The heart of sports

Like decent people everywhere, somewhere I have a mildewed VHS tape of Michael Jordan, talking about the holy grail.

Or, at least, the secret of basketball success.

He's the guy -- the angry guy. The dominant guy. He's the anti-wuss. He stepped on their necks.

But on this tape, he says that greatness depends, is born, more than anything, on -- What Mike? What is it? Adaptability? Conditioning? Work ethic? The urge to dominate?

Nope. None of that. Jordan declared "a love of the game" as the most important thing to teach would-be hoops stars first.

I thought it was fraud, when I saw it as a young man. Some line someone wrote for him. Something you're supposed to say to impress the moms and sell the Nikes.

Put that VHS tape back in its box, though, and fly decades and miles, about as far as you can to the other end of the sports world, to Boston for the conference that crowns the kings of the stat geeks.

Jordan was presenting himself as a high priest of the heart of sports ... at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference we see the high priests of the head.

And here's a surprise: They're saying the exact same damned thing.

At the conference's main panel, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck says that if he ran a team and had to assemble a roster, he'd put less emphasis on all the other stuff, and really focus in on "how much it means to him."

Jeff Van Gundy -- hardly known as a softie in his rhetoric -- confirms that in the NBA players he has coached, "the love of the game goes before their bodies go."

Really? Think about that. You're in the NBA, you're paid, you're skilled, you have a chance to achieve greatness. And what's going to flag is not your conditioning, not your time to work out and improve, not your health, but ... your interest in basketball?

You mean NBA players are like office workers and factory workers and physical laborers and the rest of us who know too well the dread of the alarm clock? Fending off drudgery is not just a concern, but the essential determining factor of sports success?

"A lot of what we call talent," explains panel moderator Malcolm Gladwell (whose book "Outliers" explains this point elegantly) "is the desire to practice."

Rockets' GM Daryl Morey, who might have better NBA data at his fingertips than anyone on the planet says, essentially, hell yes. It's all true. It's measured in spreadsheets, but it runs on love. He didn't even hesitate to say the key skill in sports is "continuing to love the game." If the Rockets could project which players would still love the game years from now, they'd have a much easier time knowing who to draft.

(Morey tells the story of Marcus Banks, who said in a pre-draft interview that his greatest dream was to be a fashion model, which is evidently not how great NBA careers begin.)

And though it may be a tad surprising that the conference of the spreadsheet reached conclusions of the heart, the truth is that we already knew that, right? Getting to the top of any profession is hard as hell, and it takes an endless well of work and creativity and grit to keep clearing the new and bigger hurdles that inevitably appear year after year. Love might be the only fuel with the power to motivate people through the 10,000 hours Gladwell's research suggests it takes to get all the way to the top of anything.

Later in the conference, talking about the challenges of ownership, Warriors owner Joe Lacob made the simple point that carried the day: "Sports is like anything else," he explains. "It's about passion. ... I just don't think you can be successful doing anything half-assed."

The end of half-assery, in fact, may be nigh. If Mark Verstegen, one of the most respected name in training professional athletes, is right, this might be the greatest achievement yet for modern statistical analysis in sports. Verstegen asserts that, with big brother watching, it's harder than ever, if not impossible, to loaf through a pro career.

"There's no holiday anymore," he says in the conference's main panel. "You need to do your job."

Identifying love both so high on the list of factors determining professional success and as an entirely exhaustible resource presents sports' next riddle: What can teams do to inspire players to love the game more?