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NBA talk: playing ‘with purpose’ vs. playing ‘with a purpose’


Ben Golliver, a sports columnist for the Washington Post and former writer for Sports Illustrated, has a philosophy. It compares the difference between playing “with purpose” and playing “with a purpose.” He talks about this philosophy on his NBA podcast, a Sports Illustrated-run hit called Open Floor, hosted by his talented verbal sparring partner Andrew Sharp. Regarding the aforementioned phrase, Sharp makes fun of Golliver for how cryptic it is, and claims that no one actually knows what he’s talking about. In return Golliver usually laughs it off. He acknowledges its ambiguity, but ultimately maintains that the people who get it, get it.

NBA talk: playing ‘with purpose’ vs. playing ‘with a purpose’

I’m one of the people who get it.

I also believe that some things in life need to be taken with a grain of salt, and when it comes to this particular idea that there are some players who play “with purpose” and some who play “with a purpose” – a little bit of imagination is more than required.

To give you a little bit of context, let’s talk about some NBA players who may fit one of these criteria. Golliver has said a handful of times that he believes Russell Westbrook is a prime example of someone who plays with purpose, but not with a purpose.

Westbrook is not only freakishly athletic, but he also has an intense personality, and an incredible drive to his game. Combining his natural gifts with this confident mindset, he’s basically unstoppable when he takes the ball to the hoop. The problem lies in the fact that he’s unable to seamlessly merge the primal part of his game with the analytical part of his game.

NBA talk: playing ‘with purpose’ vs. playing ‘with a purpose’

He’s unable to see the bigger picture when it comes to the ultimate objective – winning games. It doesn’t seem as though he ever plays with a purpose, because if this were the case, he would make concrete steps toward adapting his game towards this lofty goal. For instance, one concrete step would be for him to take fewer jumpshots. But he hasn’t shown a willingness to do that yet. Of course, if his ultimate purpose is to average a triple double and not win an NBA title, then maybe he IS playing with a purpose. But something tells us he wants that ring.

Someone who plays with “a purpose” is someone who plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers. It’s someone who knows what their ultimate goal is, and does everything they possibly can to make that a reality. Take Michael Jordan for example. One could make the argument that he spent the first half of his career playing with purpose, but not with a purpose. He let the game come to him, but he didn’t exactly see the bigger picture. He was the most unstoppable player in the league for years, but he still hadn’t won a championship.

NBA talk: playing ‘with purpose’ vs. playing ‘with a purpose’

In order for him to win a title, he needed to adapt his game. He needed to be more than just a lethal scorer. In order for him to win at the highest level, he had to excel at playing team ball as well. This is easier said than done for a player who’s set in his ways – but Jordan proved to us all that he had a purpose when he made those sacrifices, and won those titles.

Playing with “A” purpose is about so much more than just intelligence. It’s about knowing what you want. It’s about having a clear goal, and making the necessary sacrifices to achieve that. Talent only gets you so far… True greatness is about making it mean something.