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JR Smith’s Blunder and Its Sales Echoes

Last night, Game 1 of the NBA Finals. 5 seconds left, tied game. The Cleveland Cavaliers miss the second free throw, and the Cavs’ J.R. Smith grabs the offensive board. Rather than go for the putback or look for an open teammate, he dribbles out to the perimeter as time expires, sending the game to OT, where Cleveland ultimately loses to Golden State.

On the face of it, the epic error hearkens back to other infamous sports flakeouts – Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi in the 2006 France/Italy World Cup Final (still talked about over a decade later, and the first auto-complete in a Google search for Zidane); Super Bowl 49, when the Seahawks were on the 1 yard line with the last play of the game, down by 4 against the Patriots, and instead of handing it to star RB Marshawn Lynch, head coach Pete Carroll opted for an ultimately incomplete pass; and, coming full circle to basketball, Chris Webber in the Michigan/North Carolina NCAA championship. Down by 2 with 11 seconds left, Wolverines’ ball and Webber calls a timeout – only Michigan didn’t have any left. Technical foul on Webber. Game clinched for the Tarheels.

In each of these moments, common elements emerge: high intensity, high pressure, and a microscopic window in which to make a split-second decision. Smith said afterwards Kevin Durant was standing in the way of his layup after the rebound, and that “he already had 4 blocks, and I didn’t want to be the fifth.” There’s a parallel in sales, where sometimes reps don’t ask for a sale (take the shot) for fear of rejection (block, which ironically is also called a rejection).

In sales, as in sports, there’s high-stakes stress and pressure to perform. Even in segments with longer sales cycles, the wrong action in a single moment can torpedo a sale. Whether it’s something as comparatively small as pressuring a retail consumer too soon to make a $20 purchase or something as vast as missing a multi-million dollar equipment sale by failing to recognize a buyer’s closing signals.

Particularly interesting about the JR Smith example is that he didn’t take ownership of his mistake – rather, he said he thought LeBron James was going to call a timeout (unlike the Webber situation, the Cavs did in fact have timeouts remaining).  This passing of the buck could potentially have negative consequences for Smith’s chemistry with the Cavaliers, which in turn might impact Cleveland’s strategy (as well as Golden State’s) in the rest of the Finals.

This situation also applies to sales – if you make a mistake, no matter how inexplicable, and don’t own up to it, but assign blame, that will likely have a negative effect with your coworkers – and these days, sales really is a team effort. More to the point, you also miss an opportunity to see how you can be better in the future.

As a final note, keep in mind that no matter how disastrous a mistake, there’s always an opportunity for redemption. While the jury is still out on JR Smith, Webber made $176 million in the NBA and helped the Sacramento Kings to one of the most successful periods in team history. He also is widely considered one of the Top 75 NBA players of all time. Zidane went on to win three straight Champions League titles as the head coach of Real Madrid. While you yourself might not be at that superstar level, you too can bounce back from any error, continuously focusing on learning from your blunders and working on self-improvement to reach your maximum potential to become the best sales professional possible.