Thursday, May 17, 2012

An Open Letter to Josh Smith

By Buddy Grizzard

Dear Josh Smith,

I'm writing this open letter to you in response to some information that came to light in a recent blog post by Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham, specifically the following notes:
"Josh didn’t have much to say about his future, except to repeat “I’m under contract for one more year with the Hawks” and remind media that he could be fined for talking about the reports of his trade request. His trade request still stands for all the reasons I reported before the trade deadline. I’m told another factor that can be added to the list is his desire to play in what he believes to be a better basketball market. But I’m sure you might have inferred that from the way Josh (without prompting) contrasted Boston’s fans with Atlanta’s throughout the series."
As you may know, in March I called out Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson for playing dumb with regard to your desire to be traded. In that post I said the following:
"Josh Smith still has not gone on record saying he does not want to be traded or that Cunningham's source was incorrect about his desires or lack of faith in the organization's commitment to winning a championship."
So here is where we stand at season's end. We all know that the Hawks organization would never fine you for saying, "I have no desire to be traded." Therefore, your fear of being fined confirms that you wish to end your relationship with the Atlanta Hawks.

I can't say that I blame you. If you look at everything from draft blunders to the owners suing each other to Michael Gearon, Jr., opening his mouth and making your job harder, the Hawks are probably not ranked among America's greatest companies to work for. The problem I have is that you are blaming the fans.

Before I address that, let me tell you why I'm writing. After watching "The Decision" and then watching Dwight Howard stumble his way through one public relations disaster after another this year, I've often thought to myself that I wish some of these athletes had my cell number so that I could give them free PR advice. I'm a fan of yours, Josh Smith, and I'd like to give you some advice.

What makes me qualified to give you advice? For starters I've been a media professional for about half of my working life (I'm a network engineer now ... got bills to pay). One consequence of serving as associate editor of several small newspapers is that I have in my possession a letter from Evander Holyfield thanking me for my work in publicizing amateur boxing in Georgia.

Beyond sports I've served as a campaign consultant for an 11-term member of Congress. And for two years I had the honor to serve as a volunteer media liaison for the MLK March Committee, which organizes events surrounding King Day each year in Atlanta. In that capacity I was privileged to work directly with civil rights legends Dr. Joseph Lowery (President Emeritus, Southern Christian Leadership Conference), his wife Mrs. Evelyn Lowery (Founder, SCLC/WOMEN) and the late Rev. James Orange (an organizer of the Selma-to-Montgomery March who served on King's personal staff). When Rev. Orange informed the New York Times that he would refuse to comply with the Secret Service's request to vacate Ebenezer Baptist Church ahead of President George W. Bush's visit to the King Memorial, he did so on my phone.

Athletes in America are often subject to criticism that is grounded in racist attitudes. Rev. Jesse Jackson alluded to this when he decried the "plantation" mentality that was the basis for much of the hatred directed at LeBron James after "The Decision." As you can see from the paragraph above, that mentality is not my mentality.

So, having stated my qualifications, let me suggest the following:

Take it back, Josh.

I don't know if it's your dad or your cousin or your best friend that's passing this information to Cunningham, but you've let it be known that you want out of Atlanta because the fans aren't good enough for you. Aside from that, all of the reasons attributed to you for wanting to leave were completely valid. Let's go through those reasons from MC's post in March:

1. Smith believes he needs a fresh start with a franchise where he can better reach his potential on and off the court. He believes the Hawks didn’t do enough to promote him for selection to the All-Star team.

I believe this is absolutely true. I believe that you will receive multiple All-Star and All-NBA selections, but it will happen with another franchise. The failure of the Hawks organization to properly promote you for an All-Star selection in any of the past three years was a monumental failure. I also believe that when you play for a coach like Doc Rivers, such a coach will quickly correct negative aspects of your game such as shooting too many jumpers or quitting on plays to argue with referees. Larry Drew has proven incapable of making such corrections and the organization has failed to provide you with a coach who is capable.

2. Smith, an Atlanta native who has played his entire eight-year career with the Hawks, also would like to play for a franchise he believes is more committed to winning a championship.

Once again, I can't blame you for feeling that you have a better chance to compete for a championship with a different organization. I feel that the Hawks had the talent necessary to advance to the Eastern Conference finals in each of the last two years, but that talent was not properly utilized. The Hawks have almost $250 million in future committed salaries and entrusted that investment to a coach with no previous head coaching experience. That coach then played the corpse of Jason Collins when legitimate rotation big men Zaza Pachulia (against Chicago last year) and Ivan Johnson were available. After the Hawks traded away two first round draft picks to obtain Kirk Hinrich, Drew at times favored Willie Green and Jannero Pargo, whose disastrous impact on the Hawks' postseason effort I have documented.

So you see, Josh, we're in complete agreement. Right up until the point where you say, "Oh and also the fans in Atlanta aren't good enough." The problem I have with comparing Hawks fans to Celtics fans is that, when I stand inside Phillips Arena, I can't seem to find the championship banners anywhere. Did Hawks fans pick Marvin Williams over Chris Paul? Did Hawks fans pick Larry Drew over Dwane Casey? If your issue is with fans groaning when you take outside shots, you need to understand that you took more shots this year from 16-23 feet than Dirk Nowitzki. He shot 50% from that range. You shot 37% from that range.

LeBron's biggest mistake was the way he made Cleveland fans agonize right up until the last minute, and then made his "Decision" in a shamelessly self-promoting, but ultimately self-defeating manner. Dwight's biggest mistake was not having a plan and sticking to it, exposing himself as indecisive. By contrast, you seem to have an exit strategy, you're sticking to it, and you have given the fans in Atlanta fair warning. I applaud you for all of this. But let's talk about how you should conduct yourself for the rest of the time you are in a Hawks uniform.

First of all, stop pointing fingers. True leaders say "I accept all blame," because they know blame isn't what matters. Results matter. Did you succeed or fail? If you failed and it was someone else's fault, you still failed. The next time you speak to a reporter, I would suggest you say something like this:

"I have not demanded a trade and I will fulfill my contract. The Hawks organization knows and understands my commitment to competing for an NBA championship. When this season ends, I will explore free agency. That is my right, and I will look for the best situation for me to compete for a championship. If I feel at that time the Hawks are moving in the right direction, I may consider staying here beyond this season. In the meantime, as long as I am with the Atlanta Hawks I will give everything I have to make this team successful."

James Orange was in Memphis with Dr. King at the time of the assassination to help organize a sanitation workers’ strike. They were trying to help laborers negotiate fair compensation with their employer. Their efforts at collective bargaining paved the way for you to be in the position you are in today, with your talents in great demand and the ability to pick the situation that is right for you. Enjoy that, but respect it. Do you want to be remembered the way Cleveland fans remember LeBron or the way New Orleans fans remember Chris Paul? Play hard until your last minute as a Hawk and don't ever say, "This isn't working and it's not my fault."


M said...

It's a great letter, and your qualifications are obviously stellar, but I don't have a problem with Josh saying that he wants to play somewhere with better fans. I am a diehard ATL Hawks fan and attend many games and I agree with him. Would I want to play in a critical playoff game at home and half the arena is wearing green? The answer is no.

In regards to your issue with no championship banners, what about teams like OKC? No banners there- but rabid bball fans. Phoenix as well (well maybe not this yr). I don't know of a more successful team (playoffs the past 5 yrs) who gets consistently disrespected in their own arena. However, I totally agree with you in regards to the jumpers- we have a right to groan and boo when he starts winding up for those ill advised shots

jrauch said...

Its a cheap out for Josh to blame the fans. Is it the fans fault that the team has blown playoff game after playoff game the last five years?

Is is fans' fault the team seems unable to win on the road, especially in the playoffs?

This is a team that hasn't sniffed the conference finals since moving to the ATL. Tough to generate excitement when you continue to hit the same wall.

Jerel Shaw said...

I would say that this is your personal opinion, not professional opinion. Besides, to equate one's freedom of speech to being wrong is antithetical to what the Reverend King stood for. While Josh may have many shortcomings as a player for the Hawks, he still has an individual right to think for himself and to make decisions whether another person likes it or not. Life is to short (especially for a professional athlete) to be trying to satisfy everyone. And even if Josh' opinion may seem unfair to fans, it doesn't rise to the level (once again) of equating Dr. King and Oranges' historic civil rights work for a reason that the man can't make decisions--on his own. Do you think that King would still be alive today if his advisers would have steered him clear of the dangers or do you think his fans protected him? So, I don't question your heart as a fan, nor your professional credentials, but in my opinion you may want to research the issue a little more and maybe try to talk to Josh in person before ending out any more letters that is response to secondary sources. This is not the Civil Rights Movement, this is the NBA. The contexts are different.

Buddy Grizzard said...

"In regards to your issue with no championship banners, what about teams like OKC?"

OKC has an extraordinarily well-coached team that has drafted brilliantly and plays the right way. Atlanta has none of those things.

Buddy Grizzard said...

"And even if Josh' opinion may seem unfair to fans, it doesn't rise to the level (once again) of equating Dr. King and Oranges' historic civil rights work for a reason that the man can't make decisions--on his own."

I'm really confused as to what you are objecting to. I certainly didn't relate anything regarding men getting paid to play a child's game to the Civil Rights Movement. And Josh is certainly free to say or do whatever he likes. The central point I think you're missing is that I've been around great leaders, and they don't make excuses. Do what you want Josh, just don't make excuses while you're doing it.

Anonymous said...

First, I don’t think Josh “blamed” fans. He just said that he was jealous of the support that the Celtics got in their home arena compared to the Hawks. How can you blame him? Who wants to play in a home arena where the other team’s fans are as loud as yours?

Although I respect your credentials and generally agree with and enjoy reading your analysis of the Hawks, I think Josh is absolutely right in his opinion of the Hawks fans. I’m a season ticket holder, and the worst part of my experience is that when the Hawks play certain teams (e.g. Boston, NY, Chicago, or LA) you can’t tell whose arena you’re in. This might not be apparent on TV, but I’m absolutely puzzled as to how anyone who actually attends games would see it differently. I feel embarrassed as an Atlantan to go to Phillips and see more of the visiting team’s colors. I think Atlanta fans are unique in this regard, and you can’t simply chalk it up to lack of titles. In other cities folks who aren’t impressed with the home team stay home. They don’t show up and root for the other team. Further, I had the opportunity to talk to a Hawks player who’s played for franchises with less success than the Hawks and he said he’s never experienced anything like it. I don’t know what exactly accounts for this phenomenon in Atlanta, but it’s certainly not simply a function of lack of success.

Buddy Grizzard said...

j.harvey, I'm not saying that Hawks fans are perfect. But if Josh wants Hawks fans to be more excited about his team, maybe he should try putting a product on the floor that is watchable. Do you think fans would be more excited if the Hawks had drafted Chris Paul instead of Marvin Williams? Do you think Hawks fans would be more excited if they were playing the 76ers right now because they had a better coach than Drew?

Do you think Hawks fans would be more excited if the team hadn't lost Game 6 after Josh Smith quit on two plays that cost his team three points? Do you think Hawks fans would be more excited about the team if he played closer to the basket?

The point of my open letter is, take responsibility for the way you contributed to the team's failure before you point fingers.

A.Merkison said...

It always puzzles me when people wonder why it sounds so loud for LA, Boston, NY and Chicago in Atlanta. It seems everyone forgets Atlanta is a small city(750k people...most of which are college students or business professionals) and is a major transient city. A lot of the population of Atlanta is made up of people from all these other major cities. It isn't a Hawks thing, it is an Atlanta thing in general. I really think most people have never been to the city when commenting on attendance at times.

Yes, we do have some finicky attendance at times, but it's not all a fanbase issue(nor do I actually think half of it is a fanbase issue). People try and compare Atlanta to major market teams(NY, LA, Chicago, Boston even), making 1 to 1 comparisons when that is so illogical it hurts. Eventually people have to realize that a major proponent of Atlanta's population isn't actually from Atlanta...or the south in general even.

Natural Neutral said...

I'm not sure if you can just say "Atlanta is a different/transient city" and let that be a perfect excuse. But does that hold up at Turner Field? NO. There are always 90+% Braves fans there, but for Hawks vs. a big market team or superstar team it's about 50/50 and the only advantage is Ryan Cameron on the PA.

People move cities all the time in the world now. I know a friend that moved from Atlanta to Boston, became a Celtics fan (it was 2007 after all), but remained very loyal to the Falcons and Braves (while Pats and Red Sox were very good then too, so it wasn't a bandwagon thing). In 2007-2008 the Braves didn't make the playoffs, the Falcons won 4 games, the Hawks made the playoffs and took elite Boston to 7, yet they aren't up there in terms of respect for some reason.

I'd posit these reasons:
1. Atlanta is a southern city, where most people have more interest in Baseball and Football.

2. The Hawks don't have a "golden age", at least not while in Atlanta, and the STL success doesn't really mean anything. The Braves earned worldwide respect for it's 14 straight division titles and it's national promotion on cable on TBS.

3. The Hawks don't have anyone with charisma or leadership besides occasionally Al Horford and Zaza. No one else seems to care that much, and it's hard to care for players that don't play with passion every game, insult fans, and blow easy games. We're these losers mostly. I felt much more proud of the Hawks when we signed Tracey McGrady, even though he's very old and past his prime now, just because he's a winner that commands respect. Chipper Jones commands respect, Bobby Cox commands respect, Mike Smith commands respect, Arthur Blank commands respect, Marvin Williams doesn't command respect, Josh certainly doesn't, Larry Drew certainly doesn't, Woodson definitely didn't, and Gearon Jr. absolutely doesn't at all.

I don't think anything can change until the team gets sold, but emphasis should be on changing the loser culture we never seem to shake out of.

Anonymous said...

Buddy, I’m not saying the Hawks are perfect, either. Of course fans would be more excited if we had a superstar, a high profile coach, and could maintain focus for 48 minutes of basketball. What I am saying is that the level of fan support is still low relative to our actual success. Again, the level of fan support in Phillips is higher for the opposing team than anywhere else in the league, so unless you’re saying that we’re actually the worst team in the league by some metric that doesn’t take into account actual wins and losses I think there are fair grounds for some fan criticism.

Merk and Natural, I think you both make valid points regarding why fan support isn’t as high as I might like. The fact that many residents aren’t from here, the Hawks don’t have a championship tradition, or a superstar or charismatic personality on the current roster likely all contribute to some degree. You provide concrete reasons for what I’m seeing and reassure me that I have not entered into the twilight factory versus the highlight factory when I go to Phillips.
However, my point remains that I can certainly understand why any player, flaws and all, who plays hard for his home team would be disappointed to see as many fans in the stands for the visiting team as the home team in his home arena. Josh might be advised to take it back as a PR move so as not to further alienate our meager fan base, but I don’t disagree with his sentiments.

M said...


"..But does that hold up at Turner Field? NO. There are always 90+% Braves fans there, but for Hawks vs. a big market team or superstar team it's about 50/50 and the only advantage is Ryan Cameron on the PA"

Have you been to Braves vs Redsox or Yankees game at Turner Field? It's absolutely overrun by Boston and NY fans- there is a Yankees series coming up in ATL, take a look at the crowd . Same when Steelers or Cowboys come to ATL, its an Atlanta thing.