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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"Headband-gate": Why Scott Skiles Needs to Read About Joe Lapchick

Chicago Bulls Coach Scott Skiles is currently engaged in a high profile battle of wills with his center, four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. Skiles prides himself on his stubborness; shortly after the Bulls hired him in 2003, he found himself at odds with the underachieving Eddie Robinson and publicly declared, "I've never lost a battle of wills in my life. And I don't plan on doing it now." Maybe that works when you are butting heads with a 6-9 journeyman who is more interested in cashing his check than working on his game but it is definitely not the best approach to take with one of the league's premier rebounders and defenders.

Some people take pot shots at Phil Jackson and say that anyone could win championships while coaching Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant--but Jackson also coached the free spirited Dennis Rodman, who played a vital role on the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat teams (1996-98). Jackson had few rules, some of which Rodman managed to violate from time to time. Rarely did the public become aware of these transgressions, though; Jackson fined Rodman and the team moved on without incident or controversy. Jackson maintained his authority without compromising Rodman's individuality.

There is no question that Wallace should not have publicly defied Skiles by donning a headband after it had been made clear that this was against team policy--but the team is foolish to make a rule about such a trivial matter as wearing a headband. A player's responsibility is to steer clear of legal trouble, be ready to play at game time and be ready to practice at practice time. Hall of Fame NFL Coach John Madden has said that all he required of his players was to "be on time, pay attention and play like hell on Sunday."

Gus Alfieri, the point guard on St. John's 1959 NIT championship team, has written a biography of that team's Hall of Fame coach, Joe Lapchick. When I interviewed Alfieri, he told me that Lapchick deliberately had few rules for his players. In fact, Alfieri says that Bobby Knight learned this from Lapchick and has the same approach (Knight's problem is that he is a bully who lacks self control but that is a story for another day). Alfieri says, "Knight told me that Coach Lapchick taught him a rule that he still uses to this day. The rule, kind of simplified, was this: if a player does anything to embarrass the school, the team or me, he has to answer to me." Lapchick’s idea was that if he had too many specific rules with specific consequences that he would paint himself into a corner and not retain the flexibility to handle each situation based on the particular circumstances that are involved. Alfieri believes that this focused the players on doing things the right way.

Here is what Ben Wallace says about the controversy: "I knew that we weren't allowed to wear the headbands. If you know the rules and break them, you expect to be punished. I can't try to put myself above the team or anybody else and wear a headband like I did. I'm man enough to take the punishment. But I'm not sorry." Wallace's initial inspiration for wearing a headband came from Cliff Robinson, who said that doing so is a good way to remind yourself not to get too big of a head. It is ironic that someone whose playing style epitomizes hard work and unselfishness is being criticized by his team for doing something to remind himself not to forget what it took to get to the NBA in the first place.

Now the Bulls have painted themselves into a corner. The Chicago Tribune has reported that Wallace will be fined and General Manager John Paxson has said that if Wallace had approached the team privately then perhaps an accomodation could have been made. Of course, if the Bulls change the rule at this point then Paxson and Skiles will feel like they have been bullied and that their authority has been diminished. That is why you shouldn't micromanage teams and make rules about irrelevant things in the first place. Paxson told the Tribune that he first instituted the rule when he saw then-Bulls Eddie Robinson and Eddy Curry wearing headbands crookedly or around their necks, which he thought looked unprofessional. Paxson is missing the point. The problem with Curry and Robinson is not that they don't look like professionals but that they don't conduct themselves like professionals in terms of their practice habits. To put it bluntly, a knucklehead is a knucklehead with or without a headband. Paxson's job is to create a knucklehead-free roster, not a headband-free one; he has gotten rid of the knuckleheads he inherited from Jerry Krause and he should be grateful to have the headband-wearing player he signed this summer.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:18 AM

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