HoopIdea: Shut up and coach
February, 27, 2013
By Henry Abbott
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Mike D'Antoni is one of many NBA coaches who regularly gets apoplectic with referees.
The NBA does not like complaining:
"We have a great game. We have great players. We have a great product. Let's focus on executing offense and defense and being highly competitive. Complaining doesn't have a part in our game, and complaining has never changed a non-call to a call, or a call to a non-call."
-- NBA vice president of basketball operations, Stu Jackson
NBA fans don't like complaining, either:
"People expect hockey players to be fighting. They expect baseball managers to be kicking dirt on umpires. But that's not our game. That's not what our fans want. They tell us in many many ways and I think we have to adjust to meet the needs of our league and our fans. It's a business ...
"It makes them look like complainers. You do that six times in a game, it really starts to look bad on television. A lot of these things may not look as bad in the arena. But on TV, when attention is focused on it, it stands out."
-- General Ron Johnson, former head of NBA officiating
For those reasons, a couple of years ago the league banned complaining.
By players, that is.
And while they have relaxed the rules a little, the refs are still quick to T up the players, even the stars. Kobe Bryant has 14 technical fouls already. Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant have 11 each. They will be suspended upon reaching 16 techs. Yes, Kevin Durant. Suspended.
A few years later, a question: After all that talk of "six times a game" and "looks bad on television" and "doesn't have a part in our game" ... how on earth did coaches get a free pass?
We see coaches differently
The answer, I believe, is us. What happens in the heads of fans, which has deep psychological roots, drove the NBA's decision to shut up the players. We are the ones who have no tolerance for those histrionics. But from coaches ... it's complicated.
Brian Phillips nailed this topic recently on Grantland. Here's some of what he has to say about how the mind of a fan operates:
The athletes you grew up idolizing are old practically as soon as you're an adult; they're braying their heads off in pregame shows while some kids who'll never matter as much to you have graduated into the spotlight. The kids are making so much money — too much — and they've had everything handed to them, everything's been too easy. Here's some idiot with a gun in a nightclub; now talk radio is guitar-soloing all over the word "disgrace." No respect for the game. In the meantime you bought the house in the good school district and now you're just trying to make your payments. Sure, you're still a fan, but how is the runaway success of some 23-year-old millionaire not supposed to wake some pretty deep "Money for Nothing" chords in the VH1 of your heart?
It is dangerously easy, in other words, to sink from "the coach is a fun focal point for my response to the game as a fan" to "the coach is the mechanism through which I can get revenge on the players." I'm thinking here about how some people loved Bobby Knight who weren't even Indiana fans, about the English media's endless half-masted fantasizing about Alex Ferguson giving his players the hair-dryer treatment at halftime. There's an ugly little thrill in seeing a famous young athlete get his head ripped off, in seeing a star humiliated on TV. And I'm guessing the thrill gets more intense when you identify more with the drill sergeant dispensing the humiliation than with the kid on the receiving end of it. When you consider that most coaches, in just about every sport, are white, and many athletes are not, and think about everything that goes along with that fact in terms of the perceived and actual dynamics of power, none of this gets any prettier.
Basketball is a tricky sport to watch -- often it's hard to know what actually happened. But if your coach is livid at a non-call ... well, that's your guy, fighting for your team's win, and dammit it's nice to have him on your side. He's your lawyer. And your honor, he objects.
If we learned anything from the Tim Donaghy scandal, it's that hell yes somebody ought to be second-guessing the referees. It all makes a certain kind of sense.
And it has got to stop. Or at least slow down. NBA coaches just spend way too much time complaining.
I understand that rage can be cathartic, for coaches and fans alike. Some people like it.
But what is the proper dose? 30 meltdowns a night feels like too many. 30 a season would make for a better season for everybody.
And if this is actually about keeping referees honest, then it sure feels arbitrary to let the coaches wail while the players are silenced, because the players have the best information. In other words, if we really believe referees need more hard truths thrown in their faces than they get from their bosses in New York, the players are the ones who actually know what happened. They are the ones who did or did not foul or get fouled. They have the best information. Referees have good angles, too.
Coaches don't see it as well ... but they're the only ones encouraged to lay into people.
Not that I blame coaches for trying. My take is that coaches are being entirely rational in coping with insane rules. Screaming at the referees all night really might get you a key call or two. Maybe referees really can be bullied -- if they're truly immune to such things, they're virtually superhuman. The most persistently loud, cruel and jerky coach really might give his team an edge. Besides, if the opposing coach is working the referees call by call, can you really just sit there and have everyone believe you're doing everything you can to win? The players want to know you've got their backs.
Whether or not games are decided in such a manner, most NBA coaches are certainly acting like they believe they are.
The game we want
Fans and players would be ejected for berating people like that, but coaches are permitted out of some kind of "Father Knows Best" conviction. If you knew as much about basketball as that coach does, the thinking goes, you'd be that steamed, too.
But how often is their really wisdom in all that? Remember when the Knicks owner James Dolan had microphone crews recording everything players said on the court to Carmelo Anthony? Imagine if someone pressed those guys back into service, only this time to record everything coaches like Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Mike D'Antoni, Vinny Del Negro, Tom Thibodeau and company say to referees each night. Look out, America.
The problem with being irate is a problem of rate. Tirades now and again are one thing. With most NBA coaches, though, they're constant.
This isn't the most pressing issue in basketball, but it's a persistent corrosive force, mostly because it is wind in the sails of some of the nuttier conspiracy theorists out there. It's a peculiarity of NBA fandom that "the refs are out to get us" is a big and vocal part of how fans in all 30 markets see the game. Just by pure math, a whole bunch of that must be off-base. Even fans of teams like the Celtics and Heat are in on it. To my way of thinking, it would be a better, more enjoyable game with more time spent celebrating greatness and less time whining.
But it's tough for broadcasters and fans to foster the idea the referees are generally doing their best when the most credible basketball experts in the building, the team's leaders and head coaches, are so regularly lost to aghast tantrums of referee disrespect.
To my mind it even tarnishes the time-worn idea that the sport is a place of heroes. For some reason I can never forget hearing famed dog trainer Cesar Millan saying that "humans are the only animals that will follow an unstable pack leader." Watch D'Antoni, Rivers or Del Negro, at the height of apoplexy over some trivial thing, and ask yourself, would you run through a wall for that man? If the answer is yes, it's despite that.
This aspect of coaching favors neither the respectable nor the wise. It favors the most depraved and adrenalized -- things that need not be associated with coaching. That this happens so much smacks of indecency. It's annoying for viewers and shocking for those with children in the expensive seats.
We give coaches this hall pass from normal human behavior in the name of great leadership -- while actually, and even a tad ironically, undermining that very concept. There are great men in basketball. If only they could act like it.