The job of the coach of a professional sports team is proof that human beings can never truly self-govern. Sorry to all you devotees of Vladimir Lenin, but the coach is the blustery strongman leader we all really crave. The very notion that a team could coach itself is too absurd to imagine: Who will call the plays? Who will pace nervously on the sidelines? Who will be blamed when things go to shit?
Consider your average pick-up basketball game, fully of doughy, winded slobs desperate to assert what’s left of their decaying physical skills on their weekends. Each of those guys on the court wants the ball all the time, like a poorly conditioned James Harden. Two people try to set a pick at once and run into each other. There are long stretches where no one scores. A fight breaks out between teammates.
This is what life would be like without coaches. For the same reason heads of state exist, coaches are an inescapable feature of team athletics — they tell us what to do so we can focus on doing it. I’m not advocating for sports fascism, but I also get why a basketball team isn’t a grocery store co-op.
What happens, though, when the underlings know as much, if not more, than the leader?
Ask anyone who has ever coached LeBron James.
Throughout his 15-year professional career, LeBron has cycled through a series of coaches who have enjoyed varying levels of success managing the public perception of their own necessity. Mike Brown, Byron Scott, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and now Lakers head coach Luke Walton have all had their leadership questioned during their tenure as LeBron’s ostensible boss.
James is a basketball savant and a natural-born leader. He can be excused for asserting himself when it comes to issues of play-calling and team-building. In a video recently released by ESPN, you can see LeBron asserting himself in a post-game meeting after the Cavs beat the Warriors in Game Six of the 2016 NBA Finals, where he declares the Warriors are “fucked up” and ripe for collapse. Lue is happy to take a back seat to the Cavs’ leader in a pivotal moment. It shows us how men might relate to each other in a work environment where the lines aren’t quite blurry, but they’re smudged enough.
At the age of 34, LeBron also has been around so long that he can say he was drafted the same year as his current head coach. That is, both he and Walton were selected in the 2003 NBA Draft, though worlds apart in the pecking order. James was chosen first overall and went on to a career that’s already Hall-of-Fame-worthy and far from over. Walton, the son of NBA legend Bill Walton, remained on the board until Round 2, going 32nd overall. James is a 14-time All-Star and three-time All-Star MVP. Walton never made an All-Star team. Walton’s in charge, but there’s also reports of James ignoring Walton’s play calling in order to achieve his own personal vision of how things should operate on the court. James, too, is credited with pushing for the coaching change from the controlling David Blatt to the more player-friendly Lue during the Cavaliers’ 2015-2016 season.
But how does a dynamic like that function? At what point does a coach become less of a leader and more of a bureaucrat, pushing papers and filling out spreadsheets in an office?
This isn’t to say that Walton — or other coaches of mega-wattage superstars — are fully impotent. That would be an oversimplification of a complicated human relationship. Still, the way players and coaches interact has changed. NBA players are sticking around the league longer, but coaches are also getting younger. Case in point: The oldest player in the NBA is the Atlanta Hawks’ Vince Carter, who at 41 is three years older than Luke Walton.
In the NBA then, the coaches having the most prolonged success are “player-friendly” ones who are hip enough to let their players be themselves, with iron-willed managers like Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau struggling to manage superstars like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler respectively. Conversely, trendy young assistants are coming into favor after stints serving under those same older coaches. The Charlotte Hornets’ current head coach is James Borrego, 41, and a disciple of Popovich. Celtics coach Brad Stevens is 42 and was considered a boy genius when he came into the league, partly because he looks 32.
The standard-bearer for this movement is Golden State Warriors boss Steve Kerr, who is considered the best coach of his generation, though he wasn’t particularly young when he took over the Warriors at age 49. Still, he isn’t known for being a gruff disciplinarian and appears from the outside to understand the mentality of the modern athlete better than most. For example, he’s been an outspoken champion for liberal causes, impressed upon the media his belief that players should speak out on social issues and shown that he’s at least aware of youth culture, if not an expert on it.
In fact, he fostered an irreverent, fun environment for his young team early in his tenure. As the Warriors rounded into their championship form in 2015, they raised eyebrows for their post-victory social media posts, where they would often sing the O.T. Genasis song “CoCo” on team buses and planes, which, you know, is a song about cocaine. Eventually, someone clued them in to the fact that maybe they shouldn’t sing about that sweet white powder every time they won a game, but at least Kerr let them find that out for themselves.
Of course, Kerr is also the coach that almost got into a fist fight with one of his players. On February 27, 2016, Kerr and Draymond Green got into an altercation over Green’s shot selection. “I am not a robot! I know I can play!” Green yelled at Kerr on national television.
Kerr might seem like a fun guy from his post-game press conferences and genial attitude, but he’s still a perfectionist who has a clear vision for how he wants his team to play. The Warriors revolutionized basketball by spreading the ball around and making it almost impossible to double-team anyone because everyone is an offensive threat. When that balance breaks down, the Warriors stop being the Warriors. Basically, if Green is taking ill-advised shots, it damages the whole unit. Such are the collectivist fantasies that play out every night in certain corners of the NBA.
All of which feeds into the auteur theory of coaching that says the scheme, the system and the strategy are keys to victory. In the NFL, a disproportionate amount of credit goes to L.A. Rams head coach Sean McVay for his team’s success. For the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls, it was Phil Jackson who was the visionary, with his mythical triangle offense. To the average viewer, he seemed to be in control, but he also oversaw a team where Dennis Rodman skipped practice to show up at a live wrestling event and Jordan punched the very same Steve Kerr who’s now coaching the Warriors during practice.
In that respect, Green is right that players aren’t robots. Even if the coach considers themselves the orchestrator of the team, the players are often making more money, and in James’ case, are legitimate mainstream celebrities. And so, the last bastion of the coach as unquestioned auteur and despot in big-money sports is in male college athletic programs, where he is surrogate father, confessor and fearless leader. After all, it’s not hard to know where you stand when you make zero dollars at your job and the person giving you orders summers in Greece.
Recently, I made the grievous error of looking at USA Today’s listing of the top 25 highest paid coaches in college football. A queasy realization quickly crept into my mind as I perused them: Considering the attrition rate in professional football, most of these college coaches will earn more in a year than a majority of their players will make in a lifetime. So while we no longer tolerate the type of verbal abuse college coaches like Bobby Knight were accused of, collegiate athletics retains one clear demarcation line between its labor force and its middle management: money. The disparity between college football players and those that run their sport is so vast that, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, the man who runs the second-rate Outback Bowl makes a million dollars a year to organize a single football game that hardly anyone cares about besides the good folks at Outback Steakhouse.
In pro sports, the conflict is one of ideas and authority — men with fully formed egos and lots of cash pondering their legacies. The coaches are comfortable and well compensated, but so are the majority of the players. And in LeBron’s specific case for superiority over his coaches, it’s merit-based. He’s mega-rich, charismatic, confident and the best all-around basketball player alive. I don’t blame anyone for listening to him. Honestly, I’d probably wash his entire fleet of automobiles if he asked me.
On the flip side, college coaches aren’t bureaucrats or dictators as much as they are capos in a complex mafia grift — distributing crumbs to their foot soldiers while preaching loyalty.
Is it any wonder then that LeBron didn’t go to college?