On LeBron James and Coaching

Today, ESPN senior writer Marc Stein wrote a piece lambasting LeBron James for behavior Stein described as “unbecoming” and “unflattering.”  Apparently, Stein witnessed

LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. LeBron huddling frequently with Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.

Stein went on to contrast this “unpalatable behavior” to Spurs’ star Tim Duncan’s support for Gregg Popovich, even before the coach was “POP.” I think this is the worst kind of moralizing, patronizing, unconsciously racist reprimand, resting on a tower of unstated and unsavory assumptions with a long history in the culture of basketball. Please read carefully: those adjectives in the last sentence do not refer to Stein himself, but rather to his reprimand, to the assumptions it makes, and to the history of basketball.

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Let me tell you a story to clarify why I think this and why I feel so incensed.  Back in the Fall of 1981, Magic Johnson told reporters that he wasn’t “having any fun” and that he wanted to leave the Lakers.  Less than twenty-fours later, Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss fired Lakers Coach Paul Westhead, replacing him with assistant coach Pat Riley. The next night, as the Lakers took the floor in Los Angeles, perhaps for the first time in his life, Magic Johnson’s own fans loudly booed him.

A disapproving chorus of journalists echoed the fans’ boos. They pointed to the new contract—$25 million over 25 years, unprecedented in NBA history at the time—Johnson had signed during the off-season as evidence that Johnson had grown narcissistic, arrogant and, perhaps worst of all, cynically professional. Johnson was vilified as a “spoiled brat” and a “spoiled punk,” “an infidel,” and a “traitor,” “un-American” and a “Bolshevik,” a “monster,” a “villain” and a “pariah.” But beyond the name-calling, what emerged in the firestorm of criticism was that Johnson had ruined the story, part of which was that Magic played ball for the fun of it and his mega-watt smile proved it.

The ideology of amateurism originated in England where it was a ““product of the nineteenth-century leisure class, whose ideal of the patrician sportsman . . . was part of their pursuit of consicuous leisure.” Referring to the athlete who plays for the love of the sport, the concept came to imply a number of corollary qualities including that the amateur derives pleasure from the contest, participation is freely chosen, the process of competition is as important as its outcome, the amateur is motivated by rewards intrinsic to the sport, rather than by extrinsic rewards such as fame or money and, finally, sportsmanship—a valuation of the sport itself above all else—is paramount. This effectively kept working class athletes, who had neither the resources nor the leisure time, from challenging upper-class domination of sport so that, in effect, amateurism “established a system of ‘sports apartheid’ with white males from the upper classes enjoying the advantages.” Allen Guttman puts it more bluntly: “The amateur rule was an instrument of class warfare.

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Within the culture of basketball, amateur ideals have been applied selectively toward similar ends. Over the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of the consolidation of the modern basketball state, it was amateur basketball, particularly intercollegiate competition, that established a national market for the game and affirmed the core values that, from the time of its creation, basketball was supposed to convey: unselfishness, cooperation, sportsmanship, effort. At the same time, the growth of the college game and the institutionalization of coaching as a profession forced the amateur ideal to accommodate two additional values: respect for the authority of the coach (as an expression of humility and unselfishness) and competitive intensity (not winning for its own sake, of course, which was seen as unseemly, but the desire to win as a mechanism for spurring the passion and excellence that would reflect positively on the larger body—such as a college—one represented).

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Because the amateur ideal took root in basketball culture while the sport was still segregated, the values came unconsciously to be associated with whiteness.

Returning to Johnson, media and fan criticism betrays a rage that he violated these ideals first by failing to respect his coach and second, by both getting paid and insisting that he have fun playing the game. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell’s former coach, was marshaled to explain the perils awaiting franchises “when a player is bigger than the organization.” Apparently, a black superstar, like Russell, Magic, or LeBron, can only assume the mantle of coaching authority when a white overlord deems it appropriate (as Auerbach did when he named Russell player-coach).

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Coach Larry Brown of New Jersey (later inducted into the Hall of Fame) criticized Johnson for a selfish unwillingness to make sacrifices for the good of the team and therefore violating the moral tenets of Brown’s “play the right way” mantra. Perhaps it’s no accident that the relatively common employment of player coaches in the NBA disappeared precisely during the decade (the 1970s) when the sport was perceived as “too black” and its black players as undisciplined, selfish, incorrigible miscreants.

Another column reminded readers that even as a college player, Johnson had led a group of Michigan State players who confronted Coach Jud Heathcote, insisting that he allow them to implement a more up-tempo style of play. As Johnson was judged to have violated the (amateur) ideals of the sport, sportswriters and fans alike—in perhaps the most telling trope of the backlash—determined that “Magic” was no longer magic (or “Magic”), but rather now just “Earvin.” Thus one Los Angeles Times columnist—under the headline “Just Call Him Earvin Johnson; Magic is Gone”—quoted another:

For the rest of his days, he won’t be Magic anymore. He will be the spoiled brat who couldn’t wait until he owned a team of his own to show his power, the infidel who had to have a coach’s scalp to go with his millions, the traitor who hid behind a false, happy face, and he was someone we loved. That’s the frightening thing.

Johnson’s popularity among writers and fans depended more on his ebullient on and off-court personality than on his exceptional individual talents or his contributions to his team’s successes. Johnson could be “loved”—and recall the importance of love to the amateur ideal—insofar as he joyfully brought amateur ideals into the professional game. By mixing the professional (through the power of his long-term contract and relationship with owner Jerry Buss) with the amateur (his insistence on having fun), Johnson had unwittingly exposed the myth of the amateurs as a ruse and betrayed fans’ love for him. The purveyors of this myth disciplined him accordingly.

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Though none of his critics explicitly invoked race, their invective nonetheless reveals a racializing subtext since criticism of the NBA at the time yoked complaints about player apathy and excessive salaries with the perception that the league was too black. In this sense, perhaps, fans and media observers were unconsciously enraged because Magic “robbed” them of something they desperately needed: the image of an entertaining black basketball player who played just for the fun of it and loved everyone while doing so. Or, to put it another way, it was as though Magic betrayed fans by turning out to be “black” after all.

Stein’s piece disturbingly echoes these (over) reactions to Johnson and broadcasts the nasty attitudes that motivated them.  Remember, by Stein’s own account, all LeBron did was “essentially” call a few plays or ignore some that Blatt called.  It’s not like LeBron said he’d go back to Miami, or burn the Terminal Tower if they didn’t fire Blatt and hire the coach of his choice.  So I think it’s disingenuous when Stein opens his piece by asking:

I have a question for LeBron James that I really hope he’ll field someday.

A question that can be asked a variety of ways.

What kind of coach do you want? 

Who out there is a coach you’d actually like to play for? 

Who could ‎the Cleveland Cavaliers hire that you’d give some meaningful backing?

These are rhetorical questions veiling Stein’s command that LeBron shut his mouth and do like Timmy Duncan.

Perhaps in this, as in so many ways already during his career, LeBron is offending by refusing to be a character in a fantasy scripted by someone else.  In this case, he is tacitly rejecting the very terms of Stein’s question, which assumes he must want some coach, right, because, we have to have coaches, right, or everything will be chaos. birthplace-of-basketball-teamAfter all, it is part of the hallowed myth of the invention of basketball that James Naismith’s students were called “the incorrigibles.” 

Perhaps, when confronted with such questions, LeBron rightly takes it as a disingenuous power move on the part of critics seeking to preserve a power structure in which white owners buy and sell black bodies, white coaches command black bodies, and black bodies go where, and do what, they’re told and keep their mouths shut unless it is to express gratitude for being #blessed to make with their talents a tiny fraction of what is made off them.  “You can’t build your own team! That’s for the owners to do!” “You can’t call plays, that’s for the coaches to do”!

Maybe LeBron wants to be the coach; or maybe LeBron would like a more fluid, horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical and authoritarian) approach to strategic and tactical decision making, or maybe out there is a coach he wishes he had, or maybe he’s just fine with the way things are.  I really don’t know.  But Stein’s “unbecoming” kind of moralizing, authoritarian, crypto-racist reproaches make me wish that what he calls a “charade” would end, and that LeBron would become the first player coach since Lenny Wilkens and then, after that, the first player-coach-owner since ever.

And If you feel that I’m “injecting” race into this discussion in a way that is unwarranted or unfair, I’d ask you to take a minute to read my post briefly explaining what race means to me. Thanks.

24 comments

  • Great read. Very thoughtful.

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  • No need to bring race into the conversation. All you are doing is looking for clicks by using the words racism and racist. You may not agree with his column but nothing about it was racist. Shame on you for being an irresponsible journalist just like the one you were criticizing. You took potentially a great article and ruined it.

    • But did you actually read the article? The author goes to great length to show why race is indeed a factor, and he is also careful to insist that he isn’t calling Stein a racist.

  • I think that much of this is correct and it leads me to wonder about James’ responsibility to his team, coaches and himself going forward. If he wants to have that level of control, should he demand it? (Has he demanded it and we are seeing the result?)

    Given his intellect, ability, single year contract and depressed salary due to caps, he must have more leverage than almost any player in generations to implement different team hierarchies (if he were so inclined). However, I certainly think that he himself has conflict about how he wants to play, his relationship to teammates and how he wants to be perceived by the public. He isn’t a Kobe or MJ, but he is also not a Duncan (whom Pops jokes about “divorcing” every year, which conflicts with Stein’s simple portrayal). He has to balance a lot of issues with image, ability, role and relationships that is not as clear cut as many would prefer for a clear narrative of a conventional “athlete”. It’s lonely at the top.

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  • And, once again, a liberal Member of the intelligentsia needs to prove to the world that he knows something by building his argument on the platforms of racism and the evils of white privilege.

    • And once again, a conservative refuses to acknowledge the possibility of race actually still being a factor in American society by sticking his fingers in his ears and screaming, “Communism” as loud as he can–as though the two are even connected.

      Why do you resort to mindless name calling and strawmen?

      Intelligentsia? “Liberal member”? “Platforms” “White privilege.” None of this offers anything to the conversation. It’s just trying to avoid one.

      Is it that conducting a thoughtful, reasonable response would require thinking and reason?

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  • Interesting read. Even considering your point, Lebron who considers himself a global brand, a CEO, a friend of Warren Buffet, should have to decency to do it with Blatt and not against him. Blatt is clearly more than willing to let Lebron be a co-coach. And there are 11 other guys on the roster who probably do need a coach to show them where to go and what to do. Lebron spreading contempt among the team is detrimental. Maybe there’s a race element involved, but Lebron needs to act his age as well.

  • Comment below a deadspin article

    Glen Rice Nails Another 3Kyle Wagner
    6/18/15 7:55pm
    preface:

    1. I’m Jewish

    2. I CAN’T STAND how PC our world has become that the following hasn’t been pointed out yet.

    Marc Stein is a proud Jew who roots for Israeli sports and Israeli athletes. He’s stumped for Blatt to get an NBA coaching gig for years before the Cleveland job, check out some of his BS Report appearances. My first knowledge of David Blatt’s Euroleague success came from Stein’s Twitter. He also wasn’t coy about saying Omri Casspi was his favorite player in the league when he was having his career year for the Kings.

    I’m a fan of Stein’s work, but it needs to pointed out that he certainly has a horse in this race.

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  • Recall what Donald Sterling got caught saying about racial attitudes in Israel and in his own Jewish American upbringing. This is an important but taboo context to Marc Stein’s rant, which I applaud you for picking up on:

  • Also note that when Sterling was exposed, our media never covered his comments about Israel, and they exclusively described Sterling’s racism as “white” racism, never Jewish racism.

    Watch how many more journalists like Stein circle the wagons around Blatt. It will be coordinated, sophisticated, and powerful. And most of the media will hound and bash LeBron for the rest of his life if he gets the great “white” hope, Blatt, fired.

  • Sharon Weingarten

    I love this article, especially the history of amateurism and Magic Johnson’s balancing act between professionalism and amateurism. However, there is a gross disconnect in the premise of your article, which addressed ESPN senior writer Marc Stein’s criticism of LeBron James for openly disagreeing with one of David Blatt’s plays, among other things. Stein, a long-time David Blatt supporter who believed for years that Blatt deserved to coach in the NBA – discusses what he viewed as behavior by LeBron that was disrespectful to his friend, David Blatt. Ok. That’s one way to look at a complex issue. But somehow, you took Stein’s uncomplicated and straightforward piece, and turned it into a referendum on racism in the NBA, saying, “I think this is the worst kind of moralizing, patronizing, unconsciously racist reprimand, resting on a tower of unstated and unsavory assumptions with a long history in the culture of basketball.” Full disclosure: Like Marc Stein and David Blatt, I happen to be white and Jewish, and in my case, I am a woman and a long-time coach. I cannot speak from the perspective of a black athlete in the NBA, but not one word of what Marc Stein said appears to have a shred of racism, unconscious or otherwise. LeBron James fought to win each game of the Finals, despite hurt all-stars and players/coaches inexperienced in post-season play. Clearly a brilliant athlete who is an equally brilliant tactician who has the aptitude and foresight to change game play on the fly when something isn’t working, LeBron James has earned the respect of teammates and coaches for his work ethic, talent, and ability to elevate teammates to a higher level of play. LeBron offers on-court insights that are valuable to his team. This is not about white owners or white coaches holding back black players because of deep-seated racism in the NBA… Stein should have realized that an exhausted, determined and emotional LeBron James did not having the luxury of time to be more diplomatic about Blatt’s play as he watched the last game slipping away from the Cavs. Star players are known to call time-out from the court. And they sometimes change a play. And David Blatt knows that. And you know very well that Marc Stein’s criticism of LeBron James defying David Blatt’s play was not a referendum on racism in the NBA, and that it was not a political statement of a prominent black athlete defying white coaches and white owners for using him to make fortunes while he barely scrapes by. LeBron James wanted his team to win the championship, and he shared important ideas and his experience to try to make that happen. That’s it. It was a cheap shot to misinterpret Stejn’s piece, especially by making such serious allegations. However, I found your Magic Johnson stories very interesting, and the history of Amateurism compelling!

    • First of all, thank you for reading, for your kind words and for engaging as openly as I tried to.

      Then, I knew nothing about Stein and Blatt’s previous relationship. I might have Stein been more forthright in his motivations in writing the piece.

      He might have said, for example, that he is aware of the history I described in my own essay, and that he wants no part of that history. But that he feels, as a friend to David Blatt, pained at what appears to him to be the public disrespecting of his friend by a star player; that it hurts h to see many in the media ridicule his friend.

      If he had written that, even as a preamble to the essay, not only would I not have been moved to write my response, I would have applauded the rare acknowledgement in a public sphere that our personal feelings and relationships shape our views on public matters and can make it complicated to express these views.

      But he didn’t. Instead, presuming he was indeed motivated by what you cited, he used a set of tropes and mobilized a set of assumptions (unconsciously, I am sure) that align his language and argument (if not, admittedly, his attentions) with the sorry history I described.

      Thanks again for reading.

    • 50% of NBA owners are the same 1.5% tribe as Donald Sterling and the Hawks owner who had to sell his ownership stake recently.

      Stein telling All Time superstar LeBron to quietly obey his rookie coach with zero NBA experience reeks of more than a friend helping a friend.

      • Yes naturally, since the best way to discuss the segeregated foundations of basketball, and denounce racist so-called ideals is revert to anti-semitism. So cool.

  • That you choose to use an example from 34 YEARS AGO to illustrate a form of conscious or subconscious racial overtones in Marc Stein’s story shows how desperate you are to form a racial link where none exists. You are making a number of assumptions of Stein that are irresponsible at best and slanderous at worst.

    I think all Stein was asking James to do, as one in charge of his own agency, is to simply shit or get off the pot. If you don’t feel that David Blatt is a worthy coach, say so, either publicly or to management. If you’d prefer someone else to be the coach, say so. Heck, if you prefer to be the coach, say so. Just stop with this mealy-mouthed, passive-aggressive non-mutinous mutiny where you disengage and disrespect the coach at every turn. To analogize it with what Magic did is misguided. James isn’t being criticized for wanting a coach fired but rather for not having the conviction to say that he does when he’s clearly not happy working with him.

    What we saw in the postseason was this pathetic I win/he loses situation where James made sure to let the media know when he changed Blatt’s calls when it resulted in a win, but when the Cavs lost, there was Blatt answering why he played Mozgov too many minutes or too few. The coach has been put into the position of being a puppet and a figurehead, and even if he’s accepting of that arrangement, it’s still bush league and beneath the integrity of both men. THAT’S what Stein was objecting to. If only James made it known that he’d prefer to play for Tyronn Lue or Mark Jackson or whomever, and Stein objected to that, then maybe your story would have some credence. Otherwise you’re making wild and baseless accusations.

    James may well indeed not need any coaching. Most superstars don’t. But while he sees three moves ahead on that chessboard, the rest of his ordinary teammates cannot. They need all the help they can get. By disrespecting the notion of coaching, James did his lesser teammates a disservice. The coach’s whole job is to mask his teams weaknesses and scheme around them. With James running the offense, the Cavs repeatedly found themselves in the position in the Finals where James shot the contested long twos the Warriors wanted him to take or kicked it out to a suspiciously wide open Matthew Dellavedova. Under “Coach James,” they played right into the Warriors hands.

    The really distressing part of your story is that you’re inferring that by willingly accepting coaching all these years, that Tim Duncan was acting like an “Uncle Tom,” or somehow “less black” than an athlete who would improvise or defy his coach. Was that your intention?

    Obviously racism is still alive and well in this country. We don’t need to look any further than what happened with that racist nitwit terrorist in South Carolina a few days ago for proof of that. But in your rash attempt to empathize with those who are being victimized, abused and disenfranchised every day, you are making foolish connections where none exist, especially in the NBA, a league that has hired more African-American coaches than all the other professional leagues combined. James is literally one of the most powerful African-Americans in the world. Of all causes to fight for, choosing is both wasteful and wholly unnecessary. You are doing a disservice to people who are actually suffering from injustice and could use all the help they can get.

    To draw parallels between an NBA coach and player to some horrid scene from a plantation 200 years ago is to make light of that shameful period of history. They’re just jobs. No more, no less. I honestly don’t understand what you are protesting. Billions of us every day go to work in all manner of fields and have someone to answer to. Is every African-American drawing a paycheck from a white employer selling out? Is every white employer with African-American employees acting out consciously or subconsciously some slave master role playing fantasy? Is that your perception? Should African-Americans only work for other African-Americans?

    You owe us answers to these questions.

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  • Scott Christensen

    1. LeBron, Wade, Bosh
    LeBron, Love, Kyrie
    Blatt said, early on in the season, that Love “eats second” in the offense. Somehow Love ended up a distant third in the pecking order, and LeBron was the only one with enough power to make that happen. When Love balked, he was told to shut it or “fit in” – I think was the phrase. Bosh was always the 3rd option in Miami. He came in that way, and it was going to stay that way. Is it a stretch to say that LeBron was being racist towards Love? Of course it is. But it’s just as much of a stretch to say that Stein’s reaction to LeBron’s behavior was racist.

    2. Ah, but that’s the point. The behavior matters. It’s everything, in fact. The behavior determined whether LeBron deserved such intense criticism. You compared LeBron’s behavior to “arguing with a coach on the sidelines”, which I agree isn’t a huge deal. What I saw from LeBron, however, was a constant and consistent questioning of every decision Blatt made that he didn’t agree with…and he didn’t agree often. LeBron thought he knew better than Blatt, at every turn, and I agree with Stein that that kind of arrogance is “unbecoming” for one of the greatest players of all time. It’s unbecoming for any player, at any level, as a matter of fact. Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are two of the most ferocious competitors I’ve ever seen – absolute joys to watch – and neither have them have ever used their intensity or will to win as an excuse to treat their coaches badly. And as much as Bad Prof would love to see LeBron as a player-coach or player-coach-owner (which I too think would be awesome), LeBron wasn’t the coach. Blatt was the coach, and a coach with experience and a track record that deserved respect. So…”Unflattering” and “Unbecoming”…are these “White” words? Does using them to describe a black athlete make you racist? I honestly don’t know.What are the right words to describe what I deemed to be extremely poor behavior – unallowing for the “intensity of the moment” excuse (which I think is bullocks) – without being considered racist?

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