The old quote, often attributed to 1800s statesman Otto von Bismarck, says it’s best if people see neither laws nor sausages being made. Perhaps Bismarck, as adept at crafting and guiding Germany as Pat Riley does the Heat, would include NBA teams were he breathing today.
Most of our sports sausage factories operate in gargantuan metaphorical glass structures. Microphones in huddles and around the bench, cameras in halftime/between-periods locker rooms, ubiquitous media with two or three recording devices per body. And, now, some fans and media have a problem digesting the information.
Longtime reporter Marc Stein excoriated Cleveland god LeBron James on Thursday on ESPN.com for James’ disdainful behavior toward Cavaliers coach David Blatt during the six-game NBA Finals loss to Golden State. Stein, an ESPN sideline reporter, described repeated reminders to Blatt that James swings the big stick in that organization.
Particularly now that we’ve hit a team sports dead period, this reloaded sporting gun not completely turned away from James and the NBA Finals. What Stein detailed — James calling timeouts, ordering substitutions, rejecting Blatt-drawn plays he didn’t like — produced what’s the first empirical tarnishing of James’ image.
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But, it’s nothing new, especially in the NBA. We just saw the sausage.
The very nature of NBA basketball invites power flowing toward the best players. Each team’s top dog makes up a bigger percentage of the on-court pack, one of five (20 percent), than other team sports as well as spends a higher percentage of game time involved in the play.
Coaches in other sports often can get away with belittling behavior toward players. Not in the NBA.
Wilt Chamberlain realized this at a time when such a theory seemed heresy. During the 1968-69 season, Chamberlain feuded with coach Butch Van Breda Kolff so openly, those who paid attention knew fans could go to The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner for Wilt’s side and The Los Angeles Times for Van Breda Kolff’s side.
When Van Breda Kolff left Wilt on the bench for the last two minutes of a Game 7 Finals upset loss to Boston — and left hundreds of celebratory balloons never released from the Forum’s ceiling — the coach got zapped.
Riley’s first turn as an NBA head coach followed Magic Johnson, early in his third season, stating he would ask Lakers owner Jerry Buss to trade him because he was unhappy and head coach Paul Westhead was the reason. Magic spouted off after a five-game winning streak. And Westhead had kept the Lakers pointed toward an NBA title Magic’s rookie season when he took over after head coach Jack McKinney sustained near-fatal head injuries in a cycling accident.
Westhead out. Good head (of hair) in. Good move by the Lakers, as it turned out.
Riley’s last go-round as NBA coach followed Shaquille O’Neal’s unhappiness with Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. When Van Gundy left the Heat 21 games into the 2005-06 season, claiming he wanted more family time, it marked one of the few times the often brutally honest Van Gundy drew skeptical eye rolls with an explanation.
Shaq’s track record said this son of a military man responded best to men with credentials and rank. Riley had them. Van Gundy didn’t.
Michael Jordan didn’t ask for Doug Collins to be fired as Chicago Bulls coach in 1989. He just got petulant enough toward Collins enough times in practices and games that everybody knew management would have to make a choice. Everybody knew what that choice would be.
Most of that occurred in a different age, a quieter time: one ESPN, one SportsChannel, some sports talk radio, no social media. National NBA telecasts meant Sunday afternoons. You want to watch a regular season out-of-market game during the week? You better own one of those giant satellite saucers.
Less information. But also less noise.
So Magic, already in the debate for best player in the game with his not-that-distant cousin Larry Bird and Dr. J, got painted as one of those brash, arrogant NBA players driving away fans. Time and national neglect muted the furor. It disintegrated completely when the Lakers won another title seven months later, the first of seven Finals appearances in eight years.
The doubts about Jordan’s leadership qualities muscled forth again. Though clearly already the NBA’s best player, could he play well with others once the Bulls developed a team around him?
Lacking large forums in which to scream our opinion around the world, things quieted down. Eventually, we saw the answer.
Now, we’re there, perpetually watching and listening from ever closer vantage points, perpetually judging when we see what’s always been there. Remember golf fans being aghast when microphones placed near tees picked up Tiger Woods’ penchant for expletives?
Wilt, Magic, Jordan and Shaq made their power moves, if not in the dark, then not in the permanent spotlight where James lives.
Let’s stop being surprised when we catch powerful athletes behaving like powerful men often have, even before Bismarck. Who, by the way, used to keep people in line by threatening to quit his job.