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The system vs. the individual: Luka Dončić’s Madrid coach gives a great example of how the European coaching style differs from the US

Pablo Laso’s explanation of how he taught Luka Dončić to lead is a great illustration of the differences between European and American basketball culture 

Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade v Real Madrid - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Former Real Madrid head coach, Pablo Laso, sat down with BasketNews recently to go through some famous moments and lessons he taught Luka Dončić during his time in Madrid.

In this viral clip, Laso, very European in his approach to coaching, yells at Luka Dončić during his first time really taking over as point guard on Real Madrid’s first team at 16. This clip probably went viral because it may be shocking to many fans how Laso acted, but in reality, this type of behavior is not abnormal in Europe, and in this instance Laso felt that this was a valuable teaching moment for the teenager.

“He was 16 and Luka was playing the point. So we really needed Luka to lead the team. And lead the team means you’re not leading in scoring points or rebounding or passing, you’re leading calling the play. And I think it was very important what I was telling him here: Luka, you’re our leader now. You have to call a play and then - I know you’re good,” Laso says while watching.

“I knew that I had to push him to call a play and make everybody involved. And then he has the talent to decide what he’s gonna do. He’s proven it.”

“To me, it shows a lot of character for a great player like Luka, and for me it was very important at that moment that he understands that,” Laso explained.

This may seem like very aggressive behavior from a coach, but it’s not out of the ordinary in European basketball culture at all.

What we’re seeing in this clip is the leader of the team (the coach), teaching a young and inexperienced player a life lesson in a respectful way: by holding him accountable.

Pablo Laso is saying: I trust you, you’re ready, now I need you to do this (call a play). And Luka, who was raised in this culture and expecting to be held accountable, responds well. He does what he’s told and he learns a valuable lesson.

What I think most people miss, when they’re trying to understand the differences between the European and American basketball culture, is that this way of holding a player accountable is showing the highest form of respect - he’s not treating the player like a child, as some may think.

In this instance, Luka knows that if Laso didn’t trust him or believe in him, he would never have put him out there - or even wasted his energy yelling at him. So Luka returns the respect by paying attention.

Basketball,Real Madrid,Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four,Fenerbahce Dogus
BELGRADE, SERBIA - MAY 20: Luka Doncic hugs Head coach of Real Madrid Pablo Laso during a press conference after defeating Fenerbahce at the end of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game between Fenerbahce Dogus and Real Madrid at Stark Arena in Belgrade, Serbia on May 20, 2018. Real Madrid became the Turkish Airlines Euroleague champions after beating Fenerbahce Dogus 85-80 in the finals at the Serbian capital Belgrade.
Photo by Mustafa Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This type of behavior differ somewhat from American basketball culture, which is more of a hands off, figure it out yourself-way of thinking. A high-school star point guard (Luka is 16 here), would get a huge amount of leash compared to Luka Dončić in Real Madrid. A US coach is usually not going to get into battles between players and the approach is often a win now, short sighted way of looking at the game. And they’re rarely going to reign in a star either.

We see alot of the same tendencies at the highest level in the US too, where the attitude from leadership, from coaches to Adam Silver, seems to be “don’t rock the boat”. We want our players to play well together, and we would really like to stay out of the rest. If there are conflicts, we stay out of it, hope it resolves itself, unless it starts affecting our brand/narrative/winning in a negative way.

One out of many examples of this is the Draymond Green saga that’s been going on for a long time in Golden State. He’s been stomping on, punching, kicking and putting people in headlocks for years, and still, his team, coach and leadership do nothing or the bare minimum to change this behavior. Often, they even come to his defense.

Another example is the embarrassing story of Miles Bridges, who last week was welcomed back to the NBA with a standing ovation only weeks after receiving a warrant for violating a protective order stemming from his domestic violence incident. And the list goes on.

In the US, there’s a feeling that some players are more irreplaceable (Draymond Green) for a team to win. And so everything else must take a backseat.

Here, the individual is above the system and the team. James Harden proved this point to perfection earlier this month, when he said - with no trace of sarcasm: “I’m not a system player. I am a system.”

In Europe, it’s the exact opposite. Here, no one is bigger than the system. The culture is more social versus the individualistic approach in the US, and in Europe the team and club’s best interests are more important than a player. Even if you’re Luka Dončić.

That’s what Laso is showing us here. In just a few sentences he nails some of the main differences in basketball culture between the US and Europe: accountability from leadership.

Everyone must understand their role, and the team culture and coaches will help you learn the values of being a winner, and how to act to ensure that the team wins or improves. In turn, you must put your ego aside and find your place in a social system and hierarchy of a team and club that has many values and traditions and a lot of history that came before you.

In this interview, Laso also explains that he was not the only one holding Luka accountable and teaching him lessons on how to act as a winning player - his teammates were even more important through that period. He mentions Sergio Llull and Rudy Fernandez, who also happen to be the two people Luka said he would take on a deserted island to the Mavs social media, before the Mavericks-Real Madrid game this summer.

And there’s even footage of Rudy FaceTiming Luka after Real Madrid’s EuroLeague win last season. This is how deeply connected Luka Dončić is to these guys, and how important the time in Madrid is to him.

If you can change your focus from yourself to what benefits the group, you will have success in Europe. And if you recognize this, you will have a much better understanding of many Europeans’ and international players’ struggles in the NBA culture - and why some don’t have any interest in going at all.

A number of international players have returned to Europe after short stints in the US, opening up about their struggles fitting in in the culture both on and off the court.

“I wasn’t feeling mentally well,” Argentinian/Italian Leandro Bolmaro said after returning to Europe after three years in the NBA. “Now I’m finding myself again and I’m happy. Being able to do things with my teammates off the court fills me with joy.”

Another example close to home for me, is the Danish star player Julianna Okosun, who played for Marquette for three years, but struggled mentally. Despite feeling depressed and anxious, a result of being pressed too hard, she stayed, not quitting until it made her physically sick to think about basketball. Her American basketball dream ended with her quitting basketball altogether for a while, having lost the joy of the game until she returned to Europe.

If we return to Pablo Laso’s comments about the viral clip, part of what he is teaching the team and Luka Dončić, here, is how to work together. This is a system and culture, where many core players stay for most of their careers, especially in Madrid. Laso and the vets on the team are teaching Luka where he belongs in the system, and who they expect him to be.

When your job is to belong to something bigger than yourself, when you know your role to perfection, it’s easy and fun to play basketball and perform on the highest level. When you find meaning in something bigger than yourself, you don’t have the pressure of the individualist, and you may have more fun along the way too.

This doesn’t only apply for professional athletes, it’s true in anything we do as human beings. When we put our focus on thingd outside ourselves, work on improving the common good and being there for others, our own joy increases. If you are less ruled by the ego, happiness for yourself and others around you have more room to grow. If you need stats here too, look at the happiness index. Where do the happiest people in the world come from?

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