The coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, Paul Silas, and a forward on the team, Tyrus Thomas, had a scuffle in the locker room after the Bobcats loss to the Celtics last Sunday night. The Bobcats are on track to have the worst-ever winning percentage in an NBA season, and as Mike Tirico pointed out last night, doing so is the only noteworthy achievement in their grasp. Silas was apparently angry at Thomas for being too chummy with the Celtics players after the loss. He said something to Thomas. Thomas replied. A scuffle ensued.
Who is the adult here? Thomas, who apparently understands that basketball is a game played for the entertainment of the fans, and that fierce competition on the court needn’t translate to animosity off of it, or even during times on the court when play is interrupted? Or Silas, who apparently believes that loyalty to one’s team demands treating the other team’s performers as enemies?
Silas needs to grow up. Basketball, or really any professional sport, is entertainment. While there must be a certain degree of fealty to its competitive premises if the sport is to retain its value as entertainment, players needn’t be off-court enemies. Players must be on-court competitors, not conspirators (which is why gambling is so dangerous to the integrity of professional sports), but to imagine that on-court competition must include off-court acrimony is simply childish.
I may have thought when I was a child that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were sworn enemies off the court as well as on, because their rivalry, and the Celtics/Lakers rivalry was imbued with a moral tincture in my adolescent eyes. I knew Boston and Larry Bird embodied and represented all that was good and moral in America–teamwork, humility, unselfishness, and yes, whiteness (somehow I was able to ignore that Robert Parrish, et al, on the team were black), while the Lakers and Magic Johnson represented all that was bad–flashiness, arrogance, self-aggrandizement, blackness. It was an utterly stupid view of the world, and of the rivalry upon which I projected it, but hey, I was just a kid. At the time of Magic Johnson’s diagnosis of AIDS, I’m not proud to admit that I was so narrow-minded and pig-headed as to cast moral aspersions on him for contracting such a morally degenerate disease. How utterly childish. But I grew up, eventually realizing that the Celtics were no more the embodiment of good than the Lakers the embodiment of evil; that basketball was a game, not a morality play; that Magic Johnson was as great a player as Larry Bird, and just as good a person as well. I was ashamed that I could ever have considered him immoral to contract a deadly disease, particularly given that I had nothing but my imagination to guide me in my opinion of his supposed immorality. Now, I am quite thankful Magic has survived the disease. I rather enjoy his insights on today’s game, offered during pre-game and half-time shows of NBA contests, and admire him for all that he was and is, which is to say, a great competitor and larger-than-life ambassador for the game. I still love Larry Bird and the Celtics, and would probably still root for him against Magic and the Lakers again, but not because of some childish projection of childish morality onto a playground game. And I fully understand now that Magic and Bird were not sworn enemies off the court, but likely had a deep and abiding respect for each other. To be sure, they were fierce competitors, which is why the Lakers-Celtics rivalry during the era was so compelling, but their on-court competition did not require their being enemies off the court.
There are times when great players are also enemies, or at least act like enemies. Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Ray Allen of the Celtics seem to have developed some personal animosities over the years, but nothing of their personal relationship seems to have much to do with color of their jerseys. Allen has probably sweated out more games trying to guard Kobe as any player in the league, and most of them before he put on the Celtic green. The two know each other like an old married couple know each other. Familiarity seems to have long ago resolved to contempt.
But it seems that when NBA coaches don’t behave like petulant children, they behave like petulant old men. Doug Collins, head coach of the Philadelphia 76’ers, recently lambasted his young team, saying his players were “very sensitive and very fragile” because they had not had their asses kicked coming up, like his was since the age of six. He claimed they hadn’t grown up with tough coaches like he had, in the process impugning the toughness of the literally scores of coaches his players had known in their development.
Even were his assessment objectively provable as correct (it’s not, but if), what possible good could it do the players on his team to be publicly described as sensitive and fragile? These players, no matter how young, are still men, and no man wants to hear himself described as sensitive and fragile, especially considering there is no way to answer the charges. How does a player prove he isn’t sensitive? By committing a few flagrant fouls? By not shaking the hands of the opposing team after a game? By taunting the opposing team after a victory? There is nothing a player could do that would also enhance his team’s prospects for victory that would prove he wasn’t sensitive. Fragility should be easier to disprove, but only in cases where there is a possibility of playing through a little pain. A broken bone may be evidence that one’s bones are fragile, but no amount of pain killers or intestinal fortitude would make it possible to play with a broken tibia, so even here, it’s not really clear what was the coaching point of Collins’ lamentations.
Jeff van Gundy, former Knicks coach and present color analyst during televised NBA games, believes that effort, which is what Collins seems to be complaining of here, should be a given. NBA players are professional athletes. They are paid money to play a game. It is their job. They can be fired for failing to perform, even if the failure does not resolve to a lack of effort. It is the job of the coach to ascertain the talents of the players at his disposal, and devise a strategy that leverages the talents to its maximal benefit for the team. It seems to me that Collins believes some of his players don’t buy into whatever strategy it is he has devised for putting their talents to use for the team. That’s a coaching issue, not a player’s issue. It is the job of the coach to make sure everyone buys in to his program. Accusing players that Collins believes don’t buy into his program of being too sensitive and fragile does nothing to bring them around. If the team can’t get on the same page, if the coach or a team leader can’t pull them together, then it’s time for a personnel change. On a team like the 76’ers, without a bona fide superstar that can influence management to change the coach instead of changing him (Dwight Howard), then change the dissenting players. Bench the dissenting players. Do whatever it takes to take charge of the team and get them on the same page. Else they’ll look and play like a dysfunctional team put together at a playground pickup game, i.e., they’ll look something like the Orlando Magic when Dwight Howard is actually playing, or they’ll look like the hapless 76’ers in their recent loss to the near-equally hapless Orlando Magic.
Being a good coach requires much of the same skill set as a battlefield general. As Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest described it, winning depends on “doin’ the mostest with the leastest”. There are coaches in the NBA doing just that. Doc Rivers of the Celtics, particularly in the second half of this truncated season, comes to mind. He’s made the most out of the aging legs of his three superstars and complemented their resurgent play with strong contributions from the bench. Eric Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, who has three superstars still in their prime, but not much else, als0 has done well. Doug Collins’s 76’er team was leading its division at the All-Star break, but has since fallen to third place and is barely holding on to the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Collins seemed to have been doing yeoman’s work earlier this season, leveraging the talents of his players to the team’s maximal advantage; “doin’ the mostest with the leastest”. But how he figures publicly questioning their manhood is going to help matters is beyond me.
John Calipari, coach of the NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats, could teach his NBA brethren a thing or two about dealing with young men, if only yet of quasi-professional status, and getting the most out of them, without descending into childishness.
Calipari proudly proclaims his Kentucky basketball program a “players’ first program”. From the looks of things, it is. Calipari recruits high school phenoms who would likely have gone straight to the NBA, had the NBA not closed the door to that option several years ago by requiring players to either be nineteen or have completed a year in college before being eligible for the draft. Calipari knows the best way to provide a kid the opportunity to turn his basketball skills into millions is to provide him a place to play it competitively for the year between high school and the pros that the NBA now requires.
“One and done” does not, as college basketball purists have alleged, besmirch the ideal of college basketball as a game played by scholar-athletes in their spare time of getting a college degree. Aside from romanticising a past that pretty much never was, the purists have their causation backward. When there was no “one and done”, the college game was actually closer to the purists dream, as NBA contracts going to the likes of Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, et al, right out of high school, meant that the players left in college really were something of amateur college athletes. Yet the purists wish to go the other way. Instead of eliminating one and done, they want to extend the period of indentured servitude to two years.
Eliminating “one and done”, not extending it to “two and done” as the NBA has threatened, would hold at least the possibility that the college game regain its romantic ideal, where players play simply for the love of the game and the glory of ol’ State U. As it stands now, one and done means some teams will be playing with what amounts to an unpaid NBA-level squad, or at least have a few players that are, while the rest will be playing with amateurs that have no prospect of ever being paid for their skills. Since “one and done” has come along, and coaches like Calipari have learned to exploit it, the best means of predicting outcomes in an NCAA tournament game is calculating which team starts the most freshman, hardly the competitive ideal for anyone, purist or otherwise.
To Calipari’s mind, the fact that all five of his starting players on his recent championship team will be drafted in the first round, or shortly after, and be provided with big fat signing bonuses and paychecks as NBA rookies, is as much an expression of the success of his program as are the games won on the court. And he’s right.
What is the point of going to college? Is it to get an education, or to get a job afterwards? All those basketball purists, the ones without the NBA dangling multi-million dollar contracts in their kids’ faces, who believe old school loyalty ought to compel a basketball phenom to stay and play for their school, would probably say that the point of a college degree is to enhance a kid’s earning power. But which is better, several millions in earning power in the hand today, or the possibility, growing ever more remote with each passing year, of several millions more in earning power over a lifetime (relative to non-degreed workers) because of having gone to ol’ State U?
And if the point of going to college is to get an education, colleges nowadays can only be considered dismal failures. An education teaches one how to think. Colleges nowadays teach kids what to think, except where they are simply training kids for specific occupations. Training and education are not the same things. Colleges almost never spend any time these days educating kids in how to think so that they might see the world as it is. About the best can be hoped from spending several years and several thousands of dollars in getting a college degree is that a kid leaves with some economically-relevant occupational training. And guess what…the starting five for Kentucky already have just that.
Those kids at Kentucky that are jumping ship are certainly behaving like adults. No grownup would shun millions of dollars out of loyalty to an organization that has no loyalty, professed or otherwise, to them. And Calipari is doing just as a good coach does–making the mostest with the leastest–knowing full well he will only have them for a year, at most two, yet somehow managing to mould them into a competitive team. Calipari’s strategy depends heavily on the nuts and bolts of his coaching ability. But Calipari understands what makes good coaches great. When asked if it was hard to coach such young players for such a short time, he responded “No” that it was hard to coach players who had no talent.