Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.

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Jeremy Lin, Media Stereotyping and Unfunny Stupidity

Basketball, Games, Management, Media, Players, Prospects

This Jeremy Lin phenomenon has been taking a dark turn with the ridiculous racial undertones that are permeating the reporting. It’s gotten so that people are double and triple checking their statements to make sure that they didn’t unintentionally or inadvertently use the wrong words and be viewed as racist or stereotyping.

The ESPN headline below from Sunday morning was foolish and probably a joke that was not intended to be published. It got someone fired from their job.

Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports said the following on Twitter:

Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.

It’s one thing to say something offensive to get yourself into trouble if it’s at least funny, but the stuff that’s coming out isn’t even remotely funny. They’re pathetic.

And here’s the thing about Lin: Lin is Asian, but he’s also an American.

He’s from Northern California, talks like he’s from Northern California, and went to Harvard. If he was a stereotypical immigrant and behaved like an over-the-top exchange student like Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, then there might be something to chuckle about in the cheap humor. That doesn’t mean people wouldn’t get into trouble, but at least it might be worthy of a laugh.

But the repeated references to Lin’s ethnicity are straddling and crossing the line of taste and offensiveness for no reason. It’s said that he’s “Asian-American”, but he’s as American as any other American playing in the NBA. He just happens to have Taiwanese parents.

It’s an unnecessary distraction from a great story and there’s plenty of stupid to go around.

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What Jeremy Lin Can Teach Us

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Everyone’s jumping on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon.

Hey, even I’m doing it and I don’t know anything about basketball and can’t watch the games because of the ongoing dispute between Time Warner and MSG.

If I could, I wouldn’t know what I was watching and wouldn’t claim to.

But there are two pieces in today’s NY Times that are discussing Lin’s rise from obscurity, journeyman status, the Ivy League, bad scouting and possibly a bit of stereotyping because he’s of Asian-American descent (by way of Northern California). He’s not a prototypical basketball player who’s easy to explain with buzzwords. Those buzzwords are phrased in such a way that few are willing to dispute them because they’re so encompassing and easy to use as adjectives whether they’re meaningful or not.

In one piece, Lin’s failure to attract attention as a high school and college player is discussed—link.

In the other, Nate Silver dissects Lin statistically—link.

The mistakes that were made with Lin are common and happen not just in sports but in all endeavors.

The words “can’t” and “never been done before” are limiting and hinder those with the ability to accomplish their goals. They’re exacerbated if the individual is saddled with an absence of self-confidence or determination to keep moving forward in the face of such negativity. Because Lin continued to try and wasn’t looking for the validation of others to let him think he had a chance to succeed, he hung around and when he received his opportunity, ran with it while holding and passing and shooting a basketball—very well by the looks of things.

In baseball this happens all the time as well.

How many times have we seen a player who wasn’t considered a prospect because of ingrained beliefs that were more of a safety net than legitimate analysis?

People want to keep their jobs and a major part of that for a conventional organization is playing it safe and having an explanation for why they do what they do.

“He had a 100-mph fastball.”

“He’s a 6’3”, 190 pound righty with a clean motion and great upside.”

“He’s a tools guy.”

They’re excuses.

One of the reasons Moneyball struck such a nerve wasn’t that it seemed to work for awhile, but because the players who would’ve been shunned in the past were given an opportunity out of the A’s desperation to find players who could help them at an affordable price. What went wrong was when the concept spun out of control to mean, as a baseline, that rather than looking for players who could play, everyone was supposed to find fat players who took a lot of pitches and drew walks at the expense of other attributes.

The infamous, “not trying to sell jeans” catchphrase became part of the lexicon to explain why a player was taken and it took on the same context of the opposite “reasons” (excuses) listed above.

Old school and new school became interchangeable in stupidity, self-aggrandizement and tribalism.

Suddenly, everyone who could calculate a player’s on base percentage or strikeout rate in the minors was qualified to advise Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre on how to run their teams.

And they did.

And it didn’t go well.

It’s happened repeatedly in baseball that a player like Tim Lincecum was passed over because of his uniqueness of motion, training and diminutive stature, but became a star because there was one team—the Giants—willing to adhere to the rules laid out by Lincecum’s father and judged him by his results rather than that he’s a “freak”.

Lesser known players have benefited from this phenomenon.

Mike Jacobs isn’t a great player, but he was a non-prospect for the Mets and wound up with a decent career because he was called up as an emergency catcher in 1995, batted as a pinch hitter on a Sunday game in which the Mets were losing, hit a home run and had to have Pedro Martinez stand up for him for the Mets to keep him around rather than send him back to the minors. The Mets put him in the lineup at first base and he kept hitting home runs.

Jacobs went from a 38th round pick and “organizational filler” to a big leaguer that was the centerpiece in the Mets acquisition of Carlos Delgado from the Marlins after the 2005 season.

Jacobs hit 100 homers in his big league career and is still hanging around as an extra player who’s been in the big leagues, can hit the ball out of the park once in a while and be a competent bench player who can catch in an emergency. (He’s going to camp with the Diamondbacks on a minor league contract.)

Martinez himself had been misjudged by then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and the team doctors as too small and fragile to be a durable and consistent long-term starting pitcher. He was a reliever as a rookie and was traded for Delino DeShields following the 1993 season.

DeShields happened to be a good player, but he was traded for one of the best pitchers in history and that’s not his fault.

The lack of comprehension surrounding Moneyball and its subsequent offshoots isn’t that people didn’t “get” what Michael Lewis was trying to highlight, but that they took it as the new way of running a club at the expense of old-school scouting techniques and gut instincts that have to be part of the game.

Because they had a bunch of players who would be keys to a “Rocky”-style story with “There’s a Place for Us” by Barbra Streisand playing in the background as the group of misfits—one with a clubfoot (Jim Mecir); one throwing slow underarm junk (Chad Bradford); a former star on his way out (David Justice); and a former catcher who couldn’t throw and never had a chance to play (Scott Hatteberg); along with the fat players they drafted—celebrated a championship and shoved it into the faces of the big kids who never let them play.

They never won a championship, but that’s secondary to the perception and salesmanship.

Lin is getting attention now; there are going to be Lin jerseys popping up all over the place and he’s the toast of New York as an inspiration to those who are waiting for their chance and won’t quit.

He’s also going to have a lot of people who bypassed him contacting him to apologize, admit they were wrong, asking for things or hoping for Lin to say, “it’s okay, you’re not an idiot”.

But what if they are idiots? What if they are so dogmatic and invested in safety-first drafting/signing that they ignored what was right in front of their faces and are under siege because of that?

Is there a stat for scouts and executives screwing up and missing on players that could actually play, but weren’t allowed to for one reason or another?

If not, there should be one because there are Jeremy Lins everywhere waiting for someone in power to take a chance on them. There are opportunities to come up big if a team is smart or lucky or both. It all depends on who’s smart enough, gutsy enough or desperate enough to give those players that chance.

It’s random, but it counts all the same.

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