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Celtics Mishandle The Telfair Affair

Sebastian Telfair may indeed end up being the next great point guard out of New York City and the point guard of the future for the Boston Celtics (though Lehane?s money is on Rajon Rondo), but if that is going to happen Telfair?s on court handle will have to be far better than the crisis communications handle the Boston Celtics have shown so far.  

As many NBA fans know, Telfair, and by extension the Celts, have become embroiled in the Monday night shooting of rapper Fabolous outside a Manhattan restaurant ? the same restaurant where earlier in the night Telfair had his gold necklace stolen.  To date, there have been conflicting news reports about exactly what went down and where the NYPD?s investigation is leading in terms of what role, if any, Telfair may have had in the incident.  

One thing that is clear, however, is that the Celtics managed this incident in a way that has made it worse ? not better -- for the team and player and, in doing so, have needlessly inflicted some long-term damage on the organization in a time period when it could least sustain such damage.

It?s the cover-up.  The team, by intentionally trying to cover-up why Telfair did not appear for the second half of the exhibition game against the Knicks on Monday, actually generated more negative press coverage, more hard questions, more skeptical scrutiny and more suspicion around the incident than they would have by just being straight with the press and public.  We see this reaction ? call it the cover-up instinct -- all the time in politics and business.  It?s human nature.  But it is not the way to manage a crisis situation.  The extent of Telfair?s involvement in the shooting on Monday night could very well end up being worthy of being merely a minor story  ? but the Celtics? effort to try to keep the matter under wraps has had the exact opposite effect:  It has made it into a much bigger story.  The way the Celtics responded could ultimately be a major disservice to Telfair, who is now being introduced to a large number of Celtics fans through the prism of an incident magnified by the organization?s inept crisis management tactics.

Maintain your credibility with you target audience.  The Celtics failed to appreciate how their actions would impact the team?s credibility with its single most important audience:  Celtic fans.  Any time you are in a crisis, you have to recognize that you cannot go back in time and change what took place and that your target audience ? whether it be voters for a political candidate, shareholders for a public company or fans for a sports team ? will evaluate your organization based on how it responds to the crisis going forward.  And, in this context, maintaining credibility with the targeted audience is THE most important thing that can be done.  This is particularly true for the Celtics who are trying to re-build what was long ago (in the era of when Tommy Heinsohn did network play-by-play analysis) one of the greatest sports franchises in history and who have in more modern times been preaching that their youth movement reflects a long-term plan (by the way, is there a statute of limitations on how long you can claim to have a youth moment before the young people are no longer young?).

The Telfair affair is a blow to the credibility of an organization that has squandered so much of it since the Big Three (Bird, the Chief and McHale) left ? a revolving door of head coaches, questionable trades (just imagine if Joe Johnson and Chauncy Billups were playing with Paul Pierce), re-building followed by re-building and setting expectations way too high (see the premature elevation of Al Jefferson?s jersey to the rafters).

Do not throw fuel on the fire.  The Celtics do not seem to appreciate that the situation will be driven fundamentally not by what they say ? but by a legal process over which they have no control and that the team?s various responses ? from the GM offering his comments to the owner discussing the matter on the radio to the team?s various responses has only thrown fuel on the fire and made this a multiple day, ongoing story.  

Any time an organization is in the vortex of an ongoing criminal justice matter where the issues are not clear and which will be driven by forces out of its control, it is imperative that the organization not add fuel to the fire by introducing shifting comments or new news.  Instead the organization in crisis must stake out one basic position from the very beginning that it knows to be accurate and which it can sustain for the long haul -- and then stick to that position.  

The team?s public position on Telfair should be disciplined, should be limited and should be consistent:  ?Given that this is an ongoing legal process involving law enforcement, it is not appropriate for us to comment beyond saying that we support Sebastian.  Any other questions are best directed to the NYPD.?  Period.  

Sports organizations in today?s modern media age are under incredible duress to effectively manage crisis situations that are, unfortunately, inevitable.  It is critical that these teams appreciate the need to take the long-term view and appreciate that at the end of the day what has happened has happened and that, moving forward, the only thing that really matters is how the team?s response will impact the organization over the long haul.

Follow The Money

The collective explanation for why the NBA All-Stars lost to Greece now seems to boil down to just one thing:  The pick-and-roll.  If you believe the columnists and pundits, the pick-and-roll apparently holds all the answers to the questions about America?s place in the basketball universe.  Who knew the pick-and-roll was so important in the scheme of things?  Perhaps we should be also looking at whether the pick-and-roll can help President Bush explain what happened to Iraq?s weapons of mass destruction, or if the pick-and-roll can shed light on those crop circles that keep popping up, or on solving the riddle of whom the ?Others? really are in Lost.  

We have just one thing to say about the pick-and-roll excuse for America?s loss to Greece:  The pervasiveness of the excuse is matched only by its flimsiness.  

Last week we discussed why the NBA lost:  American-style, individual basketball is simply not competitive against international, teamwork-focused players.  We raised the possibility that we may want to simply accept that America is no longer competitively superior internationally and continue to enjoy the individual accomplishments of NBA stars.  We will also underscore that we don?t really think there is anything wrong with our game ? it is fun, the players are amazing athletes, and the whole presentation provides a good return for your entertainment dollar.

But just how we have ended up with the brand of basketball that we have in the U.S.?  Now, don?t despair.  You?re not about to read yet another diatribe about junior high coaches not teaching fundamentals or players being unable to shoot beyond a three point line.    

No, we?re going ?Deep Throat? here:

Deep Throat: Follow the money.
Bob Woodward: What do you mean? Where?
Deep Throat: Oh, I can't tell you that.
Bob Woodward: But you could tell me that.
Deep Throat: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money.  

To understand today?s American game, you have to ?follow the money?:

? Michael Jordan

His Airness is the best that ever played the game as measured by rings, stats and over-all transformative impact (though Lehane would take Russell if building a team from scratch and Fabiani prefers Magic or the Big Fella, Kareem Abdul Jabbar).  Jordan is the seminal figure that transitioned the NBA from the golden era of the 1980s defined by the Celtics and Laker teams to the current NBA where individual players are elevated above all else.

(A sidebar question:  How much do you think the 1986 Celtics or 1987 Lakers would have beaten Greece by?)  Jordan became the first player in any team sport to become his own one-man corporate entity ? shoes, underwear lines, Gatorade, the shaved head look, etc.  In this sense, ?23? showed that a team athlete could become fabulously wealthy and powerful above and beyond the team.  He became the model for the athlete as an individual; in Business School parlance, a vertically integrated corporate entity.

? Sports Center

By our admittedly unscientific account, last year Boston Celtic rookie Gerald ?G-Money? Green made Sports Center?s top ten highlights at least twice, despite getting into only 32 games, both times for some pretty unbelievable dunks (including one windmill throw down against Toronto with time winding down in a meaningless game).  Yet, as the Celtics fanatics on CelticsBlog.com constantly note, G-Money was just a kid who did not have the slightest clue how to play the game.   Yet those two highlight dunks put him on the map in a big way.  Videos of his dunks moved around the Internet like Paris Hilton videos (as do Green jams from summer pick-up games).  

G-Money will likely be featured in the NBA Slam Dunk contest this year; and he has a Reebok shoe deal ? not bad for a guy who spent a decent chunk of the season toiling away in the NBDL.  Alternatively, his teammate, Delonte West, as solid a team player as you will find in the league (and who may end up being one of the best players from his draft class) to the best of our memory has only ended up on Sports Center when he was dunked on by LeBron James.  The point of all of this is that Sports Center (which we religiously watch every night) has effectively reduced NBA coverage to six-second dunk highlights, boosting the profile, and the profits, of those who can dunk like G-Money regardless of the rest of their game.
? The Shoe Contracts

Nike and Adidas don?t give shoe contracts for successful defense of the pick-and-roll.  The shoe contracts are to the NBA what back end movie profits are to actors, especially in the modern cap era where players are looking to leverage their games to produce as much outside income as possible.    

? Agents

No one does capitalism better than Americans.  And no one understands the market they are in better than sports agents.  And the agents know that Vince Carter, an almost daily presence on Sports Center for some dunk he accomplished in the first three quarters of a game, leads to more money than, say a Bruce Bowen forcing a Dirk Nowitzki a foot out of his range and causing a missed shot.  Carter?s game translates into cold hard cash.

? NBA Season

The NBA season ? between the exhibition games, the 82-game regular season and extended play-offs ? is just brutal.  This large number of games is necessary because owners need to cover costs and turn a reasonable profit.  However, what this hoops marathon produces is players who pace themselves throughout the season so that they are physically able to play from year-to-year.  (It doesn?t matter how much you love the game.  It is physically impossible to go full bore day-in and day-out with such a schedule.)  This inevitable pacing only serves to emphasize individual play even more.  Moreover, the schedule means that even if Americans played a style that could win year in and year out internationally, would players really want to risk tens of millions of dollars playing an additional 20 games over the summer when there bodies are trying to recover?   Mark Cuban was on to something when he raised concerns about players having extended summer tours.  We wonder how many players from this year?s team will play next summer?  (We might go so far to predict that after the 2006-2007 NBA season ends we will all see an unusual number of weddings, child births and ?scope procedures? affecting our current squad of players.) In short, the length of the NBA season translates into revenue for owners that pay large salaries ? but it also encourages a particular brand of ball and puts players in the position of choosing between career and country.

? Steve Nash

Nash won the last two NBA MVP awards.  He is a great player measured by the true indicator of greatness ? he makes the players around him so much better that his team wins.  However, whether people like to admit it or not, there is this general sense that he is not the best player -- that debate usually revolves around Kobe, D-Wade, LeBron.  And what is most revealing about this is that those guys ? who are all great players and who are all winners ? are lauded for skills that Americans define as distinguishing the best players.  And let[s face it, these are not the skills that Nash possesses.  Kobe, D-Wade and LeBron get the mega-shoe contracts and the big endorsement packages, while Nash (who is no doubt well-compensated by the Suns) is out there pushing his fundamental videos (The Steve Nash MVP Instructional Video for $29.95), which look as if they were produced by the same guys who brought you the abdominizer.

So when you?re searching for what happens to America?s basketball stars when they are asked to shine internationally, forget about the pick-and-roll.  And forget about all the other excuses you?ve read and heard.  Just follow the money, and you will find all the answers you need.

Lost In Translation: USA Basketball In Japan

With Coach K starring as Bill Murray, American basketball?s best visited Japan.  At least Murray?s journey was given an unexpected jolt by Scarlett Johansson.  For Coach K and his players, the results were as predictable as another Terrell Owens fight with management.

Just as predictable is the coming wave of excuses by the USA team?s defenders. We?ve heard them all before, and now we?re about to hear them again:  The team didn?t have enough time to prepare.  Too few outside shooters were selected by the powers-that-be.  Kobe got hurt.  All we really have to do is learn how to defend the pick-and-roll.  The international referees have it in for us Americans.  The players suffered from Bill Murray-like fatigue from their Far East journeys.  

It?s time to tune out, once and for all, every one of these excuses.  The truth is now staring us all in the face: The type of basketball we play in the United States is simply no longer competitive with the kind of basketball played by the rest of the world.

Now, don?t take this the wrong way.  The NBA -- and, presumably, the NBA?s fans, since David Stern is an acknowledged master of his craft -- prefer a game based on individual greatness, with high-flying feats of power and grace and with little emphasis on teamwork.  There?s nothing wrong with that ? nothing, that is, unless we expect Team U.S.A. to win international basketball competitions.

Let?s face facts: The Greek team that defeated the Americans did not have a single player who would star on an NBA team ? and probably not more than one or two players who could even make an NBA squad.   Yet the Greeks controlled most of the game against the Americans.  This happened because American-style, individual basketball is simply not competitive against international, teamwork-focused players ? even if not one of those international players could ever get a Nike shoe contract (despite the fact Nike is named for the Greek Goddess of Victory).

The harsh reality is that American basketball fans have two choices.  Choice Number One: We can question the entire premise of how basketball is played in the United States and force the NBA to confront the fact that the League?s rules and star system virtually ensure that individualism will triumph consistently over teamwork.   Just the opposite is true internationally, of course.  Everything that is wrong with the U.S.A.?s play internationally is a product of everything that we have rewarded in American domestic play.  

There is a second choice:  We can simply accept that we are no longer competitively superior internationally and continue to enjoy the individual accomplishments of NBA stars.

Either one of these two choices is acceptable because, after all, we?re only talking about basketball games here.  What?s no longer acceptable, though, is for American fans to continue to pretend that somehow our game is superior.   Unless we face reality, the U.S.A., the world?s only remaining military superpower, is going to be the hoops version of what France has become ? a one-time superpower that still thinks of herself as a superpower when in fact those days are long gone.  

And if we refuse to face up to the facts, American basketball will continue to be lost in translation, and our players and coaches will be doomed to wander aimlessly, Bill Murray-like, around the world basketball landscape for years to come.


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