What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Duke Basketball

by Eric Tobias - Partner

Dressed in red, I checked off one of my long-running bucket list items last night by attending my first basketball game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Unfortunately, my alma mater (Indiana University) didn’t fare too well, but that didn’t diminish from the experience.

Indiana vs Duke — November 27, 2018

Duke is an impressive school, built up around a basketball program that has enjoyed an incredibly long-running history of success. Since the game had gotten away by the middle of the 2nd half, I spent the last few minutes of the night thinking about all I had observed and what entrepreneurs could learn from Duke basketball.

Here are some of those thoughts:

1. Talent Wins — Duke has won 5 NCAA basketball championships in the past 30 years, had countless ACC titles, and made numerous March Madness appearances. A quick glance at the retired jerseys hanging in the stadium is all you need to see to understand why. So many incredible college players and eventually NBA standouts have gone through Duke. Every year Duke gets one or more top-tier recruits and this year they have 3, including Zion Williamson, the best freshman I have seen in a long, long time. Not only do they attract top talent, but they consistently find top talent that pursues a common goal.

2. Relentless Pursuit of Getting Better — Duke was up on IU by 24 points with 8 minutes to go in the game. Most coaches would have sat down. Some would have replaced the starters. Coach K was pacing the sidelines, working the refs (and his players) as if the game were tied. His expectations, as the leader of the team, were clear and he sets a tone that each play on the court is a chance to get better. This focus also seems to occur beyond what happens on the court. I remember Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens telling a story about his time at Butler. Duke leadership called and asked if they could visit Butler. They were visiting other schools with basketball focus to better understand how those schools did things. When leaders constantly focus on getting better themselves, it bleeds throughout the organization.

3. Culture — Basketball and Duke are almost synonymous. Every student is given a ticket to every basketball game but not every student is guaranteed to get in. Instead, kids start lining up, often sleeping in tents, days before games to ensure they make the cut to get into the game. They call the student section the “Cameron Crazies” and Duke has become one of the most difficult places for a road team to win. Make no mistake — they have been incredibly thoughtful in creating this unique and differentiated culture. See point #1 — the best players want to play at Duke because of the culture they have created.

4. Focus on What Matters — After Coach K addresses the Duke team in the locker room before a game, the players then adjourn to a special room, by themselves, where they ask each other to play the best defensive game any Duke team has ever played. On the walls of this special room are pictures of the 8 Duke players who previously won Defensive Player of the Year. Average teams and organizations focus on lots of things. Great teams and organizations know the most important thing to focus on and then do everything possible to drive alignment around that one thing. As they say, defense wins championships.

5. Momentum — As an entrepreneur, one of the most challenging things to do is create momentum. When something is at rest, it takes a lot of effort to get it moving. But once the thing is moving, it’s much easier to keep it moving and Duke has mastered this. They’ve figured out how to continuously build upon their success, rather than be satisfied with it. When Duke scores, they press. When Duke gets an open floor rebound, they fast break. They are always pushing to advance whatever advantage they may have.

6. Everything is Strategic — A small school (7000 students) doesn’t become the juggernaut of basketball programs by accident. Sitting in the arena last night, it was obvious none of these 5 points above would be possible had Duke not set a strategy years ago to make it so. Duke basketball is an enterprise initiative that has made Duke the school it is today. From the organized chants by the Cameron Crazies to the location of the student section in the arena, Duke has been purposeful in its pursuit of being the best basketball school in America.

Impressive. That’s how I would summarize my first basketball experience at Duke. It’s easy to hate on Duke for their continuous success (and the ease in which they seem to make it happen) but that’s largely because the rest of us realize how difficult it is to actually execute at their level.

I still have a Duke vs North Carolina game on my bucket list. Ideally with my cousin, Paige. But until then, it was awesome to see an IU vs Duke game at Cameron Indoor.

P.S. Go Hoosiers!