The Laugh, Overconfidence and Personal Punishment

Reporter to Kevin Durant of OKC Thunder: Do you think he (Curry) is underrated as a defender?

Russell Westbrook:  Covers his face and laughs while Durant is answering the question.              

The Laugh
When I saw Russel Westbrook of the OKC Thunder laugh at that question, I knew his team was in trouble, despite being up in the Western Conference Finals 3 games to 2.  If the laugh had not been directed at Steph Curry (2x NBA Most Valuable Player) and his defending Champion Warriors, I might have understood Westbrook’s reaction, although his action seemed condescending. 

It suggested supreme confidence as Westbrook and his team were in a great position to get to their 2nd NBA Finals, but to give any type of extra motivation to an opponent, much less an NBA Champion, is never a good thing. In addition, the Thunder haven't won an NBA Title and were known for blowing 4th quarter leads, as well as coming undone in “moment of truth’ games.

This incident reminded me of when my confidence was sky high in a much less significant yet intense battle – a 2 on 2 basketball competition in the park. I was playing against my University of Vermont (UVM) teammate Bill Brown and we were up 10 – 2, with the winning number being 11. We were both in our mid 20's.

Not only did I know we would win, but I started playfully teasing Bill and his teammate; not with a laugh but with a taunting banter. As a shooter in high school and college, I was beyond confident that I could score one more point whenever I wanted. That 10 – 2 lead was part of the reason, as it had been easy up to that point. As time progressed, the basket became smaller and smaller.

They never reacted to my silliness and kept playing hard. Bill started to heat up, hitting shot after shot on me and rarely missed as they crept closer.  He was a fierce competitor and one of our college’s best shooters. I had plenty of quality shots to end the game, but nothing was coming close and my teammate was equally inept. When it became 10 – 10, our panic was obvious. Even though we played past 11 (winning team had to win by 2 points), the game was soon over and we were on the losing end.

It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten. 

It was a friendly game but I still feel the sting today. I learned from it though, as any subsequent competitions were void of any trash talking, teasing or misguided comments (unless started first by an opponent), even when the lead was a wide as this 2 on 2 competition had been. 

Westbrook’s laugh probably served as motivation for Curry and the Warriors, as not only did the Thunder lose two consecutive games after Game 5, they were also the first team since the 1981 Philadelphia 76ers to lose a series after being up 3-1 in a Conference Final. 

To add fuel to the fire, Curry personally punished the Thunder and Westbrook (as Bill did to me) by scoring 36 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder were up 13 points in the first half of that last game, yet one could feel that it was only a matter of time before the Warriors prevailed. Curry took their heart away that night, and the downfall may have begun with that laugh.

I had seen Bill (a close friend for 34 years) dunk on a Division 1 opponent 6 inches taller than he was and shoot with a ferocious flare, so I should have known better. Westbrook knew what Curry was capable of and he should have known better. I’m sure he was tired of all the “media darling’ attention Curry receives, but it’s unwise to display anything that could inspire a competitor. I doubt Russel Westbrook will ever have that type of reaction again.

The moral of this story is simple. Finish the game, project, sale, goal or whatever it may be that you are striving for. Don’t gloat, assume or get comfortable at any point in the process until your task is done. Instead of waltzing over that finish line, take that Usain Bolt approach and blast through it!

That day was a blessing for me as I’ve rarely underestimated an opponent since, whether it was a game of cards, a sales contest or a sports competition.  It has not only served me well on the basketball court, but the lessons have proven invaluable throughout my life.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

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