Soothsaying, Quitting and the Tom Jackson Impulse

Bill Simmons started and squashed a beef with Doc Rivers on very vague grounds. He's figuring this TV thing out fast.
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“Let me be clear about this. They hate their coach.”

-Tom Jackson, September 14, 2003, on Bill Belichick

“He just tried to quit on his players.” 

-Bill Simmons, June 16th, 2013, on Doc Rivers

 

The New England Patriots released Lawyer Milloy, one of their starting safeties, six days before the Patriots’ 2003 season began with a game against Buffalo, on the road.  Milloy was traded to Buffalo, who in turn humiliated the Patriots, 31-0, with former Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe leading the way. The victory was short-lived. The Bills teetered through the next few weeks before beginning their annual freefall into winter. If the frenzy of the opening weekend hadn’t long passed by Week 17, the Patriots exorcised most of it when they beat the Bills—tidily, the final score was 31-0—on their own home field. This is one of those neat bits of symmetry that can often be mistaken for signs of the game’s divinity. People who talk about football for a living, or parse Boston sports for intimations of the sacred, tend to seize on stuff like this.

The remainder—the bit the Bills weren’t able to exorcise in that apposite win—reemerged after the Patriots won that season’s video-game shootout Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers. After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was approached by ESPN’s Chris Berman, from whom he accepted congratulations with his characteristic funereal exuberance. When Berman’s longtime co-host Tom Jackson tried to talk to Belichick, the coach rebuffed him, owing to the above-quoted unsourced comment Jackson had made on the air following the Patriots’ Week 1 loss. “Let me very clear about this,” Jackson said, “The Patriots hate their coach, and their season could be over.” When the season was over, and Belichick was holding a trophy, he had only two words of response: “Fuck you.”

Jackson had smelled an opportunity, and he had taken it, and it had backfired, and no one likely would have known if then-of-the-Boston Globe Michael Holley wasn’t nipping at Belichick’s heels all season to write what would eventually become the book Patriot Reign, a paean to whatever the hell the ‘Patriot Way’ was that happened to be written by a talented journalist. Eventually Belichick thawed enough to keep things civil with him and Jackson, but barely. “He would extend his hand to Belichick on a bizarre February night in Houston. Belichick offered a few words,” Holley writes, “but not his hand.”

In the nearly ten years since those events, ESPN has changed, or devolved if you're feeling judgmental, into a network defined by opportunism and manufactured controversy, a constant calorie grab wreaking havoc on its body politic. The best ideas for television are the ones that can’t be disproven, not because they’re right, but because any resolution to them absolved the network. In the Patriots example, if the Patriots had missed the playoffs, Jackson would have been “proven” right. Instead, Belichick had redeemed himself, and was worthy of America’s godly televised game.

For all his ubiquity, Bill Simmons has mostly managed to remain a man apart from this nonsense. Skip Bayless doesn’t headline his own sports media powerhouse brand, and Stephen A. Smith didn’t dream up the paradigm-changing 30 for 30; they lack the sufficient candlepower and wiring, and whatever Simmons' other issues might be, he has something they don't. Simmons is a living icon, but an insatiable one; insatiability and television don’t age well. And this, maybe, is how Simmons came to start a brief, heated, very silly feud with Doc Rivers, the new coach of the Los Angeles Clippers and the recently ex- coach of Simmons’ beloved Boston Celtics. The Celtics won one title in seven years—and lost another in a seventh game—despite, Simmons often mused, an only intermittently competent GM and coach. He started out hating Rivers, but changed his opinion as the general opinion of Rivers changed and improved.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Rivers took this most recent bit of bait—actually, in reality, ESPN’s Shelley Smith took it, or her producer did, or whoever was ultimately responsible for Smith asking Rivers about it during ESPN's NBA Draft broadcast—and called Simmons an “idiot.” Simmons immediately demanded a simple explanation from Rivers as to whether or not he "quit on" the Celtics; Rivers then accused Simmons of running a down-low smear campaign against him, which almost certainly didn’t happen, if only because Simmons seems too self-centered to leave his handiwork on the cutting room floor, unsigned. Emboldened by Rivers’ flighty response to his bum-rush, Simmons wrote a sharply worded tweet and called Rivers by his given name, Glenn. So that's where we were, until Monday, when it all ended as quickly as it began.

***

Rivers had done nothing wrong in this situation; that much seems clear. Simmons long ago traded The Godfather for The Wire, so choose your trope: It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business. Or: It’s all in the game. Either way, Rivers supposedly “quit” on the Celtics because he had three years remaining on a five-year contract, and he was ostensibly supposed to stick around for a rebuilding project because of that. Rivers got five years in 2011 not because he intended to coach for five years, but because he could. The Celtics, then still under the impression that they could beat the Heat, were happy to keep Rivers at any price. They knew what they had in Rivers, which was one of the rarest quantities in the league. Exactly four active coaches own championship rings, and that would have been the case no matter who won it all last month. Doc is one of those.

Coaching a team in the NBA is a unique and uniquely opaque job. We know that there is a very limited pool of high-level talent and that it is near-impossible to win without it; we know, too, that great NBA coaches are only revealed when their players are better, and that even an ace motivator like Rivers is not an alchemist capable of turning Anthony Carter into Rajon Rondo. This goes against our treasured sentimentalities about coaching, which isn't really a bad thing. We are told that good coaching can spin greatness out of merely good talent, and maybe wish to believe it because it is a nice story. But in the NBA, a team wouldn’t look good with a shitcan roster even if it were coached by the ghost of Red Auerbach himself. No one quite knows what coaches do or how much what they do is worth, but to suggest that it adds up to more than a few wins over the course of a long and difficult season is unconvincing.

Most importantly, Simmons’ report was completely unsourced by definition. At least Jackson could have claimed that a player called him, said he “hated” Belichick and that others agreed with him, and Jackson would have had a leg to stand on. “Quitting” on a team that’s not in-season is an ephemeral concept; it wasn’t invented by sports radio bellow-jocks, but might as well have been and certainly belongs to them by this point. Simmons really couldn’t imagine that a gutted roster full of rejects and kids wouldn’t want to play for the 2013-14 Celtics as coached by Doc Rivers because he'd tried to go to L.A. and coach Chris Paul? That they, like him, would hang Doc’s chance to coach a better team around his neck like a millstone? It’s self-evidently preposterous, but any port in a storm when you're behind a hot mic on live television in hour umpteen of a long broadcast, and somebody needs to say something, and you are constitutionally inclined to believe that most anything you say is worth saying. "You," in that last sentence, being Bill Simmons.

***

Unlike one of Simmons’ favorite dicta—that things always end badly, otherwise they wouldn’t end—everyone won in this scenario. The Clippers got a real coach. The Celtics cleaned house, getting three first-round draft picks in exchange for 73 years of talent and another in return for Doc's services. The Nets got even more curious, grabbed some headlines, and ratcheted their rivalry with Knicks up to fistfight-alert levels—think Garnett and Carmelo Anthony sharing a city—which is basically all they ever wanted. Sometimes things do end well, or well enough, and we’d all be better off to accept these things as they happen. More shit is always just around the corner. Prior to the Rivers “fiasco,” the big talk on Boston sports talk radio was Daniel Nava’s All-Star “campaign,” but with Rivers gone and Nava frittering, that evaporated quickly. There was a deficit of shout-worthy issues, and Simmons heroically, if huffily and vaguely, threw himself into the breach.

In true Simmons style, the beef also evaporated overnight. This is good for everyone, and fits with a more positive Sports Guy trait: Unlike, say, Bayless, he will eventually admit he’s wrong, which he more than proved by hiring former sparring partner and legend Charlie Pierce at Grantland. Simmons announced on his podcast Monday that he had talked to Rivers and settled things “like adults.” (Though if you have to say it, it’s probably not quite like that.)

That’ll almost certainly be the last we hear of it. Once he changes his mind, it’s like the previous Simmons never existed. There was “nothing interesting about” Tim Duncan in 2007 until he was “never boring” in 2013; he didn’t like Twitter until he did; he didn’t quote The Wire until it was long off the air, and so on. On TV, this sort of move backfires for anyone less skilled and charming than Charles Barkley, and Simmons—who has improved tremendously as a television presence, and seems motivated enough to improve more—is only a Barkley-ish figure in his own mind at this point. In this case, he was just a fired-up columnist type picking a silly fight with his favorite team's ex-coach over a vague offense. He escaped without the “Fuck you” that he likely earned in this case—which suggests that maybe he's starting to get the TV thing after all.


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