The NBA distributed a memo last week to its 30 teams reminding them that bullying and hazing in any form will not be tolerated.
They’re a decade or more late, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?
The memo, of course, was in response to the issues in Miami surrounding its NFL team, the Dolphins. I don’t want to get lost in the morass of elements that have made that story more than it ever deserved to be, but the fact is the NBA already has assured itself of never having a veteran player abuse a younger one in the way that the Dolphins’ white offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, purportedly did a younger biracial linemate, Jonathan Martin.
Or at least it is assured of never stirring the same reaction from general society that Incognito’s alleged abuse elicited.
That, in part, is because if any proving-your-worth treatment has existed in the NBA over the past few decades, it was black versus white. Or urban versus suburban. Or American versus foreigner. None of which carry the same sort of explosive weight as white-on-black mistreatment with the N-word being thrown around.
The uglier truth is that the NBA can’t possibly eliminate bullying and hazing entirely because they are the tools with which an organization becomes unified enough to be greater than the sum of its parts. The difference is that they’re accepted tools of general managers and head coaches and superstar players—and, ahem, even commissioners—to produce a desired result.
The biggest distinction between the NBA and NFL locker room cultures of today starts with the pecking order: The NFL still retains a degree of wait-your-turn, earn-your-stripes mentality, while the NBA has all but abandoned that concept.
Jermaine O’Neal has witnessed the change.
O’Neal had not yet turned 18 when he began his first professional training camp after the Portland Trail Blazers made him the 17th pick of the 1996 draft and signed him to a three-year, $2.38 million deal. He joined a team of emerging stars and seasoned veterans with high expectations. The next youngest players—Rasheed Wallace, Gary Trent and the team’s other rookie, Marcus Brown—were 22.
The Blazers’ veterans had the rookies carry out a variety of menial chores—buy bathroom supplies, fetch meals, unload and carry the bags on team trips.
O’Neal never went through a hazing ritual in college because he came to the NBA straight out of high school believing he was destined to be a star from the start. He went along with the hazing, though, until the team arrived for an early-season trip to Minnesota. The weather already had turned cold and wet, and O’Neal refused to carry the bags from the plane to the team bus.
At the hotel, O’Neal found himself locked out of his room. When he finally made his way inside, his teammates had trashed it, including dumping the TV in the bathtub. O’Neal had to pay for the damages.
He played in 45 games that first season, averaging 10.2 minutes per game. Practices were undoubtedly tougher since they were longer, and his older, stronger teammates never missed a chance to pound on his willowy teenage frame. Much of the treatment went beyond that first year.
“They joked about me a lot,” he says. “My nickname was ‘The Kid’ for four straight years. They were really hard on me.” But he says it with appreciation now, not resentment. “You come out of college or high school with a perspective of yourself, and you need to be brought down from the clouds. You have to understand what this league is about and pay your dues. The veteran guys made me appreciate things more when they did come my way.”
If there’s a difference between the Dolphins’ Martin and O’Neal, it’s that the older Blazers also took care of O’Neal in their own way. He turned 18 that first season but still wasn’t old enough to get into a lot of clubs or bars, so Trent would hang with him at the hotel and play video games.
When they sent him for food, they’d pay for his meal along with the gas money. They knew he was making considerably less than most of them, and they bought him suits and occasionally gave him their per diem allotment on the road. He figures his teammates ultimately spent more on him than the bill for repairing his hotel room.
“I have a lot more good stories than bad ones,” he says.
O’Neal and several other veterans said such baptisms of fire don’t exist today, or at least they're not nearly as fiery. There are pranks, such as when the Warriors filled Kent Bazemore’s Audi with popcorn. Kicking balls into the stands to be retrieved after a game-day shootaround, wearing a Dora the Explorer backpack, delivering pre-practice doughnuts and singing their school song are all standard practices. But that’s about it.
"It's gotten a lot different," O'Neal said. "You hear stories, like about guys having the wheels taken off of their car and put in their locker, but I don't think anyone takes that kind of stuff as personal."
One reason things have changed is because players coming into the league—even if they’re making less than veterans because of the rookie salary scale—have more leverage with the team because the GMs and owners are more invested in their success.
Enjoying the leverage of the biggest contract “was the case for the first eight to 10 guys,” says Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. “Now it’s for everyone who is a first-rounder, because the GM and the owner want to prove they picked the right guy. It’s thrown the pecking order all off. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore to play. The vets are not as valued.”
What pecking order the NBA has had among its players has long contradicted that of standard American society. Black players are not only the majority, but more often than not, they are the team leaders.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, as of 2012, 67 percent of the players in the NFL were black, but only 21 percent of quarterbacks were. The last official statistic had the NBA consisting of 78 percent black players, and a quick look at the starting point guards in the league today showed 83 percent are black. The percentage of black players who are the face of their NBA franchise may be even higher.
The league’s global marketing effort has also made the NBA locker room a more worldly place. Just about every team either has a player who grew up in a foreign country, played in one or travelled there on his shoe company’s dime. If nothing else, it has made it harder to demean someone who comes from a different background.
A few years ago, the Washington Wizards were comparing who had the most Twitter followers; those with six-figure counts were razzing those with far less. Then someone asked Yi Jianlian, a native of the National Republic of China, how many he had. “Like, 3.3 million,” he said.
How many NFL players, do you imagine, have had a rock star from another part of the world in their midst or been immersed in another culture that way?
Olden Polynice is remembered now as a physical—bordering on dirty—NBA player whose 17-year career ended in 2001 (played two games with the Clippers in 2003-04), but he didn’t start that way. No-holds barred rebounding drills and the desire to keep his job led him to it. But the way NBA players went at each other in his day in no way compares to what he’s heard about the NFL.
“Talking to my friends in the NFL, if we saw what went on in their practices and locker rooms, we’d be appalled,” he says.
Now, that doesn’t mean the age-old methods of indoctrination never existed in the NBA. Shane Battier won’t name the team or the teammates, but he remembers being mocked for his intellect.
“I joined a conversation, and one of the guys tried to be funny and…(tried) to speak to me in perfect Queen’s English,” he wrote in an email. “Patronizing me, like I didn’t know ‘hood speak.’ I found that if you can play and help the team, most are willing to look past minor foibles, like being intelligent. You know, for the team.”
There was also a time when foreign players, particularly white ones, were uniformly labeled as “soft” and seen as infiltrators taking the jobs that rightfully belonged to black Americans. Legend has it that one of the first, the late Croatian star Drazen Petrovic, checked into a game once to replace Clyde Drexler, only to have Drexler refuse to leave the floor.
Warriors coach Don Nelson berated Lithuanian guard Sarunas Marciulionis relentlessly, even though Marciulionis didn’t understand most of the English Nelson was spewing at him. Scottie Pippen feigned a migraine rather than accept Croatian Toni Kukoc getting a last-second shot.
Those who have demanded toughness have, in many cases, been lauded for that attitude, no matter how they extracted it. Michael Jordan punched more than one teammate in practice. When Karl Malone considered wearing a neoprene sleeve on a sprained knee, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan walked by and said, “You’re not going to wear that c**trag, are you?”
What do Jordan, Pippen, Drexler, Nelson and Sloan all have in common?
One: They’re Hall of Famers. Two: At one time or another, they took care of the ones they tormented. And three: They're part of an era that, in many ways, no longer exists.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.