A few mortals find enlightenment by following the leader. For the rest of us, enlightenment often arrives in the form of a sharp crack from God’s 2×4. The University of Michigan’s basketball team received one of those “God gifts” this week when they survived an aborted takeoff and then overshot the end of the runway. They crashed through a fence, ran across a road, and ended up in a ditch. Burning rubber, fuel, and fear filled the plane. What happened next is a remarkable lesson in leadership.
Before I continue, I must share that I flew into Detroit from Princeton in the same weather. We dipped, twisted, and tilted as we approached the runway. It didn’t occur to the captain to announce that there were tropical storm winds in Michigan. The passengers looked at one another with concern and it became deathly quiet. I thought the pilot was flying drunk. I could hear the alarms sounding in the cockpit as we were tossed about like a toy. After we landed safely, I returned home and saw the story about the U of M team.
The U of M team was headed to Washington, DC to play in the Big 10 basketball championship tournament. The plane was done. Now what?
Jeff Seidel, Detroit Free Press sports writer, documents how the coaches, players, band members, and cheer leaders responded to the incident on the plane. I highly recommend you read it. Click here:
I’m going to summarize his article and add some color commentary.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The most important thing was that everyone got off the plane safely. Many thought the engines were going to explode. Some people were hurt and bleeding. Players forced open the emergency doors. Head Coach John Beilein remained at the bottom of one of the emergency slides helping children and others off the plane. Others ran. He stayed.
The team was taken to a building on the airport to be medically treated and to collect themselves emotionally. It was decided that they wouldn’t fly out that day. Can you imagine getting back on a plane a few hours after a crash? And should they even make the trip at all?
Coach Beilein knows that athletes are human, too. He couldn’t stomach the idea of forcing people back on a plane. He gave the team the option to remain in Ann Arbor and forfeit the game, or fly out in the morning. The players decided to play.
That night they didn’t talk about basketball.
The next day, everyone was again given the option to stay. The players all decided to go, but some of the staff wasn’t able to make that step. Coach completely honored their feelings.
The Detroit Pistons stepped up and offered the U of M team their plane. Luxurious and comfortable, it helped ease some of the nerves. So did humor, with one band member quipping that everyone’s jokes were really funny that day. There were some second thoughts when the plane hit turbulence.
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Two hours before game time, running on gratitude and caffeine, the team arrived at the arena. They would play the game in their practice gear because all their equipment was still on the downed plane. The team was playful, almost joyful, before the game. After all, they’d just been through a really difficult test together. And they remained TOGETHER.
They won Thursday’s game against Illinois. That win made Coach Beilein the most successful basketball coach in U of M history.
Afterwards, he spoke about a sleepless night, how proud he was of the team, and that he had no trouble holding it together – until he saw his daughter after the game. Then, for the first time, the magnitude of what he and the team had been through hit him.
On Friday, U of M played against the #1 seed, Purdue. Still high on life, the inspired team sent Purdue home in an unexpected victory.
On Saturday, they played Minnesota. Sorry Minnesota. See ya. One of the biggest contributors in the Michigan win is a young man who has five stitches in his knee. The emergency door on the plane clipped him as he jumped out. Does it hurt? Yes. But this team is playing above pain. They are connected like family to a greater mission.
When the going got tough in the second half against Minnesota, U of M became slightly unraveled. Coach intervened and so did Derrick Walton, Jr. – the guy with the stitches in his knee. He delivered, inspired by the fact that his team trusts him to deliver.
This story is familiar to me. It is the same story that I described in my book about the Cranbrook Hockey Team. A talented team finally able to play like family, like one unit, with an intact trust bank, valuing “we” over “me”, and by refusing to let one another fail. The trophy was an afterthought, a byproduct.
In less than an hour, the University of Michigan basketball team battles Wisconsin for the Big 10 Championship. I don’t care if they win, though I hope they do. What I care about is that after being struck by God’s 2×4, they didn’t falter and give up. They’ve come together and are playing like a team. Like a team reaching its full potential. Like a team on the road to Destination Unstoppable. Years from now, that’s what they will remember. They won’t call one another and talk about the score. They will call one another and talk about how great it was to be part of “that team.” They didn’t shy away from God’s 2×4. They embraced it. That’s what championship teams do.
Good luck, U of M.
Michigan, seeded #8 in the tournament, beat #2 seed Wisconsin 71-56. It is the first time that a team seeded that low has won the Big 10 tournament. The game was closer than the final score indicates. After the game, Derrick Walton, Jr., the player with 5 stitches, said, “We’re here for a reason.” After considering what could have happened with the aborted jet takeoff, who can argue with him?