Birth of the Cool.

Recently, I started telling people that Salt Lake City had made its way on my radar as a place I’d consider moving when I’m done kicking rocks in my home-’burb and I decide to live paycheck-to-paycheck in another western American city. It’s always refreshing to have a new landing strip to crash-and-burn on in my mind, and Salt Lake City is probably my most bizarre, self-absorbed geographical fascination yet. I’ve been dropping the news casually, in the obnoxious way that folks in my generation casually reveal plans about shirking their lives in a particular place to try something new in a different one. “Yeah, I’ve thought about Salt Lake City lately,” I’ve been saying to anyone who’d listen, stretching my arms casually looking towards the East, ostensibly in the direction of hardened, unseen mountains and sprawling lakes of salt. “I could see myself there, you know? I’ve really heard some good things about it.” In all the times I’ve airdropped this news, and to my dual delight and dismay, my shrugging wanderlust has produced a nearly uniform reaction: a strained, puzzled look, as if I’d opened my mouth and dry kidney beans had started pouring out instead of my voice. They’d clear their throats, and say with admirable restraint: “Salt Lake City? In Utah? Why would you want to move there?”

I think I can understand the sentiment, even though the sentiment itself is problematic. If we’re going by the discourse produced and consumed by most individuals, America has a strange, hesitating relationship with the state of Utah, and in many ways, the relationship feels mutual. In the cultural imaginations of the average American, Utah represents difference; practices and personalities that don’t quite line up with the rank-and-file. Undoubtedly, much of this has to do with how we perceive the Mormon church, or more specifically, the aspects of the church that the average tummy-scratching citizen is interested in: fictionalized and/or sensationalized accounts of polygamy, mysterious secrets and strange councils, and oppressive, armed sects. These perceptions are actualized movies like SLC Punk! and television shows like Big Love, fabulously deviant romps that present themes of the individual fighting against a hegemonic, sinister church. Rumors of a fundamentalist land make their way to both coasts, panicked dispatches like I’ve heard they only have 3/2 beer there” or ”I’ve heard all the clubs have a $30 cover,” and the resulting product is a mess. For those who haven’t spent much time in Utah — I’d wager that’s most of us — Utah feels a bit foreign, like a place that seems hard to understand, and maybe even like a place that might not want to be fully understood.

I would argue that much of this sentiment comes from our relationship with the Utah Jazz, who for a long time were the most visible representation of the state of Utah. During the mid-to-late 20th century, and into the first few years of the 21st century, the Utah Jazz were the Western Conference’s most consistent contender, and casual fans outside of Utah — especially those my age, who were children during this period — were prompted to make sense of the team for themselves. Finding words to describe that version of the Utah Jazz was, and remains, difficult. Of course, Karl Malone and John Stockton were the players who introduced the concept of the “pick and roll” to me, and for several years, I joined others in watching the diminutive point guard dart around his larger counterpart, weaving through massive bodies and zipping passes to preferred targets. Over time, like others outside of Utah, I grew to hate the team, deeply. The snow-capped mountain on their jersey seemed to be a sickeningly perfect symbol for the team; anchored by presences who, from my perspective, had been in Utah forever, set firmly in the landscape, and looking down ominously on potential foes with their eyes fixed on the summit. Karl Malone scored points and skewed racial perceptions, wearing wide-brimmed hats and cowboy boots as he, steadily producing through age and injury. Jerry Sloan cemented his legacy as the league’s premier hard-ass, a man you’d never want to fuck with, and for the last part of the 20th century, the Jazz were a monolith: massive, mighty, and mysterious.

But there was always something more sinister to the Jazz, something that couldn’t be ridiculed in a retroactively-awful-blackface-routine from Jimmy Kimmel; a certain conceit that the Jazz were also representative of the place they played in, a place I struggled to understand. There would be nothing tangible that would either solidify or deconstruct this concept in my mind, just small, uncomfortable leaks that would emerge. Much of this came to light in 2007, after former center John Amaechi came out, and unleashed some disturbing — yet, hardly surprising — accusations against his former coach, and the then-living owner of the team Larry Miller. In his words, and in actions that followed, strongly held suspicions seemed confirmed: that this was not a tolerant place, and that this team was representative of that intolerance. Amaechi accused his coach of using homophobic slurs in practice, and stoking hateful fires in the locker-room. He extended his critique to the owner Larry Miller, whom he called a “bigot” and a “homophobe.” Such accusations seemed to hold water, given that Miller, who owned several movie theaters in Utah, pulled Brokeback Mountain from his establishments because they “threatened the traditional institution of marriage” (though he later apologized for this move).  Even after Malone and Stockton retired, and Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams took their places in the vaunted pick-and-roll (and beat my team in the second round of the playoffs in 2007), and after their departures, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap; even after I purchased League Pass in 2008 and started truly investigating out-of-market contests on a nightly basis; even after Larry Miller died and left his vast business empire to his son, Greg Miller; even after Jerry Sloan and lead assistant Phil Johnson left the Utah Jazz after a rumored falling-out with his star point guard — details that have never been confirmed or denied by any party — and Tyrone Corbin took the helm, these feelings never left. As I did as a child, I would look out on the almost-exclusively-white-skinned crowd packed into the former Delta Center, and not understand what I saw. I did not understand, I did not want to understand, and felt I never would.

But times change. People do too; slowly, almost imperceptibly. The American West is vast and beautiful, and the new Utah Jazz have become a part of that glorious new West. The erosion of the old Jazz happened piecemeal, and the birth of the cool snuck-up on us without announcing its arrival. The mountainous uniforms and branding have been done away with, replaced with the clean, classic threads of the team’s late New Orleans/early Salt Lake City past, highlighted by perhaps the best logos and branding in the NBA. In the firing of Tyrone Corbin, and the arrival of Quin Snyder, the Jazz have put the Sloan era to bed; while fans are happy to regale him, and any other Jazz member from the recent glory years with ample amounts of admiration and respect, there is clearly a new leader in town. Gordon Hayward has ascended into the realm of borderline star; another member of a rapidly-evolving caste of two-guards who can be counted on to lead the team in scoring, as well as guard the other team’s talented perimeter players. He is flanked ably by Alec Burks, Trey Burke and Dante Exum, quick, talented guards and open-floor phenoms who handle the ball, play defense and orchestrate the offense. The front-line is stacked, anchored by burly Derrick Favors — averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds in this early season — supported by Enes Kanter, who is slowly morphing into a dangerous stretch-four, and highlighted by Rudy Gobert, he of unlimited wingspan and inconceivable vertical leaping. They are augmented by free-agent signings Joe Ingles, who turned heads at the FIBA World Cup, and Trevor Booker, who has delighted with his impressively expanded game, and a versatility that fits in well with the rest of the team. And, at the moment, they sit at 5-7, having won games in exciting fashions, including two game winners. In the wake of troubling greatness, we are left with something that, for the casual fan, is far more exciting: a new vision, a new path, and modern, free-flowing basketball with players who are entrenching themselves in our minds, presumably for years to come.

Certainly, there is still work to do. For if it feels like we are just getting to know these Jazz, it is because in many ways, we are. Much like their other small-market counterparts, the Jazz seemingly have been very selective about who they let cover their team. Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune remain the primary credentialed voices that offer dispatches outside of the team. Most of the Jazz’s excellent fan blogs — SLC Dunk, Salt City Hoops (who do enjoy media access), and Purple and Blues, to name but a few — offer mostly secondary takes on the team; informed observations, but certainly lacking in the primary sources that other NBA team blogs can access. Though the team employs a number of writers who write directly for the site, these pieces end up being mostly explainers and character-profiles. At this point, our impression of the team is still superficial. If the Jazz were to deregulate themselves even further — open up their franchise for others to see, to understand — there is no reason that they, and their state, could continue to go through the re-imagination they’ve been enjoying. Once written off, Salt Lake City has become known as “the gayest town in America,” and  environmentalists and young, left-leaning individuals move to the city to make new lives for themselves. While rennaissance seems like a strong word, the city, and the state, seem to be going through a transformation in the minds of others. It’s very compelling that the Jazz are a part of this, as well.

Tonight, the Warriors play the Jazz. I expect the contest to be hard-fought and fun. And while I hope that my team prevails in the end, I also know that for huge stretches of the game, I will be watching the team from Utah move the ball crisply, run a high-powered offense that makes effective new use of exciting young players I’ve only recently grown to love. It’s hard to know where this affection will lead me. It’s hard to think about leaving the Bay Area, and the Warriors, behind for Salt Lake City. But cool is hard to deny, and at this point in the season, there are few teams — and places — that are cooler than Utah and their strangely-tuned Jazz.

Note: It has been pointed out to the author that Salt City Hoops has media credentials with the Jazz, as well as several other radio stations and smaller publications. The post has been edited to reflect this. The author regrets his error. 

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How The Player’s Association Can Win a Labor Stoppage in 2017

Last week I wrote about the various public statements Michele Roberts—the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) new executive director—has made since being hired. I concluded that she was a good hire by the NBPA, and that if/when there is a labor stoppage in 2017 (which I think there will be), she will employ a much better strategy than Billy Hunter/Derek Fisher did in 2011. Today I want to continue this conversation by talking about how.

It is important to get this out of the way first: there is no even remotely credible alternative league for players to join. There were suggestions during the 2011 lockout that players could find wealthy backers or “venture capital” to fund a Bizzaro NBA, but that’s a barely plausible idea. Running a sports league (a multi-billion dollar business) isn’t like putting together an IKEA bedside table, where all you need is an allen wrench. Sure, you can run some high-profile charity games or a short international barnstorming tour, but the players aren’t just going stumble into NBA 2.0 halfway through a labor stoppage.

There are also no already-established challengers. There’s no ABA, or even an XFL. The best player Europe or China has ever been able to poach is Josh Childress. The NCAA not only doesn’t pay players, it actively bars them from profiting off of their own likeness. Any discussion of the NBPA’s strategy has to start with the understanding that the NBA is the only game in town.

Michele Roberts has come out and said that the individual owners don’t really matter: “Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money … Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.” She isn’t advocating for an NBA alternative, but making the common sense argument that players provide more value to the NBA than owners. If you’re not from Milwaukee, you probably can’t even name the guy that owned the Bucks for almost 30 years. The players tried to make a version of this argument during the last lockout, but failed miserably at articulating it. With how easily the Kings, Clippers, and Bucks recently found owners—and how mind-boggling much their previous owners were paid—this argument should be more credible next time.

But all this overstates the importance of there being a ready replacement for the NBA. Yes, the players would be in a stronger position if there were, but that doesn’t mean without it they can’t have a strong position. It is a shallow view of leverage that the NBPA can only win by walking away completely.

In the event of a labor stoppage in 2017, the NBPA’s messaging should hammer home the (not entirely true) message that NBA players are worse off than the athletes in other major professional sports. They should point to MLB players like Giancarlo Stanton signing uncapped, fully guaranteed contracts for $325 million, while the biggest contract LeBron Freaking James  ever signed was for $110 million. They should point to NHL players getting 57% of all hockey-related revenue, while NBA players only get 50% of basketball-related income (BRI). They should point to stagnant national television viewership, while ratings are rising for most other sports.

The biggest alternative to the NBA isn’t a basketball league, but the highest level of other professional sports. The NBPA can put together a reasonable-sounding argument to the public that they’re getting screwed relative to other professional athletes, and can put together a reasonable-sounding argument to the owners that in a prolonged labor stoppage fans will just tune into football or hockey, and forget they ever cared about basketball in the first place. That cannibalization of the NBA’s long-term profits will come from an increasingly crowded sports marketplace, not a basketball league upstart.

The NBA has also lost what was probably its biggest weapon in the last lockout: the ability to claim that numerous teams are losing vast sums of money. The NBA never even reasonably demonstrated this, with the NBPA disputing their figures and the league never making public any sort of documented evidence. The NBA asked the public to trust them, and the public did.

But now we have some actual figures, namely some of the information from a memo that Zach Lowe obtained, one the NBPA can surely get its hands on in full. The headline that the Brooklyn Nets lost $144 million in 2013-14—and that nine teams overall lost money—seems pretty bad. But the Nets are funded by a cartoon-villain multi-billionaire who is almost purposefully throwing good money after bad, and are in no way representative of league finances. The second most money-losingest team was the Wizards, who only lost $13 million. Then there are the teams making $100 million (Lakers), $61 million (Bulls), $41 million (Rockets), $33 million (Celtics), and $29 million (Thunder). It is undeniable that the league, on the whole, is profitable. And about to get even more profitable.

Currently, the league gets $930 million annually as part of its national television deal, meaning $31 million per team. After spending the required 50% on player salaries, that leaves each team to pocket about $15 million. Well, under the new TV deal that just so happens to kick-in for the 2016 season—which starts six weeks before the deadline for either the league or players to opt-out of the CBA—the NBA is paid about $2.66 billion annually. Each team will get about $88 million, $44 million to put towards player salaries and $44 million to pocket. If that were the revenue structure this year, the Wizards $13 million loss would actually be a $16 million gain. Every single team in the league would be profitable, bar the ridiculous Nets.

Furthermore, the NBPA can make the argument it head-scratchingly declined to in the last lockout, that the real value for owners is upon sale of their franchise. Donald Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million. If you use the generally accepted long-term rate of return for stock market investments (and I realize there is some debate about this) of 10% annually, $12.5 million that was invested in 1981 would have ballooned to $290 million. Well, Donald Sterling sold the Clippers for almost seven times that, for $2 billion. He got a 16.6% annual rate of return on his investment. Herb Kohl bought the Bucks for $18 million in 1985 and sold it for $550 in 2014, an annual rate of return of 12.5%.

The point being, EVEN IF we accept that owners are losing money every year—and to be clear, we do not—they will still recoup their investment on the back end. Steve Ballmer was asked about this on Reddit recently, and he gave a succinct (if awkwardly phrased) and accurate answer about buying the Clippers: “It will be a good investment financially but not awesome and not bad.” Not every owner can cash out like Donald Sterling, but they can all cash out. Unless an owner runs an abjectly terribly managed franchise, they will always profit in the long run. You can’t say this about any other business. Sports franchises are the bonds of the business world: not sexy or the maximum-possible profit, but a near-guaranteed one at least.

This is what I mean when I write that the NBPA should attack the foundation of the NBA. During the 2011 lockout, the league was able to anchor the discussions around a series of “truths”: numerous franchises are losing money, there is no credible alternative to the NBA, players should be penalized with reduced contract length because franchises hand out so many dumb contracts, both a salary cap and maximum-contract cap are good for the league, etc. Except for occasional jabs, the NBPA let these assumptions stand. They fought around the margins of how much BRI the players should give up, what percentage of the salary cap maximum contracts should be capped at, the rare exceptions to maximum-contract lengths, etc. After that, it was just a matter of how badly they got routed by the NBA.

Judging by her rhetoric, Michele Roberts won’t be content to fight the NBA for the scraps the league deigns to leave on the table. If she can make some of the above arguments resonate, she won’t have to.

 

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GAMES OF THE WEEK, 11/17-11/23

MONDAY: MIAMI AT BROOKLYN 7:30 East, 4:30 West

Can I be honest with everyone? We’re like three weeks in and I am starting to feel like I am falling behind on the show. I have watched most of the Trail Blazers’ games, and I feel like I have a pretty definitive opinion about what they’re up to (Same as last year, pretty much.) but I don’t know what the Miami experience is like, or what is happening in Minnesota (What is Andrew Wiggins? Is there a transcendence there?), or, shamefully, because everyone is just RAVING, New Orleans. I also don’t know anything about the Nets, but I think I am comfortable with that. Hopefully this will be the only game of theirs I watch, and I can build a definitive, presentable opinion around it.

TUESDAY: PELICANS AT KINGS 7PM West, 10 PM East NBATV

dissone

WEDNESDAY: SAN ANTONIO AT CLEVELAND 7 PM East, 4 PM West ESPN

The next iteration of this game will probably be the better one, since the Cavs might REALLY have their shit together by then, but this will be good, too. Kind of like a Finals rematch!

I was watching a regular season Knicks/Rockets game on YouTube once, a Finals rematch, and they had one of those narrative intros on before the game started. Apparently John Starks had a really good game against the Rockets the next time they played and in the little montage the narrator said “Starks redeemed his game seven performance by scoring such and howevermany points” and I thought “No he didn’t, people still EXCLUSIVELY remember that game as the one where Starks missed 10  or so three pointers!” The only time an NBA team have ever truly redeemed itself in the eyes of judgmental public is when the Spurs beat the Heat last year. Everyone else is trapped inside their shameful performances in the biggest games of their careers forever.

John Starks (L) of the Utah Jazz is fouled by Kobe

THURSDAY: CHICAGO AT SACRAMENTO 7:30 WEST, 10:30 EAST TNT

There’s only two games on and they’re both pretty good. I think the Clippers are in the other one. Maybe they’re playing, uhh, Toronto? Let me check. Oh, Miami. That’s a pretty star-studded affair, that could be good. I was watching Miami play Milwaukee today and I took a nap, not because the game was boring, it was actually a good game, but I was watching it on my bed and I was kind of tired. It’s been really cold and I think I am going to a kind of hibernation place with the NBA. Do bears have a League Pass equivalent? What game would a bear play? I think a lot of people might say football, but I think bears could only play on the line. The other day I was riding my bike and I got an idea for a video game where you are a coach and GM in a football league, and all different types of animals are the different types of players. I think Bears would be good sumo wrestlers. If their hands were better they would certainly be AMUSING hockey players, if not good hockey players. A bear batting in a cricket game would be fun, but not bowling. Hey, if you guys ever want to know about how cricket works, come ask me, I have a pretty good idea about it. Sometimes I think that my destiny is to travel the world, watching cricket. Like the American cricket guy, the American who knows shit about cricket. I could wear seerscker shirts and baseball caps to test matches. Maybe a Mets cap. Like, “Yeah, sure, I like this British sport, but really, I’m a cool American dude who really like the Mets. I’m both at the same time. Very classy, but also very down to Earth, like a guy who likes the Mets. Hey; maybe cricket is more down to earth than I originally thought, if this guy likes it. I can watch cricket, if normal, Mets-Fan Corbin is down with it. What a cool guy! What an ambassador for cricket.”

FRIDAY:

spinthedial

But do not make it a joyous spin. Look at this atrocity of a slate:

disstwo

Shameful stuff. I order you to lie down on your couch and sadly slop through these games, one after the other, panning for amusement in a river of destitution, a sandy bed which holds only fish corpses. At around 6:30, pull out a tub of ice cream and try to find enlightenment there instead. At the end of the night, as the Warriors trot out their fifth unit against the Jazz in the fourth quarter, feel your eyelids shut. Oh, no, I don’t have pants on is your last thought before you go on a 12 hour journey through your own dreams, a mixture of the frightening or deeply boring things you say on NBA courts and the psychoactive dairy curdling in your deepest bowels. You wake up the next day, when your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend knocks on your door to take you to that tour of the local paper plant your had been planning for weeks.

SATURDAY: DALLAS AT HOUSTON 8 PM EAST, 5 PM WEST

THE GAMES OF THE WEEK SLEATER KINNEY SONG OF THE WEEK

THE SWIMMER from ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE

The coda of Sleater-Kinney’s fifth album is a melancholy ballad about a young woman who only feels she is herself while swimming; “On the land her body distorts/In the water lines are true to her mind.” Reflect on this masterpiece while you take in this contest between the Rockets and the Mavericks. Do you see the Swimmer in Patrick Beverly? I certainly do.

SUNDAY: CLIPPERS AT MEMPHIS 3PM WEST, 6PM EAST League Pass

There are some NBA writers who make a lot of hay out of trashing how the NBA markets their own product. I, personally, do not care that much about how much money the NBA makes, so I generally don’t have opinions of this matter. But I will say this: Clippers/Grizzlies should be a goddamn national holiday, front and center on TNT every time out, The Official NBA Game of Bad Feelings. Chris Paul and Mike Conley get in a chirping match at halfcourt: “This is an old school contest, Marv. These teams DO NOT like each other.” Marc Gasol, holding his hands up and walking away from Deandre. “I love it! Rough and tumble!” ZBo lays Blake out:  “There could be a real incident here. The refs are losing control of this game!”  But NO, BURIED ON LEAGUE PASS ON AN NFL SUNDAY! SHAMEFUL, NBA! SHAMEFUL!

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Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Sunday, November 16th, 2014.

First reader of the season. Lots of good stuff to dig into.

The Woman Who Will Change Sports
Pablo S. Torre
ESPN

Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA), made the media rounds last week. This interview conducted by ESPN’s Pablo Torre was the most illuminating work focused on Roberts. Torre does an excellent job running through an impressive gamut of issues facing the NBA’s players, including the last CBA negotiations (where the players were widely believed to have been ‘fleeced’ by ownership), the length of the season and biometric testing (an arena that Torre and Tom Haberstroh have already done excellent work reporting on). Roberts responses, at least rhetorically, are very impressive. Roberts presents herself as a hard-nosed, old-school union leader in this interview, questioning owner and NBA intent, and espousing values that labor leaders in far more impoverished sectors champion. Any left-leading ally of organized labor will appreciate Roberts’ words here — though without action, they are but words — and Torre did an excellent job with one of the more compelling figures in professional sports.

Ryan Anderson Tries to Move Forward after girlfriend Gia Allemand’s Death
Chris Ballard
Sports Illustrated

As I’ve said before, most basketball longform falls into a safe-yet-tired motif; the story of the woebegone baller who had all the talent in the world, yet pissed it all away due to an unexpected, undesirable set of circumstances, and the story of their rebirth and redemption. And, in a few subtle ways, this piece falls into that story arc as well. But the story itself does not match the motif: this one is far too gut-wrenching. In this longform, Chris Ballard shares the story of Ryan Anderson, the talented Northern California forward whose girlfriend, Gia Allemand, committed suicide last year after a lifetime of dealing with depression and other mental health issues. From the onset, this story is quiet and sad; digging deep into the depths of several people who were drastically affected by the suicide, and asking hard questions about how one forgives and moves on. For me, the best part of this piece was the close examination of Monty Williams, who gathered Anderson in and took care of him until he could stand again on his own. Ballard does an excellent job providing details about all of the story’s characters, and allows the reader to feel the same vulnerabilities that Anderson, Allemand’s family, and others in the tale did, and still do. Ballard has long been a favorite, and this is one of his best pieces I’ve ever read.

Keep Moving: the Nomadic Life of an Assistant Basketball Coach
Michael Croley
SB Nation

Though not technically NBA, I really enjoyed this longform by Michael Croley about Gus Hauser, who has been an assistant coach in the DI basketball since the mid 1990s. Croley, who spent time on both Rick Pitino and Reggie Theus’ staffs, has some very interesting insights into the internal and external politics of college basketball, where the focus for everyone is on what’s next, be that the NBA, another job, or the unemployment line. Many of the things we learn in this piece are things we’ve known for a long time — the job doesn’t have a lot of security, there are long hours, marriages frequently fail, and so on — but Gus Hauser as a character keeps the reader engaged and wanting to know more. In Hauser, Croley describes a patient, hard-driving man who is optimistic, almost to a harmful degree. There are many interesting tie-ins, for both college and professional basketball fans, as well as individuals on the back-end of their 30′s, trying to figure out whether they’re ahead, behind, or right on track with where they thought they should be at this time in their lives. If you have 20 minutes, give this piece a read; you’ll be glad you did.

Sixth Man still comes with Stigma among NBA Players
Sam Amick
USA Today Sports

One of my favorite aspects about Sam Amick as a writer is that he can take a question that might make a player upset — “What are your feelings about not starting anymore? — and turn it into a larger piece that shows both the positives and negatives about such a taboo subject. This piece hones in on the feelings a player experiences once a coach lets them know that they’re not in the starting rotation, despite for many of them, they’d started nearly every game of their careers up until that point. The piece hones in on a few bench stalwarts, including Ginobili and Isiah Thomas, as well as a few newcomers to the job, like Andre Iguodala, and mines them for their experiences and impressions on coming off the bench, as well as the insecurities they might feel. The players clearly are struggling with the role, and they seem to be honest about it. Amick frequently provides pieces that are refreshing due to their honest nature, and this one is no different.

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Holy Shit, the NBPA Has An Actual Leader

The 2011 NBA lockout was many things, but one of the most prominent was an internal leadership squabble within the National Basketball Players Association. The NBPA was, and had been for years, a clusterfuck. President Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter took turns undermining each other and implementing half-baked strategies that only led the union to the rendering plant. Four years later the acrimony lingers, with Billy Hunter’s lawsuit for breach of contract against the union ongoing, and genuinely puzzling conspiratorial questions about why NBA owners continued to pay Derek Fisher to “play” “basketball” through 2014.

After a loooooong search process typified by fits-and-starts, this summer the NBPA finally hired trial lawyer Michele Roberts as its executive director. Trial lawyers are known for their combativeness—hell, it’s their essential job function—and Roberts is no exception, reportedly telling the players, “my past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”

Damn. DAMN!

There will probably be another labor dispute in 2017, when either side can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement. If so, Michele Roberts seems like the perfect person to lead the players union. In an interview with ESPN the Magazine that dropped today, Roberts showed she isn’t playing around.

She went in on the fundamental uselessness of owners:

“Why don’t we have the owners play half the games?” Roberts said, speaking in her Harlem office to ESPN The Magazine. “There would be no money if not for the players.”

“Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money,” she added, pausing for emphasis. “Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”

The salary cap:

“I can’t understand why the [players' association] would be interested in suppressing salaries at the top if we know that as salaries at the top have grown, so have salaries at the bottom,” she said. “If that’s the case, I contend that there is no reason in the world why the union should embrace salary caps or any effort to place a barrier on the amount of money that marquee players can make.”

The age limit:

“It doesn’t make sense to me that you’re suddenly eligible and ready to make money when you’re 20, but not when you’re 19, not when you’re 18,” she said. “I suspect that the association will agree that this is not going to be one that they will agree to easily. There is no other profession that says that you’re old enough to die but not old enough to work.”

And a whole lot more that you should really go read.

As someone who predominantly supports unions—and sure as hell doesn’t support billionaires crying fake poor to make more money—the only thing I can say is: finally. Finally the NBPA has a leader who gets it. Derek Fisher and Billly Hunter were so nearsighted they kept running into trees—unable to even comprehend that there was a forest—while sabotaging each others efforts and arguing about whether players should get 52% or 53% of Basketball Related Income.

Ethan is 100 percent right here: most of the NBA’s foundation is worth questioning, and that’s what Roberts should be, and seems to be, doing. There are various assumptions, policies, and strategies baked into the NBA that don’t make much sense, and more often than not these things limit player freedom or cost players money.

The NBA’s asinine small-market strategy costs it millions or billions of dollars, something that harms both players and owners, except that owners get to sell their teams and cash out before being hurt. The NBA’s dumb broadcast strategy promotes the careers of players on the 20% of teams the NBA has decided matters at the expense of the other 80%. The NBA’s age limit—and the puzzling support the league gives to the NCAA—is a joke that does absolutely nothing to help players. And we haven’t even gotten to the juicy aspects of the CBA that Roberts should—and certainly will—question.

If I may venture into the deep-end, the NBPA had the Obama problem. In a New Republic piece on Obama and Valerie Jarrett’s relationship, Noam Schreiber astutely characterizes the Obama administration’s missteps in negotiating with conservatives:

Second, the White House completely misunderstood the psychology of House Republicans, who took Obama’s concessions as a vindication of their anti-spending mania and repeatedly balked at tax increases. Inexplicably, the White House continued to pursue a deal for years after the GOP showed its bad faith, efforts that Jarrett supported as well.

It wasn’t the only time she got burned by assuming good intentions. In 2010, Jarrett met with members of the Business Roundtable, a group representing the largest corporations in the country. She was proud that she had dialed back the president’s occasional verbal salvos and hoped it might win him some support in exchange. “She was like, ‘Last time I was here, you guys told us the key thing was the rhetoric,’” recalls a former colleague. “ ‘Look at the president’s speeches. They’re very different in tone based on your input.’”

The group’s chairman took this all in, then offered the all-too-predictable response. “Yes, yes, we noted that,” he said, according to the colleague. “We have five other objections.”

The parallels to how the players negotiated during the lockout are striking. At different times Hunter and Fisher attempted to strike a Grand Bargain by offering a concession as a good faith effort. Instead, the owners (correctly) saw those concessions as evidence of weakness, took them, and then demanded more. Negotiating this way won’t work in 2017, just like it didn’t work in 2011, especially since the players are in such a demonstrably weaker position. If the union tries it that way again, it’ll just be another trip back to the rendering plant.

As of now, this is all just rhetoric. Michele Roberts hasn’t had to, you know, actually do anything as executive director except for give some interviews. But that will change soon. The huge new media deal the NBA signed is going to make the salary cap skyrocket before the 2016 season, a situation the league would like to avoid by implementing a “smoothing” mechanism ASAP. To do so, however, they’ll need the players to go along with it. What does Michele Roberts think?

“You can call it a ‘spike,’ but it’s also just an accurate reflection of what the revenue is,” she said. “At first glance, [cap smoothing] is not that attractive, I won’t lie. But we’re studying it to figure out if there really is some advantage for players.”

In three sentences Roberts has perfectly summed up what should be her mantra going forward. She isn’t hiding behind “the good of the game” or some aphorism, but baldly describing her duty: to study stuff and try and find an advantage for the players. It may not seem like much, but it represents the most competent leadership the players have had for decades.

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Momentary joys of being in the Moment

Through five games, everything was terrible and through six games it probably still is. A Lakers fan can’t visit any of their favorite NBA sites without facing ridicule and mean-spirited jokes ripping Kobe, Byron Scott, Carlos Boozer’s penchant for yelling “And one motherfucker!” no matter the score, the Buss family, and the Lakers unstoppable mudslide into the flesh-ripping craggy rocks of the Pacific. And even now, after the Lakers have won a game, they are a bad team in a mercilessly stacked conference. But for about two hours on an otherwise forgettable Sunday night in November, the Lakers delivered me from my numb escapism into world of feeling, a world of now.

The Lakers suck, but I haven’t watched many regular season games in recent memory with the same riveted fixation with which I watched that game against the Hornets. At 0-5, with Kobe trying harder to eke out otherwise meaningless wins in a lost season to the point that his usage rate is bordering on the insane and physically unsustainable, there shouldn’t be much beyond his Herculean efforts riding on these miserable games, but that couldn’t have been further from my experience. Instead of balling up into a cynical mass of unfeeling bitterness, I rode on a fragile precipice of caring: too much, too little, just right, just natural? What the fuck was I doing letting myself hope with a team already allowing themselves to be defined by an inability to compete in close games? Twice already on these dark fall nights the shorthanded and outmatched Lakers have fought and scrapped deep into the bowels of fourth quarters only to fall short, giving their objective and subjective detractors more fuel with which to throw on the funeral pyre of the 2014-15 Lakers.

On November 4th, the night the Republicans won all sorts of elections across this strange country while those same voters voted in favor of numerous liberal causes, I sat at an indoor picnic table at Dr. Jack’s at the Rose Quarter in Portland. It’s pretty much part of the Moda Center, but oddly enough not a single employee could tell me and my friend Zach whether or not they had League Pass. We fired up the iPhone and crowded our early-to-mid-30s shoulders around the little screen to watch the fourth quarter of the Suns at Lakers. All around us the Blazer-faithful flitted and laughed with their massive hipster beards and era-spanning jerseys, filled with the glee (and beer) of beating back the royal Cavs of Cleveland, basking in the return to all-star form of Damian Lillard. We sipped our IPAs and watched the seesaw Lakers while making pacts on possible outcomes: “OK, if the Lakers win, we’ll get wings and another beer.” The Suns lead grew as high as eight and our sails were windless, flopping emptily in the Portland night only to be resuscitated. Vintage Kobe buckets and Jeremy Lin free throws lifted us to hopeful feet. Our chicken wings were maybe some kind of reality, but we’re both grizzled men with years of NBA fandom under our ever-tightening belts. The Lakers pulled within one only to have Phoenix crank it back to five so we modified our arrangement: “If Kobe gets 40, we’ll get our wings.” We settled because in 2014, when a Lakers fan is bent on celebration sometimes the win that might grant release doesn’t come and when that happens, you still want your damn wings. Kobe didn’t get his 40, the Lakers didn’t win, but we still ordered those wings and then walked uphill to our hotel, buzzed, defeated (twice – thanks LeBron), no longer hungry, but not quite satisfied either.

With memories like those so close to the surface, I sat through halftime of the Hornets game with the Lakers down 51-42 shooting under 40% and 0-8 from three. Internally, I was unconsciously fighting about whether or not I could let myself feel something this Lakers second half. It was like two tiny oceans clashing in the core of my guts without any intent except forward force. Masters of the sea? Pfft. Before the game I had texted friends that I thought this was the night LA broke the winless streak and whether I wanted to be right or truly believed the Lakers would win, I stepped into that second half a scared man. But something happened on the way to the funeral. Instead of shooting 40% and missing every three attempted, the Lakers bounded out of the locker room breathing hope into my thirsty lungs. The comeback was focused like single-minded jump-first-ask-questions-later Jeremy Lin drives. The Lakers attack was a wave of Sunday white that I and we desperately needed. Four of five from deep while out-rebounding Charlotte 14 to five in the quarter? It reminded me of Julio Chavez Jr.’s legendary 12th round comeback against a dominant Sergio Martinez a couple years back, but Julio fell short despite uplifting an entire country and sport in the process. I don’t identify with any notion of a Laker nation, but this weird third quarter was micro-galvanizing and probably I’m overreacting, but it was a mini-scaled version of the Laker claw-back against Portland in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Similar in the sense it was needed, fans were desperate to be rescued and the Lakers delivered. People may burn effigies of my body at that comparison (and I’d simultaneously be flattered and creeped the fuck out), but I can only write to what I feel and the other night of this hopeless gauntlet of a Lakers season, I was full of all the feelings.

If the Lakers won, an alcohol-themed celebration was in order, but a man who’s been hurt is desperate to avoid that feeling again. I tried to detach and hold feelings at an arm’s length, but anyone who has ever loved knows the heart wants what the heart wants. I was begrudging and giddy to accept my feelings, a man split down the middle like a seedless avocado with one half ready to be ground into creamy guacamole and the other half rotting and grayish brown awaiting a stinky destiny in the nearest trash can or compost bin if you float that way.

Believe me friends when I tell you that the Lakers didn’t give it away. Despite giving up 58% shooting and sending the Hornets to line 18 times in the final period, the Lakers shot an improbable 13-21 with assists on 11 of their 13 field goals, a testament more to un-Laker-like great shooting instead of good shots from cohesive ball movement. Eight Lakers scored in the final period and it was probably some kind of apropos that Kobe scored the least of them, just two points on one of five shooting.

I celebrated with two big cans of frothy, foamy Guinness while basking in a combination of what I hoped was my own relief and the disappointment of Laker haters around the world. It was a laid back celebration and my Guinness well-earned.

In the immortal words of Fight Club: “This kid from work, Ricky, couldn’t remember whether you ordered pens with blue ink or black. But Ricky was a god for 10 minutes when he trounced the maître d’ of a local food court.” Sunday night didn’t elevate the Lakers up the NBA food chain, but for that 24 minutes of 60%-plus shooting in the second half, they were gods worthy of their fans unconditional appreciation.

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: 8/10-8/17

Hey, how is everyone feeling about this NBA season? Good? Are your dreams coming true? Are you being surprised by good things and having other good things you believed confirmed? I certainly hope so, I hope all of those dreams are coming true for you. I hope your pleasures and complete and expanding. Unless you root for the Lakers, in which case I hope you suffer to the ends of the Earth to pay for years of excess. Winning is sinful, repent repent repent.

MONDAY, UTAH AT INDIANA, 7PM EAST, 4PM WEST, BANKERS LIFE FIELDHOUSE

Man, three bucks! Out here in Portland metro we’re spending 25 goddamn dollars for a live basketball experience! I say you hop on a train, or a motorcycle,  get on ol’ StubHub, and see what happens at this game between two weird lotteryish teams! Maybe no one on Utah can guard Hibbert and a 110-108 fire breaks out! Maybe this is “The Dante Exum Game!” Or, if you get REALLY lucky, you will be present at the game where Gordon Hayward’s tears heal a blind child! Anything can happen and you can be there for ONLY THREE DOLLARS!

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TUESDAY: SACRAMENTO AT DALLAS 8:30 EAST, 5:30 WEST

Look, the Kings lost to the busted-ass incarnation of the Thunder tonight, so who really knows. But god help us they might be the future and I’m not going to sit here on this website and tell you to turn your head away from the future! The Kings could lose EVERY game over the next two weeks and become deeply non-recommendable! At this moment in time, this precious moment, the Kings are hot and winning and you need to hang onto them until the moment they’re not, God forbid!

WEDNESDAY: INDIANA AT MIAMI, 7:30 EAST, 4:30 WEST, ESPN

If you watch this game hard enough, you can actually see Lebron and Paul George’s ghosts going one on one. Can you see it? Is it in your grasp? A past that might have been the future?

THURSDAY: SACRAMENTO AT MEMPHIS: 8 PM EAST, 5 PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

I don’t even have a joke, honestly. You should watch this game, because these teams are wildly entertaining and overflowing with personality. There are no jokes to be made about ZBo tossing up a hook over Reggie Evans. It’s the most serious thing in the world and also the most serious. It is the “Three Colors: Blue” of basketball plays. Deeply serious, and also very moving.

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FRIDAY: MILWAUKEE AT ORLANDO, 7PM EAST, 4PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

How deep if your thirst for knowledge? What would you do to find out the truth? A searcher’s question follows. The Milwaukee Bucks: are they bad, or average? Only one game contain the answer you seek: if they lose to the Magic on the road, they are almost certainly a bad team. BUT, if they VANQUISH Orlando’s finest sons, they are a step close to being regarded as “Pretty okay, maybe not a bad team. OJ is looking pretty good this year!” SEEK TRUTHS IN DARK CORNERS, AND YOU WILL FIND THE ENLIGHTENMENT YOU CRAVE.

SATURDAY: PHOENIX AT LA CLIPPERS, 7:30 WEST, 10:30

If the Clippers are the Grateful Dead, and they are, because everyone is the Grateful Dead on some level, Chris is Jerry and Blake is Bob Weir. Chris is a noodly genius who does better solos and does the stuff that the true heads revere. But Blake is more “Real world” charismatic, the kind of person who appeals to actual human beings and not just burned out basketheads. The Suns are probably more Allman Brothers-y, but I honestly couldn’t tell you who Duane is. I am not a music equivalence scientist, I had no desire to take the math to make it happen.

SUNDAY: DENVER AT KNICKS, 1 PM EAST, 10 PM WEST

I love early Sunday Knicks games. I remember once I watched half a Knicks/Sixers game in the train station in Olympia and I saw John Mcenroe sitting with his daughter and wearing gold chain and a shirt with three buttons undone. It was some peak-ass dad majesty, lemme tell you about it.

Okay, it was two buttons. But spiritually, it was three.

My favorite thing about NBA crowds is that, for the most part, they don’t act like maniacs. The Sunday morning Knicks crowd lives this harder than any other crowd. “We’re just here to see a basketball game. We like basketball, no big deal. We’ll clap if something cool happens, WE GUESS.” I would watch ANY team play the Knicks on Sunday morning. The only thing that would make these things better is if they just gave everyone in the building pancakes to eat. You could probably get half the building sleeping in there, maximum relaximum.

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