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Sean Marks talks superstar challenges, culture ... and the quarantine

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In an interview with Leaders in Sport, a sports conferencing group, Sean Marks says that the Nets culture will have to “grow and adapt” to accommodate superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving but, by the same token, they and everyone else in the organization has to “buy in” to the values that has sustained the franchise’s success.

The Nets GM also said that he prefers to have a “leadership group of four, five, six players” and even staff, rather than a captain or co-captain because often “your best player may not have the voice to lead and may not actually want it.”

Part of the group’s “At Home with Leaders,” initiative, the 40-minute interview was conducted by co-hosts Matthew Stone and Steve Gera, It was Marks sixth interview, most of them lengthy, in the last month and one where he spoke mostly about managing team culture.

In addition to the challenges of working with superstars, Marks spoke about the more current challenge, keeping the team intact and in condition. “Whether it’s six weeks or six months, we’re prepared for every possible outcome,” said Marks.

Marks spoke at length about the team’s culture and how KD and Kyrie fit. There was speculation, not discussed in the interview, that one reason for Kenny Atkinson’s departure was his lack of a “fit” with the two.

“You have to realize when you’re bringing in those elite players and winners like Kevin and Kyrie, our culture is going to have to grow and adapt to them ... because there’s no defensive system those guys haven’t seen. They’ve been in every possible position you can possibly name, whether that’s on or off the court.

“For us, it’s going to be leaning on them to say, you tell us what you need to be successful here and lead by telling us a couple of examples. ‘Tell us some stories here and share those with your teammates.’ And that’s where we’re coming in and sort of meeting in the middle and hopefully take those next steps to continue to grow as a group.

“And that’s where we’re coming in and sort of meeting in the middle and hopefully take those next steps to continue to grow as a group.”

Marks spoke as well about the process for vetting superstars before they’re signed— or traded for. That’s not a one-way street either, he told Stone and Gura. They have to “buy in” and “sacrifice” for the good of the team.

“From a players standpoint, we have to be willing to say, ‘if we bring in player X, Y or Z, and their talent is supremely above everybody else, how does that effect what we want to do here long term? short term? the group that’s already in place, the culture that’s already in place?

“And by doing the intel, really sitting down and meeting those guys and talking to them and saying, ‘tell me why you want to be here.’ That’ important. They need to have buy-in. It shouldn’t be just a dollar figure. This should be something bigger than that. I want to see what makes them tick, what moves them, what motivates them. Is it a family, is it a legacy? What is it?

“Once they have ownership, and they’ve chosen to be here again, it can be the 15th guy on the bench. They know their role. It’s been outlined. and they’re willing to sacrifice and we’re going to ask our top players to sacrifice. Because everyone is going to have to change slightly in this team dynamic.”

Marks spoke, in general, about how he sees team leadership. Overall, he said that he isn’t tied to the traditional notion that your best player or players must also be your team’s leaders.

“What we’ve tried to do over the the last four years is implement a leadership group.

“I don’t know if I believe in one captain or two co-captains. Because I think a lot of times on a lot of different teams in a lot of different sports, your best player may not have the voice to lead and may not actually want it. There are occasions where that’s not true but within a leadership group and by forming that four, five, six players we’ve done —and MAYBE that involves a couple of staff members at the right time— you’ve got a group that’s willing to debate, willing to discuss amongst themselves first then come up with an answer and come up to me or the coach and give us their opinions. That’s important.”

He cited the players with the most time in Brooklyn as those he’s counting on to lead.

“So, along the last four years, we’ve been slowly integrating a variety of guys in here who we think click. Caris LeVert, for instance, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, guys that have been here for a while. you know, ‘you guys have a big voice now’ and just because we’re bringing in Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving and so forth, you are going to help us drive that culture. You’ve been here longer than they have. You’ll be able to help them just navigate Brooklyn, navigate the borough, Barclays Center, expectations and so forth.

Bottom line, on superstars as well as the rest of the club, is that everybody has to be a “culture driver.”

“We all know talent definitely wins games and you want to go out there with the highest talent you possibly can. Now having said that, you don’t want to be detrimental to the team because it is a team sport and its the culture you’re trying to drive here and it needs to be driven by everybody. I think it’s really important not to have one or two culture drivers within your organization. It has to be driven from behind the scenes by really everybody.”

Marks spoke as well about staff and how those who put on a polo shirt with a team logo are as important as those who put on a jersey with the team name.

“If you bring in people with the same values, same level of commitment, the same competitive spirit and the willingness to sacrifice, that’s the No. 1 priority.

“All the people here, over the past four years, like me, have left a really good job. They had to sacrifice something to come here, whether it was the vision, the Nets, myself, ownership, whatever it is. [Those individuals] have ownership in everything they do. Our day to day activities do not revolve around one person. It’s a complete collaboration and I don’t have to remind them of that.”

He noted that in that spirit of collaboration, the Nets interns are encouraged to join in free agency meetings, be in the Draft Room on Draft Night. And, Marks added, the Nets monitor top staff around the league, just as they do with free agents, G League players and draft picks.

“Just like you have a best available list for your talent on the court, there is a list of staff and personnel really all around the world that you need to have a list for because you never know if somebody is going to get an opportunity or something changes within the family dynamic and so forth and they need to leave or make a decision to move on and so forth.”

On the current situation with the pandemic, Marks said it’s a balance between maintaining a certain level of preparation with an understanding that there are personal and family considerations. He noted as well that the pandemic is going to affect everybody up to and including ownership ... and for a long time.

“I think it’s important to have a somewhat sense of normalcy. Like ‘Guys, we have to prepare as we should whether that’s a return to play’ from a players perspective and giving them the best we can the means to succeed so if that’s delivering stationary bikes to their houses, and food to their houses and the essential needs to prevent them from having to go out in public and so forth, and to stay in some semblance of shape, that’s going to be great.

“And from a staff perspective, even all the way up to ownership, preparing for how this effects the salary cap or the bottom line not just this season or the next season. This will affect, will have ramifications way down the road here as it pertains to P&L (profits and losses) and players salaries and just how we do business.

Marks said he, like the players and fans, longs for the day when 17,000 to 18,000 screaming fans fill Barclays Center. But he admitted there’s no question that “It’s going to look a little different.” There will have to be new ways of presenting games with or without fans and things that weren’t priorities, like cleanliness of arenas and practice facilities, and the league’s policy of sharing planes and buses, will now become high priorities. All that said...

“You know at the end of the day, its a sport we’re playing and we have a job to do here but we have to do it with the right frame of mind going into this, saying how lucky we are to do this and to do it with good people is really important. So yuo should have fun with each other and joke around a little bit. I can’t be too high and mighty not to be the brunt of jokes. I think the office quite enjoys taking it out on me...

He also said that it’s important that “you have to be able to get over yourself. Not take yourself too seriously.”

Asked about what he appreciates about being at home for six weeks, Marks echoed his boss Joe Tsai, saying his ability to reconnect with his children and among other things,

“We had a fun family project, we built a dog house. for a big dog. We got some laughs and some good memories out of that ... In 40 years, I don’t think I’ve never spent five or six weeks in one place at home!”

Finally, Marks said he wants the Nets to be a big part of the city’s recovery. “We’re right in the heart of it. The sights and sounds of it cannot be ignored.”