Defining Success With the Cleveland Cavaliers

Black man wearing sweater standing on court with arms crossed
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The Talking Series is a weekly segment that delves deeper into topics discussed by guests on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast.

“Believe.” If you see this and can’t help but visualize blue letters and yellow posterboard taped to a locker room wall, you’re one of the millions watching Apple TV’s critically acclaimed show Ted Lasso. If you haven’t seen it, “believe” is the motto the show’s title character, a college football coach from Kansas, brings to his new role as the coach of a professional soccer team in England. Although initially skeptical, players slowly realized that the motto was how Lasso approached each day.

By the time J.B. Bickerstaff took charge of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2020, he’d been an assistant coach in the NBA for 16 years. He’d spent that time studying coaches he admired and taking notes on everything from offensive strategies to leadership philosophies. This is when he learned that winning cultures require strong principles. Soon after taking the reins in Cleveland, Bickerstaff settled on five words he would use to build his team: “details,” “toughness,” “together,” “compete,” and “one more.”

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Much like “believe,” the effectiveness of Bickerstaff’s mantra stems from their straightforward approach. After all, there’s something about simple wisdom that resonates. While accountability is the foundation of Cleveland’s philosophy, their mantra remind players it’s about something bigger than themselves.

On a recent episode of the “Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast,” we spoke with coach Bickerstaff about making an impact, the junkyard dog mentality, and more. He knows better than most that a shared understanding is essential for effective communication. “We go to the dictionary with the players and look up the definition of each word [in the mantra],” says Bickerstaff. In this article, we look at those definitions and dig deeper into the mantra helping the Cavaliers write the next chapter of their story.

Defining Success With the Cleveland Cavaliers

1. Details

Definition: The small elements that collectively constitute a work of art.

In sports, details are often the deciding factor between winning and losing. While pivotal to success, there’s another way to view details. World-renowned visual artist and composer Christian Marclay believes, “Art is in the details.” This is closer to how Bickerstaff defines the word and why he feels it’s essential for success. “When you watch basketball done the proper way…it’s beautiful,” says Bickerstaff. “It’s all the little things that create a beautiful work of art,” he adds.

Details are crucial to achieving peak performance on game day. Great plays don’t just happen; he says they result from “the five guys on the court making a conscious decision.” While this is true, what appears effortless during a game is countless hours spent obsessing over the details. Still, when natural talent and preparation come together on the court, the beauty it creates makes the work worth it.

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2. Toughness

Definition: Physical or emotional strength allowing someone to endure strain or hardship.

Have you ever watched an NBA game? Have you ever been to Cleveland? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you know why the Cavaliers take pride in their toughness. If you haven’t and are wondering why Bickerstaff included toughness in the team’s motto, the answer is simple: That’s what it takes to win. “It’s that grit…it’s how you handle adversity,” he says. “You have two choices: fight or run…and we aren’t running,” he adds.

It shouldn’t be a surprise the Cavaliers, a team that prides itself on physical and mental toughness, have an after-game tradition that honors the player who leaves it all on the court. This highly prized recognition is known as the “junkyard dog chain,” a play on the team’s gritty, post-LeBron-era nickname. Bickerstaff, who introduced the ritual in February, says, “The best part is we don’t give it to the highest scorer; we give it to the guy who scrapped the most.”

During the podcast, Bickerstaff afforded us a rare, up-close look at this prestigious award, and it’s legendary.

Designed by The Foundry at Jared, the 14K-gold industrial chain anchors a giant C-shaped pendant. The front is encrusted with 1,702 natural garnets, and the team’s motto runs along the bottom. The flipside pays homage to fans by showcasing Cleveland’s 216 area code and the city skyline, commemorates the 2016 Championship, and boasts several iterations of the logo.

Bickerstaff recognizes the potential of his young team and understands that fostering a scrappy culture and an us-against-the-world mentality could be their path to achieving greatness.

Cavaliers 'C' pendant
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3. Together

Definition: In a body: as a collection or group.

In 1992, every kid wanted to be Michael Jordan, but nobody wanted to be the Chicago Bulls. The reason is that fans, the league, and sponsors love superstars. After all, they sell tickets and move merchandise; plus, it’s much easier for one guy to fit on a Wheaties box. The thing is, individuals don’t win championships, teams do.

Bickerstaff internalized this lesson in the years he spent working his way up. When his opportunity finally came, he focused on fostering a team-centric mindset, which started with making the third guiding principle in their motto.

“Growing up, [sports] are all about the individual, and the focus is on the kid who’s the best player,” says Bickerstaff. “Getting people to buy into something bigger than themselves means earning [their trust] through how you carry yourself and communicate. That forms relationships and lets players know they can count on you every day,” he adds.

4. Compete

Definition: To strive consciously for an objective.

If together describes the group, compete is what they do. You could look at competing in a broad sense, but to the Cavs, it’s about more than the final score. “In every single play, there’s a battle that must happen. There are so many small moments of competition that you need to be successful with,” says Bickerstaff. “It’s a mindset. You must be willing to compete during every possession,” he adds.

When your average person hears compete, they automatically think about making the big plays. That’s natural, but it’s also about so much more. Most don’t realize the courage it takes. Players open themselves up to criticism each time they take the court, whether they’re on the Cavaliers or another team in the league. The public sees the glamour of playing in the NBA but not the hard work and pressure accompanying it. “To handle those moments; to be able to fail in front of everybody, then come back tomorrow and do it again,” says Bickerstaff. “That’s not an easy thing to do [and] it takes immense courage,” he adds.

The fourth principle is an excellent example of what makes Cleveland’s motto so effective. On the surface, it appears simple and unassuming, but its wisdom runs deep. While many opt for a literal interpretation, Coach Bickerstaff’s team understands that competing also refers to having the character, strength, and courage to strive for excellence in all they do.

5. One more

Definition: Again.

Rounding out the five principles is “one more.” Its place on the list is significant, not because it’s the least important but because it’s the most. It’s the common thread that connects the other four. “It’s one more shot, one more rep, one more rotation, and one more pass,” Bickerstaff says. “One more is everything,” he adds.

That’s because repetition is critical to success in both life and sports. Bickerstaff says that while the phrase is a reminder to make another pass before shooting or to run another mile before stopping, it’s also a vital part of their team culture and mindset. “If you’re always willing to give one more, then you’ll outwork your opponent.”

Not only does putting “one more” into practice have a positive effect on the team, but the result of that extra work can impact and inspire young fans watching from the sidelines or on TV. “The three-point shot that Darius Garland makes can change a kid’s day,” says Coach. “Our guys are extremely mindful of that, and it’s the reason we play the way we play,” he adds.

The next time you see the Cleveland Cavaliers making an extra pass or taking another three-point shot, remember, “one more” makes the difference.

Busy making believers

Never have five words been so vital in shaping a team’s identity. In a league of superstars, the Cavaliers are a shining example of what basketball should be about: the team. Bickerstaff’s genius is evident in the motto that serves as a call to action to pursue excellence, integrity, and character on and off the court. “Those words [have] allowed us to exceed everybody else’s expectations,” says Bickerstaff.

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