Scandals cloud worst NBA media day in memory

Never has the discussion been focused so little on basketball during the NBA’s annual media day. And for good reason. The league has been embroiled in turmoil throughout arguably its wildest offseason in history.

Roughly a third of the NBA’s 30 teams faced questions about off-court dynamics ranging from awkward to morally and legally reprehensible, and let us just say team personnel are not always equipped to be public relations spokespeople for their organization’s failings. Players have commanded empowerment across the multibillion-dollar corporation, and the league has repaid them by positioning them to answer for its faults.

‘That’s not the Robert Sarver that I know’

We are two weeks removed from the NBA suspending Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver for the season following an investigation into allegations of racism, misogyny and other workplace misconduct. Widespread criticism of the league’s decision not to ban him for life spilled into last week, when Sarver announced plans to sell the team and passed blame onto those unwilling to forgive his abhorrent conduct.

The Suns did not make interim team owner Sam Garvin available to the media, which left general manager James Jones as the face of the organization on Monday. Jones had previously defended Sarver in the days after ESPN’s Baxter Holmes uncovered many of the allegations the NBA’s investigation would later confirm.

“None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t,” Jones said in a statement issued by the Suns in October 2021, alongside Sarver’s own denial of any wrongdoing.

Jones had to answer for that on Monday.

“When I made my statements last year, I stand by that that’s my experience, and I still to this day can’t speak for others and their experience, but now that we know, those things aren’t acceptable, and they’re not cool,” Jones told reporters gathered in Phoenix. “I think those who have been impacted deserve our respect and our support. I’m here for that, but I won’t discount what I said, because it was my experience.”

He should not have issued a statement undermining the experiences of others, and he certainly should not be standing by that statement now. We all read the report, and Jones, as an executive in the organization, is responsible for speaking for others, like it or not. What Sarver did was disgraceful. Period. End of sentence.

Such is the problem when employees must answer for their employer’s faults. They have been thrust into an uncomfortable position, and they will not or cannot always be as contrite as we want them to be. Who among us would be confident the right words would come if publicly asked to explain our bosses’ behavior.

League-wide, not one team owner made himself or herself available to address cultural concerns on Monday. Unfortunately, when leaders fail to properly account for the organization’s missteps, players might follow.

“It’s tough for me, because that’s not the Robert Sarver that I know,” Suns star Devin Booker told reporters. “That’s not the Robert Sarver that welcomed me to Phoenix with open arms, but at the same time, I’m not insensitive to everyone who’s involved in this situation, and I understand everybody’s personal experiences with other people are going to be different. But it’s tough to read, because that’s not the person I know.”

When we do not hold those in power accountable for their abuses, we fail their victims. The unwillingness of Sarver’s peers to put his team ownership to a vote has left everyone else in the Suns organization to explain his paltry punishment, so players become the figureheads for the failures of the NBA as a whole.

As Jones conceded, “It’s a tough position to be in. We’re visible. I like to say a lot of times, just because you’re visible doesn’t mean you need to be public, or just because you’re public it’s not always necessary to be visible. Those with a platform, those that are comfortable speaking out and can lead in that way, I commend them, because it’s tough. You have to put yourself on the line. You open yourself up to criticism.”

Not a single NBA team owner is commendable, then. Nor are some executives. That has a trickle-down effect that forces players to bear responsibility for all league matters, often unfairly and uncomfortably.

The Boston Celtics' Grant Williams poses for photos during media day at High Output Studios in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sept. 26, 2022. (Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)The Boston Celtics' Grant Williams poses for photos during media day at High Output Studios in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sept. 26, 2022. (Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
The Boston Celtics‘ Grant Williams poses for photos during media day at High Output Studios in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sept. 26, 2022. Of suspended Celtics coach Ime Udoka, Williams said this: “In terms of character and relationship, he was a great coach.” (Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

‘Nobody died, so I didn’t lose anything’

The Boston Celtics similarly shared little of factual substance about their suspension of head coach Ime Udoka. In a news conference on Friday, three days before players met the media, managing partner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens would not confirm reports that Udoka engaged in an “improper … relationship with a female member of the team staff” and allegedly made “unwanted comments toward her.” Citing privacy reasons, they would not even say whether they felt the independent investigation uncovered allegations against Udoka of harassment or harm to his coworkers.

The Celtics simply said Udoka violated multiple team policies and asked for our trust that his suspension is “well warranted and appropriate,” even as they failed to disclose the length and terms of their sanctions.

That led players on Monday to express “a lot of confusion,” “shock,” “surprise” and internal “speculation,” because “a lot of the information wasn’t being shared with us or members of the team.” The players did not ask for this, and yet, because the team has failed to explain Udoka’s suspension, they are answering for it.

Players were therefore put into position to defend a supervisor whose conduct has not been defined.

“Nobody died, so I didn’t lose anything,” said Marcus Smart. “I still love Ime, personally and as a coach. It’s just something unfortunate that happened to him. It doesn’t take away from what he did as a coach.”

“In terms of character and relationship, he was a great coach,” added teammate Grant Williams. “He was a man who challenged you and held you to a high standard, and I think he’ll continue to do that.”

Neither answer will sit well with anyone inside the organization negatively impacted by Udoka’s behavior, but again, when leaders fail to account for improprieties, it can erode the culture of the entire workplace.

‘I’m hoping we get him [back]’

Same goes for the Charlotte Hornets, who did not make managing partner Michael Jordan or general manager Mitch Kupchak available to reporters during media day, leaving head coach Steve Clifford and his players to face questions about the uncertainty of free agent Miles Bridges’ future with the organization.

Bridges was arrested on the eve of free agency on a felony charge. The following day, his wife publicly shared disturbing images, videos and documentation of Bridges’ alleged domestic violence against her.

The Hornets have not commented since issuing a statement on July 19, when Bridges was formally charged with “one felony count of injuring a child’s parent and two felony counts of child abuse under circumstances or conditions likely to cause great bodily injury or death.” The team’s statement read, “We are aware of the charges that were filed today against Miles Bridges. These are very serious charges that we will continue to monitor. As this is a legal matter, we will have no further comment at this time.”

The preliminary hearing for the case against Bridges is set for Thursday, so the Hornets asked Clifford “not to speak on any aspect of it,” the coach said. He was unprepared to offer any semblance of sensitivity to the matter, likening Bridges’ absence to an injury or a COVID-related absence. In the absence of leadership addressing the subject, we heard worse from Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, who said of Bridges, “I’m hoping we get him [back], so I’m not really trying to throw in any negative energy, just trying to keep it positive.”

Not one of the team’s highest-profile members was even willing to publicly offer compassion for the alleged victims, let alone declare, if Bridges is found guilty of spousal and child abuse, that he should not be welcomed back. What message does it send throughout the organization when players are more willing to protect their own than allow for the possibility that someone less visible could be negatively impacted?

‘I can’t comment’

Addressing far less severe off-court issues, two more high-profile executives also evaded accountability.

Facing tampering charges from the league office for his team’s offseason signings of James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House, Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said, “I can’t comment,” despite Tucker’s concession on Monday, “Me and James were trying to come the year before.”

At least Morey made himself available. Knicks president Leon Rose, who is under investigation for alleged tampering in the offseason signing of Jalen Brunson, met with only team-owned media on Monday. He has conducted a news conference once over a tumultuous two years in the league’s biggest media market.

It all makes you wonder what kind of erosive effect this will have on fans’ trust in the league.

If Brooklyn Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving cannot even accept responsibility for their contributions to the team’s tumultuous offseason — an NBA story that dominated the summer and now seems trivial in comparison to situations in Phoenix, Boston and Charlotte — what faith do we have that we got straight answers from anyone on media day? That is of little consequence when it comes to transactional news and rumors, but it is of grave concern when people’s well-being is among that which the league is obfuscating.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach