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Young Guys and Trouble

One of the stories I've been following with interest this off-season is the saga of Michael Beasley.  His promising rookie season (14 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) was bracketed by a series of whispers about his conduct issues, mutterings which have blossomed into full-on reports over the summer.  The latest news is that he's been undergoing CBA-mandated drug rehab.

I'll admit to you that I've grown up with this league, as many of you have.  I'm hardly a babe in the woods when it comes to the NBA lifestyle.  We've heard enough reports about players we treasure treading the edge to understand that pressure can get to anyone.  Getting closer to the team gives you a better glimpse of that reality.  You'd need blinders and a hood to miss the swarms of opportunities these guys have to jump into hedonism, and that's just in public venues.  Your imagination can probably fill in the private opportunities.  Random rumors of this or that indiscretion are nothing to jump at.  In fact they're all but predictable.

At a certain point, though, you can see a career turning south.  As I've gotten older...uhhh...I mean more experienced the radar for such things has sharpened a bit while my tolerance has decreased in like measure.  When you're twenty it seems like so many possibilities are open to you that any given outcome is almost a matter of chance.  It also seems like you have so much life (so many lives?) to live that you can tread multiple paths and still come out whole enough to find one you'll be happy to live with.  Add a decade or two of life and you start to realize that neither is true.  Once your life starts flowing down a certain channel it's far more difficult to get out and find a new one than it was to fall in.  You don't often get do-overs either.  You blink and what seems like a momentary decision has become a binding habit.  The more you struggle to get back the farther it drags you along.  You wish you could smack that twenty-year old who thought he had all the choices and time in the world.  You wish you could get him to realize that five or six years in anybody's life is a huge chunk, especially when you consider that consequences usually outlast actions.  Five or six years in a field where the average career lasts about four is more than forever.

It always saddens me to see an NBA player getting off on the wrong foot.  The script is predictable.  A young guy--perhaps predisposed to counterproductive behavior, perhaps taken by surprise by the league and its lifestyle--starts falling into self-destruction.  You see the actions.  You hear the denials:

"That's not really me."

"He's only twenty.  Give him time."

"He's so nice in so many ways.  He just has this one issue."

"He's got such talent.  He's going to succeed and then get his life straight."

"He gives his money and time to charity."

"He's turned it around.  He wasn't to be a spokesperson for the issue and an example to kids."

"What he's doing isn't really that bad."

Meanwhile you're waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And it almost always does.

You want the truth?  Nothing is iron-clad, but it's really hard for guys to reform in this league once they've gone a bad direction.  The opportunities are going to be there as long as they have the fame and money.  The support system isn't good enough because that's not the primary job of the people the players interact with every day.  And really, what incentive do these guys have to change?  What consequence is strong enough when the $300,000 you made this month is going to be followed by $300,000 more next month and every one after like clockwork for the next three years no matter what?  If a guy is able to think of long-range drawbacks and balance those against short-term desire he's usually able to stay out of trouble in the first place.  What's going to turn him around if both vision and inducement are missing?  I'm not trying to slight these young men either.  I'm not entirely sure I would pass that test.  In reality I'm pretty good at keeping a healthy diet precisely because I don't work at Baskin-Robbins.  With eight gallons of Peanut-Butter Chocolate staring me in the face every night I think I'd have to throw away both my dignity and the scale.

Even feeling that empathy, though, it's hard for me to invoke much besides practicality at this point.  Maybe I've seen and heard too many stories.  When a player gets into this situation I believe their parents, friends, agent, and all of their support system ought to work overtime to get them back on track.  If it takes mom and dad moving in, older brother going on road trips, nightly calls to the agent, curfew from the it.  But the rest of us are almost forced to be a little cold.  Responsibility and reward go hand-in-hand in high-profile, high-demand jobs like this.  Invoking one while neglecting the other is intolerable.  Unless the situation is rectified soon, we have to move on to people who can fulfill those responsibilities.  Mourning for a career wasted is the only recourse we have, and we're not even allowed that luxury for long.  There are yet games to be played and players to be followed.

It may sound cold, but we probably need to have less tolerance for the situation than we do.  You'll always find fans, and I believe a few people in front offices, who will be willing to give second and third and fourth chances provided the talent is there.  Everybody deserves a second, of course, but it ought to come with an asterisk.  Any extra violations, any more chances needed, and we're probably wasting our time.

Name me the last player who started out with serious issues, turned it around, and actually blossomed into the player everyone thought he would be.  Talent is usually the key to multiple chances, but name me the ultra-talented guy who started out poorly and then later proved himself safe to build your team around, which is ostensibly what you get young talent for.  I'm not asking you to name me players who started out bad and then turned out to be good guys later in life.  I'm not asking you to list players who reformed and now help others in need.  Those are excellent people and I admire their work greatly.  They deserve enormous respect.  But I'm trying to be really practical here in a basketball-only sense.  Name me the guy who showed up in the papers month after month for all the wrong reasons early in his career and then made his franchise a champion or even an enduring contender.  I'm hard-pressed to think of one.  And even if you can, he's going to be dwarfed under the deluge of players who never got it or who got it too late.

I'm trying hard not to be cynical.  In fact there's a portion of my heart that's rebelling against what I'm saying.  But I think I'm on pretty solid ground anyway.  The truth is, were I a GM I wouldn't touch these guys with a ten-foot pole.  If somebody in my organization were having issues I would do everything in my power to get them as much help as they wanted.  That's the decent, human thing to do.  Some things transcend basketball.  But there's no way I'd feel comfortable hitching my star to them and there's no way I would acquire them from another team if they weren't mine in the first place.  And that's no matter what talent they had.  It's a recipe for disappointment and unmet expectations.

I am reminded again how glad I am that the Blazers seem to have passed this phase, as individuals and as an organization.  You never say never, of course, but as a whole the guys on this team seem to have their heads screwed on straight.  It does make a difference, despite the finger-in-ears "La La La!" stance we fans take when our own players are in doubt.  I remember all of the justifications too well.  How many of those players we tried to justify and excuse ended up making solid contributions, not just for the Blazers, but anywhere?

I hope Michael Beasley turns it around.  I hope he goes on to a long, productive career.  But I'm going to wait to see it before I believe it.  If we do see it, we should all rejoice.  But I don't think we should hold our collective breaths.  As sad as it is to say, I'm not sure the NBA is the right environment for that kind of thing to happen and I despair of it ever being so.

--Dave (