7 Business tips from the championship-winning Cleveland Cavs


By Bethany Chambers, Digital Operations Manager

Sunday, June 19, 2016 is a date the people of Cleveland will long remember as The Day the Losing Ended. In 48 hard-fought minutes and one three-point clutch shot by a 24-year-old superstar in the making, it reset the clock on 52 years of misery.

The Cleveland Cavaliers joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1970 and went 46 years without a Walter A. Brown or Larry O’Brien trophy. While it’s true you learn a lot from failure as a business, this time Clevelanders get to learn from a success.


1. Play to your strengths, but switch it up every now and then.

LeBron James is arguably one of the best forwards in history. Kyrie Irving is making a run for his mark on point guard. When you have specialists, let them specialize.

That management theory was also on display this week in an episode of ESPN 30 for 30’s “O.J.: Made in America.” As you know if you were a fan of “The Juice,” an ill-advised coach moved O.J. Simpson to receiver in his first two years with the Buffalo Bills, even though he was a Heisman Trophy-winning running back at USC.

A teammate of O.J.’s says in the documentary: “I tell you, if [head coach] Lou Saban hadn’t have come in, we wouldn’t be doing this story right now.”

In O.J.’s case, making an American icon meant knowing what he did best (run) what he couldn’t do at all (catch). You put your players in a position to succeed.

That said, this NBA Finals series was won by switching that worked for the Cavs and lost by switching that felt forced and unnatural for the Warriors, especially on defense.

Of course your company needs strong players — the best marketers, editors and sales team — but looking for unicorns, people who have strengths in more than one core area and can contribute where they are needed, when they are needed is what makes a winning team.


2. Make a place for the misfits.

Unicorns are different, and that can make it hard for them to fit in. The Cavs’ unicorn is Kevin Love, and he has been on the receiving end of ongoing invective from Cleveland fans. Everyone from the media to the people of Reddit have tried to figure out why people don’t like Kevin Love, but the answer is simple: He’s aloof and strange and doesn’t fit the mold of the highly paid athlete (either the one of the grateful gentleman or the charming cad). It’s natural selection to find the runt and pick on him.

In Game 7 though, that 6’10” runt showed up big time with nine points and 14 rebounds. In your business, sometimes the ones you least expect to carry your team will step up and shine when it matters most. As a manager, those will be your brightest moments.


3. What you say matters more than how you say it – as long as you back it up with actions.


Six long years ago when LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, team owner Dan Gilbert wrote a letter to fans about the “cowardly betrayal.” It was emotional and embodied how we felt…but it was typed in Comic Sans. The clown car of typography. The preferred font of preschools.

The letter was peppered with ALL-CAPS sentences. You could practically hear Dan shouting at his computer.


So, while I don’t advise using Comic Sans ever, go ahead and show your quirkiest, Kevin Love-iest self with your own signature typeface — just so long as you make good on your promises.

4. Delayed gratification has its benefits.

With parents from Pittsburgh, I grew up in a house full of “City of Champions” memorabilia. Then I went to elementary school and learned the story of the long-suffering native Clevelander. I adopted the teams of my parents’ adopted home. Then I went to college in Pittsburgh…and got a front-row seat to Super Bowl and Stanley Cup wins. Pittsburghers love their teams, but it’s a fact: Your first championship feels the best. After that you just don’t get the euphoric high.

At work I liken this to the bottle of champagne I keep at my desk. In your  career, what award is the one that leads you to pop that bottle and go nuts like J.R. Smith in Las Vegas? If you’re not a pro athlete, it’s probably not that clear. Instead view each professional milestone not as a championship but as another game in a long series. If you’re successful, you’ll retire knowing you ended up with a lot of Game 7 victories.

5. Winning is better when you do it as a team.


LeBron said something that stuck with me in his postgame press conference when asked about turning around the team’s 3-1 series deficit in the finals: “I’m their leader and they allow me to lead, those guys, every single night, and I was true to that.”

LeBron exemplifies a key attribute of successful teams: The team makes the leader, not vice versa. Leadership is not a role you take, it’s a power that is bestowed by the people around you.

6. Proving people wrong is a strong motivator.


A lot of people doubted the Cavs. In the ESPN Game 7 pregame coverage, all but one commentator picked the Warriors to win. And their criticism of the Cavs was mild compared to that of other big-name Cleveland-hating talking heads Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.

Even here in the city, we had to contend with the executive producer of the 2016 Republican Convention wishing for “an early dismissal” from the playoffs for our team, so they could set up a stage. Do you know how many Republican Conventions have taken place since a Cleveland team last won a championship? 12. With four Republicans being elected in that time. And three of them serving two terms. That’s a lot of years.

The Cavs — and I would say Cleveland — turned all that negativity into a positive. Positively Cleveland. Your business can do that too by positioning weaknesses as opportunities.


7. When it’s not meant to be, it won’t be. But when it’s meant to be…


Entrepreneurs, like Cleveland fans, know a lot about what’s not meant to be. Google “failures that led to success,” though, and you’ll find a treasure trove of #MondayMotivation about “8 successful products that only exist because of failure” and “6 stories of super successes who overcame failure.”

Want something longer on the topic, and you can check out Malcolm Gladwell’s must-read New Yorker piece “Late Bloomers,” which points out that genius and success need not come quickly nor early in life. Gladwell writes something that I think anyone who has been putting in long hours in the office — and many years watching the cursed Cleveland teams — will find heartening.

Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

Or in 52 years of cheering on your teams.

Chambers is a lifelong sports fan and graduate of the sports marketing program at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration. She wrote this column largely because she wanted to type that headline out to make this Cleveland championship feel real.

Feature photo by Erik Drost/Flickr.

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