Story told by David Griffin
Written by Cal Fussman
When I speak publicly to groups about leadership, I tell them I never could’ve achieved what I’ve achieved until I went through chemotherapy.
It gave me a sense of toughness. I call it: Learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. It made me infinitely better at what I do in all aspects of life.
I don’t usually get specific when I speak about this.
But this time I will, and by the end you’ll see how it leads to Sportiqe.
I had testicular cancer in ‘06.
They took the right one out.
My close friends called me Lefty.
The surgery did nothing to slow me down. It came out on a Thursday. By Sunday I was back on the job in the front office of the Phoenix Suns trying to get free agents.
Years later, I’d moved on to the front office of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2011, it was time for my five-year follow-up exam. I was a little apprehensive because I was feeling some pain.
The girl giving me the ultrasound was the single most attractive girl I’d met during my entire time in Cleveland.
She leaned over me, and as she was getting ready to give me the ultrasound, I read her name tag and just start laughing hysterically.
She said: “You’re laughing at my name.”
“Hey,” I said, “you gotta admit, that’s pretty unbelievable.” In moments like those you can use a laugh. Her nametag read: Melissa Ball.
She said: “You boys and your testicles.”
Later that day, I met the doctor. He said: “Step over there and let me check you.”
I’m standing there in a robe. He reached under me. Felt it. Said: “Yeah.” And then turned around and started washing his hands.
“That’s cancer,” he said. “We’ll take that out. My nurse will get in touch with you. This is Thursday. I can probably get to it Monday. You have any questions?”
I said: “You realize, I didn’t know I was sick, right? I didn’t know I had cancer. And this is the second time. So this is bad, right? Because it’s spreading.”
“Oh, gosh,” he said. “I feel terrible. I thought you knew you had a tumor.”
“No,” I said, “I had no idea. And I’ve had it before, so this is bad, right?”
“No,” he said. “It’s a good thing for you in a weird way. Because this means it’s a new incidence of cancer. Which means you probably have a genetic defect. You’re less likely to have it again. There’s nothing you could’ve done about it. It’s almost always contained to that situation and you don’t have other issues.”
Wow! That’s great news.
I was an exec with the Cavaliers, so I was getting taken care of really well. The head of oncology at the Cleveland Clinic met with me and walked me through the whole chemo process. The urologist came over. It’s crazy, because I could tell they were going out of their way to give me the best possible care. But they were so incredibly cold in the way they spoke about it. Finally, they asked if I had any questions.
I said: “Yeah. Why do you tell people that they have cancer like you’re ordering a turkey sandwich?”
The urologist said: “What do you mean?”
“Well, Doc, no offense, but when you told me that there was a tumor, you were washing your hands with your back to me. And just now when you were walking me through the chemo process, you couldn’t have been more scientific and unemotional. I’m just curious. Why do you do that?”
The urologist looked at the oncologist and said: “Do you want to take this? Or do you want me to take it?”
The oncologist said: “I’ll take this one.” He said: “Dave, we’re like that with you because you’re the one we win.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most of these conversations we have are with people whose lives we’ll only be able to make better while they’re alive. You’re the one we win. So, I’m not afraid for you.”
I said: “You know what, you’d be a lot better off if you’d have just started right there.”
My point was, in those uncomfortable moments, you can always try to find a way to bring comfort – and he thanked me for the advice.
I had the surgery. And I started chemo in May of 2011 -- on the day the Cavaliers found out we’d gotten the first pick in the NBA draft. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes so I needed to go through a nine-week course of chemo during the time we prepared for the draft. At the start, chemo for five hours a day, five days a week.
My friends at Sportiqe sent over a package filled with shirts and sweats. I put on the sweat pants and they were silly comfortable. I passed everything else around. You should have seen the looks on everybody’s faces when they tried the shirts on. People were saying: “Man, that’s the most unbelievably comfortable clothing I’ve ever worn.”
I was in those sweat pants through the entire chemo process. Remember Linus with his security blanket in the Peanuts cartoon? Those sweat pants were my security blanket.
When I reflect back on it, that was a transcendent time for me. Being comfortable enough to get through that process has made me comfortable in uncomfortable situations ever since. It may sound confusing, or even a contradiction – but it’s not. You want to be uncomfortable to push yourself as far as you can in life. But you’re at your best when you’re comfortable being that uncomfortable.
The same principle really resonated when I was the General Manager for the Cavaliers in 2016 and we came back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals against Golden State to win the NBA championship. Actually, it applied from the very start of that year, to everything that led up to that deficit and our comeback.
Early on, we had injuries and I knew we needed to make a coaching change. We were 30-11, but we were inefficiently 30-11. We were unhappy at 30-11. I could tell the team was not comfortable. You could see the spiritual disconnect.
The coach had been hired before I’d become General Manager. And then we’d brought in LeBron James – and LeBron turned it into a different team. The coach was just right for the young team we had when he was first hired to coach. But with the addition of LeBron, this team had to win the championship. We were going to settle for nothing less. So I couldn’t shy away from making myself uncomfortable in order to make everyone else comfortable.
That said: Nobody fires a coach when the team is 30-11 and Number 1 in its conference.
It would’ve been easy for me to put my head in the sand. But I told the owner what I thought we needed to do. The owner told me: You are either going to be a genius or the single greatest failure of a decision maker in NBA history.
I knew I was doing the right thing. So I wasn’t afraid of the uncomfortable nature of reading what a moron I was in the paper and hearing what a moron I was on radio and television. I didn’t care. I knew if I was willing to go through that discomfort, we were going to be better for it.
I changed the coach.
We got to the finals against the Warriors, then got down 3-1. And the next game, the game which the Warriors could close us out, was on their home court. I went to bed that night inconsolable. But I woke up four hours later giddy like a little kid, laughing hysterically. My wife asked: “What in the hell is wrong with you?”
I said: “I know we’re going to win.”
She said: “What are you talking about?”
I just knew we were going to win. After everything we’d been through, we’d stayed together for the entire time. We were the NBA drama kings. That was sort of how we operated. We had to put ourselves in that uncomfortable position to take the pressure off ourselves. I knew we were going to win and I told the entire organization in an e-mail.
That e-mail delivered comfort in an uncomfortable situation. That’s what leadership is. Ultimately, the best leaders force themselves to be uncomfortable and take chances that will give everyone more success.
As you probably know, the Cavaliers came back and won the title. It was the first team in 52 years to win a championship in Cleveland. The city changed because of that. The city’s image of itself changed on that night. Everything that ever existed in Cleveland had been identifying itself by the city’s failures. That championship made people believe in themselves. It was an epic moment.
But it’s often the little things that can give us comfort. A laugh when you need it, the choice of just the right words, putting on exactly the right clothes to wear.
Life is always going to send us uncomfortable moments. But we do get to create our own sense of comfort.
That’s why I wear Sportiqe.
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