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Another Perspective

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We had a couple of Nate-related diaries yesterday, one regarding his relationship with Jarrett Jack (and by implication, Sergio) and the other quoting Rudy Fernandez about his concern about a relationship with Nate.  In the discussion surrounding each a theme was echoed that has been brought up many times this season, here and elsewhere:  is Nate biased against certain players or for others to such an extent that he's letting it affect his basketball decisions?  Having read plenty of implications and outright accusations to that effect I wanted to offer a different perspective.  Put yourself in the shoes of Nate McMillan.  How would you deal with such accusations?  What would they mean and how would they affect you?

I should preface this by saying I am not claiming to know what Nate thinks or even really what his shoes are like.  I have not spoken with him since last year's Summer League and that conversation was completely professional and not at all personal.  I don't know Nate or what goes on inside his head.  (None of us do, which is half of the point.)  I am taking a half-educated guess here based on being a fellow human being and also having both a job and a hobby that exposes one to a fair amount of public critique, some of which is completely fair criticism, some of which is shamelessly unfair.  I am under nowhere near as bright a spotlight as Coach McMillan is, but I think it's possible to draw some parallels between his situation and other high-pressure callings.

Pretend with me for a minute that you are the Blazers' coach.  You have a young point guard from Spain that you picked up as a project.  You like his skills, you've seen enough from him to give him some playing time, you think someday he could be a regular contributor, but right now he just hasn't shown you enough to crack your rotation.  He's young, raw, and has a lot to learn before he can man the point for you.  You're not entirely thrilled with your other point guards either.  Both could be better.  But after seeing all three in practice and under fire in your best basketball judgment each of the latter two guards contributes more to helping your team win, which is your main goal.  So you play them more than the first guy.  And so far your instincts appear to be pretty solid, as your team is winning at a far greater pace than in previous years...a far greater pace than was expected from you.

Let's assume this is the case, as it seems far more likely than many of the scenarios I've heard.  No more, no less...no conspiracies or ulterior motives...just a simple basketball judgment.

But now, having made this decision, you have to deal with the reality that the first point guard is a cult fan favorite of sorts.  You get asked about him a lot by the media.  The buzz is starting to go around town about why he's not playing.  Part of the fan base is starting to accuse you of making biased decisions.  Either you irrationally favor the latter point guards or you irrationally disfavor the fan favorite.  At times this has gone to the point of people accusing you of being prejudiced against players of the fan favorite's nationality.  Now you notice through the accusation's repetition and you not responding the idea is starting to gain traction.  So how would you answer such claims?

You know what?  You can't.  Not if you're a person of integrity.  That is what makes the pointed finger so powerful, and so unfair.

Why is there no effective way to answer?  First off, because basic logic tells us that in a non-factual matter there is no way to prove a negative.  Someone can throw accusations of bias at you all day long.  How do you prove you're not?  There is no litmus test for non-bias.

Are you going to use statistics?  You could.  They're freely available to all.  And plenty of them show that what you're doing has some merit.  But in case you haven't noticed the statistics that matter most to people are the ones that prove the point they already believe in.  Whatever statistical angle favors their argument is the one they'll highlight.  A small-sized crack is enough to keep the argument going.  You could get into a back-and-forth about it but unless the statistics are so overwhelmingly slanted towards one way or the other that there's no real argument it's a complete waste of time.  And if the statistics were weighed that far this wouldn't even be a discussion.

Which brings up a second, and more important point, which is how appropriate is it for you to respond at all, in any way?  You might be able to defend yourself with the stats.  You could probably shed even more light by sitting down at a microphone and giving folks a blow-by-blow of all the reasons the fan favorite isn't getting more minutes.  Of course that wouldn't satisfy the hard-liners, but at least the majority of the middle-of-the-road folks would understand.  But at what cost?  Say what you want about Nate, but he has NEVER been in the business of dragging his players through the mud in public.  Exhibit 1A is Zach Randolph, who more or less submarined this team the last couple years he was here...something which more people can admit now that he's out of our uniform and in New York.  This wasn't news to anybody in the organization.  Even the first-year players knew it.  But to this day, in the face of all that, we STILL do not know what Nate McMillan thought of Zach Randolph.  We saw him chew him out in games a little.  We might have heard hints of Zach's difficulties in Quick Chats and stuff.  There were probably one or two media-motivation proclamations that we needed Zach to be more of a leader.  But at no point, during or after Zach's tenure, did Nate sit down and say, "This is what is wrong with this player."

If he would not do that with Zach, a multi-year, multi-million dollar veteran who probably could have borne up just fine under such treatment, how in the heck is he going to do it with a struggling, second-year player?  You will not hear Nate impugn Sergio statistically, anecdotally, or in any other way.  I don't believe he would break that trust with any of his players for any reason.  The only thing you will hear perhaps is him pointing out the good things that Jarrett does.  That's as close as he can honorably come to letting everybody in on the reasoning...honorable because it is positive about a player and not negative.  And even so, that only brings more accusations of favoritism.

It is absolutely possible to get stuck in a situation where your only choices are to defend yourself at the cost of giving up what's right and what you believe in, or to keep silent and suffer completely unfair slings and arrows, no matter how many of them may strike.  And ironically you are suffering those slings and arrows specifically to protect the people that folks are accusing you of being biased against!  (And  to protect the integrity of your relationship with them.)  It is possible that this is just such a situation.  I don't know if it is.  I can't tell you.  Only Nate could and he's not talking.  But if it is, I wonder, if you and I put ourselves in Nate's shoes--if we had worked years to get into this position, if we had what people widely acclaimed as one of the keenest basketball minds in the business, if our plans seemed to be succeeding, if we had pride in our work, and if these claims were coming from the very people who were supposed to be rooting for the team we were helping succeed--if you and I were really in that situation would we have the strength to keep our mouths shut and do what was right?  Or would we break down and answer these accusations the way they would be in a perfect world?

I suspect this is why the majority of "inside" basketball people will tell you they never read fan sites...not because they would deny that intelligent, meaningful things can be found there, but because they have to avoid them to keep their sanity.

The only other thing I want to touch on is the "racism" issue.  I will offer a stronger caveat here that I have zero, zero, ZERO idea what I am talking about, having never been anything but Caucasian and male.  I am trying to do an impossible thing, which is to put myself in the shoes of somebody I am not discussing a subject I've never experienced.  But to the extent I try this foolish thing, speaking only for how I'm guessing I'd feel, I'd say this accusation would be the most egregious, astounding, and frustrating of all.  I'm guessing that in some small part of my heart I would be tempted to sit down and spell out all of the times I had experienced prejudice, how I understood those wounds intimately, and how anyone would think I could turn around and do that to another person--how they DARED to speak such a thing--was beyond me.  But why?  Why after all of my personal and professional success should I have to spell that out?  Who do I have to prove myself to?  Who has the right to call me to account on that score?  Why should I have to define myself publicly (under these circumstances, not of my choosing but in the face of wild accusations) as an African-American coach in the shadow of prejudice instead of just being a great coach, a respected coach, for whom being African-American should have positive connotations?  Why, in the name of all that's good and right, should I have to show my bona fides through a game of "Who's been more disadvantaged?" reducing such things to yet another statistical battle, when the things I've overcome, and my job, and my life, and my integrity mean so much more than that?  

Speaking just as Dave again...I think you'll understand when I say that in my view such an accusation debases us all.  It's a sad reality that people are able to say such things so cavalierly.  There's no accountability.  Obviously you can't prove non-prejudice any more than you can prove non-bias of any sort, so there's no definitive way to answer that will end the conversation, and in our world continuing conversation and repetition are often taken as evidence.

Speaking as Dave the co-author of Blazersedge I'll say that the specific accusation of racism based on a coach not playing a second-year, back-up point guard with a ton of grey area in his game stinks to high heaven.  In fact that leaves such a stench in my nostrils that I am willing to enforce accountability here for it.  People don't get to lob such serious accusations at fellow human beings (and our coach IS a fellow human being) with such flimsy evidence and use this site to do so.  That's pretty much the antithesis of what we're supposed to be about.  Thankfully I can't recall a recent incident where it was mentioned specifically on this site but it will not be allowed.  

Personally I don't think the general bias for/against players (any more than any other coach) holds any more water than the more egregious accusation.  There are people that do, and so be it.  We can all live together.  However I will say that this has been mentioned several times now and had its own diaries and everything.  Nothing more will be solved, resolved, explained, proven, or illuminated by continued repetition.  It's a dead-end discussion by its very nature.  So having read the diaries and had a chance to respond, that subject is now going to get a rest around here for a while...a long while.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)