Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein rushed to apologize to his players individually Wednesday night after saying his players were no longer playing “like a bunch of thugs,” according to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Cavaliers were apparently wrapping up a film session in Detroit, and the room fell silent when the players and staff heard Beilein. This was his explanation, via ESPN:
“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 on Wednesday night. “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.”
According to Wojnarowski, Beilein also apologized to the team collectively before the game, and the Cavaliers are planning on keeping him. Beilein told the media at the team shootaround Thursday he received positive reinforcement from players:
John Beilein said he apologized to Cavs players for saying thugs when he meant to say slugs.— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) January 9, 2020
"It was never intended. The players understand that," he said Thursday. pic.twitter.com/h9XlncAg8l
There’s a few important things to consider here. My first thought is that it seems difficult to mistake those two words for each other, simply based on their respective meanings. I also think it’s fair to say an entire room of basketball players and coaches all wouldn’t hear one thing while Beilein believed he said another.
With regards to Beilein’s explanation, slugs does make sense in that context. The Cavaliers have been bad all season, and their pace of play has been a combination of slow and lazy. So “slugs” actually makes more sense than “thugs” would. But despite that, that’s not what came out of his mouth, which is what really matters here.
Beilein and others around the Cavaliers organization appear to have convinced the players that’s either a) not actually what he said, or b) what he actually meant. Because if you’re a black person in America, being called a “thug” is nothing to be taken lightly. There’s a lot of coded language folks try to and do get away with nowadays, but “thug” typically isn’t within the fences of that ballpark anymore. We know what you mean when you say it, and everyone else has finally caught on in the last decade or so.
If there’s a sports league that’s probably not going to stand for its players being called “thugs” by a coach, it’s the NBA. That said, despite NBA developing a reputation as a bastion of equality and what’s right in the world, it’s made plenty of missteps too.
Sure, they handled the Donald Sterling situation well (that one was put on a tee for them, if we’re being real), but they handled the Daryl Morey one with Hong Kong not so well. The dress code is also a thing that happened in response to Allen Iverson. You could also go have a word with Craig Hodges or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf about whether or not the NBA is actually a league of the people.
Regardless of whether or not Beilein said it or meant what he said, there’s no entirely coming back from it. Because Beilein still called that room of predominantly black players thugs, and that word doesn’t come out of thin air. It also happened to come at a time when that team is an absolute disaster on the floor at the moment.
And one last thought: this is part of why all that Rooney Rule business people are talking about over in the NFL world is important. Much like the NFL, the NBA is predominantly made up of black players. Having more leaders who represent the people in the sport is important.