Fredericton, NB / Ottawa, ON (January 29, 2021) – What do Derek Jeter, Walter Payton, Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Yzerman have in common? Each of these professional athletes spent their entire career with the same team. Each also brought their franchise home at least one championship title. On the flipside, how many professional athletes have changed teams and seemingly brought a winning culture along with them? While many have been successful in new environments, it is important to differentiate between those that joined a championship culture and those that brought a championship culture along with them. Only a handful of athletes fall under the latter category. It is fair to say that the athletes discussed below not only possessed tremendous talent, but also carried certain intangibles that fostered winning cultures.
Peyton Manning – The long-time Indianapolis Colt was throughout his career acclaimed to be a top five quarterback in the NFL. Despite struggling in the postseason early in his career, Manning went on to win a Super Bowl and four MVP awards with the Colts. Coming off nine straight seasons of 10 or more wins, Peyton missed the entire 2011 season following two neck surgeries. The Colts went 2-14 that year and proceeded to release their legendary quarterback due to health concerns, contract details, and an upcoming first overall pick. Manning would go on to join the Denver Broncos, a team without a winning record in five years. His incredible influence was immediately noticeable in 2012. Behind his leadership, the Broncos went 13-3 and made the playoffs with Peyton as their starting QB. In the 2013 season, he won his fifth MVP and Denver reached their first Super Bowl since 1998. To cap off his career with the Broncos, Manning won Super Bowl 50 in the 2015 season. He would announce his retirement shortly after.
Peyton Manning’s leadership and presence were groundbreaking for the Denver Broncos. On the other hand, his absence was greatly felt by the entire Colts organization. Upon his arrival in Denver, Manning’s presence led to an immediate change of standards. The Broncos were now a Super Bowl contender and Peyton demanded excellence out of his teammates. This is one of the greatest examples of a player’s arrival changing a team’s culture overnight.
LeBron James – Another all-time great athlete, James has exceeded his lofty expectations ever since being drafted out of high school number one overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2003. While entire articles could be written about his early career, I want to focus on the impact he had in the years following a team change. First and foremost, James changed the culture in Cleveland. The LeBron-led Cavs, who had not won a playoff series since the 1992-93 season, went to the playoffs and won a series in every season from 2005-2009. This turnaround was catalyzed by the leadership of their growing star. After these five straight years of playoff runs, James left the Cavs to join the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010. He immediately took over as leader of the team even with a respected all-star in Dwyane Wade on the roster. With LeBron at the helm, the expectation in Miami was now to win championships. They immediately found themselves in four straight NBA Finals and won two. James would return to a struggling Cleveland team again for the 2014-15 season. Despite the Cavs not making the playoffs since James’ absence, they were back in business, not only making the playoffs but making the Finals in four straight seasons upon his arrival. They would win one out of these four. After the 2017-18 season, LeBron left Cleveland for the L.A. Lakers. His presence once again led a struggling team into the spotlight. The Lakers won the 2019-20 NBA Championship behind their facilitator, James.
Throughout the course of his incredible career, LeBron James has never allowed his team to settle. This is a phenomenal example of a player who brings a winning culture wherever he goes.
Having looked into these two examples, it is apparent that certain players initiate cultural change upon their arrival. While not many athletes have the impact of a Peyton Manning or LeBron James, similar leadership characteristics can be found in lower-level players. By finding such athletes and building a team around them, cultural shifts can occur in a matter of years. Examples like Manning and James point toward the importance of character analysis in building championship rosters.
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