The Quiet Blackbird

How Jason Brickman's Silent Innovation Runs The Show
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"He's shooting 1-10 and he's controlling this game.  Beautiful," a fellow reporter said to himself, referring to Long Island University-Brooklyn's 6' senior point guard Jason Brickman as he marched up the court. The last several minutes had been a frantic mess of fouls, misses, and turnovers with LIU clinging to a one point lead in "The Battle of Brooklyn", the very  loud, very testy NCAA conference game that also doubles as an inter-borough rivalry between LIU and the St. Francis Terriers. Brickman remained calm, however, having already recorded 13 assists for the night. 

For a change of pace, Brickman took a few extra dribbles than usual at the top of the key.  He scanned the floor - head always up, eyes always moving -- then flicked a soft floater to LIU forward Landon Atterberry as he posted up a Terriers defender at the restricted area. The floating pass directed the action, leading Atterberry to arch his back to the right and away from his defender.  When the pass connected, Atterberry's body was in perfect position to turn without interruption and score the layup.  The score put LIU ahead 63-60, and they went on to win the game 69-68.

The post game conference featured the Atterberry-Brickman duo on the same podium.  Attenberry came off as a classic extroverted sports star:  the explosive 6'6" forward is a clean cut and handsome young man who beams when questions comes his way and delivers answers crisply and with impeccable eye contact.  He's brimming with a self-confidence that demands those around him to earn his respect.  

This is what Atterberry has to say about what he learned from Brickman: "I never had a point guard like Jason.  Setting screens, battling hard. I know if I battle hard, Jason will probably find me.  If I take a play off, he's going to find someone else.  It's just a blessing playing with Jason."  

LIU's young second-year head coach Jack Perri nodded his head in agreement and unleashes a wide grin.  Jason, sitting at the other of the podium, responded with a smaller, humble grin while continuing to look deeply inward.  It’s how Brickman responds to compliments like this and it's why he is one of the best point guards in the country.

* * * 

Susan Cain's "Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," destroys the myth that categorically extroverted qualities like "charisma" and "gregariousness" are requisite to leadership and performance.  The crux of Cain's invaluable work is that introverts are exceptional listeners who, in part because they are quiet if not solitary individuals, lead others by way of example and thoughtful responses to what they carefully observe and fully absorb around them.  

Jason Brickman is an NCAA assist-record shattering embodiment of Cain's thesis.  In his senior year, Brickman moved up the ranks in NCAA career assists – finish with 1007, good for 4th all-time in the NCAA Division I.  When he speaks about his quiet demeanor, he does so with a polite, soft smile that gleans self-confidence that he is who he is, and who he is will continue to work out very well on the basketball court:

"With a group of people, I'm not really vocal," Brickman reflects.  "I'd rather sit and listen in, hear other people talk, and take everything in.  I'm just a quiet person.  I'm not really outspoken, I'm not the loudest person out there.  I'm just taking everything in, observing more.  That's just how my personality is.

I strive on being unselfish. Being a guy who doesn't talk a whole lot, I let other guys be a leader while I try to lead by example, really.  Just being poised out there, not showing a lot of emotion on the court.  I try to be poised so that other guys follow by not getting too down or too high, just keeping poised."

The heart of basketball communication is ball movement.  Under the din of towering men's dunks, sneaker squeaks, and hard fouls is the game's substratum:  a rapid protean code of patterns and angles, with the optimal one generating an easy basket.  The best point guards are the ones who absorb them all and then effectively communicate them to their teammates through timely passes. 

Brickman understands this concept deeply; more importantly, he knew how to apply this concept in order to adapt to the many changes in circumstances he had to endure in his four years at LIU.

He spent the first half of his NCAA career flanked by two most versatile scorers in the country at the time: forwards Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere.  In both seasons, Brickman navigated this two headed front court monster to NCAA tournament berths.  During the 2011-'12 season,  he averaged 7.3 assists per game, good for 4th in the NCAA, while Boyd and Olaswere were ranked in the NEC top ten in just about every offensive category imaginable. 

Then in Brickman's junior year, LIU simultaneously lost Boyd to a season ending ACL tear and promoted former assistant coach Jack Perri to his first head coaching bid.  Perri ran a team 12 deep with a pro-active substitution scheme that saw ten players log in at least ten minutes a game.  Brickman weathered a series of makeshift lineups for 36 minutes a night, all while playing at Perri's preferred frenetic pace to compensate for the team's lack of size and diminished ability to create shots in isolation sets.  Against these tougher circumstances, Brickman led the country in assists at 8.5 a game on way to LIU's third consecutive NCAA tournament.

Then Olasewere graduated, and Boyd tore his ACL for a second straight year. And for the first time in his NCAA career, Brickman had no clear go-to guy to create easier shots for. It is around this time when one might expect most young floor generals to double their field-goal attempts, get in players faces more and grouse at referees.  Instead, Brockman continued to listen, absorb his new surroundings, and treat each situation like it’s just another problem that needs to be solve, all while boosting his assists-per-game average from 8.5 to ten without an elite scorer, an accomplishment he treats as just another task that has been addressed:

"Just coming off screens and looking for the guy rolling.  My game is based on pick and rolls and getting out in transition with guys running their lines.  We don't have a guy who scores 19 or 20 points, but he have a bunch of guys who can score around 10 points a game, so that helps."

LIU's quality of play belied its first losing record (9-20) in four years.  Brickman improved in finding his teammates easy shots by driving to the paint for more kick-out passes while cutting his turnover rate from 3.9 the year prior to 3.5.   Moving for him like a well trained receiving corps for their ace quarterback; the way they run their routes, they led you to believe that they're going to score about twenty more a game than they had.   Much of LIU's execution and movement was "beautiful," but this year's Blackbirds just couldn’t finish as strong to the hoop as did Boyd and Olasewere had over the last three seasons. 

These shortcomings doesn't seem to phase Brickman, who fashions his game after Rajon Rondo and Kendall Marshall. 

"My job as a point guard is to get everyone else involved and trying to get everyone easier shots.  When I miss shots, I'm not really worried about it.  I'm still focused on getting everyone easier shots  and get them involved and really move the ball around and ensure everyone gets touches.  I shoot the open shots and if they don't go, they don't go...but my game is getting everyone else involved."

* * * 

In Quiet's "Manifesto for Introverts," second on the list that "solitude is a catalyst for innovation."  When one is alone he can let the mind wander non-linearly, piecing together a number of different disciplines in order to create something new.  Brickman is a computer science major - a discipline which requires a fair amount of quiet time to solve pages upon pages of computer code.

"Being a computer science major is a lot of programming and solving problems.  You do a lot of code.  If you have one little part of the code wrong, the whole thing doesn't work.  It's related to basketball because you are trying to figure out how to get everyone involved to win games.

It's just figuring out a way to study it and figure out ways to work.  For basketball, it's watching film and figuring out.  For coding, you learn different ways to figure it out and you study that too.  Studying the game, you figure it out the same way you do code - you study hard and hopefully you figure out a way to make the code work and solve the problem."

That creates a nice thought of Brickman continuing his career as a young NBA second-unit point guard, deciphering changing codes on the floor, and then leading makeshift line-ups for 10 to 15 minutes a night.  Even in an NBA currently loaded with quality scoring point guards, Brickman's value as a pure playmaker capable of creating scoring opportunities in a number of line-ups and tempos creates for him a distinct niche.  

Unfortunately in our investment culture, Brickman's niche is also a quiet one.  Even for NBA second round picks, draft logic leans toward riskier indices of success:  height, athleticism, big conference pedigree, a small sample size of big NCAA tournament performances.  Maybe that kind of logic seems laden with excessive extroversion that Cain warns about:  the desire to charismatically assert a popular idea and stand out at a meeting runs the risk of ignoring quieter, more creative and potentially better one. 

But that's the culture that generally prevails in the NBA (by contrast, check out this century's four-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs).  Even if Brickman doesn't make it immediately - a goal he has in order to "help these players get easier baskets" - Brickman is resolute in his desire to continue playing basketball:

"Wherever that takes me, in the NBA or overseas or wherever, I definitely want to play after college," Brickman stated. 

Which means that soon, somewhere in the world, a quiet leader is about to create opportunities for others one assist at a time.  That's a good thing.  We need more Jason Brickmans. 

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