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Renegade Athletes

Professional sports teams have decided the toxic antics of athletes such as Stephon Marbury, Terrell "T.O." Owens and Manny Ramirez are not worth their superstar abilities
Michael P. Geffner
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

(continued from page 2)

He pauses, chugs some water, then blurts: "It could be one person out of the locker room and things become good."

There it is, the aha! moment: D'Antoni's reasoning—uncomplicated, unvarnished, unapologetic—in a nutshell. He doesn't need to say the name. No one needs to hear it. But around 10 minutes later, during his usual pregame press briefing in a conference room down the hall, D'Antoni can't avoid the news of the arbitration hearing—or dealing with the M-word head-on one last time. "It's not a great situation for anybody," he says, his voice uncharacteristically strained and his grin transforming into flat-lined lips as he craned his neck around to look at the questioner. "I hate it for Steph. I hate it for the Knicks. I hate it for everybody. But we'll deal with it and get it over with." By night's end, D'Antoni had savored a slice of validation: the Knicks won their 24th game of the season, exceeding their 2007-2008 total, with 26 games to go. And by the next day, the Knicks, at last, released Marbury to pursue his craft some other place— bringing a merciful end to the NBA's messiest divorce of the season but not before, far more profoundly, providing a cautionary tale for problem stars everywhere.

Just mention Marbury and Owens in the same sentence to ESPN baseball analyst and former Mets general manager Steve Phillips, and before you even utter another name, it's already too much for him to handle without boiling over. "Listen, I watch Terrell Owens and I say, 'Never!' I mean, I know talent wins, but I'm not touching him. And Stephon Marbury, I don't care if I need another point guard," he says. "There are certain guys who are just misfits. They might be good for a year, on their best behavior while they form new relationships and [enjoy their] new surroundings. But once they get comfortable and start digging their heels in, they'll go off and do their own thing again"—which becomes a chemical catastrophe waiting to happen. "Because a clubhouse is a living, breathing organism, and when the head of that organism is acting and talking a certain way—bitching and moaning all the time, even when the team is winning—it gives permission to everybody else to be that way. It creates a pervasive negativity, destroys your team chemistry. And even though I believe that team chemistry doesn't win games, winning teams have the right chemistry, which is one of the great paradoxes."

Here's the dilemma, Phillips says: "You can have 25 of the nicest guys in the world on your team and that won't win either. That's just the way it is. So, [whether you're a GM or manager], you have to go in with the understanding that there will be some quirky, difficult personalities you'll have to deal with, some being your stars." But at the first sign of trouble "you have to confront guys quickly, trying to nip it in the bud [before it spreads], and in a respectful way—behind closed doors, not by leaking it to the media. Yes, even with bad guys, you show a level of respect, especially since others stars around the league you'll want in the future might be watching you."

Brian Billick, a Fox NFL game analyst who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a 2001 Super Bowl championship, once used this nifty little ploy on a receiver whose "self-interests were draining from the common good": "I called the guy in on a day off to go over the game plan. I wanted to make him feel involved in the thinking. 'Just tell me where you'd like to be on this play and I'll put you there,' I said. Then I said, 'Of course, I can't promise you that the ball will go there, because we don't know what the defense will do.' It was just a way of trying to prevent him from getting upset about things we really can't control."

The great former NFL coach Dan Reeves, for his part, would call the Problem Star into his office, gently shut the door behind him, and look the guy squarely in the eyes, the way a dad would a son not doing well in school. He wouldn't scream or reprimand or demand a thing, but with a measured tone, he'd reason, if not plead: "You know, you can be the best that's ever played the game. But you have to change a little. You've got to be willing to work a little harder, stay at the meetings a little longer, watch more game film." Then the kicker: "You know, it won't happen unless you make it happen." And the Problem Star would act like he took it all in, shaking his head like a bobble head doll, and even, in the most sincere way, make the promise to try. "But talk is cheap," says Reeves, now a football analyst for Sirius satellite radio. "There are a lot of coaches and organizations who still think players can change with a new system, or new scenery, but I don't know in all my years of coaching that I ever turned around a bad apple into a good one."

Still, hubris combined with an irresistible, blinding lust for talent—especially that of the wondrous kind—sometimes replaces rational thinking, Billick confesses, and makes you take a silly chance on what you know in your heart of hearts isn't good for you or your team in the long run. "You succumb to that pretty girl, so to speak," he says. "You convince yourself that you're a special enough coach to deal with the guy. 'He'll listen to me,' you say to yourself. 'I'll make him better. I'll make him a team player.' It's all a lie, of course. "Or, if you're a new coach coming in and already have [The Problem Star], you try the clean-slate approach. You dump everything that happened before on the last [coach], try to get the player to recognize there's an opportunity here. But…very few players take advantage of it. They are who they are, especially at the first bump in the road.

"That's why I think Coach D'Antoni did what he did [with Marbury]. He probably said to himself, 'Hey, I know how this is going to go down. I don't have the time to deal with this a year from now, six months from now, when it will eventually blow up. So I'm going to just cut to the chase right now.'" If the classic profile for the star athlete is a money-intoxicated narcissist with a distorted view of himself and the world around them, with a sublime sense of entitlement and being above the rules, then the problem ones, says Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum, a clinical psychologist who wrote the 2005 book Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols, are merely "extreme examples… [with the additional fatal flaw of having too much] aggression but no understanding of conflict resolution."

Indeed, according to his experience, says Reed Pickens, a former White House Assistant Press Secretary who's now the CEO of Outside Eyes, a consulting firm specializing in media strategy and crisis management, there are common threads clearly running through the personalities of players constantly getting into jams: "They don't listen well. They're stubborn. And they're surrounded by assistants and friends that laugh at all their jokes and do whatever they say—putting their lives in such a bubble that they're convinced everybody else is crazy and they're right." This is exacerbated, Gene Grabowski believes, by having "handlers who are often fast-taking guys barely older than they are. In fact, [the handlers] are just like [their clients]: arrogant, [feeling] entitled, paid a lot of money, think they can do no wrong—but who really don't understand crisis and career counseling."

It has all produced a strange brew of 21st century athletes—and, as a result, incredibly depressing times in the world of professional sports. We have a dog-abusing quarterback, who once seemed destined for greatness, being sent off, utterly disgraced, to federal prison; we have what we thought were future Hall-of-Famers turning into pariahs in the blink of an eye, now all but glowing from the radioactivity associated with steroids; and we have Pro Bowlers toting guns deep into the night as freely as they do their cell phones. "It's eroded the belief," says Dr. Teitelbaum, "that our superstars are pure, untainted, and worthy of adulation."


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