Heckling is an inherent part of any sport. The barbs and pointed shouts can create a toxic environment for opposing teams to play on the road. Players hear some of the screams and coaches have to yell their instructions over repetitive onslaught of derogatory exclamations of crazed fans. The fans feed off of the energy and it can snowball into hostile atmosphere, making high performance even more difficult to attain. It’s why playing in Utah is so difficult, why Boston is more than just the intimidation of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, etc. But heckling against home players doesn’t accomplish much. It doesn’t make them play better. Sure, it’s hard not to scream “No!” when Cookie or Rasual puts the ball on the floor, when DeAndre attempts a post move or when Baron takes a wild three or a turn around jumper, but it’s completely different to constantly deride the home player. Donald Sterling doesn’t know this.
In case you haven’t heard, Donald Sterling has been heckling Baron Davis.
Sterling has expressed his displeasure about Davis’ play by taunting him from his courtside seat at Clippers’ home games, several sources told Yahoo! Sports. Among Sterling’s verbal barbs:
– “Why are you in the game?”
– “Why did you take that shot?”
– “You’re out of shape!”
I’m sure that those thoughts have been shared by a multitude of fans as Baron hasn’t even come close to living up to his contract. But the fans are not the owners. They haven’t signed Baron to a contract that he didn’t have a chance to live up to. I am an optimist and I still thought that the Clippers would get 2.5 good years from Baron. The fault is as much Sterling’s and Dunleavy’s as it has been Baron’s and Sterling should know this, instead of petulantly shouting base derision at the team’s highest paid player. Is it understandable? Of course, but the team won’t grow from Sterling’s constant negativity.
It strikes me that Sterling is doing this as a way to be liked. After all, what has been a bigger unifying force in Clipperdom than the constant bewilderment and frustration with Baron? Sterling must hear about it all the time because he sits in his very public courtside seats and the fan distaste for Baron is palpable. But Sterling can’t join in on the chants to be just like everyone else, it won’t make him liked. It’s like the rich kid in college hearing all of his friends whine about being broke. If he whines too, it’s just annoying.
What will make Sterling liked is if he puts together a winning team (as gross as that sounds considering his frequent ethical gaffes), not if commiserates with the fans, because he can actually do something about the success of the team. He signs the checks, he approves the signings (or at least hires people to do so) and he controls the atmosphere. He has the responsibility.
This is not to say that he needs to be Mr. Positivity. It’s not even saying that he can’t critique the players publicly, as Phil Jackson and the late George Steinbrenner both found ways to be effective in the public sphere. But Sterling’s criticisms have to have more nuance and patience. The vitriol has to be at least one step removed. Criticize VDN all you want, but I think he has handled the Baron situation as well as he possibly could have. Starting from training camp, through the rash of injuries, VDN maintained an even, but honest critique of Baron. Was he overweight, Vinny? “He’s not in the shape he needs to be in, and he knows that.” VDN kept the responsibility on Baron without eroding his fragile psyche. Sterling can take a note from this. If he could be more calmly critical, he might not completely undermine the positive organizational culture shift that has happened under Olshey, Del Negro and Roeser.
Part of creating a culture to succeed is to have open communication and hold people accountable for their mistakes. It’s okay for Sterling to be critical of Baron, but if he really wants his team to win and isn’t just looking to temporarily align himself with the upset fans, he needs to change himself. He needs to find clarity in his confusion, realize that he is that rich kid that can’t complain about being broke, he is the owner of the Clippers and very responsible for more than just the play and the signings, he’s responsible for the perception of the team. Unfortunately for Clippers fans, that’s a problem that doesn’t seem like it’ll be fixed any time soon.