Recently, Isiah Thomas gave his reactions to the latest controversy surrounding Memphis Grizzlies’ star player, Ja Morant. After a flurry of news broke earlier this month about Morant and his alleged behavior with guns last summer, Ja sadly doubled down on the accusations with a new gun exhibition on social media, this time in a strip club full of people.
This is the latest in a string of bad press for the NBA and professional athletes in general.
NBA legend and Hall of Famer, Isiah Thomas, shared his thoughts on the matter recently on the Cedric Maxwell Podcast on CLNS Media. “Zeke” shed light on the importance of wisdom and guidance around young NBA players like Ja. He notes that Memphis is one of the newer NBA franchises that, unlike legacy teams such as Boston, LA, New York, Philadelphia & Detroit, Memphis has no “old heads” to guide and mentor their younger players.
Isiah got this “old head” thinking about his statement…
Initially when the news broke about Morant in the summer of 2022 and then again, on his social media, I immediately found myself saddened and very critical of the NBA today. Similar to other outrageous behavior by NBA players surrounding homophobia, antisemitism and conspiracy theories, I was overwhelmed with disgust that the NBA League Office for not speaking out or taking immediate action. I drifted to thoughts of how, since the passing of legendary, heavy fisted, Commissioner Stern passed away, the NBA brass have seemed to take a much more passive approach towards player disciplinary action. I was screaming inside, “If only David Stern were still here!”
As the “curator” of NBA history at CLNS, I never considered how today’s legends of the game are possibly failing young players. As Isiah jogged my mind about teams like Memphis being devoid of “wisdom” from their former stars, I found myself agreeing and even building upon that premise in my mind. Is it possible that NBA legends are failing today’s players?
There it’s no doubt that the legends of decades past are very active and in the view of fans and players alike. Podcasts, Vidcast and traditional game broadcasts are loaded with a cast of who’s who of NBA royalty. As fans, we are blessed to have guys like Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaq and Reggie Miller around to remind us of how good they were in in their era— I am thankful for that.
It’s also understandable that current players, or newly retired players players-turned media personalities get frustrated with the constant reminders of how good the NBA used to be— I am also thankful for that.
But are the legends too consumed with defending bygone eras instead of celebrating the current players? Are they failing today’s super-maxed out stars by sparring with them instead of inspiring them and guiding them on and off the court?
I believe they are.
Former stars do have a responsibility to mentor and guide. As some one who grew up in the 1980’s and grew into an adult in the 1990’s, retired legends such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain (for better and worse…), Doctor Julius Erving, George Gervin, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, Jerry West, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier Tiny Archibald, Bob McAdoo Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and many others were a staple in NBA arenas. They didn’t boast that they played in tougher eras or that they were better than guys like Barkley, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, Instead they helped them. They became “ambassadors” of the game around the globe. They’d never succeed in their ambassadorship if they were overly critical.
In decades past, their was rarely a jab from the retired to the current.
So, I do believe former NBA stars have a responsibility to contribute more to the players mental well-being, ability to adjust to instant wealth and fame. After all, though the money was far less back then, the legends of yesteryear still faced similar struggles along their journey. Like Isiah Thomas insinuated, he and his contemporaries certainly benefited from the mentoring and encouragement of good foundational structure within team communities.
I just might be changing my stance on the player – legend dynamic in sports, especially basketball.
I always reserved calling upon the legends for debates with young people and current players for arguments such as who’s generation was the best.. As recently as a week before Ja Morant’s disturbing strip club incident, I had basked in the fury of young fans, being forced to endure another round of critical comments from iconic players like Charles Barkley, Michael Cooper, Cedric Maxwell, Dominique Wilkens and even old school scribes like Bob Ryan and Peter Vescey.
Ja Morant shared a video of himself holding a gun on his Instagram story, which led to widespread criticism and concerns about his safety and reputation. During the podcast, Thomas weighed in on the matter. Isiah fell short of expressing any disappointment in Ja but put a heavy emphasis on the lack of guidance and mentorship surrounding Ja in Memphis.
Thomas emphasized the importance of “wisdom” and experience in the NBA, especially for young players like Ja, who need guidance and support both on and off the court. He also highlights the role of veteran players, coaches, and executives in providing their time, wisdom and leadership for the next generation of NBA stars.
Thomas shares his own experiences and insights as a former NBA player who grew up in poverty on the streets of Chicago.
Though “Zeke” stopped short of adding any criticism or blame on anyone, His statements on how today’s players are taken from poverty and placed among a few dozen co-workers who share millionaire status- not exactly what the average person of any age experiences. These facts raise questions on how current professional athletes are addressing the challenges and pressures they face as young, wealthy professional athletes today. I can’t help but also consider how 24/7 scrutiny is brought on by direct access of fans and the press on social media.
Regardless of celebrity status or every day “Joe,” it’s painful to even ponder how you (or me) would cope with similar scrutiny in public.
I now feel that a little less comparing, criticism and chest pumping from the now senior citizen stars of the 1980’s and 1990’s and a little more mentoring, guidance and, as Zeke put it, “wisdom” would only help today’s stars and thus the NBA as a whole.
It starts at the top though. The NBA community and retired players association, in coordination with the league office needs to step up and provide more support for young players, especially those facing challenges, mental illness and controversies.
Finally, I think it’s important for the stars of the past to act more as the “ambassadors” of the game as the stars that came before them did in decades past. This may not resolve the issues facing today’s players but if the NBA wants to charge into the 21st century with the success that found the league in the last quarter of the 20th century, it’s going to take a team effort and who better to lead the charge than the people who contributed on the court in the 80’s and 90’s?
The trash talking between the former and current players is fun for fans (and for me) but if that is the only interactions current players have with their predecessors, the only thing being hurt is the game of basketball in the future.
Less “trash bagging” and more ambassadoring might not be the solution but it is a positive step towards it.