There are only three rules: 1) I have to bet it all; 2) I can bet on any sport; 3) I’m not allowed to lose. (This third rule was established by my wife Jen, and also by the existence of our son’s college tuition bills.)
So the question is, what should I bet on?
Quick backstory: a few months ago a book I co-wrote was fortunate enough to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the British bookmaker of the same name. As part of the prize, I got a free voucher allowing me to place this bet.
At first, I was tempted to aim for a longshot. Like picking the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series (approximate odds: 1 bazillion to 1). Or picking the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl. Or, come to think of it, any team from Cleveland to win anything.
Then, urged by my ever-wise wife, I started to think more conservatively. I started to look for a team or person whose talents I could trust with this bet. It wasn’t easy.
Because if I’ve learned anything over the past years it’s that success at the highest level — in sports, business, music — has a significant component of randomness to it. You can do everything exactly right — train, coach, prepare — but chance and chaos will have their say. Favorites collapse all the time. Underdogs win all the time. Refs make terrible calls. Freaky injuries happen. The ball bounces in strange directions. How do you beat that? It seemed hopeless.
Then I read this article. And saw this video.
They tell the story of how LeBron James, basketball’s best player, set out to improve his game. How, in a move straight out of Moneyball, James ruthlessly analyzed his weaknesses and set out to build a new skill set that would make him a more efficient teammate. How he hired a master coach and made himself a humble apprentice, showing up early for each training session, videotaping and studying, in order to learn a new set of scoring moves. How James, in short, turned himself into a master student.
Here’s James talking about the process:
“The biggest thing isn’t how much you work on things, it’s ‘Can you work on something, then implement it into a game situation?'” James says. “Can you bring what you’ve worked on so much and put it out on the floor with the finished product? I was happy that I was able to do that and make that transformation.”
James emerged from that summer transformed. “When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player,” [Coach Eric] Spoelstra says. “It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s post-up moves. I don’t know if I’ve seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one off season
So now I’m leaning toward betting on James and the Heat to win the NBA championship next month. In the larger sense, I wouldn’t really be betting on James — I’d be betting on the power of his process, his approach, his craftsmanship. I’d be betting that, in sports as in everything else, the smartest learner wins.
But before I make that phone call and place that bet, I want to ask: do you think this is the right move? Is there anything I’m missing here?
What would you bet on?
UPDATE — Thanks to all your wise advice, I did not bet on the Miami Heat to win the NBA finals — and am now looking at upcoming Wimbledon. Roger Federer couldn’t possibly lose a first-round match, right??