Remember the column I wrote two weeks ago about the passing of Big John Thompson, the former Georgetown basketball coach?
The column explored the impact of winning. It was headlined: Big John Thompson Proved Winning Advances The Cause Of Black People More Than Whining.
I began this NBA season believing Doc Rivers could be the next John Thompson. I thought the addition of Kawhi Leonard would transform the Los Angeles Clippers into a dynasty, and that Doc’s success would create job opportunities for other black coaches.
Forty years ago, Big John added Patrick Ewing to Georgetown, won a national championship and advanced to three national title games in four years. Big John’s success led to a black-coaches hiring frenzy in college basketball.
Basketball, at the pro and collegiate level, needs another Big John Thompson.
It appears it won’t be Doc Rivers.
The Clippers blew a 3-1 advantage to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. Tuesday night, in the deciding Game 7, the Clippers lost a seven-point halftime advantage and fell to the Nuggets 104-89.
The Clippers quit. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if they ever truly engaged inside The Bubble. Did they ever engage in the regular season?
Before the COVID shutdown, Leonard continued his “load management” strategy, disrupting the personality of a Clippers team with a lunch-pail mentality and culture. A season ago, led by the grit and toughness of Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell and the timely scoring of Lou Williams, the Clippers overachieved.
Leonard and Paul George brought different sensibilities to the Clippers. Doc failed to mesh the personalities, failed to impose an identity.
You can blame “Playoff Pee,” who shot four of 16 from the field Tuesday night. You can blame the COVID shutdown. You can blame the social unrest related to George Floyd. It’s all just excuses.
The Miami Heat added Jimmy Butler and have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers reshaped their roster around LeBron James and are in the Western Conference Finals. The Boston Celtics dispatched Kyrie Irving and are still alive in the postseason.
Change is inevitable in pro sports.
The Clippers don’t like each other. They have the best roster in basketball and they voted to leave the Bubble in the wake of George Floyd’s death. It makes no sense.
Lou Williams decided chicken wings from Atlanta’s Magic City strip club were more important than Bubble protocols. Winning a championship this season wasn’t important to the Clippers.
Like most everyone else in the sports media, I like and respect Doc Rivers. He’s a good man. He’s a good coach.
He mishandled this Clippers team. He blew a major opportunity for black coaches. He had an opportunity to advance the cause of black NBA coaches. He instead chose to advance the cause of criminal suspects who resist arrest. His most memorable moment of the season was his emotional rant about Jacob Blake, a sexual-assault suspect who police shot in the back after he resisted arrest and reached for a weapon in his car.
“All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” Rivers said in late August. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”
Doc chose whining over winning. He chose being on the right side of some faux history that white liberals promise they’ll write 30 years from now rather than doing what’s best for black coaches today.
Had the Clippers won a championship, it would’ve all but guaranteed that Clippers assistant Ty Lue would be a head coach next season. Now? Who knows?
The mainstream sports media will whine that the NBA has just five black head coaches. Doc was given the keys to the best team in basketball. The team skidded off a cliff.
You could make an argument that Kristaps Porzingis’ injury saved the Clippers in the first round. Dallas shooting guard Luka Doncic was the best player in that series.
Success breaks down barriers. Had Jackie Robinson bombed as a player, Major League Baseball would’ve rebuilt the color barrier. Doug Williams, Steve McNair and Warren Moon changed the perception of black quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson have taken things to the next level.
It’s not the whining. It’s the performance. Whining benefits white liberals in the media. It gives them something to talk about, something to camouflage their bigotry. Whining benefits the social-media branding of athletes. It gives followers a reason to like and retweet, and the whining camouflages black athletes’ lack of resolve to take meaningful action. Why take the risk of investing in black communities when you can kneel for three minutes?
Performance benefits black people. It creates opportunities. It sparks real change.
Basketball still needs the next Big John Thompson. Whining won’t make it happen.
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