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'The Captain Class' Defines The Greatest Sports Teams Ever Based On One Character


There is no better, faster way to start a barstool argument with another sports fan than to trot out a list of the world's greatest teams. That's a line from the new book "The Captain Class." The author is Sam Walker, and he set out to produce exactly such a list, the all time best sports teams. He settled on 16 of them, then he set about figuring out what they had in common. Sam Walker is in the NPR New York bureau. Hey there.

SAM WALKER: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. So people should know you have watched a lot of good sports teams in action over the years as a sports writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. What makes a team the greatest, greatest ever?

WALKER: Well, I'll start with what doesn't which came as a great shock to me. I assumed it would be superstar talent or the coach or, you know, a lot of money or great tactics. But when I finally isolated this sample of 16 teams, I realized that none of those things apply equally to all of them. In fact, there was only one and only one thing that they all had in common, and their winning streaks were very closely bracketed by the presence of one player.

And this player in all cases was - or would eventually become the captain or the leader of the team. And these captains were, you know, interesting characters because they weren't the captains you thought. It's not Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter or Pele or big superstars. A lot of them were people I'd never heard of and who really played in the shadows and were not famous people.

KELLY: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls didn't make the cut - what? - six titles in eight years wasn't good enough for you?

WALKER: Yeah. Well, you know what? It's funny. I mean, everyone remembers then they were so spectacular and what they did was incredible. But, you know, one of the criteria I use to define the greatest teams ever is that what - their accomplishments were completely unique inside their own sport. And I'm sorry the Bulls won six titles in eight years, but, you know, the Boston Celtics of the '50s and '60s won 11 titles in 13 years including eight in a row...

KELLY: OK. So you had to do something nobody else has done before to make this list.

WALKER: Yes, yes. Exactly.

KELLY: Tell me about the moment that it came to you that the secret was all down to the captain, who, as you say, is not necessarily the superstar on these teams.

WALKER: Well, you know, it jumped right out. It was the first thing I noticed about these teams because I looked at all their rosters, and I realized that there was always uncannily one player that kind of ran the course of the streak. And I thought it was just way too simple, and it couldn't possibly be that obvious.

So I went through all the other possibilities, you know, and I found that some teams had great coaches. Some didn't. Some were tactically advanced. Some were not. Some had a lot of money. Most of them had none. So there was no other factor that they shared, and it was really obvious in the end that the only common thread was the character of the captain.

KELLY: So you were watching a team and looking and they would be middling or good, but not great, and then one captain would come in and the years that that captain was running the team, you saw a difference, you saw the breakthrough?

WALKER: Uncannily so. I mean, there was - one of the first teams I looked at was the Boston Celtics and Bill Russell. You know, the moment he showed up his rookie season, they won their first title. And they won their last of that streak the year before he retired. And after that, they fell off. They'd never won a championship before he showed up, and it took them a long time to get back there after he left. And this happened over and over. Every team I looked at, there was a real clear cutoff that was readily apparent.

KELLY: So what is it that makes a great captain?

WALKER: Well, you know, it's not what you think. You know, we - I think if we were asked to construct a captain in a laboratory, we would pick a superstar. We'd pick someone who is charismatic, a celebrity. But what I discovered was that the great captains of these teams were not obvious people. They were rarely stars. They did the grunt work. They also had other surprising characteristics, like they embraced dissent and conflict inside their teams.

It can be really problematic when they thought something wasn't going well, and they were really relentless. And they hated giving speeches. They had a different style of communication that was much more low-key and individual. And they had incredible emotional control. I mean, to an extreme, and they also had this tendency to test the rules. I found all these examples of unsportsmanlike things they did in competition, and it took me a long time to figure...

KELLY: Unsportsmanlike things they did.

WALKER: Unsportsmanlike - they would do things like insult the opponent as a strategy or, you know, they would do very physically aggressive things or even push the rules to the limit. And this confused me. But I did a lot of research and looked into science and looked more closely, and I realized that in all these cases, these captains only did this in competition.

Off the field, they were completely different. They shunned attention and never got in trouble, so this was something that they did within the confines of the rules of sports and competition.

KELLY: One thing you said there surprises me which is that great captains embrace dissent, embrace conflict on their team. Give me an example of a team where you saw that.

WALKER: The Soviet hockey team in 1980 famously lost to the U.S. in what was called the Miracle on Ice. On the flight back to Moscow, the coach of the team started trashing a lot of the individual players and blaming the loss on them. Now, a veteran defenseman named Valeri Vasiliev overheard this and just went bonkers, ran over, started choking his coach and threatened to throw him off the plane if he didn't take it back.

So, you know, he could have been sent to the gulag for this clearly. And, you know - and probably should have been, but, you know, the interesting thing that happened was they went from there to put on this incredibly dominant run for four years. But they were almost unbeatable. And, you know, that's a great example of, you know, there's a certain kind of conflict and dissent inside a team that I found over and over again, this kind of conflict that's actually really essential to forming a great team.

KELLY: When you share this theory that you've arrived at, that it's all down to the captain, when you share that with current athletes what do they say? Do they buy it?

WALKER: You know, the captaincy is a funny thing. In fact, it's fallen out of fashion. You know, a lot of teams are not naming captains. They're naming a group of captains. They're very suspicious of the tradition. Some of this is economics because as television supports sports, there's an emphasis on putting on a good show. And these are the kinds of bankable stars that put, you know, butts in seats to be blunt about it.

So what's happened is that the superstar and the coach tend to be this sort of two poles of power on a team. And the captain's role is really fascinating. It was always a middle manager. It was an intermediary between the players and the coaches. It wasn't necessarily the best player. So a lot of teams simply give the captaincy to the best player, but that's not the model that's been successful over the years.

KELLY: That's Sam Walker. His book is "The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates The World's Greatest Teams." It's out next Tuesday. Sam Walker, thank you so much.

WALKER: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.