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Monday, March 7, 2011
Care, but don't cry

By Kevin Arnovitz

"This is painful for every single one of us to go through this. There are a couple of guys crying in the locker room right now. It is not a matter of want."

With that single admission by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to the media, the public focus shifted from the Heat's ongoing failures to execute in late-game situations to something completely different.

Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty
Did Erik Spoelstra expose his team as weak or human?



Statistics like 1-for-18 in the final 10 seconds of games when trailing by three points or fewer receded into the background. All of a sudden, we were discussing whether Spoelstra had emasculated his team when he told the press corps a couple of his players had responded to the loss with tears.

For critics, this revelation confirmed what they knew all along: The Heat were soft.  For others, it proved that Spoelstra was inexperienced in the fine craft of ego management. Even if players were crying after the loss, a seasoned head coach should understand the realpolitik of the NBA and not disclose such an intimate emotional detail from the locker room. As they suited up for their game in Atlanta, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony ridiculed the Heat. Assuming the unidentified crier was Chris Bosh, Anthony said, "Wait 'til I call him, man ... I'll be like: 'What are you doing?'" Asked over Twitter whether he'd ever cried after a game, Charles Oakley responded, "HELL NO. Why? Do better. This aint little league."

A conversation takes a certain course, one we can watch unfold instantly as our Twitter feeds and Google Readers unfurl opinion after opinion. And this discussion quickly became about manhood: What are you doing, revealing your emotions after you've failed at a task?  This ain't Little League! How can you possibly be so fragile after a regular-season loss?

The more machismo worked its way into the bloodstream of the discourse, the more unsettling it became. The tone of the debate seemed adolescent, and even primitive.

If schadenfreude is your flavor, then mock the Heat for their ugly record against the league's elite, or their gaudy pep rally in July, or the pleasures of watching the favorites be knocked down a peg (or five). If you believe Miami's offense lacks creativity and exactitude, then critique Spoelstra as a tactician. Plenty of reasons exist to kill the Heat, but is this really one of them?

Furthermore, there seemed to be something more insidious going on here. Critics were conveniently using masculinity as a blunt object against the Heat. Their failures couldn't be a product of bad execution, distribution of responsibility or a lack of trust.  It was because they were sissies, and we know that because their coach had told us as much.

Then again, maybe you have to compete at the level Bosh, James, Wade, Stoudemire, Anthony and Oakley have in order to have a proper grasp on what happened Sunday afternoon.

David Thorpe has worked with two dozen former or current NBA players. In addition to shooting technique and footwork, many of these players seek Thorpe's counsel on the stuff they can't go to their NBA head coaches with, largely because they're afraid that if they express any emotional vulnerabilities, they could be tagged as soft or fragile.

I asked Thorpe whether my impressions of the discussion were naive. Was it crazy to believe that not only had Spoelstra done nothing wrong by disclosing that players were crying in the locker room, but that the crying itself was neither evidence of any fragility nor an expression of weakness?

Thorpe remembered the 1993 Temple team with Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie that had lost a tough game in the Elite Eight:
After the game, [Temple head coach] John Chaney was talking about how badly his players were crying in the locker room. He said it wasn't just about not reaching our goal to make the Final Four. It was because they'd never get a chance to play with each other again. They understood that the pro game was just a business. These guys had chosen to be here, and they're playing as a family and now that's over.

This was true, but I asked Thorpe why we never seem to have a problem watching a 22-year-old kid bawl his eyes out each March -- in fact, we usually celebrate it as a beautiful display of competitive spirit -- but the idea of a pro player crying is, judging from the response over the past 18 hours, ridiculous:
When you're that invested in any activity and spending hours and hours every day together, pain can make you cry. The reason we see it so rarely in the NBA is because it's very, very difficult to get anyone to be that invested. Fundamentally, the reason why is because the origin of an NBA team is not typically one of choice. A good portion of the team is there because they were drafted. They didn't pick their coach. They didn't pick their teammates. They didn't pick their city. They didn't pick the franchise. They just chose the NBA. This doesn't mean that there aren't guys who are fully invested, but you tend not to have that extra dynamic you do in college.

But the Heat are different. It has that. For the most part, those guys weren't drafted by the Miami Heat. They chose to be in Miami, and especially the big three. They have as much ownership over this team and their careers as any player we can imagine. I'm not suggesting it was the big three who were crying. I talked with Udonis Haslem about this exact subject before the season. He's not in Miami playing for a second ring if the big three hadn't thought about him.

Thorpe was making a true and somewhat ironic observation. If you go up and down the Heat's roster, you'll find guys who chose the Heat much the way a star high school prospect chooses a college program. The recruitment and commitment were mutual. In that respect, the investment in the Heat locker room is real. They might be cocky or petulant or any number of negative qualities we can ascribe to them, but nobody on the Heat is a mercenary.

What about the tears?
Crying is a natural human reaction to pain. As far as Spoelstra's comments. I'm all for honesty, transparency and not treating players as if they're machines. He's not saying anything negative about a player if he says that he's crying. And anyone who reacts in a way that says, "Crying is bad in sports" is still in middle school or high school in terms of their mentality.

I guarantee you with 100 percent confidence those were not the first guys to cry in a locker room. And the reason I can guarantee you is because players I've spoken to have cried in a locker room. It wasn't always from a painful loss. Sometimes it was out of frustration born from an injury. But it wasn't the physical pain from the injury, it was the mental pain.

In fact, Thorpe said the guys most likely to cry were the players who had poured the most into rehabilitating, the ones who had busted their asses to get themselves into a position to compete again. The ones phoning it in?  You'll never see a drop from their tear ducts.

These impressions were reassuring, but what about the political realities of the NBA?  If Thorpe were the media relations chief for the Heat and Spoelstra told him on the way to the interview room, "Hey, I think I'm going to mention that a couple of the guys were crying," would Thorpe advise him against that?
If a player punches another player in practice or stole money from another player, you have to handle that internally as much as I agree with transparency. But telling the press basically, "My guys are extremely frustrated and feeling so much pain that some of them are in tears," I don't see a single bad thing.

Crying is as natural as eating or breathing. All he was really saying was, "We care! This means something to us! We're not losing glibly here! We are all in! And if I call practice at 5 o'clock tomorrow, my entire team will be there."

In a few hours, the Heat will be peppered with questions about Spoelstra's postgame remarks. Some of them will be asked if they were one of the players doing the crying. It's unlikely anyone on that roster -- or any roster -- will confess to having shed tears in response to a loss, lest they run the risk of having peers in the league poke them.

And at some point this spring, a player or two will fail in the postseason by what we perceive to be a lack of effort. We'll instinctively know they don't care enough about the game. How?  By reading their body language.

But whatever you do, just don't examine their eyes.