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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: John Beilein Calls the Cavaliers “Slugs”

The former Michigan coach didn’t last long in Cleveland, but he stuck around long enough to provide one of the strangest controversies in recent memory

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

Despite the recent success of Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan, the overall history of head coaches making the jump from college to the pros has been less than stellar. Not only is the game drastically different in the NBA, but so are the locker room dynamics; treat a professional athlete like you would a college student, and you’re in for a bad time.

This is why so many—including myself—were reluctant to get our hopes up when John Beilein, the legendary Michigan coach who resuscitated the program after an 11-year NCAA tournament drought to reach two Final Fours, was tapped to helm the Cleveland Cavaliers last May. While no one could deny his coaching acumen, it was difficult to believe that a then-66-year-old with an authoritarian style would be ready to adapt to a completely different world.

Those concerns quickly proved wise. Reports almost immediately surfaced of discontent in the locker room and frustration with Beilein’s overbearing approach, two narratives that continued throughout the season. It reached a fever pitch in early January when Beilein reportedly said in a film session that his players were no longer playing like “a bunch of thugs.”

The racist implications of a white authority figure calling a group of mostly black men “thugs” are obvious. And on the surface, it’s a grave offense that warrants immediate condemnation. But, if you are to believe Beilein, the truth is a little more light-hearted. The Cavs coach told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that he meant to say “slugs” (not “thugs”)—as in, his players were no longer playing like slow-moving molluscs.

Oh man, the memes were tremendous. The “slugs” story was so fun the NBA Desktop team even wrote me a parody of TLC’s No Scrubs to sing.

Some people bought the coach’s explanation (the Cavs players apparently did, for the most part); others remained rightfully skeptical. On one hand, I understand the logic of likening your players’ lethargic style of play to a slow-moving creature. (Besides, what does it even mean to play basketball like a “thug”?) On the other, I find it difficult to believe anyone could use such a toxic term and not realize it. Freudian or not, this slip was yet another unnecessary controversy in Beilein’s short-lived tenure and another straw on the camel’s back.

After the All-Star break, with the Cavs sitting at an NBA-worst 14-40, Beilein resigned as head coach, prematurely terminating his five-year contract. For a man who claimed to use slug metaphors, his time in the NBA sure went quick.