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Tuesday, September 16, 2008
David Stern, You Have Got Some Loose Ends


Loose ends.

Don't you hate those?

Let's say you have about six things to do. You start doing all that stuff, and then in the middle of all that, you get a really important phone call that makes you drop everything and run an errand. Then you get back to the house, where now you can remember only three things you were in the middle of doing.

What about those other three? What were they again? Even as you have forgotten them, they are still somewhere in your brain, creeping you out.

Those are your loose ends.

David Stern, my man, you have got yourself some loose ends. 

I'm no Stern-hater. When he took over, things were not pretty. Now, the NBA is a competent organization. The audience is global. The stars are bright. The media bus runs on time. He's smart and aggressive. I appreciate all that.

And what's more, under Stern the NBA has managed to wiggle out of a lot of jams, with some fancy PR footwork, some stalling, and even the occasional berating of whomever needs to be berated.

In fact, I would argue that it has had too much success along those lines.

When really bad news strikes the NBA the media fallout is often shockingly muted and delayed. We often never really get to the bottom of what happened. Instead of lessons learned, wrists slapped, and truth told, we get ... loose ends.

I think the NBA sees the toning down of criticism as a form of victory. And such victories are, in the short term, PR coups.

But in the long-term, repeated again and again, those loose ends erode confidence, create a poor environment for success, and loosen your organization's embrace of reality.

That great feeling you get when you "come clean" about something you did wrong? The NBA doesn't get that feeling very often. That whole idea of just explaining what really happened, that's not a big part of basketball. 

Or, to put it another way: You know what it feels like to get away with something? If you get away with enough things, people might admire you for being slick. You'd be great in the CIA. 

But if you are masterful at talking your way out of things, eventually people stop believing the things that come out of your mouth, because they know you are not in love with the truth.

I'd say the NBA has a lot of loose ends on the truth front these days. Let me offer you examples of three current NBA stories where there is powerful, even overwhelming evidence, that something bad happened, yet we have no idea what really happened:

That whole pot smoke thing at the Rookie Transitions Program.
We reportedly had an alarm go off because of the smoke. And now the story has passed and everyone who was reportedly there has denied it was their smoke. Newsflash: If there was smoke in the room, IT HAD TO BE SOMEBODY'S! I have made a lot of phone calls about this, to just about everyone who could know, and the stories are absolutely all over the freaking shop, which means people are lying.

No, it's not that big of a deal. But I'm a dude who just hates being lied to. 

Here's the creepy little game that gets played here: Nobody directly involved, that I have talked to, thinks smoking pot is such a big deal. So it goes on without anyone making a fuss about it, with the tacit approval of plenty of people with the potential to be influential.

But at the same time, the NBA and the players and the agents are all in the business of making themselves as attractive as possible for national and global corporate marketing campaigns, and this kind of thing does not help build the shiny, happy, hero image that sells sneakers and beverages across red states and blue states.

When there are incidents like this, the truth would be a little complicated, and would affect the bottom line value of the league and the players. (The corporate sponsors have a lot of options as to where to spend their dollars -- why go for the stoner?)

So everyone denies everything. Agents and league officials (who expect media people like me to fly long distances to watch players go to boring ribbon-cutting ceremonies) express amazement that we would be even remotely interested in this tale of illicit drugs and illicit women at the NBA's "how to be a good adult" camp. And with lots of single anonymous sources fanning the flames with juicy tidbits, but nothing that's really reportable, the story has the potential to die long before anyone will ever manage to tell the simple story of what actually happened that night.

In other words, the truth.

Tim Donaghy
We had a gambling referee, a promise of transparency, and an investigation. Shortly after all that, we had word that suddenly NBA referees were now allowed to gamble in casinos, along with word that some or all had been found to have done so all along.

Then we had just about a year radio silence from the league.

Then there has been a massive shakeup in referee management, to go with suggestions from experts that games may have been fixed. And all along all kinds of people -- last week Pistons owner Bill Davidson told the Detroit Free Press Tom Donaghy was "the tip of the iceberg" -- suggesting there is much more to the story.

Somebody needs to paint me a picture of what happened here, from beginning to end, that actually makes sense. And where oh where is the Pedowitz report resulting from the NBA's investigation?

O.J. Mayo, BDA Sports, and Recruitment
Everybody knows that the way top players meet their agents is seldom a story rich with integrity. And if you pin them down about it, almost everyone can understand that the dirty recruitment of very young men leads to a corruption that eats at the core of the American basketball system. The way it is now, agents often do better by cheating than working hard ensuring players' long-term success, and players are made into man-children by deep-pocketed yes men who crowd out honest mentors with their tough love. 

It's a problem!

But the only way you can ever really get at fixing it is to catch somebody red-handed. Which never happens.

But it did happen!

In the rarest of rare cases, somebody squealed, and we got all kinds of details. If ever there were an opportunity for some meaningful change, this was it.

The big enforcement hammer was dropped a few weeks ago. Late on the Friday before Labor Day (when it would attract the least attention) the Players Association, which regulates agents, announced the fallout: One of the less famous, and poorer, agents involved, would be suspended for a year. Calvin Andrews was on the sidelines.

His boss, Bill Duffy, the owner of the agency involved, released a statement declaring how glad he was that no one besides Andrews had been found to have been involved in any wrongdoing.

So, case closed, right? Wrong.

First of all, does this bit of enforcement by the Players Association -- whose head lawyer has worked for Duffy many times in the past -- satisfy anyone in the industry? Has anything been cleaned up? I challenge you to find one person who thinks this suspension was an important step in cleaning up recruiting.

I have talked to close to eight or nine people who are intimate with the way recruiting works in basketball, and they all -- every single one of them -- agree the suspension of Andrews will be seen around the industry as encouragement to continue the status quo.

So, to re-cap, that's a once-in-a-long time peek
into this dirty world. An investigation. And ... encouragement?

The idea is that as long as there's someone around to take the fall, like Andrews did in this case, big agents will be able to recruit however they want without fear of repercussion from the Players Association. Even if copies of receipts are on ESPN, you still won't get in trouble.

Meanwhile, does it feel to you like we got to the bottom of what happened here?

The report that touched all this off centered around word of something like a quarter million dollars in payments, mostly to a mentor of Mayo's. Calvin Andrews has, undoubtedly, made a little bit of money working with Carmelo Anthony and the like in his time as an agent. But it has only been a few years since he left a regular job working at Xerox. Where are we supposed to believe that money came from, if he was acting alone? He's an employee. What kind of job can you have where a few years in, after taxes and your own living expenses, you can have a quarter million in cash to play with? Whose money was that?

And who set up the fraudulent charity we heard about?

I wonder if we'll ever get to know.

At least in this case, the offense extends beyond basketball, where the powers that be seem to have lost their urge to rock the boat. Thanks in large part to the involvement of that charity, the investigation on this topic reportedly continues in the hands of the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Attorney's office.

Maybe they can help us tie up some of those loose ends.