NBA Trade Demands Part Two – Changing The Narrative

Alex Bab

Welcome back to our exploration of NBA trade demands!

In part one we looked at whether players are selfish when they demand or request a trade. After examining several examples, the conclusion was that there is no one size fits all answer. In some cases players can be selfish and in others not so much.

We also looked at whether trade demands are good or bad for the NBA. Again, there’s no catch all answer, but the evidence suggests that overall, trade demands generate greater interest in the league.

However, historically the narrative painted by the media has depicted players as being selfish for requesting a trade. Although that perception is slowly starting to soften, the hard line stance against trade demands has been cementing for a long time and is hard to break out of.

This stance hinges on the belief that once a contract is signed, a player should honor it, regardless on any surrounding context or circumstance.

But that can, and likely will, change over time. But how did we get here in the first place?

 

We Still Fail To Recognize That Professional Athletes Are People

I know that seems crazy to say in 2021 but it is the unfortunate truth. There’s still a cognitive disconnect where we dismiss the humanity of professional athletes.

When I started doing research for this piece, I stumbled across an article that was ranking the nine most selfish trade demands in history, according to the author. What I found in this article was almost distressing in how much it disregarded the context surrounding the trade demands in its effort to prove its central thesis.

Now, partially that is to be expected as the point of the article was to examine selfish trade demands. What was unexpected was that this article was written in 2012. The lack of understanding of context was being heavily pushed by the media as recently as nine years ago.

While I had issues with every entry in this article, two in particular seemed especially egregious in their seeming complete lack of interest in viewing the players involved as human beings. Now,  these were well before I was born. But I do know my NBA history and it was very easy to see the gross misrepresentation of the players being put forth by the media.

We’ll go chronologically, starting in 1968 with Wilt Chamberlain.

In 1968, Chamberlain requested a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers and was eventually sent to the Los Angeles Lakers. Here’s how the article portrayed that demand:

Wilt was unhappy with the 76ers. That’s right, he was unhappy with a team that had just went 62-20, a team that complemented him with Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker.

Instead, he wanted to be a part of a Lakers team where he would just be one of the guys, not the guy, as he was playing with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

It’s always seemed that Chamberlain left the Sixers for two reasons, to play in LA and to play on a team where he wouldn’t have to be the leader on the court. That, to me, just seems selfish.”

The author answers why Chamberlain wanted the trade in the first place and doesn’t even recognize it. Yes, the 76ers were a good team and Chamberlain was their best player. The author here is making the mistake of assuming that being the best player on the team automatically makes you the leader.

Yes, more often than not, the best player is also the leader of the team. But correlation is not causation. Even the most minor research into Chamberlain’s personality makes it abundantly obvious that he was not a natural leader.

So is it selfish for him to want to leave a team that expected him to be something he wasn’t? Chamberlain wasn’t a leader, he just wanted to play. It makes sense he would want to join the Lakers, who had a clear cut leader in Jerry West.

To view this as a selfish move it to view Chamberlain as solely a stat line and not a person.

To better understand this, look at Kevin Durant. Durant is a generational talent, as was Chamberlain. And Durant is better at being a leader by example than Chamberlain was, as he has a terrific work ethic. But being a leader isn’t natural to him. He is capable of it when needed but it isn’t his strongest suit.

So when Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, that was undoubtedly part of the appeal. Of course, there are other reasons he chose to go there, but joining a team with not one but two established leaders in Stephen Curry and Draymond Green had to be enticing.

Being a leader is not easy and it is draining. This is true in any profession. Durant just wanted to play basketball and not necessarily have to be the leader. That is very understandable, as was Chamberlain’s desire to do the same. But the author doesn’t want to recognize this human aspect of it, so he chooses to ignore it to support his conceit that trade demands are inherently selfish.

The second example concerns Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and is even more egregious.

After the 1974 season, Abdul-Jabbar informed the Milwaukee Bucks he would like to be traded to either New York or Los Angeles. The Bucks had been highly successful during his tenure there and had just reached the Finals the previous season, although they failed to win the title.

Here’s what the author had to say about that scenario:

“The complaint I have here is that he split on the team after losing in the NBA Finals.

Sure, he had helped the Bucks win a title a few seasons before, but the fact that he was ready to give up on the team after a failed finals run because he wanted to play in a big city is nothing but selfish.”

To view this request as selfish is to pretend that the only thing that exists in the world is basketball. It requires us to disregard everything we know about Abdul-Jabbar as a human being as well as what was going on in the world at the time.

If you know anything about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you know that he is extremely socially conscious. Six years prior to the trade request, he boycotted the Olympic Games as a protest against racism. Around this same time, he privately changed his name from Lew Alcindor to his current, Muslim name. He would publicly announce the change in 1971.

With a budding intellectual curiosity and social activism in regards to systemic racism, is it all surprising that he would want to be in a more progressive city like New York or Los Angeles? Events in recent years have illuminated that systemic racism is still a major issue in Wisconsin today. That’s not to say those issues don’t exist in coastal cities as well, but they are historically more liberal.

Abdul-Jabbar has said as much about his reasoning. Although he appreciated the city of Milwaukee and the Bucks’ fans, the Midwest no longer suited his cultural needs.

But again, the narrative portrayed doesn’t want to acknowledge any of that. The author chooses to reduce Abdul-Jabbar to being only one thing (a basketball player), and ignores the intricacies that exist in every human being. The trade request was designed to fulfill his needs outside of basketball.

The author wants us to think the request was selfish. What’s selfish is expecting basketball players to fit in a predetermined box.

I pulled these examples from one article in particular but in my research I found many more. This one just stood out to me as particularly derelict in its duty to depict the context in full.

Luckily, change is already happening.

 

Changing The Narrative

In the grand scheme of things, the media has fully controlled the narrative surrounding athletes until relatively recently. Although players could give interviews, they were ultimately at mercy of who controlled the distribution of the content. Video interviews can be cherry picked to only show part of what a player said. Quotes can be misrepresented in print journalism.

But social media has changed all of that. Through platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others, players can now control the narrative more than ever before. If a player feels they are misrepresented by traditional media, they have the ability to show their side of the story.

And they have the ability to get their message out to millions, instantly.

The result is fans feeling more connection to the players and also starting to view them as people as well as athletes. For example, in recent years Kevin Love has been very open about his personal struggles with mental health. That openness has really started to bring awareness to the fact that players suffer from the same issues as everyone else.

But if Love played 25 years ago, he likely would have been branded with code words like “mercurial” or “brooding.” He would have had no control over how the general fan base viewed him.

Imagine how much differently we would view players from the past if they had more control of the narrative. Our perception of Abdul-Jabbar or Dennis Rodman or Oscar Robertson would likely be very different.

If Robertson had a way to speak to the masses, unedited, about how racism was heavily weighing on him, maybe he would be viewed differently. Instead, he suffered in silence. And to be honest, was kind of painted as a jerk.

And maybe that’s true. Maybe Robertson is a jerk and also struggled dealing with racism. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The point is, we will never know, because our image of Robertson was solely controlled by the media.

Thankfully all of that is changing, and it may be changing even more in the future.

 

An Evolution Of Media

Social Media has been a game changer for athletes being able to tell their side of the story. But there is still a clear delineation between social media and traditional media.

However, two relatively recent developments provide a glimpse to how that line can become further blurred.

In 2014, Derek Jeter launched a website called The Player’s Tribune. What makes this site unique is that it allows professional athletes to present first person accounts in the format of traditional media. While the players don’t necessarily write the articles themselves, (although they do in some cases), they have the final stamp of approval.

Most articles are written by staff after extensive interviews with players. Prior to publication, the player gets to give the final approval. So we have a traditional style media outlet, driven by players.

This isn’t limited to websites, however. We’ve seen an example on television as well.

In 2018, HBO launched a new talk show called The Shop: Uninterrupted. The show is fundamentally a talk show that takes place in a barbershop. Various guests appear from all sectors of entertainment, such as athletes, actors, musicians and comedians.

What makes this unique is that the show stars and is executive produced by LeBron James. So we have another more traditional media outlet that is being controlled by the athletes, rather than solely the traditional media.

As time progresses, I expect this trend to continue. We will see more vehicles like The Players Tribune and The Shop. And it will completely change the way fans connect with athletes and how the narratives are presented.

It will change the way we view trade demands, along with everything else. It won’t be so easy to make a trade demand look inherently selfish and it will become very hard to view athletes as strictly athletes and ignore their humanity.

This change will happen slowly but I am certain it will happen. So how we view trade demands will no longer be skewed to favor the team over the player. Hopefully, they will be viewed on a case by case basis. Some will be selfish, some won’t. It will be a complicated, messy business.

Isn’t that a lot more fun?

Still, there’s something we have to wrestle with: the double standard that exists between teams and players. Which is where we started this whole journey, thanks to Draymond Green voicing his opinion.

Luckily, I have a solution.

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