On “clutch,” “choking,” and ships passing quietly in the night

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Those in and around the basketball community engage in debate on an incredible number of game-related topics. Yet in truth, most reasonable observers of the game share more common opinions than one might initially think. There are subtle differences — mostly relative ones discovered in the process of comparing one player or team to another — regarding skill and ability, but the most common source of debate and dispute lie in differences in rhetoric, even if those participating in said dispute fail to realize it. The sports world has become laden with particularly weighty jargon, and it’s those specific word choices that typically incite the fiery passions of die-hard fans. Those words reflect the values specific to sport itself: an ability to exceed perceived value, dominance over other competitors, and high-level performance under the most intense and extreme of circumstances.

That last aspect of athletic performance is held on a higher pedestal than all else; the “clutch,” are feared and revered, while the “chokers,” are turned into joke-a-minute punchlines in the over-diluted world of sports consumption and coverage. Any who seems to shrink from a late-game situation is put in the stocks for all to throw rocks and produce at, despite the fact that there isn’t anywhere near a universal understanding of what words like “clutch,” and “choke,” actually mean.

Case in point: a column from Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Just last weekend, we saw the U.S. women’s soccer team become the latest to succumb to the massive pressure that often accompanies our games. Two blown in the leads in the late stages of a Women’s World Cup final against Japan, a team that had never beaten the top-ranked Americans in 25 previous tries. Three straight botched penalty kicks by the U.S., which had gone 5-for-5 in that same situation one week earlier against Brazil.

They choked, right? Of course, they did. Just like LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Rory McIlroy at the Masters or Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl.

“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”

But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.

“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”

That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.

“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”

If only it were so simple. Individuals let external factors influence their decisions and performance at all times. If we’re restricted to basketball alone, it decides what shots are taken, what passes are made, how the defense chooses to cover certain players, how the clock is used, how the coaches elect to use the resources available to them, etc., etc., forever and ever. More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.

“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be. It’s a word so powerful in the sporting realm that it is defined and guarded by every sports fan with a mouth or a Twitter account. We can rifle through all of the data in the world with all of the qualifiers and filters available, but individual definitions (and the perceptions that stem from them) will always dictate the discussion in a way that inconvenient facts cannot.

Report: Cavaliers nearly traded Richard Jefferson last year when he revealed championship rings on Snapchat

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Richard Jefferson announced his retirement after the Cavaliers won the 2016 championship, changed his mind, re-signed with Cleveland then played another season there. He played big playoff minutes for the Cavs both years.

But they traded him to the Hawks (who waived him, allowing him to sign with the Nuggets) in a rather abrupt end to his Cleveland tenure.

His exit could have been far more strained.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Then he was nearly traded the summer after the championship because he revealed what the Cavs’ rings looked like on his Snapchat account before the team was ready to release them to the public. Then-GM David Griffin was so ticked that he was ready to ship him out of town, sources told ESPN, before eventually calming down and accepting Jefferson’s apology.

Talk about some petty nonsense. And Griffin was known for soothing tension!

Thankfully for Jefferson – at least if he wanted to stay in Cleveland – he revealed the ring design in September. As a newly signed player, he couldn’t be traded until Dec. 15. That gave Griffin time to cool down.

Carmelo Anthony: Phil Jackson was willing “to trade me for a bag of chips”

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Carmelo Anthony wanted to be traded to the Houston Rockets. Badly. (Whether that was good for Houston is a different discussion.) His time in New York was over by mutual consent, but now was time to move on, however, thanks to a no-trade clause Phil Jackson gave him, Anthony had leverage. And he wanted to be a Rocket with James Harden and Chris Paul.

It looked at one point like a deal would get done between New York and Houston, then it fell apart. So what happened?

Phil Jackson was booted, that’s what happened, Anthony told Marc Stein the New York Times.

The delay to find a workable trade, in Anthony’s view, stemmed from the fact that Jackson was willing “to trade me for a bag of chips,” while Scott Perry, who became the Knicks’ new general manager after Jackson’s departure, took a harder line in trade talks with Houston and Cleveland that eventually fizzled.

“They went from asking for peanuts to asking for steak,” Anthony said with a laugh.

‘Melo can laugh, he landed in a good spot with Oklahoma City. He’s on a potential contender.

As for his feelings on Jackson and leaving the organization? Still some hard feelings there.

“There was no support from the organization,” he said. “When you feel like you’re on your own and then on top of that you feel like you’re being pushed out …”

Kobe Bryant sends inspirational recovery message to Gordon Hayward

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Kobe Bryant has been there. He tore his Achilles at an age most players would have said: “that’s it, I’m out.” Not Kobe. He fought through it, came back, and was able to leave the game on his terms — and with a 60-point night.

So when Kobe sends an Instagram recovery message to Gordon Hayward, he knows of what he speaks.

Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish for the day back, the game back THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you. Time to move on and focus on doing everything in your power to prepare for surgery, ask all the questions to be sure you understand fully the procedure so that you may visualize it in your subconscious while being operated on and better the chance of it’s success. Then focus on the recovery process day by day by day. It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted. This will also mean that when you return you will have a new perspective. You will be so appreciative of being able to stand, walk, run that you will train harder than you ever have. You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always.

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The message was vintage Kobe, all about the drive and steps to recovery. Focus on the next thing, don’t let any obstacles stop you.

Let’s just hope Hayward can take this to heart and make a full recovery.

PBT Podcast: Gordon Hayward injury, Celtics’ future, opening night news

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The buzz of the NBA’s opening night was killed just a 5:15 into the first game when Gordon Hayward went down with what could be a season-ending ankle and leg injury.

What’s next for Boston now? Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports get into that with this latest PBT Podcast.

They also discuss the opening night game between the Celtics and Cavaliers and what we can take away from it, same with the Houston Rockets upset of the Golden State Warriors. The pair also gets into the Nikola Mirotic/Bobby Portis incident in Chicago (this was recorded just before the Portis suspension came down), the LaMarcus Aldridge extension with the Spurs, and if Joel Embiid should be ticked about being on a minutes limit to start the season.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.