*The most important cliché in sports is that it is a business. Those who do not take heed to this critical concept do so at their own peril.
LeBron James was guided by this principle two off=seasons ago when he chose to join the Miami Heat as a free agent even if his execution was clumsy. Dwight Howard has learned this lesson the hard way over the past few months.
Fans, Orlando Magic fans most specifically but basketball fans more generally, were outraged – OUTRAGED – that Howard would demand to be traded. Perhaps the only thing they disliked more was the fact that Howard seemed to change his mind daily and kept the organization from being move forward with a definitive plan. It was extremely selfish of Howard and antithetical to what most of us think to be the essence of team sports: that everyone sacrifices themselves a bit for the greater good of the team.
But two things that make basketball unique in the landscape of professional sports. First that one player can have a large effect in determining the outcome of any game; thus the best players are the most valuable commodities in American sports. Second – the players have begun to understand this and have are now asking for and receiving more control in their organizations; that is the exact opposite of team work.
But that’s business. The best of a group is always given more privileges than the average in that group, decision makers are more apt to hear and implement suggestions from their leading sales person, than the one who struggles.
Recently the best players in professional basketball have come to the realization that what is the best business decision for their personal brands may not line up with the best business decision of the organization. In those cases (LeBron James, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony) the players have found a way to change teams or change systems to benefit them.
But that’s also business. When a company has a valuable human asset but does not make the best use of that asset the company will change systems or another company will endeavor to gain control of that asset.
These are cruel emotionless transactions I am referring to. LeBron James dooming the city of Cleveland to years of mediocrity is not a warm and fuzzy story; neither is Carmelo Anthony essentially giving less than a full effort in order to affect a coaching and system change. But we are talking about millions of dollars in earning potential and their historical legacy should either of these guys be able to say they won an NBA championship. James and Anthony were able to see the business decision that (in their opinions) needed to be made.
Howard was not. For whatever reason he continued to go back and forth wanting to stay in Orlando and wanting to be traded. Howard finally agreed to forfeit his ability to become a free agent in the upcoming off-season in exchange for a promise from the team’s management that they would attempt to get better players. When that didn’t happen at the trade deadline, my guess is that Howard began to really ask for a coaching change.
His coach, Stan Van Gundy, happens to be a good coach but in the wrong place at the wrong time. Van Gundy coached Howard to the championship round a few years ago but that seemed less likely in the contemporary NBA. So Howard got anxious and called for his coach to be fired.
It is a bit unfortunate that Howard with all of his basketball talent, has done a terrible job controlling his asset (his basketball talent) and maximizing its effect and worth. Howard would have been villianized in Orlando for forcing a trade but probably been in a better position in his career.
Contrast his inability to make the correct business decision with the decisions of the team’s management and coach. The organization, having secured Howard’s services for the rest of this season and next season did not make a hasty move to appease him. Instead they continued to do what they thought would be best for the team. Van Gundy after having confirmation that Howard wanted him fired took the story to reporters. Van Gundy refused to allow Howard to avoid having the stain of “getting a coach fired” on his resume; in the process Van Gundy positioned himself as a no-nonsense coach who will speak the truth even while in uncomfortable circumstances – both of which were good business decisions for him.
Everyone comes out of this situation a little worse for the wear. the business and brand of Dwight Howard was damaged more so than that of the Orlando Magic or Stan Van Gundy.
Professional sports is a business. Business requires making not-so-nice decisions. Hopefully Howard will remember this when he becomes a free agent.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.