Could it ever happen here?
That’s the question teams around the NBA have likely been asking ever since the video of Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green's unprovoked sucker punch went public and viral late last week (sorry, trash-talking in practice – Jordan Poole's apparent sin — doesn’t justify getting attacked while defenceless).
The Warriors are the NBA’s model franchise, a consistent winner and home to some of the most respected stars in the sport, so it seems fair to infer that some kind of madness could happen anywhere.
The Toronto Raptors, for example, value team chemistry highly. They actively cultivate it with an off-season program that brings their team together regularly in low-pressure environments to help bonds grow and deepen. They draft and acquire players they believe will not only fit in with the existing group, but enhance the chemistry already in place, such as re-signing respected veteran and widely acknowledged NBA good guy Thaddeus Young or adding Otto Porter Jr. – another high-character veteran.
With their first high lottery pick in years, the Raptors sifted through a talented pool of applicants to choose Scottie Barnes, who – in addition to being prodigiously gifted and intensely competitive – had a well-earned reputation for being a fun and positive teammate.
But team building is fragile stuff, and everything can change in a heartbeat, as the Green video shows.
It’s why no one within the NBA or more relevantly the Warriors is loudly condemning Green or calling for his suspension or dismissal. There is a distinct ‘there but for the grace of God’ vibe around the whole thing, and why so much of the concern is that the evidence of what in any other walk of life would be a crime became public, rather than for the act itself.
When you know that your team could go viral in a heartbeat if the wrong moment went public, you tend to keep hard-and-fast judgements about what happens in other people’s houses to yourself.
“First, on the record, I like to mind my business,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, one of the team’s leaders and the person so often tasked with speaking publicly about thorny issues. “[The Warriors situation] is not any of anybody’s business and I know it became public which is a shame …
“But just generally speaking you never really know what you’ve got [in terms of chemistry] until you hit some adversity,” VanVleet added. “You would not like that adversity to come from within. Most of the time you deal with it internally, but again, we’ll see.”
More likely we won’t, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t bound to happen.
The Raptors are in the early stages of a long, intense journey that – if all goes well – will keep them together almost night and day for most of the next seven months. There will be long flights, sleepless nights, injuries, slumps, spats, arguments, and through it all hopefully enough wins that there will be something to celebrate at the end of it.
Things will go wrong. The challenge is making sure the problems get solved before someone feels justified – even for a moment – in punching a teammate in the face.
“For our group it’s just a matter of ironing things out, seeing how we can continue to get better and grow,” said VanVleet. “We got a lot of different tracks and a lot of different talent growing at different paces. It’s a funky group. Sometimes you got to put it together and see what’s best for the team.”
The Warriors' situation is at the extreme end of what happens when groups of competitive men who are used to expressing themselves physically get thrust together for long periods of time. No one who has played sports at any serious level can be unfamiliar with teammates – even friendly ones – getting heated and emotions spilling over. But almost all the time a ‘fight’ is a lot of talking, some shoves or harmless blows before the parties get separated.
Then again, everyone should know by now that the environment where professional athletes work bears almost no resemblance to where the rest of us mere mortals go to earn our daily bread.
The demands are different, the rewards are different, and the rules are different.
For example, in a ‘normal’ working environment Green would be fired instantly and almost certainly be criminally charged, while Poole would be in position to file a lawsuit. Based on the video, it’s almost impossible to argue otherwise.
But in the NBA?
The whole incident might have been swept under the rug and never spoken about publicly had TMZ Sports not obtained the clip of the over-in-a-blink-of-an-eye moment. To the extent it was addressed, it would be handled 'in-house.'
In professional sports the priority is always to win games first and – a close second – manage public perceptions.
Which is why even reasonable minds like Warriors head coach Steve Kerr seemed as upset about the evidence being leaked as the crime itself.
For the Raptors, the hope is that they won’t have to deal with a moment as explosive as what happened in Golden State, while acknowledging that regardless of precautions taken, things happen.
“I think you have to give credit to management and coaching staff. They have their hands full in terms of putting together a locker room that works before we even step on the court,” said VanVleet. “I think we have done a good job of building that back up. It feels more like a Raptors team now.
“I know after the championship we had to kind of find the best available. It seems like we have more of our picks and our guys and guys that fit the mould and we have to continue to grow that. And the best way to do that is to come into work every day and continue to win ball games. If you win games, everyone is happy.”
You would hope. The Warriors are the defending NBA champions and have won four titles in the past eight years.