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M. Night Shyamalan on His Visit With the Sixers and the Role of Emotion in Basketball

The ‘Split’ director joined ‘The J.J. Redick Podcast’ to discuss the speech he gave to the Philly team in December and the effect that a player’s emotional energy can have on the court

Joel Embiid shaking hands with M. Night Shyamalan Getty Images

In December, M. Night Shyamalan sat down with the Sixers players and gave them some analysis. Not about their stat lines or the team’s offensive sets, but about their emotions and how those emotions affected their outcome on the court. This week, the director joined The J.J. Redick Podcast to further describe his analysis, as well as some ancient Greek philosophy that could explain Philadelphia’s current five-game win streak.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.


J.J. Redick: When you came and spoke to [the Sixers], you kind of identified a few guys in the room — and I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this since you did this two months ago because I felt like what you said about Joel [Embiid] was true and really nice. What you said about Ben [Simmons] … was true and really nice. And then to me, you said, in front of the entire organization, that I’m at war with myself. And while there is some truth to that, I actually kind of got defensive about it.

M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah, no, first of all, that’s not quite what happened, J.J. The way I was giving — 

Redick: That’s what stuck with me.

Shyamalan: [I] gave pros and cons for everyone. … And I can talk about some of those, but with you, for example, I was feeling [that] you were kind of angry with yourself. This was at the beginning of the year, so I came in during and I spoke right around the middle of that losing streak.

Redick: This was early December.

Shyamalan: Yeah, and what you represented at that time was someone who knew what you wanted to be for the team, and, when you fell short of that, you were so angry at yourself that you were stuck in that spiral of castigating yourself on the court and not realizing that you were giving off this kind of vibe at that time. That’s what I meant by the war.

By the way, since that time, you have locked in. And I’m not just saying this because I’m on your podcast. Honestly, I would tell you you’re worse now if you were. But … you’ve gotten balance in there as to the role and what you represent, and the piece that you represent as the veteran player and the mental strength that you have as the outside shooter — which requires incredible amounts of emotional control. … I believe all balance of emotion comes from us being a little bit more humble about what we’re capable of and what our position is, and even though you were trying to help everyone, you were hurting because you were putting too much pressure on yourself. And I feel like now — and you had that injury for a little bit, [but then] you came out, and just the second you walked on the court you were just more the assassin. That guy that’s just — god dammit, he’s just, it’s just effortless. … And by the way, I wasn’t picking on you. That’s ridiculous.

Redick: I don’t know. It was kind of the [team] consensus afterwards in kind of a straw poll that I got it probably the worst.

Shyamalan: By the way, this is indicative of the mentality that you were in. The way you were reading that was very like, you know — 

Redick: I was coming from a negative place of emotion.

Shyamalan: Yeah, beating yourself up. Beating yourself up. “Why did he pick [on] me?” kind of thing.

Redick: No, that’s all fair. I agree. That’s all fair.

Shyamalan: What I was [doing] for the team was looking at each person’s emotional state — where are they coming from and how can you [think] about your emotions [in a way] that help[s] the game, right? So, when we’re talking about Joel … the last game I came to against your old team, the Clippers, he was posted up in this one play against [DeAndre] Jordan, and this is actually something I said to Joel. I can tell when you’re posted up and your mind is on the basket, the ball going through the basket, as opposed to the man that is pounding against you. And on this one particular play, Jordan was just pounding Joel. … And I saw it switch. Like if I had a video I could show him — the moment he stopped thinking about the ball going through the basket. That’s the story of emotion, that he’s thinking about this bastard that’s hitting me. “I’m going to take him.”

So of course, he did the move and the ball didn’t go into the basket because [of] his story — [the] emotional story was between him and DeAndre Jordan. … It’s a mental thing, right? A mental-emotional thing. And the great finishers are always thinking about that: always thinking about the ball going through the hoop, and all the people in between them and the hoop are part of the story of getting the ball in the hoop. It’s an emotional journey, you know? Once you lose your emotional center like that, you miss the end game.

Redick: So true. And coming back to what you were saying about me, I think that’s what it comes down to is like finding that center, finding your sort of emotional balance, and then everything kind of filters off of that.

One of the things you talked about in this meeting with us is the way our emotions affect everything else. So beyond just our own game, our own stats, our own performance, the way it can affect the crowd, the way it can affect the other team, the way it can affect the coaching staff, our own teammates. You sit courtside. You sit right by the other team’s bench, and you’re up close. You can visually see someone’s body language, someone’s facial expressions. Give me some examples [of] when you’ve seen like, an emotional outburst or display that affects the game that most people wouldn’t necessarily see.

Shyamalan: Well, you know, up close you can really feel the emotion of how the game is moving and how people react to that energy. We talked about the philosophy of Epictetus, [who] is a Greek philosopher who said — if I break it down — that there’s a group of things that we’re in control of, and those are the things we should put all our energy into. And there’s a group of things the universe is in charge of, and you should put no energy into those things. And if you put all your energy into those things that you have control over, the universe is a benevolent place, and it will give you more opportunities to grow.

So if we break that down into the game of basketball, you can’t — the ref’s calls, the things that are not in your control, don’t spend your energy on that, but spend your energy on the things you do have control of. Can you go around that pick a little faster? Can you distract your player? We were talking about how much we affect each other when I was talking to the Sixers. Emotionally, if I yell at you, if I do something negative, I affect two people away from you. … Two away. And on a basketball court, there’s only 10 of you. So everyone, even the guys who are not involved in the play, as you throw the ball into the post to Joel [you’re] affecting 40 percent of the team. So like if Ben goes to the far side and he’s just waiting there casually and his body and his emotions are saying, “I’m not in this play,” then he’s affecting the guy who’s guarding him who’s then affecting the next guy, and you can see a quilt of emotion. So get around that pick as if the play was run for you — which you do, by the way — which makes everyone’s energy go toward you. You affect everyone.