Creatures of Habit

Posted August 15, 2003

It’s more than an hour before game time at the United Center, and the Chicago Bulls players are scattered all around.

Over on the wing of the court, Donyell Marshall, Roger Mason Jr., Jamal Crawford, Trenton Hassell and assistant coach Bob Thornton are playing some mini one-on-one games.

A peek inside the locker room finds Eddie Robinson sitting on the floor, talking with fellow players. Jalen Rose is leisurely getting dressed before he goes out for a few warm-up shots, while Corie Blount is trying to get himself loose by stretching.

Seemingly random acts for each player, but each in his own way is getting ready for the contest in a way that makes them most comfortable. And the players’ routines don’t vary a whole lot from game to game, and that’s no coincidence.

“A little superstition and rituals, when taken to the extreme, are meant to ward off anxiety, unusual anxiety,” says team psychologist Steve Julius. “But everybody has rituals in one form or another.

“Almost everybody has had the experience of where they drive back and forth to work on a regular basis, or back and forth to the grocery store, and they can remember getting into the car, and they can remember getting to the grocery store or the business parking lot, but they don’t remember all the time in between. That’s an example of a routine that’s become ritualized. So you become competent to get yourself there, but you’re literally unconscious about it. That’s the benefit of rituals or routines, either in preparation before a game, and even during a game.”

Julius has been with the Bulls since 1987, and over the years, he’s seen plenty of “interesting” rituals. Although basketball doesn’t quite have the superstitious nature in its players as, say, baseball, there are still plenty of things that players feel like they have to do before a game to be successful during a game.

Hall of Fame center Bill Russell is famous for needing to throw up prior to a big contest to feel comfortable and the Celtics sometimes wouldn’t head for the court until their star had finished up his ritual.

Even the Bulls’ center through their championship years, current head coach Bill Cartwright, had his share of things that he felt compelled to do prior to every game.

“I used to as a player—and I still do this as a coach—try to get myself into the same mindset every game,” Cartwright says. “What I used to do before the game is I would try to visualize what I was going to do. So I would walk around the floor, visualize shooting the ball in different spots on the floor. Of course, then I’d shoot some to start to get a feel for the floor. Also, I’d always try to eat the same thing every time. Tuna salad was great. And I’d try to eat at about the same time before every game.”

“Not everybody is as consciously aware of their rituals, but I’d recommend that they do become self-aware,” Julius says. “Rituals are very important.

“Another example is free-throw shooting. If you notice someone like Jason Kidd, who used to have a great deal of difficulty when he first came into the league shooting free throws, now you notice that he’ll always bounce the ball, he’ll crouch in a particular way, take a deep breath and just as he focuses on a particular shot, he blows it a kiss. He does that every time.

“When you take that kind of approach, it’s kind of like a wake-up call to your body. You step to the line, you do what you’ve done a hundred times in practice, and your muscles seem to say, ‘You know, I remember this,’ and next thing you know, you’re hitting 80 to 85 percent of your free throws. While when you’re in the flow of the game, it’s certainly important to be self-aware and thinking, when you’re involved in something as routinized as free-throw shooting, you really don’t want to think. You just want to put yourself into the zone and fall into the ritual.”

Robinson doesn’t go out to the court until the entire team takes the court a few minutes before the game. Robinson instead spends his time just relaxing in the locker room, sitting on the floor and chatting up teammates.

“I do most of my shooting after practice,” Robinson says of his own ritual. “When I come down [to the United Center], I mostly just watch tape, get treatment on whatever’s hurting. I’m not worried about shooting. I can get my rhythm down pretty quickly. It’s more mental. I like watching tape of who we’re playing.”

According to Julius, Robinson’s way of getting ready for the game is as much of a ritual as Cartwright’s eating or another player’s shooting.

“Everybody has to find what their groove is,” Julius says. “I will tell you that Eddie Robinson is an example of somebody who brings the game to practice. He practices as if he’s playing in a game, so that allows him to translate that when he gets into the game. And it’s particularly difficult for athletes that come off the bench, but Eddie comes off the bench and provides a lot of energy, so I think he’s prepared that way. His pregame routine is a little bit different than his practice routine. That’s meant to get him focused and mentally prepared to play the game of basketball.

“And that is the key, to do it over and over again. Where it literally becomes just a part of your normal preparation. And rituals represent more than just routine. There’s always symbolic emphasis that you bring to the table. Families that have dinner together, even if it’s just once a week, on a regular basis, they may not talk about it, but what it represents is the importance of coming together. Eddie Robinson is a guy who is really quite social. Individually, he’s quiet, but connected to his teammates, I think that’s what settles him down and gets him into the preparatory flow of the game is just to be sitting there and interacting quietly.”

Another common theme when polling the Bulls was the matter of listening to music prior to the game. Popular rapper Jay-Z is a team favorite—“If I don’t have my Jay-Z, I get thrown off my rhythm,” says Marcus Fizer.

“That also gets my mentality right so I know what I’ve got to do,” says veteran forward Corie Blount. “I like an aggressive kind of music that puts me into an aggressive mindset. I listen to a lot of Tupac, that kind of rebel-type stuff, just get my head right.”

And whatever the type of music they listen to, the Bulls players are all getting into a rhythm, feeling better about themselves through the beats and lyrics.

“You’ve heard that watching an NBA game and watching the players on the court is like watching great dancers on the stage,” says Julius. “I think music allows the brain to think less and just act. So the idea of getting focused and being rhythmic and paying attention to your eye/hand and your muscle memory is extremely important, and I think music does play that role.”

So what makes Jay-Z the universal favorite? Crawford tries to put his finger on the answer:

“He just has everybody’s ear right now,” says the third-year guard. “Everybody’s listening to him. He’s one of the best ever. A lot of people get into him; he gets people excited, he just relates to a lot of people, so I think that’s why he’s popular.

“It’s different stuff with different people. With him, I think it’s more his lyrics, where other people it’s more the beats he uses. To me, his lyrics are so good that I just get into them.”

But the most popular ritual among the players is prayer, with nearly every player citing a little prayer as part of their ritual.

“I always pray before a game,” says Mason. “Kind of meditate on my own. If there’s one thing I always do, it’s to sit down and pray. I’m thankful that I get a chance to pray. It gives me a chance to clear my head and get ready for the game.”

“I’ve got to read my Bible before games,” says Hassell emphatically. “That’s the one thing I’ve got to do. I read a little from my Bible right before we walk onto the court, and I say a little prayer to myself.

Even Bulls from back in the championship years like Bill Wennington used prayer as part of their preparations.

“I always tried to do exactly the same thing,” Wennington recalls. “I’d get to the arena early, about 6, start shooting around by quarter after six at the latest. Shoot ‘til about quarter to seven. Then the team meeting would start about five to seven. As the team meeting went on, I’d start to stretch, always about the same time, so when it was over, I was ready to go out on the floor. I did pray, I had a specific prayer I would repeat all the time, try to keep it exact, word for word. Basically I would always try to go through the same routine, and try not to stray.

“There’s a comfort level [in the rituals]. I think it gave me a comfort zone where I could say to myself, ‘All right, this is where my mind has to be, this is where my body has to be, and I’m ready to play.’ Everything had to be consistent.”

And the rituals can even extend past pregame. Julius tells of a player from the 1990s that needed to expand his rites to be successful all game long.

“He recognized not only the benefit of hard and consistent effort in order to keep him in the game longer, extending his career, but he began to buy in, hook, line and sinker, into the idea of pregame rituals, taking practice and bringing it to the game,” Julius says. “But he found that he’d have a terrific first half, however in the second half, he’d begin to struggle and he didn’t get to play as much. We sat down and looked at the rituals that he brought before the game and what he would embark on at halftime, and it was a stark difference. The moment we had him utilize the same pregame routine at halftime, he would start out the second half the same way he’d start out the beginning of the game.”

Of course, the most famous of the championship Bulls, Michael Jordan, had his share of rituals, whether it was always wearing his North Carolina shorts underneath his uniform or putting rosin on his hands and clapping it in front of the team’s television broadcast team.

Julius says the game’s greatest player is also one of the better examples of rituals, and not for his North Carolina shorts or his rosin clap.

“If there’s anything that Michael Jordan represented, he would practice as hard as he would play in the games,” Julius says. “He was someone who lived up to that old adage, which I think is a real truism, that you bring your game to practice and you bring your practice to the game. That sums up the importance of rituals right there.”

- Article by Mark Rich