CULTURE

Why John Beilein Called His Players “Thugs”: Boomers Shouldn’t Coach the NBA

In today's NBA, coaches and front offices need to be aligned with their players' interests.

The most recent sports debacle surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers organization isn't just about losing (the team is currently sitting with a 11-27 record, the fourth-worst mark in the NBA).

First-year head coach John Beilein made headlines when an unidentified source reported that in a Wednesday team film session, Beilein made a comment about his players' recent performance, referring to them as "a bunch of thugs." While it may seem harmless on the surface, you must take into account the audience that Beilein was speaking to.

NBA locker rooms are a unique environment. There are typically only 13 to 15 players that travel to games, and the league itself is often referred to by its players as a brotherhood. Eight of the Cavaliers' current thirteen players are black men under the age of thirty, five of whom make considerably more money than coach Beilein will this season.

Coach Beilein had never been part of that brotherhood until this season. Yes, he is a highly decorated coach at every level of basketball, starting with Newfane High School in 1975 and taking his first collegiate head coaching position at Erie Community College in 1978. Over the course of the next 40 years, Beilein amassed 829 collegiate wins, becoming one of only six Division 1 coaches with 700 wins or more. But during that time, programs (including the most prominent) that were once accustomed to seeing their players blossom from their freshman season until their graduation all bought into the "one and done" philosophy. Popularized by infamous coach John Calipari during his time at the University of Kentucky, "one and done" is a recruiting strategy whereby top high school prospects are brought in as one-year rental players without any plan to play at the school beyond their freshman season. The NBA requires individuals to be one year removed from their high school graduation class year before being eligible to be selected by a team. There is no doubt that coaches' roles at both the collegiate and NBA levels have become more difficult, and that requires a new type of thinking in order to balance the personalities, egos, and potential that come along with the talent.

In Beilein's apology, he lamented that it was simply an error of enunciation and that he meant to say "slugs," so as to say they were playing slowly. The mistake wasn't one of enunciation but rather the estimation that Beilein would be able to overcome the cultural gap that exists between himself and the young players he has been hired to lead.

Before this season with the Cavs, Coach Beilein, at 66, had never coached a player old enough to rent a car without having to pay surcharges. He took over a roster that was mostly comprised of players still on rookie contracts. Maybe that's why Koby Altman, Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager, selected Beilein in the first place, thinking that a seasoned college coach can help the continued development of players who are still of college-age. But, ultimately, in today's NBA, coaches and front offices need to be aligned with their players' interests.

If executives and coaching staff cannot relate to their players, they will not last long at their respective helms. Of the current 30 NBA head coaches, 12 of them are from the baby boomer generation. Only five of them have played professionally either in the NBA or overseas. On the other hand, two of the newest head coaching hires are Memphis' Taylor Jenkins and Minnesota's Ryan Saunders, who are only 35 and 33, respectively. This shows that a lot of organizations are recognizing that they need to be hiring coaches that can relate to the types of players and, more importantly, the personalities that they are tasked to manage.

Former players who have been in pro locker rooms are more adept at handling their young superstars, because they've been around them before. Steve Kerr, for instance, was bred to navigate a locker room with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant from his time with the Chicago Bulls, back when the likes of Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman were his teammates. Also, the injection of young coaches follows the model of what the Miami Heat chose to do when they picked Erik Spoelstra to take over at 38-years-old. Handpicked by Pat Riley to coach the Dwayne Wade-led team, Riley had this to say about his decision: "This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative, and bring fresh new ideas."

On Thursday's episode of The Jump, Chauncey Billups and Kendrick Perkins, who are both former NBA players and NBA Champions, discussed Beilein's lackluster apology. Neither minced words, giving their sentiments on the matter as a black players who are all too familiar with the connotations of the term "thug." Billups and Perkins both alluded to the fact that Beilein has "lost the locker room," meaning he's lost respect from his players. Remember that Beilein's comments could have only been leaked by a player, coach, or organizational member. Recent outbursts by the team's star player, Kevin Love, at both Beilein and GM Koby Altman are signs that there is internal turmoil, and it's past the point of fixing.

While Altman backed Coach Beilein and stated that the team will be moving forward with him as head coach, it isn't difficult to foresee his time in Cleveland, or the NBA, running out before the end of the season. I don't believe that John Beilein is a racist. I don't believe that he is a bigot. But there is no doubt that John Beilein doesn't belong in the NBA coaching ranks, and his termination is imminent. I even feel bad for the guy because he's going to be coined a racist when it's more likely a case of a misunderstanding of semantics (it's like when an older woman refers to me as "that nice Oriental boy"). But the NBA is a player's league. Old hats like Beilein are best to stay in the familiar pastures of the college game, where they can be the face of the program and a pillar of their university. It's not a bad thing; it's just that these different jobs require different kinds of people. I hope John Beilein returns to the college game and is able to rectify his misstep. But until then, somebody please give him a thug...I meant hug.