New York Times – Dec 31, 2003 – Some roster gods habitually profess to love kittens, milk and players with integrity who could pass a white-glove test while their team of good guys fades softly into mediocrity.
Others routinely talk of change and regret after their paint-by-miscreant approach to personnel results in losses that suddenly gang up on their fans’ fickle conscience.
This sliding scale for character Ã¢â‚¬â€? long used by team executives to excuse and excoriate Ã¢â‚¬â€? was most recently revealed when James L. Dolan tried extra hard to incorporate a word-for-the-day calendar into his owner lexicon.
On Oct. 23, he used character in several sentences to describe how the team was better off with a Knicks cast from Up With People than a scoundrel like Latrell Sprewell. Then, the Knicks began the season 10-18. That’s when character lost its influence as Dolan surreptitiously interviewed Isiah Thomas while Scott Layden kept whistling “Kumbaya.”
In the week since the change in philosophy, Thomas has chastised the Knicks for intolerable passivity when Sprewell spewed foul nothings at Dolan, reacting as if manhood and character are mutually exclusive.
In a creative pursuit of talent, Thomas chased the troubled Eddie Griffin only to lose him to the Nets on Monday; and yesterday, he met with the controversial Leon Smith to try to complete a deal that was delayed because of the Clarence Weatherspoon trade last night for Houston guard Moochie Norris and center John Amaechi.
“Later on down the road, we’ll probably revisit that,” Thomas said before the Knicks beat the Miami Heat, 102-73, last night. “I’ll let you know.”
Smith and Griffin have a history of wearing out the patience of the teams that drafted them. Both have reacted destructively to pressure. Both have been accused of using a gun in disputes with girlfriends. At one point, Smith tried to swallow 250 aspirin as an answer to his problems.
“I’d say he was unlucky with love,” said Thomas, using a curious choice of words to describe Smith’s breakup with his girlfriend. “Some guys take it harder than others. He fell hard.”
Prone to bouts of anger mismanagement, Griffin has often chosen to punch his way out of his problems. Still, the Knicks didn’t hesitate in pursuing Griffin, then Smith.
“When you talk about Leon Smith, I think he has shown great courage to be where he is at today,” Thomas said. “A lot of people would have given up on life.”
It’s a nice spin, but hollow considering Dolan is the one who defined character two months ago. For anyone who wants to label Dolan a hypocrite for his flip-flop, for those who wish to bemoan the spiraling morality of sports, that’s understandable, but it’s not going to change the way teams selectively use character to form their rosters, not as long as there are games to be won.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The Knicks are not alone. At least a handful of teams other than the Knicks and the Nets believed Griffin was worth the downside, and many may have the same opinion of Smith.
But besides being at-risk players in the P.R. sense, Smith and Griffin have another similarity. They have been found to have depression. And here is the character conundrum: What’s attitude? What’s illness?
Most often, teams don’t spend the money or time to find out.
“If teams spend millions on their athletes,” said Dr. John F. Murray, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist who works with elite athletes in South Florida, “why wouldn’t they spend to have a licensed sports psychologist on staff?”
Why wait for the moment when a troubled player combusts; why hope there are enough victories to buffer the bad times; why not offer psychology fire prevention?
Admirably, this is what the Nets are doing with Griffin, the former Seton Hall star. Whatever folks think of his history of violence, legal turmoil and immature antics, the Nets are willing to provide him with the best chance to succeed.
Instead of dropping him into the team on a 10-day contract, as the Knicks may do with Smith. Instead of using his cameo appearance to provide an amateur glimpse into his mental health. Instead of relying on ex-player mentors to do the work of a therapist or hope a team chaplain can provide spiritual comfort. Instead of do-it-yourself healing, the Nets are turning to professionals.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ They are bringing in whatever medical assistance Griffin will need while introducing him slowly to the pressurized environment of the N.B.A. It’s practically innovative for a league where precious few licensed psychologist have an active role Ã¢â‚¬â€? if any Ã¢â‚¬â€? within the team dynamic.
“I think the real issue is that there are people who are paid a lot of money who don’t want anyone else involved,” said Dr. Joel Goldberg, the noted sports psychologist whom the Giants leaned on when they brought in controversial figures like Christian Peter and Kerry Collins. “Those people do what they think is best.”
It’s about coaching control. Privately, one N.B.A. coach once said he did not want a team psychologist on the payroll, fearing he would lose power to motivate the player. Translated: He thought soul-searching produced soft players.
To some coaches, softness is code for character. The less character, the better. To some owners, character is a trait that fluctuates depending on victories and losses.
“What I’ve seen from Dolan is a man who really wants to win,” Thomas said.
What if character and winning could coexist more often? If teams went a little deeper than talent, if they invested in the person when necessary, the trouble might give way to character.