As the NBA bubble nears its conclusion, it can be viewed as a victory for the league and for professional sports.
Healthwise, it was wildly successful. No player tested positive. The league took extreme precautions with players, executives, employees, and media members to ensure safety, and it worked.
The only glitch came when the players decided to postpone playing because of their anger following the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wis., police. The players took three days off, meeting with team owners, with the league improving its social justice stance besides “Black Lives Matter” on the floor and slogans on the backs of jerseys.
We will never know how seriously the players contemplated leaving the bubble, but talks were serious and contentious. One party who was not there in person was commissioner Adam Silver, who is now in the bubble and made an appearance in the early bubble games in the second tier — where he couldn’t have contact with players.
Silver, of course, was kept abreast of the players’ issues but had not spoken on the topic until this past week.
“No. 1, I prefer not to refer to it as a boycott,” he said. “To me, a boycott is when your employees or a group of people are seeking through economic leverage to change the conduct of somebody. I felt in this case, in our partnership with the players, I understood how — after the fact understood more about how it unfolded with the Milwaukee Bucks. But I never viewed this as necessarily aimed at the league. I think there was a larger message that the players wanted to make here. I prefer to view it as a work stoppage.”
The Bucks were the first team to call for a “work stoppage,” refusing to play in their playoff contest against the Magic. The four other teams obliged and the NBA stopped playing for three days while there were hours of talks with players, players’ union officials, and team governors.
“I found out about it as it was happening in real time,” Silver said. “There, of course, had been rumors; many of you in this room had written early in the day that there was some contemplation. I was on the phone early in the day with Chris Paul, who was here at the time. I was on the phone with [NBPA executive director] Michele [Roberts], who was then and still is here, and I think it was the sense earlier in the day that the games were going to play on that night. As we all now know, there was a spontaneous aspect to it. Certainly people had thought about it.”
George Hill was the first Bucks players to decide he wasn’t playing in the Aug. 26 game, and his teammates decided to sit out with him. There were players during those intense meetings that were angry that Silver was not in the bubble during these pivotal times. Silver, whose wife delivered a child early in the year, was monitoring the situation.
“I was at home, but colleagues who were here were in the arena, and again, as we all now know, certainly the Orlando Magic did not know this was happening because they were on the floor warming up,” he said. “But then I was called and told the Milwaukee Bucks are not coming out of their locker room, and then I think for the next two days or so it was pretty much round-the-clock talking to groups of players, groups of team executives who were here, groups of governors who weren’t here. We just were seeking to work through the issues.”
The league and NBPA worked on those social justice slogans, but the players didn’t believe it was enough. Also, many arena employees who were donning “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts while working games slowly began wearing NBA logoed T-shirts. That changed back to the BLM gear immediately.
“In terms of the social justice messages, ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court, the words that are on the jerseys, that was something that was initiated by the Players Association,” Silver said. “Again, as I said earlier, there were really three factors in terms of how it was that we would restart, and social justice was one of them. I’d say to me, certainly it began with what’s important to our players is important to us, but it wasn’t just our players. The players know and the NBA community knows there’s a long history in this league of fighting for social justice, for racial equality. And it seemed appropriate.
“These were decisions that were made quickly in terms of standing up this restart. I think there was some misunderstanding around some of the messages sort of that there was a sense of censorship, that why aren’t these other messages. But these were messages that were proposed by the players through the Players Association and agreed to after some discussion with the league.”
Silver said there will continue to be talks between players and the league on social justice issues. The campaign won’t stop when the bubble ends.
“And I’ve said since then that I viewed this as extraordinary circumstances. I understand, put aside the substance of the message, there are a lot of fans, especially given all that’s going on in the world right now, who look to sports as a respite,” he said. “My response is that, again, I’m listening. And I understand that point of view, too. But these are unique times, and I think that given the circumstances, I still firmly believe it was and is the right thing to do.”
CANDIDATE FOR CHANGE
Spotlight again on coaching diversity
Now that the 76ers have hired Doc Rivers to be their coach, there are five Black coaches in a 30-team league. It’s a number that many players, former coaches, coaches interested in available jobs, and the league office has an issue with.
It didn’t help the perception that Black coaches are the priority to hire when Steve Nash was named to lead the Nets despite no coaching experience. Nash said he was an exception because of his extensive playing career that included two Most Valuable Player awards. There are five remaining openings — Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Pelicans, and Pacers — and there will be close monitoring on those positions by the league office.
The NBA does not have a “Rooney Rule” like the NFL to broaden the interview pool, but it’s not out of the question.
“The answer is ultimately yes to should the teams be able to hire who they want,” Silver said. “I don’t see a way to operate a league where the league office, the commissioner is dictating to a team who they should or shouldn’t hire or who they should or shouldn’t fire, frankly. That’s the other side of the coin.”
Of course, the league can’t instruct teams to hire certain candidates, but they can also ensure teams interview a wide of array of candidates. The Grizzlies took a chance on young Taylor Jenkins and he led them to the playoff play-in game in his first season. But there is a perception that teams won’t take chances on rising Black coaches without extensive experience.
Will that be the case this time? Former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue is a strong candidate for the openings in New Orleans and Houston. Mike D’Antoni, who has never reached an NBA Finals, could be the pick in Indiana. The question also arises: When is a team is going to select a female coach, such as Becky Hammon or Dawn Staley ?
“I know we can do better,” Silver said. “We’re in discussions with all of those teams about making sure there’s a diverse slate of candidates. We’ve looked at what might be an equivalent to a Rooney-type rule in the NBA, and I’m not sure it makes sense. I’m open-minded if there are other ways to address it.
“There is a certain natural ebb and flow to the hiring and firing, frankly, of coaches, but the number is too low right now. And, again, I think we should — let’s talk again after we fill these positions and see where we are, because I know we can do better, and I think we will do better.”
Charting Celtics’ next step
The Celtics’ playoff run ended with a thud, as they lost in six games to the Heat, who were battered in their NBA Finals opener by the Lakers.
Would the Celtics have provided more resistance to the Lakers? We will never know because they blew the first two games to Miami and then were forced to play frantically to try to come back.
While the Celtics have reached the Eastern Conference finals three times in four years, this disposal was considered a disappointment, especially since they were the higher seed. So, do the Celtics need major changes or a few tweaks?
ESPN/ABC analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson believe the organization is on the rise. Van Gundy doesn’t believe the Celtics need to chase a cornerstone big man.
“You don’t need a superstar big man,” added Jackson. “Obviously, the Lakers have one in Anthony Davis, the Miami Heat have a star big man in Bam [Adebayo] and what he’s been able to do. I think the Celtics — it’s a process, and they are going through the process of advancing and getting further and learning and experience.”
Injuries may have played a part. Gordon Hayward was far from himself after missing five weeks because of a sprained ankle, while point guard Kemba Walker was not near 100 percent with his balky left knee.
“I think Gordon Hayward not being healthy impacted them to a certain extent,” Jackson said. “Kemba didn’t look like he was 100 percent, so it’s a process that you have to go through, and obviously they have outstanding coaching, they have tremendous talent, and the future is awfully bright for them, and I think it’s just a question of continuing to progress and continuing to get better.”
Van Gundy said the Celtics just need to use this as fuel to get to the next stage.
“They won a tough series against Toronto, who’s very good. They lost a tough series to Miami, who is very good,” Van Gundy said. “The difference between teams is minimal. Whether it’s a good shooting run or a bad health turn for an important player, that’s how these things turn. And I think one thing Boston keeps doing is they keep putting themselves in position, they’re knocking at the door, and I like their young players very much.
“Brad Stevens is a great coach who embodies everything as far as humility and servant leadership that you would want in a coach. They have great management; Danny Ainge continually restocks their talent. And they have ownership that’s committed to winning.
“When you put all four of those things together, you’re going to be really good, and that’s what they are, they’re really good. And there’s nothing preventing them from taking the next step. Would you want to keep getting more talent? Absolutely, but you’re not going to be able to pay everybody, choices are to be made, and I like the choices that they’ve made. They just lost a hard-fought series.”
Sign of the times
LeBron James is 35 years old and in his 17th season. His rookie cards should be valuable, but in the millions? Yes. A rare autographed James card from Upper Deck from 2003, of which just 23 were made (in reverence to James’s number) sold for $1.8 million recently. Another James rookie card, a combined autograph card with Michael Jordan, sold at an auction this summer for $900,000.
These cards are just 17 years old. James isn’t Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner. He’s an active player. James knew about his cards being actioned for a combined $2.7 million.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “That’s the first thing I think about when I think about where I come from, hearing those numbers — you didn’t hear those numbers much growing up, obviously, where I’m from. And the second thing I think about is I have two rookie cards of my own, so I’ll be good for a very, very long time. No matter what happens, I’m good.”
James, always an astute businessman, invested in his own cards, so he has each of those rare editions.
The marriage between Doc Rivers and the 76ers occurred quickly, the moment the club found out he was interested in the coaching job. Rivers was named coach Thursday after rapid negotiations. The 76ers needed Rivers’s credibility and Rivers needed an opportunity to resuscitate his reputation after the Clippers’ blew a 3-1 series lead against the Nuggets. Rivers departed the Clippers on Monday after seven seasons after a disagreement with owner Steve Ballmer about the direction of the team. With the 76ers, Rivers inherits two All-Stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but unrealized expectations under previous coach Brett Brown. Rivers has fared well coaching big men and could do wonders for Embiid’s career, which stalled this season as the 76ers were eliminated in the first round by the Celtics . . . The NBA has yet to set the free agent schedule, meaning that many players with options in their contracts cannot make decisions because there have been no deadlines set, so teams cannot have any contact with these players about their contracts, even if they have already made a decision to opt in or out. One Celtics option to watch is former second-round pick Semi Ojeleye, a Brad Stevens favorite who took a step forward this season but may not be back because the Celtics seek to use his roster spot differently . . . Can confirm that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban picked up former Celtic Delonte West from a Dallas-area gas station and took him to a rehabilitation center, with the hopes that West can rebuild his life after difficult years following his playing career. West had been living with his mother in the D.C. area before he relocated to Dallas, where he had lived for a stint following a short time with the Mavericks. West has been diagnosed as bipolar and several of West’s former coaches and teammates have been concerned about his welfare for years. West, 37, last played in the NBA eight years ago and since then has been bouncing around, hoping for one more NBA shot before his life took a downturn. What hurts those around him even more is West is one of the most gracious and sincere people when he is in the right state of mind. West could have received more help as a player had the NBA had the mental health programs it does now. West has had a difficult life and deserves a second chance to make the best of his post-NBA career.
Gary Washburn can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.