When the Cleveland Cavaliers hired John Beilein to be their coach in May, a couple of things popped into our minds.
The first was a traditional one: How would an NBA team adjust to having a college coach, one with no professional experience It’s happened many times before, but it’s not like Beilein’s reputation was like that of Rick Pitino.
The second was more generational: Beilein is 66, much older than Billy Donovan, Brad Stevens and Fred Hoiberg were when they made the same transition. Would the age gap build a bridge too long for either the coach or his players to cross?
We were reminded of this when ESPN reported how Beilein had misspoken to his team during an off-day film session on Wednesday.
As the highlights were playing out, Beilein made the casual observation that the Cavaliers were no longer playing “like a bunch of thugs.”
Obviously, Beilein’s intention was not to denigrate his players by deliberately associating them with a vexing racial stereotype about young African-American males.
But you can imagine what the players were likely thinking when the word first tumbled from his mouth. Player-coach relationships have been broken by comments much less troubling than that.
“I didn’t realize that I had said the word ‘thugs,’ but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein told ESPN. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow-moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”
The Cavaliers are 10-27 and clearly struggling again this season. They are in the midst of a five-game losing streak that essentially made the extra-long film session even more important than usual.
There have already been a lot of stories about the apparent discontent of their only legitimate star, Kevin Love. Love, who is making $29 million this season, had a couple of emotional outbursts last week he later apologized for, saying he was acting like a 13-year-old and not someone who was 31.
Love is reportedly up for grabs. The Cavaliers are in rebuilding mode and Love is certainly the most marketable player they have, one who could bring back a cache of younger players and/or draft picks in a trade.
It’s fair to say the Cavaliers are again having trouble transitioning without LeBron James. And like most teams that are struggling, nerves are frayed and tensions run high.
Beilein immediately understood he had misspoken. The fact there was total silence in the room likely tipped him off. He knew he had a problem on his hands, potentially a major one. Apparently, the players were pretty pissed off when they left the room, feeling their coach has purposely disparaged them.
As you expect, news of this quickly worked its way to general manager Koby Altman, the who hired Beilein from the University of Michigan. Altman contacted the coach to find out what happened and suggested something Beilein knew he had to do – talk to each of the players and calm the situation.
“He made a mistake. We all make them, but he apologized, owned up to it, and it this point, that’s all we can ask him to do,” Cavaliers forward Larry Nance said Thursday. “We all heard it, we were all there. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s any player on the team that believes there was mal-intent behind it.
“It wasn’t one of those things that like, ‘How dare you?,” Nance added. “At second glance, yes. We realized he was wrong, he realized he was wrong. That’s why he doubled back afterward, but at the time it happened, it didn’t catch me right away.'”
The Cavaliers lured Beilein with a five-year contract, something most felt was far too generous for a guy who’d spent the entirety of his 40-year coaching career in college. He’d been at Michigan since 2007 and brought the Cavaliers to National Championship games in 2013 and 2018.
The transition has not been an easy one. Insiders say his relationship with Love hasn’t been the best and that the uneasiness has filtered down to some of the younger players on the team.
“There was really positive reinforcement from the guys this morning and last night,” Beilein told reporters after Thursday’s shoot-around in Detroit. “Very understanding, but it’s something that certainly they understand that it was serious. Something that shouldn’t have happened.”