by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments


The whistle is buried. The chalkboard is blank. The days when a coach spoke and a player listened?

Those days are gone.

There is no coaching anymore — not in the NBA, anyhow, where $100-million players are a way of life.

Coaching there has been replaced by “managing.” Managing means keeping a player happy. Managing means keeping an ego in check. Managing is what Paul Westphal tried unsuccessfully to do in Seattle, with sulking multimillionaires like Gary Payton and Vin Baker.

Payton has star status. That means, in truth, he is the coach. He gets what he wants.

Payton wanted the team improved? The owner obliged, acquiring Patrick Ewing. Payton wanted to keep his buddy Baker on the squad? Westphal complied, even though Baker is hardly the player he once was.

Still, this was not enough for Payton, who felt “dissed” that he wasn’t consulted more. He and Baker all but sabotaged Westphal, culminating in a disgusting display during a game against the Mavericks, in which Payton snarled at Westphal, “I don’t care about this game anymore. You can suspend me for the rest of the year.”

Hmm. Not a bad idea.

But no. In today’s food chain, player eats coach. So Payton, who doesn’t care, wound up staying. Westphal, who does, got the ax. After his firing, Westphal said a remarkable thing. He said he had lost sight of what coaching was about.

He cited a game in which, during the fourth quarter, he had put Baker back on the floor — not because he wanted to, but because he was putting Ewing back in, and was “concerned about putting one starter back and not the other.”

He was worried Baker would be unhappy.

So he put them both in, and a lead disappeared and the team lost. And Westphal suddenly realized that he wasn’t using any of his considerable basketball acumen.

He was running a nursery school.

They just stop listening

Westphal is not alone. Everywhere you look, coaches are getting axed or walking away. Bobby Ross walks out on the Lions. Norv Turner gets his head chopped by the Redskins. Rick Pitino offers his resignation from the Celtics.

These are not men with thin portfolios. But they are soaked by the same storm: Their players have stopped listening.

This has become such a common problem that we have all but forgotten the reasons coaches used to get fired. They used to get fired because the system they used — the players they chose, the offense they ran, the defense they taught — didn’t work. Nowadays, your system could be sound. Your fundamentals unimpeachable. But if your superstar doesn’t want you around, you’re toast, baby. Pick up your check.

Can you imagine a guy like Red Auerbach — back in the glory days of the 1960s Celtics — putting a slumping player back in because his feelings might be hurt?

Nowadays, the inmates run the asylum. Remember when Grant Hill was in the last months of his contract with the Pistons? What was the first inducement offered to get him to stay? Not a $70-million contract. Not a car, a house or his own shopping mall.

Pick the coach.

“Go ahead,” the Pistons basically said. “Who do you want? Pick the man, and he’s yours, if that’ll keep you.”

And the amazing things is: Nobody complained! Fans took it in stride. We have accepted this insanity as status quo.

“They let you coach them,” Chuck Daly once said. “And after a point, they just stop listening.”

A case of disrespect

That is true. So is this: That point gets earlier and earlier.

Allen Iverson is only a few years past his 25th birthday, but has already demonstrated complete lack of concern for a coach’s simple request that he be on time for practice. How often was he late last year? Fifty times?

“So what?” the players say. “Fine me. I’d rather be fined than set the alarm.”

Under such a value system, what chance does a coach have?

No chance. What Westphal, Ross, Pitino and others are facing is a world turned upside down. What used to be “coaching” is now called “criticizing.” You can’t raise your voice. You have to watch your tone.

“You’re ‘disrespecting’ them if you tell them to get back on defense,” said Phoenix coach Scott Skiles. Players barely old enough to vote are demanding to be “treated like a man” — even as they behave like children.

This is one reason the NBA is sinking like a stone. True, when Michael Jordan was around, he was indeed the on-floor coach — but he was unique, and Phil Jackson knew enough to build an ecosystem around him.

The rest of these guys — Payton and Baker included — think they’re Jordan when they’re not even close. And to them, listening to the guy in the suit is a sign of weakness.

So we have sulking. We have showboating. We have players who choke, players who talk back, players who snarl and glare. We have men in their 50s trying to keep men in their 20s from being mad at them.

But we don’t have coaching. Not in the NBA. It is dead and gone.

Pretty soon, it won’t even be remembered.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Mitch will sign books at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Little Book Shoppe On The Park, 380 S. Main, Plymouth.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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