be able to tell by the reactions of their players dwelling on personal performance, talking about missed opportunities, lamenting turnovers or rebounds, and focusing overall on what happened on the court. But that’s not what happened next.
When asked a question about what it meant to be a part of this team and ending the season together, the responses from the players were anything but standard.
Adam Seiko: “This season has been unbelievable. These guys next to me, the other seniors we have, it’s just been a blessing to be around this group of guys–not just on the court, but they’re even better people off the court…”
Matt Bradley: [Moved to tears as he reflected] “When I entered the [transfer] portal and came here… during that time with Covid and stuff, I was really ready to stop playing, you know? I told myself…you know what Matt? It’s been tough. Let’s just go home and get a job and, you know, call it a day. You’ll be alright. But, Coach Dutch is one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met, and the way he just took me in. The brotherhood with these guys and to actually have real leadership I could follow...it changed the trajectory of my life, for sure. And it’s more than just basketball...”
Nathan Mensah: “I feel like, when you get a taste of this brotherhood you kind of long for something that goes far more than winning basketball games…You see the selflessness that everyone on this team possesses. That’s one of the things I’d say I’ll miss the most about this team here.
Aguek Arop: “It’s so much more than basketball with these guys. There’s a lot of days where I know several of us come in and we don’t want to be there. But I think it takes like one guy to be smiling and next thing you know, I’m back in it. Something that small goes a long way. Some days I come in thinking I’m gonna have the worst practice ever, and I have the best practice ever because Matt, Nate, Adam, Derrion, Lamont, someone was able to pick me up by doing something as simple as saying, “Let’s go!” with a smile. It’s hard to put into words, but that example is how deep this brotherhood runs…I know we didn’t win, but this is something that I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid. Something we all dreamed of. Coming from humble circumstances to being here, I praise God that I get to share it with the guys next to me and the guys in the locker room.”
Think about that.
When reaching what we perceived to be the pinnacle of achievement in our lives only to have it slip from our grasp, how many of us would immediately focus on gratitude? How many of us would focus on the people instead of the achievement? When asked what they would remember or what this season meant to them, these players didn’t once mention reaching the national championship game. They didn’t mention making the first championship appearance in school history. They didn’t even talk about the crazy, historic Final Four that led up to this moment. They talked about the character of the men they’d played alongside. They talked about the brotherhood that they had formed. They talked about the exemplary leadership of their coach. They talked about how their lives had been changed for the better, even in the face of defeat.
Coach Dutcher created an environment where it was just as, if not more important to be a good person off of the court than it was to perform at a high level when on the court. In doing so, he encouraged a sense of connection and camaraderie in his players where they could motivate and pick each other up in a way that he could not. He created a team where each player helped the others thrive. And while they may not have won the National Title in 2023, they certainly exceeded all expectations. And odds are that players who are looking for an environment where they can become better versions of themselves–both on and off the court–will seek out his program for years to come. The future looks bright for the SDSU Aztecs.
Now, think about how you feel when you go to work. How many of us can say the same about our working environment? How many of us have a leader in place like Coach Dutcher? How many of us have a network of teammates around us that can help bring the best out of us, even when we feel at our absolute worst? My guess is that not many of us can check even one of those boxes, much less all of them.
For many of us, the experience of work is one that truly drains us. And while we can always point to external factors like bad management, lack of investment in people from the top, or lack of intention behind building a company culture, few of us are entirely blameless when it comes to the nature of the relationships we've built with those around us.
If you are in a position of authority in your organization, you have a real opportunity to build a culture like the one in the SDSU lockerroom by focusing on inputs more than just outputs. Rather than judging our team members purely by their performance, evaluate them based on character and contribution. When we build a culture focused around becoming better versions of ourselves rather than just building and selling widgets, the funny thing is that we naturally do a better job at building and selling those widgets anyway.
And even if you're not in a position of authority, there are things you can do to be a great teammate and build the type of culture you hope to see. Show up to support your teammates, even when it isn't easy. Work on being a person of high character, not just a high performer. And try to make a meaningful, positive impact on your coworkers beyond standard workplace expectations.
When we all work towards creating a culture of growth and support, a culture of excellence naturally develops. Focus on building up your people and you'll be amazed at how well the results will take care of themselves time and time again.
Check out the full press conference here.