I Have a Superstar, Now How Do I Win?


Sports fans often believe they are just one superstar away from fielding a championship team. The same can be true for business executives. Some studies show that the “superstar” software engineer is 10 times more productive than the average one. And it is not uncommon for salespeople to deliver 2-3 times the results of their colleagues. It seems logical to recruit as many highfliers to your organization as possible.


However, some studies have discovered that too much talent can negatively affect performance. A Columbia University study made an important distinction from studying the impact of superstars on team performances in basketball and baseball. In baseball, they discovered a direct correlation between more talent and team success. However, in basketball, the study revealed that at some point, too much talent diminished results. The researchers concluded that basketball success is much more dependent on teamwork while baseball success is driven primarily by individual performances.


One of the most difficult leadership challenges is integrating superstar talent into a team environment where a high level of community and interdependence is required. In many organizations, high performers are treated differently. They receive more compensation and recognition as well as access to more resources. They also must deal with greater pressure and expectations. It can become easy for elite talent to see themselves as different from their teammates and for their teammates to focus more on the differences than the similarities.


We see these types of challenges in the story of basketball great Pete Maravich. A player whose unique skills made him not only one of the great scorers in the sport’s history but also one of the most entertaining. A childhood obsessed with practicing produced magician-like skills in handling the basketball. From an early age, he would be the star on every team as he progressed from high school, college, and the professional ranks.


Maravich’s father, a basketball coach, greatly influenced his son’s development as he saw the potential for greatness in him. Unfortunately, like many similar situations, a driven father and an obsessed son led to exceptional performances, and at times, a dysfunctional relationship. The highs and lows were magnified when his father became his coach in college.


Coach Maravich’s teams in the past had succeeded through an emphasis on teamwork. However, the opportunity to showcase his son’s talent completely reversed his previous formula for success. Now his strategy revolved around ensuring his son had the ball in his hands as much as possible. Pete Maravich truly was a generational talent whose collegiate scoring records will most likely never be broken. Additionally, the team greatly improved on the school’s previous achievements and created unprecedented interest in basketball in their region. But Coach Maravich’s teams would never compete for championships while Pete played for him.


The opportunity to play with a talent like Pete Maravich attracted better players who understood and accepted their roles. However, the best players wanted to be part of a team’s core, not the supporting cast. Additionally, the strategy solely focused on a single player, no matter how great the player, made it easier for opponents to identify ways to disrupt the strategy and ultimately prevail. While some might argue winning for Coach Maravich became less important than Pete achieving individual accolades, that was not the case for Pete. He might have rightfully felt he deserved the credit for victories, but he acutely felt the sting of each defeat.


Maravich’s pro career would follow a similar pattern of being the star player on mostly losing teams. Those teams would also be characterized by resentment from other high-caliber teammates who felt underpaid and underappreciated compared to the team’s star. Fate was also not kind. When Maravich was on teams with a better chance of success, he would often suffer from a variety of injuries that kept him from playing at the end of the season.


On one level, it appears Maravich was placed in a nearly impossible situation: superstar status and expectations, a father who was both coach and promoter, and playing for organizations that struggled to create the dynamics needed for high performing teams. But there was also Maravich himself.


As a young basketball player, I marveled at “Pistol Pete” and still remember him performing his ball handling magic at basketball camps during my youth. Like everyone else, I only saw that Pete was living the dream. Later, we would discover Pete’s nightmare.


In Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, Mark Kreigel chronicles the tortured relationship Maravich had with his family, his teammates, his coaches, and basketball itself. His pursuit of perfection and to please his dad created little joy and led to a series of self-destructive choices. As Kreigel recounts Pete’s professional career, there seldom is any sense of generosity or sacrifice for his teammates. He trained and played hard and gave his best on the court, but we never see him demonstrate self-awareness and any attempts to change his behavior to improve team dynamics.


Maravich retired early due to nagging injuries and disillusionment with his playing situation on his final team in the league. And then two years into his retirement, something quite remarkable happened. Maravich came to terms with his past and turned to faith in Jesus. The result was a complete transformation. Kreigel describes it this way, “…there was another name for what had taken hold of him. It was love.”


For the next six years, Maravich would be a doting and faithful father, husband, and son, and an ambassador for his faith and his sport. Unfortunately, at age 40 he died suddenly from a rare natural heart defect that usually results in death before the age of 20.


Had Pete Maravich come to faith earlier in his playing career, could he have changed the limitations of a superstar driven team? Would the peace, joy, and generosity he experienced and demonstrated at the end of his life have created an entirely different team dynamic? Perhaps, the challenge of winning with superstars has less to do with having too much talent and more with helping them develop a perspective on what matters most. Maravich’s discovery of true purpose led him to become a leader others wanted to follow.