Commentary

A failure of leadership

NBA coaches are cursed at, stepped on, stared down -- and ignored

Originally Published: December 5, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

tkIllustration by Mark SmithBasketball has become a sport where the star players make the coach.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!

LAST OCTOBER, after the Red Sox completed the epic meltdown from which they have yet to recover, the front office decided the team needed a new manager -- a tough manager to put the beer-drinking chicken eaters in their place. So Terry Francona, the only skipper in nearly a century to win a World Series in Boston, was effectively fired, and Bobby Valentine was hired, and, well, you know the rest.

Fast-forward to this fall, when we were left to ponder two other curious coaching developments. The Giants won the World Series for the second time in three seasons, and much of the subsequent discussion surrounded the transformation of Bruce Bochy into Hall of Fame manager, even though he has just 10 more career wins (1,454) than losses (1,444). A few weeks later, the Lakers dismissed Mike Brown before their sixth game, and even though he owns a career .653 winning percentage -- more than a hundred points higher than that of his successor, Mike D'Antoni -- his firing had taken on a certain inevitability. His team won zero games in the preseason and just one of its first five in the regular season. Moreover, his hiring the year prior had been hard to fathom in the first place; shouldn't it have been obvious to the Lakers that he'd ridden the coattails of LeBron James in Cleveland?

Taken together, the Valentine, Bochy and Brown fables reveal a central truth about the professional leadership game: The culture of the coach is the least understood element in sports. Outside of a handful of truly gifted tacticians and communicators, it is difficult to discern who is good at what he does and who is not, who deserves to be hired and who doesn't, who gets jobs because he has better-connected friends or sounds really good on the air.

These mysteries are heightened in the NBA, the league in which head men are the most exposed and the least influential. The players are protected by a powerful union and guaranteed contracts, leaving coaches little leverage to demand accountability; the game's biggest stars know they can usually outlast anyone who stands in their way. Meanwhile, because of rigorous scheduling, coaches have limited time to game-plan for opponents. Most coaches like Brown don't strategize or lead. They pray that someone in the huddle is listening.

Contrast Brown's plight with that of NFL coaches, men like Bill Belichick who are fortunate to hold two keys that will attract a player's attention: a week to prepare and, because contracts aren't guaranteed, control over a player's money. The first reveals whether a coach knows what he's talking about, which translates to respect or, in the case of Rich Kotite, disregard. The second, the prospect of being cut, creates a balance of power with a 22-year-old millionaire.

Still, for all the influence they wield, NFL coaches shouldn't be mythologized too much. After all, many of the great ones were always tied to a great quarterback (Belichick-Brady, Walsh-Montana, Landry-Staubach). Indeed, all coaches, no matter the sport, must humbly accept that strategic genius gets them nowhere if they can't find a way to cultivate their superstars. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Joe Torre and Gregg Popovich have combined for 24 titles, but each had a player (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Derek Jeter and Tim Duncan) who not only was Hall of Famecaliber but also honored the traditional authority of the coach during a time that saw player power increase. Torre speaks to this point loudest. By his 55th birthday, he had managed nearly 1,900 games over 15 years and made the playoffs once. His legend was made only when he arrived in New York, where Jeter and a core of veterans controlled Torre's clubhouse and delivered him four titles.

Bochy enjoys this rare symbiosis in San Francisco and has become the Torre of our times. Brown clearly failed in this regard; he never had the support of LeBron, nor of Kobe (if the Look can be believed), and replacing a legend like Jackson without immediate returns was a death sentence. And so now, in a sport where teaching is dead and the stars make the coach, the next mystery is whether D'Antoni can succeed where Brown couldn't. Winning is just the half of it.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.