* On March 2, 2019, sports media impresario Bill Simmons conducted a news-making one-on-one panel with NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Though Simmons is by nature loquacious, the conversation was dominated by the usually circumspect Silver. The commissioner had things on his mind, perhaps principally, that his game’s biggest stars were alienated and depressed. It’s rare to hear a commissioner speak like this, as commissioners are, in effect, PR officials for their respective leagues. The issues Silver broached had apparently metastasized to the point where there was simply no hiding it any longer.
When Simmons asked about player happiness and its impact on free agency, Silver responded, “One is a larger societal issue and I know you have a lot of young people who work for you at The Ringer. Obviously our players are young, we have young people in our office. I think we live a bit in the age of anxiety. I’ve read studies on this. I think part of it is a direct product of social media. I think those players we’re talking about, when I meet with them, what strikes me is that they are truly unhappy.” The placid commissioner’s eyes bulged a bit and his eyebrows bobbled on “truly unhappy.” There was an urgency in his tone.
“This is not some show that they’re putting on for the media, when I’m one on one with a lot of these guys I think, to the outside world, they see the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it. They’re the best in the world at what they do. They say, ‘How is it possible they could even be complaining?’ I hear this on television all the time. A lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy. Some have come from very difficult circumstances, that doesn’t help. Some of them are amazingly isolated and you and I have talked about this.”
Silver then referenced an upcoming documentary on Michael Jordan’s last season with the Bulls, in which he saw a level of camaraderie currently absent from the spot.
“I mean the camaraderie was incredible. I mean, Michael, what people didn’t see was that he and Phil Jackson obviously as the coach deserves enormous credit. There was classic team building going on all the time. These guys were a band of brothers on the buses, on the planes, and all the attention only brought them closer. If you’re around a team this day and age, [they have their] headphones on, and they’re isolated and they’re head down. It used to be, Isaiah Thomas said to me, ‘Championships are won on the bus.’”
* On October 1, 2018, Bleacher Report posted an article by Tom Haberstroh titled “Is Social Media Addiction in the NBA Out of Control?” Haberstroh interviewed shooting guard JJ Redick on his decision to delete social media applications. “It’s a dark place,” Redick said of social media. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego if we’re talking about some Freudian shit. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”
Phones had become a problem in matters spiritual and practical. Teams were struggling to communicate with players whose heads were always tilted down. Haberstroh’s article details a coach desperately seeking outside help to curb his team’s habits.
When he arrived, he sat down with a behavior designer named Matthew Mayberry from Boundless Mind, an artificial-intelligence startup that works out of a one-car garage. The 10-employee tech company, launched by T. Dalton Combs and Ramsay Brown under its previous name Dopamine Labs, has been featured on a 60 Minutes report called “Brain Hacking” because of what its team of neuroscientists is working on. The coach and Mayberry talked about his team and, specifically, the phone addiction that had overtaken the locker room.
“How do I get players and staff to put down their damn phones in meetings?” the coach asked. “Can we turn phone addiction away from time sucks like Instagram and Twitter and toward productive tasks like watching film or studying scouting reports? Can we actually change these habits?”
Teams have tried certain reforms, “phone buckets” and “phone bags” during team meals, for instance. These attempts might be beneficial, but overall, there’s no wrenching back the clock’s hands to a more sane era. Throwing one phone in a bucket doesn’t change the reality of an entire society operating via phones. Even if players eschew social media for all the right reasons, it will still find a way to creep into their lives and cause complications.
* After the game, I ran into Andrew Bogut in the hall. He was also talking about Tim Kawakami, this time from a positive perspective. Tim, though politically liberal, had bucked against some reflexive fan criticism of the San Francisco 49ers’ drafting star defensive end Nick Bosa. Bosa had right-wing tweets in his past, more than a few of which he deleted in anticipation of joining a Bay Area team. Bosa had also ripped celebrated black artistry like Beyoncé’s music and The Black Panther movie. Perhaps these were fair opinions in isolation, but given the context of other tweets, they were bundled into an argument that Bosa was of a certain nefarious perspective. Was Bosa racist or unfairly maligned? Kawakami offered a realist perspective in an article:
I do not think social media activity from three or four years ago, assuming that Bosa did not outright state racist or homophobic thoughts himself, is an NFL disqualifier. I believe the 49ers locker room can and will accept him if he accepts the culture of the 49ers’ locker room.
Also, if Bosa is a great player, much of the locker room and the fan base will be quite ready to embrace him, anyway. That’s how football works—you want to play with the guys who help the team win.
In the end, athletic might makes right. What’s good for the team is what matters. The part Kawakami didn’t mention, but anyone who’d been around football could tell you: most white NFL players shared Bosa’s political leanings. “There are more Republicans than you’d think,” Bogut said with a wink, when I brought this up.
* If you’re around the game, you know of the racial split between Ops and roster, one very white, the other quite black. The reasons for the demography can be debated, but the reality of it can’t be. That’s not to say Ops is exclusively white and male; it’s just especially so, in a way that could be less noticeable in another field. The split might have louder critics if the power dynamics were clearer. As in, if Ops had clear authority over roster, the racial split might be more bemoaned by pundits. In this modern era, it was difficult to answer the question of whether that table or the locker room had more power. The locker room certainly earned more money, with Steph Curry alone claiming a $201 million contract. The locker room had more control of the future, with Durant putting these table suits on tilt at his whim, year after year. In the NBA, nobody was more powerful than a superstar, certainly not GMs and not even your average owner.
In contrast, the other, more replaceable players were beholden to the whims of the Ops men. The suits had to continually assess and analyze these players as though they were widgets, trading and cutting them according to whatever marginal advantage might arise. The term “assets” came into NBA world vogue around Sam Hinkie’s reign in Philadelphia. In media, players were increasingly discussed in the language of financial markets.
Naturally, some players started to resent this trend, combined with the racial dynamics involved, with a few ascribing it all to the “analytics” movement that had gotten so popular. In a New Yorker interview with Isaac Chotiner, former player and current ESPN TV analyst Jalen Rose said of the analytics movement,
There are many people that feel like it has a cultural overtone to it that basically suggests that, even though I may not have played and you did, I am smarter than you, and I know some things that you don’t know, and the numbers support me, not you. Two, you notice that, when it is a powerful job in sports—whether it is an owner, whether it is a president, whether it is a general manager, whether it is a coach—usually in football and basketball, sports that are primarily dominated by black Americans, it’s also an opportunity to funnel jobs to people by saying that, “I am smarter than you because the numbers back up what I say, and I am more read. I study more. I am able to take these numbers and manipulate my point.”
* Meanwhile, [Andre] Iguodala had been knocked down a peg within his ecosystem. He could still command interest as a helpful veteran player, but for how much longer? Andre might have been braced for this moment, having known the others would never lead to happiness. “Something Obama said stuck with me,” Iguodala had told me at his locker, late in the 2018–2019 season, when thinking back on the team’s first White House visit. “All these billionaires, none of them are happy.”
Months earlier I had asked Iguodala about the buzz that he might one day make the Hall of Fame. “I don’t care,” Iguodala responded. “None of it matters.”
Iguodala offered the following take on the future, one that’s either grim or liberating depending on your perspective. “See, here’s how it works. One day, you’re replaced. Then it’s some other motherfucker in there. And then there’s another motherfucker. And another after that. Nobody remembers anything. None of it matters!”
When asked about the importance of giving an emotional Hall of Fame speech, Iguodala said, “Does anyone remember any of those speeches other than Jordan’s?”
True, almost nobody echoes across multiple generations. Even in the case of Jordan, after all the success, he’s hardly a model of happiness. Jordan’s aforementioned Hall of Fame speech is mostly famous for unnerving the audience with a slew of aired resentments. The apotheosis of sports success does not appear to correlate with the apotheosis of happiness.
Jordan’s friend Charles Barkley, often mocked for never winning a championship, strikes a stark attitudinal contrast to His Airness. Barkley was a great player who perhaps never achieved ultimate glory because he enjoyed his work-life balance and meals on the road. Yet he’s contagiously, hilariously happy in most settings. He gets paid to pontificate and joke around with friends on television. Barkley never won a ring, but he won retirement. The latter might have something to do with the former. Life never ended up revealing the lie of winning to Chuck.