What The Answer Taught me About the Dismissal of David Blatt

As the Internet caught fire with reactions to the news, clever kids tripped over themselves to photoshop images of Tyronn Lue, who was once famously stepped over by Allen Iverson after a made jumper, stepping over David Blatt.  Okay, why not.  But in the midst of the mass euphoria/hysteria, there was Allen Iverson himself, stepping into the Twitterverse, as he rarely does, with this:

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Was it a joke? Was he being ironic? Maybe. I don’t know Allen Iverson personally so I couldn’t really tell you for sure.  But actually, I think that’s sort of the point.

To me, this Tweet, whatever Iverson may have intended, tells me that there is something deep and intimate shared by NBA players that we, who are not them, often fail to recognize. To us, Lue is mockable roadkill left in the wake of the speeding rebel genius Iverson (he was for me too until I saw this tweet). But Iverson seems to step in here to say that we don’t understand anything, or rather, that we and our views—to the degree that we fail to see their limitations—are rrelevant.

That’s why he addresses Lue directly.  “Love you” he says to Tyronn Lue in the presence of 980,000 followers.  He may have delighted in making that shot, and in stepping over Lue, but that delight, I believe I understand, was not at the expense of the loving bond they share, but rather a function of it.  I think it can be hard to understand that from the outside; hard to understand, I mean, what it must be to be among a group of a few hundred young black males suddenly experiencing riches and fame and adoration and pressure in a world that otherwise mostly seems to fear and despise them, at least if mass incarceration and police violence is any indication; hard to really grasp the solidarity that experience, those experiences, engender.

So what? Well, I’m not an NBA player, or a young black man, so I’m sure I can’t presume to say with any kind of certainty.  But from the vantage point that Iverson seemed to me to have pointed to here, and which I can at least intellectually comprehend, here’s how the whole thing with the Cavs, Blatt, and LeBron looks.

It’s probably fair to say that the expectations for, and pressure on, David Blatt changed after he accepted the job. He thought he’d be coaching a young team and trying to shape them into contenders.  Then LeBron came back, management traded the young players to create a Big 3 out of James, Kyrie Irving, and  Kevin Love, and merely contending was no longer enough.  The job description changed: the Cavs had to win a championship. Racking up wins in the woeful Eastern Conference and making it through to the Finals wouldn’t cut it if the now-full-strength Cavs were still—as was appearing to be the case—likely to go down in the Finals.  So, while that may have been tough for Blatt to adapt to, it remains the case that he was still collecting paychecks and that the change in expectations were not unreasonable.  That is why it is totally irrelevant, if not disingenuous, for critics of the decision to wring their hands over the fact that Blatt had the best won-loss record of any fired coach in history, or that the team, depleted by injuries, made the finals last season.  Who cares? And who says that was because of Blatt anyway? Why do you say that was because of Blatt?

Those upset that so seemingly successful a coach as Blatt should have been fired explain what otherwise seems inexplicable by presuming that LeBron James had something to do with it, even if he was not, as the Cavs maintain, explicitly consulted.  We might ask why we presume this when there is no evidence. But my gut response to the speculation is, nonetheless: ya think?  Of course he had something to do with it! I should hope so!  He might not be the best player in the league this year (though, as I’ve argued before, we should think hard about our delight in his having been surpassed by Steph Curry).  But he’s been the best player on the planet for a decade and, contrary to some wayward speculation, he’s far more crucial to the Cavs hopes of winning a title anytime soon than was David Blatt. More important than whether LeBron had a role in this or not, is the question of why those not on the team are so invested in maintaining a putative hierarchy in which players don’t express their dissatisfaction about their coaches publicly or in any way that might cause management to fire the coach.  So, why? Why are you so invested in that hierarchy?

Trailing closely in the wake of the collective garment-rending and breast-beating for David Blatt is the head-shaking and finger-wagging at LeBron James for what these observers take to be his egomaniacal savior complex.  LeBron may or may not have such a complex.  I don’t know him.  What I do know is that before he returned to Cleveland, before he left Cleveland, before he called himself King, or tattooed himself with the word “Chosen,” these same people now complaining about him had already called him “the Chosen One.”  Incidentally, many of these people who rip what they see as James’ narcissistic selfishness will also have criticized him, in effect, for being too unselfish on the court. Nor does this criticism seem to capture that the main advantage that Lue seems to have over Blatt, as far as Cavs players goes, is that he will actually criticize them, even LeBron.  Whose fault is it that David Blatt wouldn’t do that? But let’s not get bogged down in these details.  Here’s the bottom line, don’t get it twisted: we wrote the script for the new gospel and cast LeBron as the messiah.  That’s on us and it’s our problem, not his, when he doesn’t conform to the plot we’ve laid out.  

That’s the reminder and the lesson of Iverson’s tweet:  we are ever placing these human beings into our doll houses, playing out dramas with them, and them tossing them under the sofa when one “malfunctions” or a “better one” comes along…all the while acting as though our playroom theatrics were reality. We’re just playing. But they’re not: not Iverson, not Lue, not James, not even Blatt. We can play and enjoy our games.  But they’re not reality, at least not all of it, and definitely not the most important part of reality.

Now, we may not have access to the reality.  That’s not our fault.  And it makes our—my—mythmaking understandable.  I get that.  But getting that also carries with it a responsibility to acknolwedge that we are just playing, and that our play is not a source of any kind of knowledge, unless it is knowledge about the kind of games we like to play.  Morever, it requires us to refrain from passing moralizing judgments and pretending them that they are grounded in anything other than our fantasies and the deep desires shaping them.

9 comments

  • Good points on the conveniently shifting scripts/narratives about LeBron. Those switching from “he’s too unselfish!” to “he’s a selfish diva!” are particularly detached from reality.

    As far as Blatt is concerned, I thought a highly underexplored element of LBJ’s return to Cleveland was the fact that they’d just hired Blatt a couple of weeks BEFORE LeBron made his choice. At the time, I took it as a sign that Cleveland was 100% sure they were NOT getting LeBron back–if they thought they had even a slight chance to get him, why not wait on the coaching hire and let him have a say in it? The job obviously would’ve become vastly more desirable to any available coach once he signed, and the one real organizational edge the Cavs had over Miami in selling themselves to LeBron was the offer of more influence for him there, as opposed to Miami, where Riley’s power had been entrenched for over a dozen years before LeBron arrived. I had fully assumed it would be a key part of the Cavs’ recruiting pitch to LeBron to come back–we’ll only hire a coach who you’re comfortable with–so when they gave that up while he was still a free agent, I was very surprised.

    The drama and surprise of LeBron going back to Cleveland overshadowed any full accounting of what happened that off-season on the Cavs’ end, so unless I missed some well-reported info on that somewhere, I still don’t really know what their thinking was in hiring Blatt at the time they did.

  • Scott Christensen

    “Here’s the bottom line, don’t get it twisted: we wrote the script for the new gospel and cast LeBron as the messiah. That’s on us and it’s our problem, not his, when he doesn’t conform to the plot we’ve laid out.”

    Eh, who exactly is this “we” you speak of? I can only speak definitively for me, and think that I have a decent idea for at least some other NBA fans, that for the length of LeBron’s playing career, dating back to his high school days, we have been force-fed by the NBA, ESPN, and every endorsement that LeBron has ever had, that he is the King. And all along the way, the King has been complicit in this and benefited immensely. I have never felt a part of this mythmaking. In fact, I’ve always felt on the outside of this, as i think many other fans have as well. This, more than anything, is what drives the dislike of LeBron. We’ve been fed the myth, and many capitalists, including LeBron, have ridden this myth to riches…and I have felt no part of it, except to say that I’ve watched him play and thought him a great basketball player, and felt somewhat nauseated by the hype. LeBron used to be fun to watch, but he is no longer. He sulks and throws tantrums on the court when he doesn’t get his way, and, well, it’s a huge turnoff. I personally didn’t support in creating this “egomaniacal savior”, except that I watched NBA basketball games, and I think many NBA fans feel the same way. And I feel no compunction criticizing him now because of that.

  • Scott Christensen

    Charles : Always the response of the falsely superior. Arrogantly dismissive and soulless.

    Yago: I respect your opinion, but I disagree with you. I don’t feel responsible for corporate mythmaking or LeBron’s resulting behavior.
    If you are going to be the King, then be the King Have the courage to say you don’t want Blatt to be the coach. Why drag him over the coals for a season and a half, often embarrassing him in front of millions of fans? I value benevolence in a King.
    If you don’t want to be the King, then stop marketing yourself like you are.
    Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are my favorite NBA players because they’re made of heart, fearless, aggressive, fiery. Always intense, always leading. They are rich, have great endorsements, say their piece, and I love everything about them. They feel 100% genuine, and LeBron doesn’t. And, once again, I have no problem criticizing him for it, nor do I feel responsible.
    So, respectfully, I agree to disagree.

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