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Fitting In, Standing Out

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Some of our discussions lately have led me to ponder the issue of "coachability".  Old-timers complain there isn't enough of it among kids today.  Modernists claim it's a player's league and the concept is overrated.  Half the world wanted to run Darius Miles out of town for what he said to Coach Cheeks a couple years ago.  The other half claims that he's still one of the most talented guys on the squad, so put him in.  I must admit that I instinctively side more with the first group, but in the interest of honesty and being a devil's advocate with myself (and maybe you), I want to make an argument that being coachable isn't automatically the most necessary or desirable trait to have in the NBA.

First of all, I'd venture to say that the idealization of the hard-bitten coach leading a team full of self-sacrificial, buckled-down underdogs to glory doesn't exist outside the cinema that made it popular.  I know, I know...that's heresy in a town whose only championship came from a team that was the archetype of that image.  I'm not denying that the '77 squad had great teamwork.  But let's get real...they folded faster than grandma's two-legged card table the minute Bill Walton went down.  The truth is they won largely because they had the best center and best power forward in the league at that time--guys who bent the team and the game to their own will--and were staffed with other players who ran fast and had the wits to get the ball to the big guys.  San Antonio and Larry Brown's Detroit teams may have come closest to that ideal in the modern era, but as we've seen neither has been without their problems, nor has either run away with the league.  In fact just as many championships in the past decade have gone to teams with internal problems and/or players that on the face of it could be considered uncoachable.  So for the moment at least let's put that idealized vision aside.

Really understanding the issue requires putting ourselves in the high tops of an NBA player.  These guys are at the pinnacle of their profession.  They are the best of the best.  (I know, Japan and all that, but call me when Greece comes over and plays an 82 game schedule.)  Fans often say a player sucks, but what they really mean is "this player sucks when compared to Lebron James".  Compared to everyone else in the world even training camp rejects are unquestionably among the elite.  How many of us have had the experience of being officially accredited as one of the top 450 people in our profession on the planet?  That's what happens to you when you make The Show.

But it's a peculiar place compared to most.  How many other professions have their top 450 representatives crammed into one space, under one umbrella?  There's no law firm like that, no hospital, no corporation.  Imagine how proud you'd feel to be acclaimed one of those 450 in your own profession.  Imagine the status, the pride, the renown in your neck of the woods.  Then imagine being stuffed into a building with the other 449 and told to go to work...that bonuses were forthcoming for the best of the best.  It's a whole different world then, isn't it?  How happy would you be, and how much of a team player, in that environment?  For all the glamour, the league is a crowded, confining space with little elbow room and even less charity.  Read Paul Shirley's blog over at ESPN.com if you want a first-hand account.  (Registration required for most of the good stuff.)

The truth is, these guys are as much competitors as teammates.  Roster spots are finite, playing time even more so.  The world lies at the feet of those who shine.  Banishment is swift for those who fail.  If you want to be cynical to the extreme, every other guy attempting a shot that you could have hit is potentially taking money out of your wallet, endorsements off your résumé, and food from your family's mouth.  These guys didn't make it to where they are today by giving more to other people, the got here by being better than them.  And that's how they're going to stay.

In many ways, then, being "coachable"--defined loosely as "following somebody else and changing or giving up your game for the good of the whole above the self"--goes against the grain.  It's not what you've been taught to do, it's not what's brought you success, and it doesn't look plausible as a survival technique in your environment.  Is it any wonder that so many players have trouble doing it?

And in some ways, maybe they should.  Obviously there's an overarching theme that if your game doesn't lead to wins you're not successful.  On the other hand, guys like Damon Stoudamire claim that their games were ruined by trying to fit into the system too much.  (And if you truly believe in his talent it's hard to argue based on his career arc.)  A guy can't pull a J.R. Rider and just do whatever the heck he wants half the time, but on the other hand you can't lose that spark of confidence, individuality, domination, or whatever you want to call it that got you into the league in the first place.  Steve Jones has a great mind for basketball, but he said on repeated occasions that he never understood it when his coaches called any open opportunity a "bad shot".  And he sounds like he took most of those shots anyway.  You have to believe in your ability to uniquely influence the game as well as, and maybe sometimes above, your ability to fit into it.

As I mentioned at the old blog, the moment Terry Porter started becoming the player we all know and love came during the '88-'89 season in a game in San Antonio when he busted coach Mike Schuler's carefully-crafted, last-second, down-by-one play, canning the game winning shot himself.  His teammates universally credited not only the shot, but his courage in going against the grain.  Yes, you have to listen, but at some point you also have to resolve that you're going to succeed or fail on your own terms.  Otherwise what are you doing there?

The issue becomes particularly thorny when you consider young players.  Common sense says that if you're straight out of high school and trying to adjust to the NBA you better damn well listen to what your coach says with both ears all day long.  On the other hand players with that little experience are also the least likely to be able to recapture confidence in their game once it's been thwarted or blunted.  We often complain that the youngest players who presumably need the most coaching also tend to be the least coachable, but the youngest players entering the league are also among the most talented, so maybe in some ways that's appropriate.  It would be hard to argue that Kobe Bryant would be better off today if he had been reined in more his first couple of seasons.

My guess is that tending towards either extreme will lead a player into trouble.  If you have no consideration whatsoever for what the coaches want then you better be talented enough to lead a team to victory all on your own, because if you're not you're going to sink the ship.  Plenty of players have tried to jump that bar, only a couple have made it over.  On the other hand if you submerge your game to the point it's interchangeable with anyone else's, or especially to the point where you're not taking advantage of your particular gifts, someone else is going to come along and break the mold ahead of you.  And then guess who your coach is going to put on the floor?  (Honestly, not even coaches respect guys who are too coachable.  Deep down they want a little fight.)  There's a magical line in the middle somewhere where you're playing enough in the team concept to not disrupt the game but also bending the game to yourself enough that you make a difference.  But when you're playing a pressure-packed sport in a pressure-packed business environment, that line's got to be hard to find.

It'll be interesting to watch this play out through the growth of Roy, Webster, Jack, etc. as they interface with Coach McMillan and their more experienced (and admittedly more established and selfish) teammates.  Travis Outlaw has been fighting (and some would argue losing) this battle for the better part of the last two seasons and will do so again this year.  For this incarnation of the Blazers the issue is hardly theoretical.  How these kids learn to negotiate it may well determine their course through not only this campaign, but their careers.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)