TrueHoop: League-Wide Issues
When James Franco wants to make a movie with you, say yes. That’s what David Shields did, and the result is “Return to Black Planet,” scheduled to debut in early 2015.
The film is based on “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” the book Shields wrote on the 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics. “Black Planet” was published in 1999 to great acclaim and severe criticism because it went far beyond Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, George Karl and the Sonics to reveal the issues of race, sexuality and other taboo topics barely hidden below the surface of NBA culture.
The season Shields covered in “Black Planet” was a contentious one, with the Sonics coming off a historic playoff collapse, winning 57 games under great pressure and losing in the first round yet again, and in the book, Shields examined the tense times in microscopic detail. The film uses that season -- in juxtaposition to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning season -- as a jumping-off point for Shields to get into the dimensions of American culture that have informed his 15 books.
As we hit the 20th anniversary of that NBA season, and with the movie on its way, Shields, in this email interview, takes us on a tour of the “Black Planet” that he believes is still the NBA’s true habitat.
You open the book “Black Planet” by saying, “Race, the league’s taboo topic, is the league’s true subject.” As you observe the NBA now, does that feel as true to you today?
The NBA has changed, because the culture has changed, but nothing seems to me structurally different: Nearly all of the owners are white, most of the coaches are white, most of the commentators are white, and most of the players are black.
The originating sin of America is slavery, for which reparations should be paid and will never be paid; as a result, mini-reparations are paid daily, and the NBA remains for me reparations theater.
What do you mean by “reparations theater”?
Three hundred and fifty years of American history are complicatedly echoed in the interplay between players and fans. When talking about the brawl in Auburn Hills, Stephen Jackson said, “It felt good to punch a fan one time.”
I’m really interested in Kobe Bryant calling Richard Sherman’s “rant” last year evidence of “the ugliness of greatness.” I think the core of fans’ relationship is one that vacillates schizophrenically and mercurially from reverence to resentment. Fans fetishize the players’ athletic genius and both deify it and demonize it; witness the way awe turns into anger whenever a player holds out or flips off the offensive coordinator.
Just a couple of years ago, Derrick Rose was a canonized saint. The vitriol that fans now visit upon him is to me a powerful if coded expression of the gap between white people and black people even now, in a supposedly post-racial America.
Sports -- especially the NBA -- function as a place where American society pretends to discuss and pretends to solve questions and historical agonies that can't possibly be solved within the realm of sports.
And the cognitive dissonance of it all -- players talking almost always in platitudes, fans saying way, way more than we realize on sports talk radio -- makes the whole thing discombobulating, paradoxical, thrilling.
James’s idea was to adapt “Black Planet” into a film, but not a traditional film full of scenes set in 1994 and 1995 at the Tacoma Dome, where the Sonics played their home games that season.
Instead, this is a monologue/documentary/confession/investigation/collage/remix of speech, video, audio and image. We shot the film over the summer and we’re now editing it. The plan is to release it as four episodes on MakerTV, and then as a unified film. We flip back and forth between the two seasons: the Sonics’ season of 1994-95 and the Seahawks’ season of 2013 (through the 2014 Super Bowl).
James conceived the idea of doing the film as a monologue. My role is to talk to him and to the camera. The film is a combination of a Spalding Gray confession (like “Swimming to Cambodia”), Errol Morris’s interrogation of, say, Robert McNamara (in “The Fog of War”), a Doug Stanhope rant and a TED talk.
I discuss America pre- and post-Obama, O.J. Simpson then and now, Jews and blacks, the never-ending shadows of slavery and the Holocaust and the Civil War, black men and white women, white men and black men, athletes as soldiers who -- barely -- get up off the battlefield, the irreducible tragedy of human tribalism.
Why is it a tragedy?
G.K. Chesterton, asked what was wrong with the world, said, “I am.” I try to bring the hammer to myself but also to the viewer.
In “Black Planet,” the candor with which you dug into taboo topics -- sex, death, race -- thrilled some readers. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and called (by A.O. Scott, now a film critic for The New York Times) “one of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport.” At the same time, it turned off a lot of other people; about half the reader reviews at Amazon are pretty scathing.
What kind of reception do you expect for “Return to Black Planet”?
I try to be as honest as I possibly can about the contradictions within my own heart and thereby get to something "true" and revealing and important about contemporary American culture and human nature.
The core of sports fandom and sportswriting is the maintenance of dearly held illusions. A lot of being a fan consists of telling yourself fairy tales about place and territory and beauty and love and winning and salvation and redemption and transcendence. Only a few of my books deal with sports, but all of my work is an attempt to scrape away illusions within myself and within the reader/viewer.
As the readerboard outside the church around the corner from my house says (remember, this is in Seattle), “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off.”
Gary Payton and George Karl were key figures in “Black Planet.” Did they read it and respond?
I'm curious if Payton ever read it. I’d guess not. He is aware of it. I’d love to hear his take. He's one of the most verbal people on the planet.
I heard from a third party that Karl read the book and liked it and thought that mainstream sports news organizations didn't really get what I was trying to do. Shortly after the book came out, I remember hearing on a national sports talk show the most transparent homoerotic panic expressed as hysterical antagonism toward the book.
In the 20 years since you started writing “Black Planet,” the Sonics went to the NBA Finals, fell apart, drafted Kevin Durant, and then moved to Oklahoma City. How did those ups and downs affect you?
After spending several years writing “Black Planet” and then a follow-up called “Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine,” I’d overdosed on sports, especially basketball. I really didn’t pay attention to sports that much over the next decade or more. But then along came the emergence of the Seahawks, and my now 21-year-old daughter’s fanatical interest in them, and my equally fanatical, perhaps more fanatical obsession with them.
All of life is a kind of star-gazing (everything from falling in love to raising a child to reading a book to watching a movie to hiking in the woods). I want to stop being a fan, but I’ve come to realize how powerfully connected for me -- and, I would argue, for nearly everyone -- the life force is to fandom. The book and the movie are an attempt to expose in myself and the reader/the viewer the underlying emotional psychic and cultural needs such fandom serves.
Stephen Jackson: [Toward] the end of the game, I recall somebody on the team told Ron, 'You can get one now.' I heard it. I think somebody was shooting a free throw. Somebody said to Ron, 'You can get one now,' meaning you can lay a foul on somebody who he had beef with in the game.
Ben Wallace: He told me he was going to hit me, and he did it.
Stephen Jackson: Ben was the wrong person [to foul] because, if I’m not mistaken, his brother had just passed and he was going through some issues. I was guarding Ben, I let him score. I was trying to let the clock run out. And Ron just came from out of nowhere and just clobbered him. I’m like, 'What the hell is going on?' I had no clue that was about to happen. When that happened, everything just happened so fast, man.
-- From "Malice at the Palace," by Grantland's Jonathan Abrams
Today's the day the NBA can say it has managed an entire decade without repeating anything like the Malice at the Palace, and there's a growing sense it will never happen again. But it's important to remember what really did happen that night in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and it might never be told better than it was by Grantland's Jonathan Abrams two years ago.
That story makes clear how much more complex the event was than a player or two going after fans. These were two of the best teams in the league, with title aspirations. The Pacers had pulled away for an early-season defining road win, and with no game to contest, players resolved to settle some scores in garbage time, as happens from time to time. A sequence of factors -- including intentional hard fouls, Ben Wallace's family trauma, Ron Artest's vacillations between rageful and calm, the terror of being in the minority confronting a violent mob, dreadfully insufficient security, Stephen Jackson's placement of loyalty above all -- combined to create something entirely horrid, with plenty of victims, even though up close, it's tougher to find villains than you might think.
Borgia and his team devised a true-false quiz on the NBA rulebook for a group of journalists and we were bricking question after question. A few minutes later, the video portion of the test wasn’t much easier. I denied Kendall Marshall continuation when he was fouled on a drive to the hole, and it wasn’t until Borgia’s aide replayed the reel frame by frame that I saw my error. On first watch, I swore Marshall gathered the ball, planted a foot, then took two additional steps before going up. But in slo-mo, Marshall took only the two permitted steps after cupping the ball against his torso -- totally kosher. I was dead wrong.
Even as Borgia dinged us, the exercise was all good times, but the underlying message was obvious: Officiating professional basketball is inordinately difficult for mortal beings. On Tuesday night when the 2014-15 season opens, those mortal beings will have a little more help from the shiny, new NBA Replay Center at NBA Entertainment’s headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey.
That means when you see game officials at an NBA arena this season gather in front of the monitor at the scorer's table after a play triggers a video review (there are now 15 instances when that happens), those officials will be looking at clips, images and angles that are curated at the replay center by an individual who is not only well-versed in the arcana of the rulebook, but who has no other priority for three hours than to monitor the game in question from nine different camera angles. Standing behind that person, quite literally, will be a senior NBA honcho -- for example, Borgia, Rod Thorn (president of basketball operations) or Kiki VanDeWeghe (senior vice president of basketball operations).
“Here was the issue that we wanted to solve,” Steve Hellmuth, the executive vice president of operations and technology, said. “The referees would huddle, come over to courtside. By the time they got there, frequently the broadcasters and the production guys had already shown the answer maybe three or four times. Then [the officials] are looking at the video and our referees are looked upon as slowing things down. It’s, ‘Why don’t they know. I already know.’ Well, now during that time interval, we’re going to be working with the video.”
In past years, NBA officials relied on broadcast producers to provide video of a play. If a ref at the scorer’s table wanted a baseline angle or the precise moment a point guard gathers the ball during an off-ball foul call, he’d have to ask for it. The producer in the truck could have an Emmy to his name, but he might not know what a “gather” is and probably wouldn’t ace Borgia’s rulebook quiz either.
Borgia recalled the simulation the league performed during the five games of the NBA Finals. Game 1 in San Antonio had been rough, and before Game 2, he asked the producer for a few new angles, including the overhead camera. Borgia’s request was granted quite literally -- the replay team had the blimp shot for Game 2.
When basketball officiating lifers communicate with even the most talented live game producers on the planet, a lot can get lost in translation. But an officiating lifer like Borgia, his charges at the individual game consoles and the refs on the ground share a common vocabulary.
“We speak the same language,” Borgia said. “We don’t have that issue. When [game officials] come on, we sort of know what they want, whereas a producer, as great as they may be, ‘OK. Clear path? What the hell is a clear path?’ They don’t know the criteria. We’ve got it set up. We’ve had some [preseason situations] as short as seven seconds of video.”
The change in process and personnel will undoubtedly speed up the replay process, which is crucial for a league that sees flow as one of its greatest edges over sports such as football and baseball. The way Borgia, Thorn and Hellmuth explained it, the replay center -- decked out with nearly 100 monitors, 14 very cool individual game consoles each featuring nine camera angles, six more behind those, the presence of wise men with decades of collective NBA experience -- will tee up crystal-clear evidence that will make the call abundantly obvious. It’s almost as if the replay center is making the call ... except that it’s not, which the NBA is very intent to emphasize.
In the view of the league’s top basketball operations people, officiating is an experiential task that must be performed on the court of play. A guy sitting in Secaucus can’t hear a power forward tell his defender, “Do that again next time down and I’ll beat your ass,” and he can’t get a clear decibel reading of the intensity of the game. Technology is an aid, but it’s not a substitution.
“From our standpoint, we don’t want to take it away from a referee right now,” Thorn said from the replay room Thursday.
But if Secaucus has already watched the sequence one frame at a time from three optimal camera angles and is certain of a call before a game official has picked up the monitor, why not just furnish him with the call? If the goal is to (a) get the call right and (b) make that call as quickly as possible, isn’t the most efficient route to say into the game official’s ear, “Chicago ball”?
“Two years from now, that may be,” Thorn said. “Down the road, yes. Right now, we want to make sure we get this thing right and god knows what the glitches may be. So far everything has been fine but we’re not in the regular season and I’m sure some things will come up that we’re going to have to deal with. Our feeling was that we’ll leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the on-court crew chief with his guys for right now. But there may come a day when you have a chip in your ear, you’re running down the floor, you wave your hand about a 3-point shot and Joe Borgia says, ‘His foot was on the line. It was a 2,’ so you don’t even have to go over to the table.”
We have been on that incremental path for some time now. Though this is the first season of the command center, replay is now 12 years old. There will be a day in the future when thermodynamics might be the best way to determine contact on a foul call or motion sensors can detect traveling. The game will always look different -- and from the vantage point of a console in New Jersey, toggling between nine angles, frame by frame over Eric Bledsoe’s crossover from Wednesday night’s Phoenix-Clippers game, it looked mesmerizing. If the NBA’s investment in technology pays off, it also will look more fair than ever.
It’s time to take “respect” out of the NBA vocabulary, and Kobe Bryant proves it.
Look at what is happening with the announcement that Kobe finished 40th in this year's #NBArank. The same thing happened a year ago when we predicted Kobe to be the 25th-best player in 2013-14. The reaction both years was easy to predict, and it was ugly. Many fans were outraged, even ESPN folks were apoplectic, and Kobe himself mocked us, saying anyone who thinks he’s 25th “needs drug testing.”
The most common reaction was that we were crazy. OK, hard to refute that one.
The second-most common reaction was that we had disrespected the Mamba.
And that reaction was just plain incorrect. In fact, our problem was that we overrated Kobe tremendously, out of “respect.”
But “respect” is one of the most useless concepts in the NBA when it comes to player evaluation. If we had treated Kobe like any other player, we would’ve said he was no longer a top-25 player, or even close to that.
Let’s be blunt: Kobe Bean Bryant was one of the very worst players in the NBA last season -- a $30 million disaster. He was closer to the 425th-best player than the 25th-best player.
He played six games, in which he was mostly just terrible, with negative win shares -- that’s right, he was taking wins off the floor. The Lakers had a winning record before he arrived and immediately hit the skids. The team played worse with him on the floor, and on top of that, he insulted his teammates.
And this was entirely predictable. More than 1,000 men have played the guard position in the NBA. You can count on one hand the number of guards, from all of history, who have been notably productive after playing as many NBA minutes as Bryant has.
So why did we rank him as high as 25th? Out of respect. Too much respect, really.
In the NBA, “respect” is often a code word. It means different things to different folks, but when it comes to evaluating players, it often means that we agree to lie. We don’t like the truth, so we lie and call it “respect.”
Is this a polite impulse? It can be. We respect our elders, and in the NBA, we respect our veterans, even boorish guys like Kobe.
But if “respect” becomes a weapon to shut people up, what’s that about? If “respect” is a word used to bully people, that’s not real respect.
Why did Kobe get a $48.5 million extension from the Lakers before he proved he could play after the Achilles injury? Why didn't they just cut him using the amnesty clause, given that he’s probably done as a winning player?
Because the team believed it couldn't afford to “disrespect” Kobe. They knew he could make life difficult for them by appealing to his fans and supporters around the league. They knew he could bully them into “respect.”
You know, we shouldn't be forced to “respect” Kobe any more than he earns our respect. We can respect his career, sure, if we want to reminisce about the good ol' days.
But respect is earned, and the current version of Kobe is not much of an NBA player.
And when it comes to an evaluation system like #NBArank, it should be just that simple.
When I first heard it, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I am an African from Nigeria. Luol is an African from South Sudan. We’ve worked together across our home continent, holding our own basketball camps, as well as in those organized by the NBA.
I remember an instance, in Kigali, Rwanda, when Luol honoured a commitment to show up despite being seriously ill. He didn’t want to disappoint any of the children who were expecting him.
Is that “a little bit of African”?
His fellow NBA players have named him the NBA’s top sportsman. Last year, his work for charity earned him the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award.
Is that the “African” he means?
Luol has made two all-star teams. A couple of years ago, he had a terrible reaction to a spinal tap. He lost 15 pounds in the hospital. I was texting with him during that ordeal, which was very serious. He always remained humble and full of personality. When he got out, he still tried to play for his team during a playoff series.
Is that “African”?
Ujiri goes on to say explain why he can bring himself to forgive Ferry.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
The Mavericks' head man is the only NBA head coach who has defeated LeBron's Heat in a series.
Rick Carlisle will be in the stands, and not on the sidelines, as Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals tip-off in San Antonio Thursday evening. And his Mavericks' season ended a month ago.
Yet Carlisle is surprisingly relevant: He's the only coach to beat the Heatles in a playoff series, and his Dallas squad came closest to ousting this year's Spurs, losing in a 7-game Round 1. I contacted him hoping he'd share the nitty gritty X's and O's of these teams. No such luck; Coach Carlisle wasn't about to give away any trade secrets. And he wouldn't pick a winner.
But he did say several things that will matter as the series unfolds.
- Slow play is death. "NBA defenses are so sophisticated now. You don't want to give them a chance to get fully established. When we played Miami in the Finals, we knew that if we called any plays we were doomed. We had to play faster than that. Popovich really pioneered a lot of that. There is a pendulum on a lot of these things, but I really don't see faster offense going away."
- Erik Spoelstra doesn't get nearly enough credit, but ... "Gregg Popovich is the greatest coach ever."
- The Tony Parker effect. "The Heat don't have big-time rim protectors. LeBron James will block some shots. Dwyane Wade will get some blocks. But how they handle the Spurs penetration will tell a lot."
- Get the ball. "Neither team is great at rebounding. It's a chance to establish an edge."
- Keep the ball. "In the NFL, turnovers practically determine every game. In the NBA it's not like that. But in this series it might be. Both teams take such good care of the ball, and I expect the games to be very close. Turnovers could determine everything."
The specter of a Spurs-Pacers NBA Finals might haunt Silver more than the question of who owns the Clippers, but the NBA has already been bleeding interest in the run-up to the main event. In April, the Sports Business Journal reported a 5 percent drop in local TV ratings league-wide this season. The SBJ made sure to note that a decline this steep is unusual per historical trends. The timing also couldn't be worse for a league negotiating a national television rights deal.
The culprit? Big-market disappointment across the board. Blame the Knicks and Lakers for being bad. Blame the Bulls for being broken. Even blame the Nets for being boring while you’re at it. The Knicks lost 29 percent of their viewership, and the Nets failed miserably at being the rebound relationship, losing 20 percent of their viewership this season. For some bizarre reason, Basketball’s Mecca has turned to hobbies that don’t include returning Andrea Bargnani’s vacant gaze.
Of course, failure doesn’t happen in a vacuum. By the construct of American sports, there is a victor for every loser. The Pacers, Pelicans, Blazers and Bobcats all saw ratings surges. On balance, those fans just couldn’t come close to compensating for all the big-city folks who changed the channel.
This reality runs counter to a technology-based argument on behalf of small-market teams: Market size doesn’t matter because people from all over can easily watch the biggest stars whether they play for Oklahoma City or New York City. The Internet! Apps! No player will be underrated ever again!
Just because people can do something doesn’t mean they will. Even though fans could splurge on League Pass and watch any team, they still largely follow the teams within reasonable driving distance. This is especially true of the NBA, according to a Facebook-based NBA fandom map that the New York Times released last week.
From the article about the map: "One of the striking aspects of basketball fandom is its limited geographic reach, especially relative to baseball fandom. In baseball, teams tend to dominate their home state, and several have a strong regional identity."
Basketball, "the city game," hews close to its cities. The smaller markets have a very confined kind of fandom. On the NYT map, the exciting, successful Thunder claim an intense "super cell" following in Oklahoma. Thunder fandom stops around the state border as though cut off by biodome walls. In most neutral American territories the Lakers, Bulls and Heat will round out the top three fan choices (note: The Heat have a much larger TV reach than the Miami metropolitan area alone. Remember, Florida has roughly 20 million people). The Thunder cracks the top three only in areas in Oklahoma and areas bordering Oklahoma. This is in line with Google results that reflect a lack of broader Internet excitement over a super exciting Thunder team.
Perhaps it would be different if the Thunder had rings? Maybe, but the Spurs have won four titles since the last Bulls championship. While the Duncan dynasty boasts a robust following in Texas and eastern New Mexico, they still aren't a top-three choice in any county outside those areas.
The NBA might hope for a reality where market size is ancillary to the sport’s popularity, where technology transcends all. So far that hasn't happened. Technology might even be a force multiplier for built-in market advantages.
In the early 2000s, many of us knew Kobe fans only by the televised jerseys in the stands. These days, social media allows Bryant a mobilized army of supporters who spread his gospel through uploaded YouTube highlights, game tweets, Facebook notes, even an ESPN comments section like the one below this article. It's all free advertising. The already popular are afforded more positive representation, which snowballs into even more popularity.
While it's true that technology makes it easier for a guy in Maine to follow Kevin Durant's career, it's also true that technology makes it easier for a guy in Maine to be influenced by Kobe's. The big-market base of support has the added advantage of large immigrant communities that connect to populous countries. Playing well in a big city isn't so many steps removed from massive international celebrity.
Now Kobe has a bum leg and the NBA is losing viewership. Meanwhile, the league has achieved the kind of location parity its owners desperately wanted. Basketball did a neat trick in divorcing market size from team success. The NBA just couldn't separate market size from league success. That's a problem for a league that, since 2001, moved teams to Memphis, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Charlotte.
Like the old riddle about a tree falling in the woods, if location parity happens and nobody's around to watch, is it a success? Right now it looks as though the success of the small means self-sabotage for all. How can the new CBA be working with so many people tuning out the sport?
What Adam did was fantastic. I support him 100 percent. He sent a very clear, unequivocal and decisive message that we will have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.
The NBA, and I call it NBA 2.0, is a global game, it's a global brand. It has a universality to it. And so I will not just second the motion, but lead the motion for us to do as Adam recommends. I believe that the other owners will support it as well. (Note: 29 of 29 have already expressed support.)
The owners I know, they all are colorblind. That was the irony of this situation, that the NBA is one of the most colorblind institutions in the world. To have that be challenged or embarrassed in the way Mr. Sterling did with his comments is bad for the game of basketball, and it's bad for the league.
It's a global institution and it has values. With technology and social media now, if something happens, you have the evidence and it's known to people. What the commissioner said was exactly right. It was brought to his attention. The evidence was there. The proof was there. He investigated it and he acted. I think it's a combination of circumstances. One is the changing nature of the sport, the universality of it, the global nature, it being more than a game, it being a set of values, and also now through social media and technology there's much more information available.
I expect it to happen quickly.
The commissioner has shown that he's decisive and we will be guided by Commissioner Silver.
Even if all that happens, we're saying, so, OK, you get punished. But you get a billion-dollar profit as punishment. Look, I don't think what the commissioner is saying is the least bit unreasonable. I fully support it.
I learned about it because one of my boys sent it to me. The TMZ article. I looked at it and I was shocked. It was extremely distasteful. The Gandhi quote came to mind. If you slight one person, then you slight us all. You slight the universe. You slight the whole world. It wasn't just Magic Johnson, it was all black people, and really, everybody.
I'm someone who has compassion. I'm not one to kick someone when they're down. But there has been no remorse or no statement. I believe that the commissioner did everything right.
Hopefully this brings about this dialogue among people, and it's something that will be discussed at dinner tables all over America and all over the world. Hopefully some good comes out of it in that you know, people get an even better understanding of each other.
I asked some people of color what they thought about this, and they shrugged and said, well, what's new? That hurt me deeply. I just think that maybe some goodwill come from this and there will be a more gentle dialogue and the NBA will be shining example of how we deal, and how we have a policy of zero tolerance on these issues.
To hear these stories and to hear people say yeah, we hear that every day. And so I can fully understand how a black person would feel. I just think that the fact that the commissioner acted on it at lightning speed, decisively, beyond maximum measures, it just shows that he's going to be a great commissioner.
I feel for the players and particularly the Clippers. I hope that with this bold action they can go back and play a great game. I texted Doc [Rivers] the day it happened and I told him to remember that the owners are just custodians. The game really belongs to the players and the fans and the city. Remember the great Jesse Owens who had to compete under the eye of Hitler. There are athletes who've had to compete under difficult circumstances before, I'm sure there will be difficult circumstances again in the future. Let's just have a great game.
I didn't hesitate to speak out when this first happened, and I feel very very confident the other owners will act according to Adam's wishes.
Because it has to be.
The public at large doesn't care that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban criticizes officials, actions that have cost him up to $500,000 in a single fine. Breaking solidarity during the last NBA lockout cost Miami Heat owner Micky Arison half a million as well, but that's nothing more than a local news item.
Even the highest NBA fine dropped on a team to date -- $3.5 million for the Minnesota Timberwolves negotiating a secret contract with Joe Smith -- doesn't make the national office water-cooler talk. Illicit dealings like this are chronicled in the business pages seemingly every day.
Each of these situations is a crime against league bylaws. They don't inspire media members halfway across the world to ask the president of the United States to weigh in, as Barack Obama did from Malaysia.
What the recording allegedly made by Sterling represents is a completely different ballgame.
The ugly words, dropped in such a casual tone, are a crime against society, a slight to human decency. People who had never heard of Sterling, never even heard of the Los Angeles Clippers, are rooting for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to do the right thing. They care.
Silver's first major challenge ranks right up there with the toughest things David Stern faced -- the "Malice at the Palace" fight, the Tim Donaghy scandal, Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo -- in his 30-year tenure.
The only case comparable to Sterling's is that of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who in 1993 was fined $25,000 and kicked out of Major League Baseball for a year for her racist comments. Three years later, she was pulled away from operating the team, and never regained control, after making a positive comment about Hitler.
But Sterling's remarks are more troublesome for the NBA than Schott's were for Major League Baseball. Sure, the words are just as disgusting, just as unacceptable. But with Sterling, one can hear the words allegedly coming from his mouth; Schott's comments were made in private conversations to employees, or read on a printed page of deposition transcript.
Then there's the great multiplier.
In the nearly 18 years since Schott made her last troublesome remarks, the Internet and social media have exploded. The world has gotten smaller. Indiscretions are magnified, and words, especially bad ones, move at lightning speed. In 1996, it was possible that someone didn't see or hear about what the Reds owner said. Today, the odds that anyone with a computer, TV or phone hasn't heard the Sterling TMZ recording are slim.
That's why Silver has to give Sterling the biggest penalty his lawyers will allow, and he has a lot of options, as ESPN’s Lester Munson has outlined. The eyes of the world are on him. And, unlike almost all other league crises that require fines or suspensions, people who never watched a single NBA game this year, or maybe even in their lifetime, are waiting for Silver to make Sterling pay.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
In Brooklyn, Jason Collins is making history evidently without harming the team.
NBA front office people, even the ones who swore they were socially progressive, fretted -- in various unattributed conversations -- that if they signed an openly gay player like Jason Collins it might be good for humanity, but bad for the team.
Why? Because the issue of the gayness would be a distraction.
The real-life research into that assertion is underway in Brooklyn, and the early returns are that there was never anything real to worry about.
Stefan Bondy reports in the New York Daily News that -- while Collins has endured the taunts of one unnamed opposing team "knuckelhead," (in Collins' words)-- it's tough to make the case Collins' public sexuality has harmed the Nets in any way.
Still a fringe rotation player whose main job is delivering fouls, Collins’ No. 98 jersey became the top seller on NBA.com, even as the media attention has died down to the point that he’ll leave a practice or locker room without an interview request.
Perhaps more than anything, the blending in will be the lasting legacy of Collins’ trailblazing stint which was put off until after the All-Star break, in part because of fears around the league that he’d be a distraction.
The Nets (35-31) certainly don’t seem distracted. They’re 10-3 since signing Collins, winners of 10 straight at Barclays Center ahead of Friday's game there against the Celtics.
“Not just for myself, but I think for everyone. This shows that ‘distraction’ is B.S. That it’s about the team, it’s about the sport,” said Collins, who signed for the rest of the season last week. “I hope this shows all players that you can still have your life off the court and not have to hide anything. And still have your life on the court or on the field or on the ice, I guess, in hockey. That’s a credit to my teammates and the entire Nets organization from ownership to coaching to teammates to everyone.”
Special to ESPN.com
I am just one of 450 players fortunate enough to be a part of the NBA; all of us are playing the game we love, in front of the best fans in all of sports. As we move into the second half of the season, I can tell you that my teammates and competitors around the league have an intense and primary focus -- putting it all together in the stretch run to the playoffs. Win or lose, these are the moments we work for all year long.
And while what happens on the court is essential, I have another privilege off the court -- to lead my fellow players as President of the National Basketball Players Association. As a member of the L.A. Clippers, my job is to compete fiercely against the other guys in the league, but as the elected head of our union, my role, which I take with the utmost seriousness, is to protect the interests of every player, and to preserve the health and integrity of the game of professional basketball.
I serve with player representatives from every team and with an Executive Committee of players who spend countless hours worrying about everything from critical business operations and necessary benefits and assistance for our players to the overall image and reputation of the league. While more people follow the game of basketball than follow the business of basketball, without question the NBA is a serious business, and one that wouldn't exist without the commitment of our players. Alongside our partners in this endeavor -- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and team owners -- my fellow players and I accept and welcome our responsibilities for growing the game and enhancing the fan experience now, and for long after we've retired.
Working with our Acting Executive Director Ron Klempner, we've spent the past year reviewing and reforming the core policy infrastructure of our union, creating an organization that is strong, strategic, transparent and absolutely accountable to our players. Most notably, over the past many months, the NBPA's Executive Committee has been engaged in an extensive process and exhaustive search for a new Executive Director to lead the day-to-day operations of the union. For your average fan, this may not sound so important, but for our players, it's a big deal. Our next NBPA Executive Director will help define and shape the decisions that will govern the direction of the NBA in the decades ahead.
As ball players, we know a lot about recruiting, so in an effort to conduct a thorough and professional search, we partnered with outside consultants to identify over 200 professionals from the worlds of sports, law, labor and business who might be qualified to lead our union. Our Executive Committee has devoted the time, resources and energy necessary to narrow down this quality pool of potential candidates. During our All-Star Weekend Winter Meeting, we devoted virtually all of our time together to discussing the process that we've engaged in, and the procedures for considering and voting on our next Executive Director. We also heard from our leading candidates for the position to date, and players attending were able to take their measure.
I've been encouraged by the passionate interest in the outcome of these deliberations -- player agents, corporate sponsors, team owners, sports journalists and NBA fans. And while some of these interests have been critical or skeptical of the very deliberate steps we've been taking in this process, it's a testament to the commitment and passion we all have to protect our players and ultimately the game we all love so much. But make no mistake, the decision about our next Executive Director will be made by NBA players, in a process that has been and will continue to be open, transparent, painstaking and professional.
One of our greatest challenges as an organized group of players is managing the logistics that require us to be constantly moving throughout the country. However, we're in the last stages of implementing a plan that will allow every player to consider the candidates, discuss their merits with teammates and fellow union members and very soon, vote on new leadership for the NBPA. The process has taken time, but we know it has been time well spent.
Speaking on behalf of our Executive Committee and player representatives, getting this right has been far more important than just getting it done. This decision will be important to every current player, to our players in the years to come and to the sport of basketball itself. I'm excited and confident about the outcome, as the result will produce the strongest and most-qualified NBPA Executive Director to lead us into a great future for the NBA and our fans.
Special to ESPN.com
As a longtime and ardent supporter of the National Basketball Players Association, I am deeply troubled by the clandestine process to date in the search for the union's next executive director.
This is a critical hire for the players, who have been impacted so negatively by the most recent collective bargaining agreement. Salaries are down leaguewide, contracts are shorter and include less guaranteed money than they once did, and free-agent movement has been curtailed significantly at a time that NBA franchises are reaching record valuations. Leadership from the union's next executive director is essential to the ability of current and future generations of NBA players to restore many of the critical benefits that were lost in the last round of negotiations. But here we are again witnessing a search marked by the sort of troubling secrecy that has been synonymous with the NBPA for years.
One of the most frequent complaints voiced by players and agents against the previous regime was the union's obsession with secretive practices and compartmentalization. The expectation moving forward was that the NBPA would start to insist on transparency in everyday business operations and in the search for its next leader. The NBPA, however, has unbelievably yielded again to opaque methods in choosing the next union leader. This approach can no longer be tolerated.
The only way to repair the damage that has already been done, in my view, is to bring an immediate stop to the current process and then start the executive-director search over from scratch with a much broader approach.
Transparency in NBPA matters is essential for the healthy functioning of the union and for restoring the confidence and trust of players, agents and the public. Aside from a short meeting at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans -- which only a small percentage of players attended -- information on the search process has been withheld from anyone beyond the union's nine-player executive committee and a handful of NBPA staffers. No one else has been provided information about who was considered for the position, what qualifications were sought from the candidates, and how those qualifications were valued. Aside from the executive committee, furthermore, no one else has been afforded the opportunity to meet with and/or screen any of the purported candidates.
Despite the fact that it was widely reported in the media during All-Star Weekend that there are two finalists for the position, their identities have yet to be publicly disclosed. I've also spoken personally with a number of qualified candidates who either dropped out of the search due to the cumbersome process or say they were ruled out of the search without explanation. This is far too important a decision to be made via such an uneven process.
The next executive director should not be selected by a small group operating in a cone of silence. Players and agents alike should be involved in the process. They should be asked to identify possible candidates, provide their input regarding candidates and, most importantly, contribute to the composition of a list of finalists that is openly distributed to players and agents for consideration and vetting before any candidate is put forward for a vote. The union's announcement at All-Star Weekend that the process will proceed with players receiving video presentations from the two reported finalists is a rushed process at best and a manipulation of the process at worst. Players and agents have the right and responsibility to meet and question candidates face-to-face.
As strange as this sounds to me, I recognize that the prospect of involving player agents in this process is seen as a thorny issue by some in the union. I would counter by saying that the interests of agents and the players they represent, both individually and collectively, are indivisibly intertwined. Agents stand with their clients on the front lines of CBA negotiations with the NBA and represent players' interests during the draft and in contract negotiations with NBA teams. As such, we are stakeholders in this sport on a parallel plane with our clients and should have a voice in determining the NBPA's next leader. And from a strictly economic standpoint, no one is better versed in understanding what it will take for a new executive director to be successful in negotiating with the NBA than the agents.
All the proof you need can be found in the limitations of the current CBA. If the union and executive committee members had listened to some of us during labor negotiations in 2011, perhaps today our players would be rightfully sharing a larger piece of the NBA economic pie. Instead, our players will lose billions in revenue over the life of the current CBA thanks to the 7 percent decrease in their share of basketball-related income from the previous CBA, as well as the knock-on effects of shortened contracts and an increasingly punitive luxury-tax system on NBA teams that acts as a de facto hard cap.
At a time when some are projecting that NBA franchise values will cross the $1 billion threshold in the near future, only 58 players in the league are earning in excess of $10 million annually. Only six players are earning more than $20 million -- and five of those six players signed their original contracts under the guidelines of the previous labor deal. In Major League Baseball, by contrast, 22 players will make $20 million or more this upcoming season.
The union's interim executive director stated recently that there is a "healthy middle class” in today's NBA, with an average salary this season of $5.6 million and more than half of the league's nearly 450 players earning more than $2.6 million. But that “healthy middle class” is greatly exaggerated, with 72 percent of NBA players earning at or below the league average salary and 47 percent making less than $2.6 million.
Many of the fundamental benefits that players struggled for decades to achieve have been wiped out by the deal that ended the 2011 lockout. What is the union's strategy to reverse these trends? As the NBA moves forward into what we all hope will be a period of sustained growth and prosperity, it is incumbent upon the union to give its players every opportunity to share fairly in that growth and prosperity. The selection of the executive director who will lead the NBPA in this critical time in its history is crucial to making that happen.
The process leading to that selection, accordingly, must involve all of us who are concerned with the well-being of NBA players. The players have earned the right to find the most astute union head to protect and expand their interests in the 21st century. The next 10 years in the NBA are poised to be enormously profitable thanks to the fast-rising valuations of media rights and the global demand for the sport of basketball. The players have to make sure they are not left behind. The best way to do this is to bring the current process to an immediate halt and relaunch the executive director search again with the involvement of a larger group that includes the agents.
Jeff Schwartz is the president of Excel Sports Management. Excel's NBA clients include Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Tyson Chandler and Kemba Walker.
AP Photo/Bill HaberNew commissioner, new rules.
On the flight to New Orleans for the first Sternless All-Star Game of my career I had a fleeting thought: Was All-Star Weekend possible without Stern? Or, for that matter, was the NBA? Maybe Stern was everything. CEO-as-bedrock.
So it's no surprise the lion's share of the news that Adam Silver is the new NBA commissioner has been built around the idea that Stern stepped down after three decades. Stern's absence has been the real headline. To the extent Silver has been defined it has generally been versus Stern -- for instance, he's taller, younger, more of a consensus-builder, etc.
A couple of weeks into the Silver Age, however, what's emerging is that there's a lot more to the new commissioner than the mere fact that he's not the old commissioner.
And in fact, the early evidence is that he'll be making his mark profoundly and quickly.
At Stern's final board of governors' meeting in October, a major function of which was the transfer of power to Silver, NBA executives suddenly began saying, repeatedly, that the worst reason to do something is because that's the way it has always been done.
It was not something I had ever heard them say before, and while it sounds canned, in fact it's a line that comes with huge implications. It means, essentially, that everything is up for review. It invites questions, which is an awkward thing to invite unless you intend to have answers.
Evidently it wasn't just corporate-speak, either. As Silver's agenda comes to light, it fits a theme: innovation. Silver addressed an invite-only crowd of powerbrokers (Mark Cuban, Vivek Ranadive and a few hundred others) at the Tech Summit in New Orleans on All-Star Friday. The talk was off the record, but word that everyone came away with from the conference was "innovation."
"He laid it down," a grinning team executive said in the hallway after hearing Silver talk. "It's a brand-new day."
Saturday, in his first major news conference, Silver sent more signals of change. Sponsorships on jerseys? "It ultimately will happen." The draft lottery? "The system's not perfect right now."
In a league that has long been dominated by lawyers, that counts as crystal-clear communication.
Meanwhile, the keepers of the game's rules, league executives Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe, disclosed on TrueHoop TV that their aim is to have real-time, off-site video review as soon as next season. Later it emerged that NBA personnel have already been building and rehearsing in a studio in New Jersey, stocked with a vast array of screens and digital tools. That's happening.
A couple of weeks into the job, D-Leaguers are wearing "performance analytic devices" in games, something that is still banned in the NBA. Things that have long been ideas are now happening.
Asked about all kinds of radical things -- speeding up the game, enlarging the court, 4-pointers -- Vandeweghe and Thorn sounded surprisingly open-minded tones.
"Players are faster, they're bigger, they're stronger. Coaches are smarter. ... With that you evolve the rules, too," Vandeweghe said.
But that's not to say Silver, a noted consensus builder, isn't aware that change can be scary. "People keep encouraging me to do new things," says Silver, addressing a question about the NBA's controversial new T-shirt style jerseys. "And then when we try new things, they say we've lost our minds."
There's almost no chance the NBA will look in five years like it does now.