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A Guide to NBA B.S.

Players, coaches, agents … they say some stuff. Sometimes it makes no sense. That’s the point. We’re here to help you understand.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Last week, Draymond Green kicked James Harden in the face during the second overtime period of the Rockets’ eventual win over Golden State. Draymond received a flagrant 1. It was the best game of the season. After the game, Draymond, as is his right, took umbrage at the league’s definition of the “unnatural acts.” This point of referee emphasis was, ironically, spurred by Green’s various kicks to Steven Adams’s nuts during the 2015–16 playoffs.

This week, B.J. Armstrong, Green’s agent, defended Draymond and blasted the league’s “unnatural acts” rationale in a knotty, convoluted statement which touched on rule changes, the game’s lack of global appeal (???), and the welfare of the children, who are, I believe, the future (teach them well, let them lead the way).

“It was so disappointing,” Armstrong told USA Today after reading the league’s statement on Green’s foul. “Because our kids, our players, are bringing us the issues that they have. And when they stop bringing that to us, and we stop listening to our kids, and we stop listening to the players that perform in it, and we start doing all the other things that line our pockets, or make the game look a certain way, or whatever our pitch is, we fail. We’ve failed as leaders. We’ve failed as coaches. We’ve failed as executives.”

LOL. What?

I have no idea what Armstrong is on about. But it doesn’t matter. I understand why he’s doing it. Armstrong is, after all, PAID TO REPRESENT GREEN AND THUS WOULD BE REMISS IN HIS DUTIES IF HE DID NOT DEFEND GREEN’S INTERESTS. He’s just doing his job, albeit incoherently. I’m here to help.

Upton Sinclair, the great muckraking 20th-century novelist, once said that “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Seventy years later, Dave Chappelle restated Sinclair’s observation in the Chappelle’s Show skit, “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.” In it, Vernon Franklin is a vice president of a major corporation and also the only black executive at the company. When one of his bosses congratulates him by saying “You the man! Gimme some skin!” Vernon, unable to let the coded comment slide, snaps. It’s a situation which you have probably found yourself in: someone says something fucked up — at the holiday dinner table, in the classroom, at work — and because of that person’s status relative to yours, an instinctive mental accounting of the cost of keeping it real reveals a price that’s too steep to comfortably pay. We all make these kinds of small formulations every day. And, hopefully at the end of the week or month or year, you do an accounting and find you haven’t sold out.

It happens all the time in sports. A player does something perceived as “wrong,” or against the rules, but that thing leads to his team acquiring an advantage or even outright winning a game that should have been lost. In situations such as these, it would be refreshing if the player’s teammates and coach kept it 100. But that’s unrealistic. Is a coach going to risk losing the locker room and his cush multi-comma salary over an uncalled foul? Is a player going to risk getting metaphorically Private Pyle’d for not having a teammate’s back? Of course not. And, by an extension, should fans, who have invested hours of their lives along with untold dollars on team-branded merchandise, be expected to have unbiased takes on events which impact the quality of the leisure time? No.

Today, as ever, the truth can be an expense not worth incurring. So, how does an athlete avoid keeping it real while appearing to answer a question about a teammate’s unsavory behavior? NBA figures utilize several strategic phrases for situations like these. Here are my favorites.

Some Version of “They Did It Worse”

If you absolutely have to admit that you gained an advantage, always be sure to construct your answer in a way that points out that many have gotten away with far worse. This is a basic blame-shifting move, and there’s no codified phraseology for it, but, if the person using the argument is highly respected enough, it is quite effective.

For the most part, though, coaches and players want to go with …

“I Haven’t Looked at It”

This is one of the most useful dodge phrases in sports and in life. It has numerous variants, including “I need to look at it” and the more bureaucratic “We’re looking into it,” among many others.

Let’s say a player commits a clear foul on a crucial play down the stretch in a big game, but the refs don’t make the call. How should the player’s coach respond when asked about the sequence? “I haven’t looked at it,” is always the best option. It does several things at once.

  1. It buys time. Sports is a high-volume business and there will always be another story. Don’t like the line of questioning? Just stall for five minutes and another story will appear. By the time you theoretically get around to “looking at it,” the storm will have passed.
  2. It conveys concern about the event in question. This is why “I haven’t looked at it” is superior to “I don’t know.” IDK is slightly callous and implies ignorance. IHLAI implies that a person will look at it at some point. Which, in turn, suggests an open-mindedness that people find instinctively appealing.
  3. It acknowledges the existence of modern replay technology and the internet without surrendering any authority to it. By the time a player or coach is asked the question, the relevant play has been viewed and looped innumerable times. Saying IHLAI allows a coach or player to suggest, essentially, that while the viewing audience has been watching a particular play on loop from every conceivable angle, I was just on the court watching stuff with my own eyes and I saw it differently.

How not to use it:

See the problem? Admitting prior knowledge undercuts the slippery-ness of “I haven’t looked at it” and its variants. Just say: “I need to study this further.”

It Is What It Is

Sometimes, a situation is so notable that a blanket “I haven’t looked at it” is not sufficient to deflect the line of questioning. Or perhaps a player was directly involved in a controversial sequence or rumored personnel move, and a denial of knowledge simply doesn’t comport with the observable facts. Or maybe a hard-done-by coach or player wants to walk up right up to the line of criticizing the officials without incurring a fine. Well, it is what it is. What is what it is? What is the it? This is a powerful and malleable phrase. It can suggest contrition without actually admitting guilt, or it can confirm the accuracy of a query without actually answering it. IIWII implicitly corroborates another person’s view of reality without saying what that might be. The plot of Rashomon is basically “it is what it is.”

“I [or We] Have Moved on”

Don’t want to talk about leaving a team or a player that recently left a team? Or has a prickly issue which you previously deflected with “I need to look at it” resurfaced? Don’t do something indelicate, like outright refuse to answer further questions on the topic. Simply say that you and the team have moved on. This signals a definitive end of your engagement with the subject in a way that seems therapeutic. Sadness and personal setbacks are universal experiences from which normal people have no choice but to move on. It’s all for the best. I’ve moved on; why haven’t you? Of course, the subtext to “we’ve moved on” is “we are fucking shook and playing it off,” but who cares? The question is dead. You have moved on. There is nothing more to say.

“He’s Been Great”

Useful for talking about a teammate who is probably a bad person. You say this about someone when it is possible they might not have been great. Players can’t risk team unity by admitting a guy isn’t playing well. Luckily there’s an out: Fans only see what happens on the court. Maybe this guy, who is no longer good, has a history of getting techs or slinging homophobic slurs. Guess what, behind the scenes, in the locker room, in the places that you don’t have access to, he’s been great. There’s literally no comeback for this.

“We’re Focused on Us”

There will be times when a team has no chance to beat its opponent. “That’s why they play games” is overused. “No one believes in us” only works when a team actually has a shot at the win. And, it goes without saying, stating some version of “we’re screwed” will not fly. WFOU is also useful for occasions when a team is mired in controversy. Forget reality; shut out the complications. When standing on the walls of the Alamo, make sure you focus on you.