Golub: Loyalty in sports

Sept. 15, 2017, 7:11 p.m.

It makes me uneasy that Derek Jeter is going to be the new CEO of the Miami Marlins. Jeter, as you might have heard, is one of the greatest Yankees and New York athletes of all time. From the moment he broke into the big leagues, he shone as a brilliant beacon of hope and pride for all New Yorkers.  And he gave all baseball fans, even Yankee haters, someone they could respect. (Unlike, say, a certain Apple watch-using team in New England.) Throughout his career he never failed to display the highest levels of competitiveness, sportsmanship, leadership and, to his beloved franchise, loyalty. But now he’s set to run the Marlins. Confused? Me too.

The Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics reignited a yearly NBA debate: whether or not loyalty exists between players and their teams.  Kevin Durant (KD), of course, shared his opinion with the world last year when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that drafted him and the city that embraced him, to join the 73-game-winning team that had just defeated him in the playoffs, the Golden State Warriors. In a recent interview with Bill Simmons, he explained, “So, there is no loyalty in sports,” and later, the only real loyalty that exists comes from “…relationships that you have with trainers and teammates and anybody in the organization.”

His claim that loyalty was nonexistent would have been much harder to believe had his interview not come on the heels of the Celtics’ choosing to trade their star point guard Isaiah Thomas for the younger, healthier (and flashier) Kyrie Irving. Thomas, known for his small stature and large scoring average, loved Boston with all his heart. He played the day after his sister died in a car accident, played a day after dental surgery from losing a tooth and having a couple more teeth shifted, played game after game even as his hip injury grew worse and worse. In a touching essay for The Players’ Tribune, Thomas tells us how he “fell in love” with Boston.  He proved his loyalty through his sacrifice. The Celtics’ front office, however, never reciprocated.

Danny Ainge, general manager for the Celtics, was never loyal to Isaiah, just like he wasn’t loyal to Kevin Garnett (KG) and Paul Pierce when he shipped them out to the Brooklyn Nets for a boatload of draft picks. Ainge is ruthless and will do whatever he thinks gives his team the best chance of ultimately winning a championship. Through his (emotionless pits for) eyes, Ainge simply is doing his job. He’s not being loyal.

KG himself provides an interesting example. After toughing it out for years on the Minnesota Timberwolves, only making it out of the first round once, he finally asked for a trade to a contending team.  All the time he was in Minnesota, he played his hardest and carried his team.  In the end though, he has some regret. “Loyalty is something that hurts you at times,” he said in 2010. Looking back, he wishes he would have left his team sooner. So, KG was loyal… until he wasn’t.  Which brings me to the biggest lesson I learned from this hectic sports summer. Loyalty in sports is real, but it’s not permanent.

Kyrie never asked for LeBron to come. He sucked up asking for a trade one year ago after they won a title, because he was committed to his team. Eventually, it was time for his loyalty to end.  KG was loyal to a fault, in his opinion. Upon realizing that he had reached his limit, he left to win a ring.  For him, it was the right decision. Even his Minnesota fanbase doesn’t hold it against him. He was loyal for most of his career. Loyalty exists, and it can make a big difference for a player, a team and even a city. Yet loyalty doesn’t have to last forever in order to matter.

Of course, loyalty is still demonstrated through actions. If Ainge and the Celtics have revealed anything about their loyalty to their players over the last few years, it’s that they couldn’t care less. They ditched Kendrick Perkins, center from their 2008 team that won the championship, dumped KG and Pierce, traded Rajon Rondo, starting point guard of their 2008 title team, as soon as he was healthy enough to trade and even traded their coach, Doc Rivers, although he may have wanted to be traded seeing as the team was rebuilding. At least Ainge is consistent.  And unlike some of those former players, he doesn’t hold a grudge against Ray Allen for leaving that team in free agency. Ainge has never been loyal to his players; for him, there is no loyalty.  But, contrary to KD’s take, there can still be loyalty in sports.

To return to Jeter, he was loyal to the Yankees for his entire career, and, likewise, they were loyal to him. He never gave less than his all and he never tried to leave. The Yanks, in turn, made him their featured player, paid him a ton of money and never asked him to move positions after it seemed he was getting too old to play shortstop. Their relationship was as loyal as they come.  But now his playing career is over. Representing a different team in a new capacity doesn’t diminish his Yankee loyalty. That glorious relationship has run its course.  As hard as it is to swallow as a Yankees fan, Jeter the executive is not beholden to the same relationship Jeter the player was. It’s just starting a new career. Or, to borrow KD’s much-maligned phrase, it’s his Next Chapter.


Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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