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Who To Listen To?

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Or, for you grammarians, I suppose, "To Whom Shall We Listen?"

I got this e-mail from LizaB. a couple days ago and haven't had a chance to respond.  She says, among other things (mildly paraphrased here):

I've noticed something on other message boards and your site seems the most rational so I'm writing this to you...

Why is there so much negativity about coaches?  Players do bad and the coach gets blamed.  Then Sergio has a great game and people are angry that the coach doesn't play him more.  Either way it's negative.  I even read a discussion about firing Nate!  Why should anybody listen to fans at all?

It's a fair question, Liza, and thanks for asking.  To me it brings up a bigger issue than just coaches, captured by your last sentence.  What voice should the fans have and who should listen?

I think one of the things we have to admit up front is that it is the God-given right of every fan to be a backseat driver (or Monday morning quarterback, or couch-bound three-point specialist, or whatever).  Part of rooting for a team is putting your heart into it and living vicariously through the team's ups and down.  It's hard to do that when you feel like the entire process is out of your control...when your heart is at the whim of other people's decisions.  It's also just plain fun to imagine yourself as GM or coach or player.  It intensifies the rooting experience, and that's all to the good.  So everybody has (and offers) opinions and observations.  The more passionately you feel about the team the more strong and passionate those are likely to be.

Alongside that right to opine and speculate, though, must come the admission that the vast majority of those opinions and speculations aren't worth diddly in a real, professional sense.  We are dabblers, weekend warriors, the uninitiated.  The people who really have to make those decisions have spent lifetimes studying, living, and breathing both the sport and the league.  As a fan I absolutely want to be able to express my opinions on basketball matters and to have conversations with other fans about them.  But as a fan I would also be very, VERY upset if I thought the powers that be were actually listening to me on those basketball matters and acting accordingly.  For one thing, I don't want to have to think that hard before expressing an opinion...I'm more interested in fun conversation.  For another, even as a semi-knowledgeable fan I realize how much I don't know about these matters, and if someone in charge knew as little as I do I wouldn't hesitate to label them uninformed and incompetent.  And finally (and perhaps most importantly) I've seen plenty of public opinion on who to draft, who to play, and who to trade for whom.  It changes every thirty minutes.  And it's often scary.  Any coach or executive who makes decisions based on popular whims already has two feet out the door and it's only a matter of time before his rump follows, and rightfully so.

Does this mean coaches and front office people are infallible or that fans don't ever see what's right?  Of course not.  Execs are as human as anybody else and make mistakes.  Fans sometimes do have brilliant insights.  But the thought and rationale that a coach puts into even a seemingly simple decision like playing time is probably far more complex than we realize.  The coach has to deal with team chemistry, overall philosophy, what he knows behind the scenes that we never see, plus his own informed assessment of the player's ability, readiness, and needs--present and future.  We can't even begin to scrape the surface of that knowledge.  That usually means that a coach's mistakes have a better chance of working out than a fan's best decisions.  To assume differently just seems presumptuous.

In short, on basketball matters I fully expect--and even WANT--the coach and front office to take the opinions of fans, nod and chuckle to themselves, and then throw them in the wastebasket, making whatever decision they think is best.  That's what we hire them for.

In defense of fans, however, I'd say that MOST of us know this already and accept it.  If any one of us typed a few things on Blazersedge and then saw those all enacted the day after we typed them, we'd be afraid to type after that.  And I fully believe that were any of us--even the most passionate among us--actually sitting in a room with Steve Patterson, Kevin Pritchard, and Coach McMillan we'd have our mouths shut and we'd be listening, grateful for the chance to take it in, not offering opinions like we do here.  Because we know the limits of our words and their effect, we are free to discuss in places like this and offer all kinds of opinions and ideas.  And that's to the good.  It generates interest in the team and bonds us as fans.

There is one exception, however, to the "Don't Really Listen to Us" rule.  Sometimes I think team officials think (correctly), "These fans are pretty much uninformed idiots on basketball matters" and then they translate that (incorrectly) into, "These fans are pretty much idiots about everything."  You tend to see this evidenced in a "you don't know what you want, WE know what you want" attitude (e.g. the "new logo" discussion we had the other day).  The one area where the fans have it in spades over the team officials is in being FANS.  In fact team officials cannot know what that's like anymore because they're so deep into the organizational aspects of the whole deal that they've lost their "outside" eyes.  Since the health of this business depends on fans (and pleasing the fans) somebody does need to listen to them.  If you're Steve Patterson you may not need to care about whether the fans want to trade Zach for Paul Pierce, but you better find out something about the history, tenor, and peculiarities of the fan culture in Portland.  While I would expect a site like this to be next to useless to an NBA executive in terms of gleaning basketball knowledge, I believe that if you read long enough here and pick up some things between the lines you can find out most everything you need to know about the "feel" of the Portland fan base and how to communicate with them.  In that sense, I sincerely hope somebody is reading!  It might not make the on-court product better, but it will guide the team in making our perception of, and relationship with, their product better.  And in that way places like this, and voices like yours, are absolutely, 100% irreplaceable.  You can't duplicate it with surveys or civilian commissions or any other technique.  It's the difference between seeing an animal in the zoo and in the wild.  When you visit a site like this you're observing fans in their natural habitat and what's more, getting a direct view right into their minds and hearts.  If the Blazers want to know how to relate to and reach their fan base they need to get their Jane Goodall on, because this is exactly the kind of research, and listening, they need to do.

So yeah, Liza, I hear you.  In some ways we are idiots who shouldn't be listened to by anyone but ourselves.  In other ways we're experts who must be listened to.  The hallmark of a team with good community relations and a successful product is knowing which is which.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)