Two coaches from my youth still stand out to me. Both happen to be coaches who cut me from basketball teams, one in seventh grade and one in ninth grade (I know, you must be shocked that a sports blogger was not particularly good at sports).
For those lucky enough to have never been cut from a team, it’s one of the worst feelings. Even for someone like me, who went into basketball tryouts with a good idea about my limitations (namely, build-wise I made Sean Bradley look like Glen Davis) and my longshot chances of making those teams, that final knowledge that you’re not wanted stings like few other things in life.
One coach — "KP" everyone called him — stands out because of the way he went about delivering the news to those of us who didn’t make the freshman team. He pulled us each aside individually after the last practice. He told us, without sugary platitudes, that we had not made the team. He thanked us for working hard. He encouraged us to stick with the game, and for those of us who did offer some upside if we ever grew into our gangly frames, he even offered some specific things to work on individually and invited us to give it a go again the following year. Sure, the news still sucked to receive, but there was closure involved with the way he delivered it. We knew exactly why we weren’t on the team. We knew our weaknesses in the eyes of the coaching staff. But above all, we all developed respect for an authority figure who thought enough of us as people, even at that young age, to look us in the eye and deliver news to us that I’m sure was not pleasant for him to have to deliver just like it wasn’t for us to receive it.
KP, who was a guidance counselor at the school, always remembered my name. He always said ‘Hi’ to me in the hallways. And even though I was depressed about not making the team, I couldn’t help but respect the man who made that decision.
My other memorable coach, needless to say, was the opposite. On the last day of tryouts, he announced that the players who made the team would be listed in the locker room in the morning. Sure enough, a list was posted before school started and sure enough, the coach was nowhere to be found in the vicinity of that list as kids nervously crept in to see if they had made it. Throughout tryouts, the coach was fine. He made some minimal effort to learn names. He occasionally would even give you a pointer or two, even if you weren’t one of the better players. But after that list was posted, his job was done. I never remember that coach even making eye contact with me when we’d pass in the hallways after I didn’t make his team.
It’s pretty clear that John Kuester is that second coach. I wrote early on that I thought Rip Hamilton was entitled to an explanation about his benching. And when it became a long-term benching, when no explanation was forthcoming, Kuester essentially nuked the relationship.
This isn’t meant to be a complete shot at Kuester. Let’s face it: the "meet the minimum requirements of the job" attitude is not uncommon in this country, and that starts at the lowest level jobs and goes all the way up to high profile jobs like coach of a professional basketball team. Kuester did the minimum in this case, and he’s no different than many, many other people in positions of authority who daily make difficult decisions and do so without having the backbone to face them head-on. Kuester wanted to bench Hamilton because Hamilton has not played well this season. But it’s clear he didn’t want a confrontation with a player known to be headstrong, so Kuester took the easy way out.
It doesn’t make Kuester a terrible person. Bosses, managers and decision makers make comparable moves every day for the same reason: it’s extremely difficult to deliver news to people that they won’t take well. It just makes Kuester a poor coach.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix wrote this about the situation:
What should have happened is Kuester should have pulled Hamilton aside after a practice or a shootaround — head coaches can do that, you know — and hashed things out. Because the reality is neither man is at fault. Kuester is a good coach. Hamilton is a good player. They both want to win, they just have different ideas on how to do it.
Mannix is a fantastic NBA writer. But this is a cop-out. You know what types of coaches pull players aside and privately deliver bad news? Good ones. Gregg Popovich would do it. Larry Brown would do it. Doc Rivers would do it. Phil Jackson would do it. And what makes all of them great coaches in that respect is that they’d do it whether it was their star player or the last guy on their bench. Hell, Phil Jackson destroyed Kobe Bryant in a book and still managed to salvage their relationship afterward and win more titles together.
Not many people blame Kuester for his decision to bench Hamilton. Hamilton wasn’t playing well, and the Pistons have clearly played better with him out of the rotation. But by failing to handle the situation in a strong way (and it surely would’ve been an unpleasant conversation, I’m not debating that), Kuester lost this one. Hamilton is a respected player in the Pistons locker room and around the league. Now, because this frayed relationship has become a national story, the Pistons look like an organization that doesn’t treat veteran players with respect, and that’s Kuester’s fault. The bottom line is good coaches are willing to take responsibility for the tough decisions they make, not just publicly, but behind closed doors, and Kuester wasn’t willing to take that responsibility.
Now, with Rodney Stuckey injured and possibly missing games, the Pistons actually find themselves in a position where they might need Hamilton. After he’s sat for about three weeks, I can’t imagine summoning him from the bench to go into a game is going to be a particularly enjoyable conversation either.
This isn’t meant as a defense of Hamilton’s actions throughout this drama. He’s paid extremely well to be a member of this team and do what is asked of him by the coaching staff. Honestly, he’s acted like a baby for the most part. But it’s kind of expected that professional athletes, especially ones who have the pedigree Hamilton does, will be childish, will over-value their worth and are, shall we say, a little removed from reality.
As depressing as the deteriorated relationship between Kuester and Hamilton is, it represented an opportunity for Kuester. An unspoken problem for the Pistons has long been the death-grip veteran players have seemed to have on the direction of the team. Hamilton and Prince are the last vocal hangers-on of that bygone era. By benching Hamilton and by owning the situation by telling Hamilton beforehand that is exactly what was going to play out on the court, Kuester missed the chance to put his stamp on the team and wrest a bit more influence away from the powerful locker room vets. Instead, he tried to take the easy way out in order to avoid a confrontation, and now Hamilton has become a more sympathetic figure, further empowering the same old ‘players run the show’ situation that has freqently been alluded to over the last 10 years in Detroit.