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As LeBron Tried To Quit, Real Kings Had To Save The NBA’s Season

“In his biggest challenge as a social justice leader, LeBron James whiffed when he stormed out of a contentious players’ meeting and voted to cancel the NBA season, which required intervention from Barack Obama and Michael Jordan.”

Jay Mariotti

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Colin Kaepernick, he is not. If social activism would be the imprint that distinguished LeBron James from his contemporaries, all he has done now is feed the critics who told him to “shut up and dribble.’’ I can’t get past the image of James, when his strength and empathy were needed most inside a ballroom of emotional players, storming from a volatile meeting and vowing to burst the NBA Bubble last week after he and his Lakers teammates had voted to end the season.

He was ready to quit. Run from the pressure. Not take the final shot. Stomp out of the arena and rip apart his jersey, as we’ve seen before.

Only this wasn’t quitting in a playoff game. Or quitting on Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach. Or quitting on Cleveland again to take his show-business whims to Hollywood. This was the moment defining James as an American leader — how to maximize the collective voice of athletes incensed about another case of police brutality against a Black man — and, stunningly, his initial response was to shut down the league and go home. After all, his kids missed him in Los Angeles, and furthermore, his ex-Miami teammate, 40-year-old Udonis Haslem, was pushing too hard in demanding answers from James as the league’s longtime face and power broker. Would a boycott of games extend through the rest of the postseason? Was it time to return to work? Did LeBron have a plan?

Somehow, he did not.

“My mind began to figure out, what is the plan going forward? And if we don’t have a plan, then what are we talking about? Why are we still here?’’ said James, explaining his mindset at that moment. “There was no plan going forward, no plan of action. And me personally, I’m not the type of guy who doesn’t have a plan and then is not ready to act on it.’’

So, according to multiple reports, James got up from the large gathering of league players and coaches and said, “We’re out,’’ as every teammate but Dwight Howard followed, soon to be joined out the door by the other Los Angeles team, the Clippers. LeBron could have stayed inside the room all night — where did he have to go anyway, locked in a Bubble? — and hashed out the issues until a plan was formulated. Instead, as if the scene was beneath him, he exited while 11 other teams were voting to continue the postseason, which was not a good look for The King.

Kaepernick never quit, kneeling on a sideline until the NFL stopped paying him and TV networks stopped showing him. Martin Luther King Jr. never quit, stopped only by an assassin in Memphis. Quitting is an option no legitimate civil rights leader ever considers, yet James was doing just that as a petty megalomaniac — angry he couldn’t gain a consensus hours after the Milwaukee Bucks had launched the Great Sports Boycott of 2020, and frayed by his often-stated weariness of life inside the league’s restrictive campus. “He was at a place where he was fighting with his mind and fighting with his heart,” teammate Danny Green said.

But he was thinking with his ego. And when history records the story of these surreal times, it will remember how James nearly brought down the NBA — and probably other leagues, by extension of his clout — before two esteemed elders bailed him out and rescued sports, at least until the next crisis. It surprises no one that former President Barack Obama was one of them, taking a late-night call from James and Players Association president Chris Paul after the contentious session and, for starters, urging James not to go home. Rather, Obama reminded them that the Bubble, confining and soul-sucking as it is, still allows players their best chance to make mass statements about racial inequality and that they should work with the NBA instead of boycotting the season. The result: Though the league already is paying $300 million into a fund for the purpose, commissioner Adam Silver is creating a social justice coalition, turning NBA arenas into Election Day polling sites and asking ESPN and Turner Sports to help with expanded social justice awareness, such as public service announcements and morepregame coverage of players kneeling after recently abandoning that part of the story, as the NFL’s broadcast partners did post-Kaepernick.

“Fifteen years in this league, I’ve never seen anything like it. The voices that were heard, I’ll never forget it,’’ said Paul, who kept the peace in the room while James was saying peace-out. “Guys are tired. We’re all hurt. We’re tired of seeing the same (police brutality) over and over again and everybody expecting us to be OK just because we get paid great money. We’re human. We have real feelings. And I’m glad that we got the chance to get in a room and talk with one another and not just cross paths and say, `Good luck in your game today.’ ‘’ We understand the platform we have, and we wanted to keep our foot on the pedal.’’

Wrote Silver in a letter to players in the NBA and WNBA, whose teams also boycotted games last week: “I have heard from several of you directly and I understand the pain, anger, and frustration that so many of us are feeling in this moment. I wholeheartedly support NBA and WNBA players and their commitment to shining a light on important issues of social justice. I understand that some of you feel the league should be doing more. I hear you — and please know that I am focused on ensuring that we as a league are affecting real change both within our organization and in communities across the country.’’

     In a statement, Obama’s office said: “As an avid basketball fan, President Obama speaks regularly with players and league officials. When asked, he was happy to provide advice to a small group of NBA players seeking to leverage their immense platforms for good after their brave and inspiring strike in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting. They discussed establishing a social justice committee to ensure that the players’ and league’s actions this week led to sustained, meaningful engagement on criminal justice and police reform.”

LeBron? He took a Twitter shot at President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He reminded us about the wonderful public school he has created, for at-risk children, in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And when the season resumed over the weekend — the games he was willing to abandon because he didn’t like the tone in the room — he sidestepped his epic failure to lead. He even cracked wise about breaking ranks, saying, “I’ve had numerous nights and days of thinking about leaving the Bubble. I think everyone has, including (the media). There hasn’t been one person that hasn’t thought in their mind, `I got to get the hell out of here.’ It probably crosses my mind once a day.”

He could afford to smile only after the intervention of Obama, probably the one man on the planet who could talk James out of leaving. “President Obama is a great man. He’s a great man,’’ he said, taking his usual shot at Trump. “I wish he was still the President of the United States.’’

How curious at age 35, after taking relentless political stands on social media and going to war against Trump, that LeBron required not only the 44th President to calm the seas … but Michael Jordan. He was the second savior, the bridge between the owners and players, and an effective one at that. As chairman of the league’s Labor Relations Committee, Jordan used his position as Charlotte Hornets owner to urge other owners to simply let the players vent and understand their frustrations. This was no small feat, knowing some owners didn’t support the idea of painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER’’ prominently on the three Bubble courts. But the owners obeyed Jordan and listened. Then he counseled the players, advising them to stay united and making sure they finish what they’ve started at Disney World. “He was huge in making sure that whatever we want to do together, we get it done,” Rockets star Russell Westbrook said.

Oh, the irony. Only last year, James was calling himself “the greatest player of all time,’’ assuming the Cavaliers’ 2016 rally to beat the Warriors finally had elevated him above Jordan in the age-old debate. And while never saying it, James figured he was a slam-dunk winner in any social awareness comparison, knowing Jordan shied from political positions as a capitalist during his playing career and once said, infamously, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.’’ But here was Jordan, in 2020, wisely ruling out quitting as an option. The other day, Jordan’s former teammate in Chicago, Craig Hodges, recalled how he was rejected by Jordan and Magic Johnson when he suggested the Bulls and Lakers boycott Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals after the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.

“I knew the answer before I went to them,” Hodges told CBS Sports. “What’s funny to me is how quick they dismissed it. Both conversations lasted less than two minutes. Magic was coming on the court the day before the first game, and I asked him about it and he tells me `it’s too extreme.’ I’d already discussed it with Mike in the locker room, and he tells me, `Man, that’s wild, man.’ “

Almost 30 years later, Jordan was urging James to keep playing. But he did so from a more enlightened social platform. “I am deeply saddened, truly pained and plain angry,” Jordan said in May after George Floyd was choked to death. “I see and feel everyone’s pain, outrage and frustration. I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.’’

It remains doubtful whether the season will finish. One more police shooting, God help us, and everyone goes home. As James should have anticipated, the Bucks were horrified by the Blake shooting just 40 miles down I-94 from Milwaukee. “One thing that moved me as a human being was that, if you really want to accomplish something, you can. We were able to get his family’s number within, like, 30 minutes,” said two-time reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, recalling how Bucks players spoke to Blake’s family the day of their boycott. “We came together as a team, went in a circle, talked to his dad, and his dad was tearing up telling us how powerful what we did on that day was for him and his family. That’s bigger than basketball. We’re going to remember the way we felt for the rest of our lives.”

On that, James could agree. “Obviously, the Bubble season will never be forgotten. In sports, this is the first time we’ve been able to do something like this, but this moment is much bigger than us playing basketball,’’ he said. “Hopefully, years down the line, when America is in a better place, you can look back at this moment and be like, `That was one of the catapults that kind of got it going.’ ‘’

The Clippers also voted to cancel the season, remember, and while Pat Beverley and even superstar Kawhi Leonard avoid criticism because they don’t carry LeBron’s weight, they are dealing with daily anxiety that could crack their title hopes. Marcus Morris, for instance, is a headhunter who could sabotage his team at any moment after again trying to maim Luka Doncic on Sunday. In that cranky-mood vein, who knows if the Bubble has six more weeks of staying power when we haven’t even discussed the ongoing coronavirus threats, heightened by this week’s arrival of close family members and friends of the players?

And who knows if the league honors its pledge to support the players? “All you can do is give us your word. If the word you have given us is not fulfilled, then we’ll attack that moment,’’ said James, whose teammate, Anthony Davis, went so far to say, “We won’t play again,’’ if the owners don’t keep their word. Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, one of the league’s young social justice leaders who voiced ballroom feelings independent of James, has his doubts. “I’m not as confident as I would like to be, I’ll say that,’’ said Brown, who drove from Boston to his native Atlanta to march in a protest months ago. “I think promises are made year after year. We’ve heard a lot of these terms and words before. We heard them in 2014 — reform. We’re still hearing them now. A lot of them are just reshaping the same ideas and nothing is actually taking place. Long-term goals are one thing, but I think there’s stuff in our wheelhouse as athletes with our resources and the people that we’re connected to that short-term effect is possible as well.

“Everybody keeps saying, `Change is going to take this, change is going to take that.’ That’s the incrementalism idea that keeps stringing you along to make you feel like something’s going to happen, something’s going to happen. People were dying in 2014, and it’s 2020 and people are still dying the same way. They keep saying `reform, reform, reform,’ and ain’t nothing being reformed.’’

There was no shortage of symbolism when Bucks guard George Hill, the first player to demand league support after the Blake shooting, explained why he was late in taking the court Saturday. “You want the honest truth? I take a s— every time before the game,’’ he said.

A fitting parable for an NBA s—storm, wouldn’t you say?

Sure, he’s still LeBron James. He’s still seeking his fourth championship, still an elite player, still routinely capable of a 36-point triple-double used to oust Portland in the first round, still a model family man who has avoided scandal despite living half his life in the searing public eye.

But suddenly, for the first time in forever, it doesn’t seem like he’s The King anymore.

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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