Woke players need to wake up because the NBA is about business first
In pro sports, it’s about winning, profits and keeping the fans happy by winning
We’ve written a great deal during the last couple of years about the empowerment of professional athletes, especially black athletes. Many are speaking out on issues, joining movements and using their considerable platforms to call attention to issues they feel are important.
But one thing many young athletes, and many old ones, lose track of is that professional athletes are employees. Unlike their fellow workers, professional athletes can be traded, dispatched from one part of the country to another without much consideration given to how trades affect the player’s equilibrium, family life or causes.
Many of the college players drafted last month into the NBA, for example, will not finish their careers with the teams that drafted them.
No matter how popular or even how talented they are, pro players are checkers and chess pieces to be moved around in a way that helps the franchise, not the player, reach its goal.
While most players say they know this, I’m always astounded by the reaction of veteran players when they are traded or released by a team for whom they have toiled for several seasons.
Two seasons ago, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, after completing an emotionally taxing season, expressed hurt and anger when he was traded from Boston to Cleveland.
Last week Kawhi Leonard, after weeks of lobbying for a trade, was shuttled from San Antonio to Toronto in exchange for Raptors star DeMar DeRozan. Each case involved muscle-flexing by the respective organizations that did what was best for the team, not necessarily for the player. In fact, the trades were executed with complete disregard for each player’s wishes.
Leonard made it clear that he wanted to be traded to Los Angeles. He wanted to go home. Maybe San Antonio, out of respect for all Leonard had done for the team and its community, could have accommodated the star’s wishes.
Instead, the organization sent Leonard out of the country, as far north as it could. If Mars were an option, they might have sent Leonard there. The Spurs’ message was clear: We don’t care where you’d rather be. You’ll go where we want you to go.
DeRozan’s case is a bit different, and while it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who will make $27.7 million a season, DeRozan is a sympathetic figure who is emblematic of the business of basketball. He did not see this coming and wanted to stay in Toronto.
DeRozan and Cleveland’s Kevin Love bravely recorded moving PSAs about suffering from depression. When he spoke to reporters last week, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri sang DeRozan’s praises. Ujiri also conceded that he may have misled DeRozan weeks ago in a conversation during the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League when the two discussed what the team would need from DeRozan going forward. The inference being that DeRozan would be on the team.
Perhaps it was because of all the pushback the organization received from NBA players, and from DeRozan himself. One player said Ujiri had stabbed DeRozan in the back.
Thomas tweeted: “Just learn from my story. Loyalty is just a word in this game SMH.”
On the other hand, players hear what they want to hear, and DeRozan may not have seen, or may not have wanted to see, the writing on the wall. What was peculiar about Ujiri’s news conference is that he apologized to DeRozan. In all my years of covering these sort of player wakes, when team officials explain why they traded a player, I cannot recall a GM apologizing to a player.
“It’s one of the tough things in this business,” Ujiri said. “We want to win, and I have to do everything to get us to a championship level, but there’s also the human side of this business. That’s the part I really struggle with the most. That’s what’s most difficult.”
Ujiri added: “I’m a loyal person. You build relationships in this business over the years. You have relationships with players and people, and the human part doesn’t make it easy at all.”
I know Ujiri to be a good human being. Unfortunately, the business he’s in, the business of pro basketball, is not first and foremost about being a good person when winning and your job are on the line.
As he said: “I understand sports, and sports is about winning. I have a mandate to win, and that’s what I want to do is to win a championship, put the Toronto Raptors in a position to win.”
Toronto had gone as far as it could go with the team it had constructed, and team officials decided they could not go further unless a major change was made. Leonard is the change, but to make the change they had to sacrifice DeRozan.
“We’ve given a chance to this team. We tried to build it as much as we can,” Ujiri said. “We got to this level where this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”
Although he plays a different sport, New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis understands why players react so emotionally to being traded, even when they know that’s what they signed up for. Davis was drafted by the New York Jets in 2012, signed with Cleveland in 2016 and then was sent back to the Jets in 2017.
“Most guys have always been loyal to the team they played for,” he said during a phone interview. “In high school, you represent whatever school you go to; whatever side of the city you’re on, you represent that. In college, it’s all about representing your college. When you get to the professional league, its different. Teams do what they feel they need to do for the next five years to make the team better. If a guy’s never been traded before, it comes as a shock.”
On the other hand, being traded is what you make of it and, more importantly, whether you choose to look at it as a positive or a negative.
Larry Nance learned that he had been traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavaliers when he reported to the Suns’ arena on Feb. 25, 1988. Born in Anderson, South Carolina, Nance spent his first 6½ seasons with Phoenix before being traded to Cleveland, where he played for another 6½ seasons.
Being traded for the first time can do a number on a player’s psyche. “First of all, coming from South Carolina, I thought the only way you get traded is that they don’t want you or you’re doing something bad or something like that,” said Nance.
As Nance got older in the league he realized, in his case, he was in fact added value. “I got traded because I was a good player,” he said, referring specifically to the 1988 trade from Phoenix to Cleveland. “They decided to go in a different direction, so they used me to get some pieces to make their team better.”
When his son Larry Nance Jr. was traded from the Lakers to Cleveland in last midseason, Nance told him to look at the glass as being half full. “I warned him about all this stuff and that it doesn’t always mean that it’s something negative if you get traded. A lot of people think that,” Nance said. “It’s all a matter of how you look at things.”
Basketball is a game and a multibillion-dollar industry where the only things that really matter are the top line, the bottom line and fan satisfaction.
Some players learn this lesson later in their careers, while others find out immediately. Last month, the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Villanova’s Mikal Bridges. Great story: Hometown kid gets drafted by his hometown team. In addition, Bridges’ mother works for the 76ers’ vice president of human resources.
The bubble burst within minutes when the 76ers announced that they had traded Bridges to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith and a future draft pick. Bridges was initially crushed, but in the long term he should be flattered: The Suns wanted him badly, and that trumped the excitement of a great story.
That is the business of basketball.
A handful of players may have the ability to call their own shots.
The reality is that the vast majority are merely employees on leashes — gilded leashes, but leashes all the same.
They were all reminded last week that whenever it makes business sense, those leashes will be jerked.