Thursday, April 11, 2013

the last book I ever read (David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, excerpt twelve)

from The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam:

Silas thought of himself and Wilkens as survivors of another era in the NBA. They were among the early blacks to play and their careers ran from that time of overt prejudice and smaller salaries to the modern era of huge salaries and more subtle racial frustrations and anxieties. He regarded Dennis Johnson as typical of many of the new players now entering the league, far more talented than their predecessors of fifteen years ago, but with their raw talent far outstripping their capacity to deal with the immensely complex social situations into which their ability and affluence had catapulted them. Silas had been, over his long career, one of the prime movers in creating a players’ union, and he was proud of the great gains that the union had made in advancing players’ salaries, including his own. But he also believed that many players were now coming into big money far too soon for their own good. Superstars in high school, coveted by college recruiters, always stroked and coddled and catered to, they could not deal well with reality or adversity, either on or off the basketball court.

Many of the new young stars were black, and Silas considered himself in a better position to say these things to them than a white player or coach would be. He and Wilkens had discussed Dennis Johnson, and Silas allowed the justice of Wilkens’s position, that you had to give a player as talented and sensitive as Dennis Johnson room to grow, you could not make him conform. But Silas saw the drawbacks too. First, the more flexibility Wilkens showed, the less respect Johnson had for him. Second, DJ’s behavior was tearing Seattle apart. It was not playing like a championship team; nor did it feel like a championship team. A championship team, he believed, had a certain respect of coach for players and players for coach, and, above all, of players for each other. A respect that had its own built-in discipline. Silas had played for the Boston Celtics, and he had not at first believed the myth of the Celtics as special. But very soon he became a convert, and one of the things he admired most was the way in which Red Auerbach made the players themselves the keepers of the tradition, and thus the enforcers of their own discipline. He sensed that on this team Dennis Johnson was now a threat to the entire delicate mechanism. Perhaps, thought Lenny Wilkens, perhaps Silas was right, but for the moment he was trying desperately to reach his talented young player, trying to excuse the rudeness and the rebuffs he was receiving. He was convinced that if any coach in professional basketball could understand Dennis Johnson, could identify with his problems and the complexity of his world, it was Lenny Wilkens. He saw himself, quite rightly, as a pioneer in both race relations and in changing the labor laws that made it possible for young players to negotiate huge salaries. It was odd to deal with a young man who had so little respect for what had gone before, so little appreciation of the past.

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