A powerful word inspires a championship
Two former classmates see each other in passing. A word is exchanged. They go their separate ways. No big deal. Except that in this case the word inspires a man, who inspires a team, which wins an NBA championship. That’s some word.
The word is “ubuntu” (Ooh-BOON-too), roughly “I am because we are.” A Bantu term, it served as a rallying cry for South Africans battling apartheid, voiced by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
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“When you’re building a new country and you’ve spent so long divided, with one group oppressing another, it’s a very big statement,” says Stephanie Russell, Arts ’83, executive director for Marquette’s Office of Mission and Identity.
It can also be a big statement for a newly rebuilt basketball team trying to forge a cohesive identity. “It caught me right away,” says Boston Celtics Coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers, Arts ’85 and Marquette trustee, who heard about ubuntu from Russell during a lunch break at a Marquette Board meeting. “It’s not just a word. It’s a way of life, a way of being.”
Recently, Russell and Rivers shared their memories of that conversation.
The Celtics were coming off a rough season. Nine of 15 players were new. Rivers was searching for something to unite them. When Russell explained the core concept of ubuntu — I can’t be all I can be unless you’re all you can be — he was hooked. “Right when she said that, I said ‘That’s it. That’s the word. That’s the philosophy. That’s what I need,’” Rivers remembers.
He stayed up late that night, reading everything he could get his hands on about ubuntu. Then he went back to Boston and gathered his Celtics. “Our first team meeting,” Rivers says, “I walked in front of the team and I said, ‘ubuntu,’ just like that. I said it again. One of the players, I think Kevin Garnett, raised his hand and asked, ‘What is it?’”
Rivers didn’t answer. He made everyone wait a day and then had the team’s rookies explain. “I brought them up to my office and told them this is not a joke. This is not you singing your team song here. This is very, very personal to me and very important to me,” he says.
Why rookies? Rivers knew they would work the hardest. And because, unlike the veterans, they wouldn’t be skeptical of something new.
“They were sensational, better than I ever would have been,” he says of the rookies. “And it caught the team immediately.”
The Celtics went on to become the 2008 NBA champs, buoyed by the power of a word. “I was amazed at how many times the word helped our team get through tough times. It was the perfect philosophy for our team,” Rivers says. “And it still is. Recently I was thinking about trying a different motto, and one of my players informed me, ‘No, we are ubuntu.’”
Also amazing to Rivers are the circumstances that brought the word to him. “Being in the right place at the right time was huge,” he says. “What if Stephanie had left? What if she had decided to eat lunch on the other side of the room? I honestly don’t know. Without that word our season could’ve been different.”
It seems almost … providential.
“This is Marquette,” Rivers says. “What did you expect?” — JS