Jimmy Butler, the workhouse, the self-made star, doesn’t want to be in Minnesota. It’s hard to blame him. Appearing to have all the ingredients for sustained success, this iteration of the Timberwolves has failed to come close to reaching its potential. Despite the production of all-star unicorn Karl-Anthony Towns, the unmatched natural talent of “Maple Jordan” Andrew Wiggins and the defensive tenacity of coach Tom Thibodeau, along with Jimmy Buckets, the T-Wolves only managed to snag the eighth seed last year. When Butler was injured for the last quarter of the season, the team had a losing record. The Timberwolves can’t seem to put all the promise together. There’s constant bickering, passive-aggressive shots and unproductiveness on the court. This team whines with potential.
What makes this saga so interesting to me is how Butler has leveraged his power. He is still under contract for this season. If he sits out the entire year, he’ll still be on contract next season. The team can fine him for every practice and game he misses. He can ask for a trade all he wants; at the end of the day, he still has to play. So, Butler needed to find a new way to pressure his team.
To show his displeasure with management, Butler stormed onto the court late, won a couple scrimmages with the worst players on the team, cursed out his general manager, and marched off the court to do an interview with Rachel Nichols. Few players could get away with such behavior, but the way Butler handled his business reveals how players utilize the media in a way they never have before. While mainstream news media has polarized and politicized its coverage as a means of influencing its audience, NBA media has been molded by its subjects. It has been taken advantage of.
Look at what happened this summer with Kawhi Leonard. Leonard never spoke publicly until a while after he ended up in Toronto. His team constantly leaked news to specific reporters who then tweeted and talked about how Kawhi was treated unfairly. When the rumors of him heading to LA grew scarily real, Lonzo Ball’s camp leaked news about a meniscus tear. The crazy thing is: the meniscus tear was months old. Ball hadn’t wanted the news to come out, but once his name started getting mentioned as trade bait he used the media to try to keep his spot in LA safe.
The Ringer published a fun article recently that looks at the art of the “sidle.” “Sidling” refers to reporters catching NBA stars when they are alone in order to get the juicy gossip. The article described sidling as an innovative new mechanism reporters use to compete with one another and get the best scoop. There’s another way of looking at it, though. Players don’t just happen to give access to certain reporters. While reporters are trying to build trust, players are assessing how well they can use these reporters for their own ends. When LeBron gives Chris Haynes some news on the down-low, he’s not doing it as a favor to Haynes. He knows Haynes is going to serve LeBron with that news, whether it means waiting til the end of a playoff series to criticize teammates or giving him cover to switch teams. Adrian Wojnarowski, of “Woj-Bomb” fame, is notorious for puffing up players, agents or executives so that they’ll give him the early scoop on a trade or signing. Those relationships are symbiotic.
The NBA isn’t as bad as the NFL in terms of player empowerment. Almost all contracts are guaranteed. Average salaries are higher and average careers last longer. Both league’s players still struggle to wield power. One big feature that separates NBA players from their NFL counterparts is how their sport allows their individuality to shine. Players can take advantage of their personality and identity. Whether it’s LeBron’s “The Shop” giving a voice to all sorts of players, from himself to Mo Bamba, or Enes Kanter using Twitter to fight for justice in Turkey, players are using the tools available to them to extend their reach beyond the limits set by their contracts. Those tools include traditional media. As traditional media dies off in favor of faster, shorter, meme-ier social media, players are employing it for their own ends. Traditional media almost always favors those in power. It’s exciting to see media used by those struggling for it. Jimmy Butler may be a star, but T-Wolves owner Glen Taylor is the one who writes the checks. He gets the final say. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t get to use the media for his own needs. Butler does.
That reality is a bit uncomfortable; I’d rather get a media experience with objective news and analysis. However, it is far preferable to the Fox News/MSNBC world of media. I don’t want to be told what to think. At least in the NBA, it’s those who at the bottom of the ladder that are shaping narratives.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu