DETROIT – Six Cavaliers players addressed John Beilein’s thugs-slugs jumble yesterday. Five offered clear support of their coach for this volatile situation.
The exception: Tristan Thompson.
“At the end of the day, he’s our head coach,” Thompson said after Cleveland’s win over the Pistons last night. “We’re the players, and have to go out there and play and do our job at the end of the day. So, that’s all that matters.”
Beilein apologized to the Cavs both individually and collectively after the film session on Wednesday, when he called players “thugs” but later said he misspoke and meant to use the word “slugs.” Did Beilein’s explanation help motivate and focus the team for Detroit? Thompson: “Coach’s job is to give us the scout and the game plan. But we don’t need no coaches at all to motivate us. Us as players, we motivate each other.”
The Cavaliers will keep Beilein as coach. Can Thompson still play for him? Thompson: “Man, I’ll play anywhere. I’ll play all over the world.”
Beilein has reportedly struggled to connect with the Cavs. Does Thompson need anything different from his coach? Thompson: “As long as I’ve got my dogs with me every night in that huddle – what do we got, 13, 14 guys? Brought back Zo. As long I’ve got my dogs with me ready to go to war, that’s all that matters to me.”
Eventually, I flatly asked Thompson whether he believes Beilein’s explanation that he inadvertently said “thugs” while intending to say “slugs.”
“I’m not trying to take away from tonight,” Thompson said. “So, I want to keep it based on how great the guys were tonight. I think Brandon Knight was great. A guy that doesn’t get to play a lot. When his number was called – especially when we have KP down – he stepped up and was great tonight. So, I don’t want to take away from my team’s tremendous win tonight in overtime. So, that’s where my focus is at.”
Missing from that answer? Some variation of “yes.”
This was a strange interview from Thompson, who was recently Beilein’s most vocal supporter.
Maybe we’re supposed to read between the lines and see the lack of stated support for a lack of support. “Thug” is a racially charged word, and I can see how a black player would resent his white coach calling him one.
It’s also quite possible Thompson truly thought sidestepping the issue was the best way to make it go away. If so, he was wrong. A quick declaration of support – like Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Brandon Knight gave – would have been far more effective. Instead, Thompson opened the door wide open for speculation into how he truly feels.
The timing doesn’t help discern his meaning. Thompson didn’t speak at shootaround or pregame yesterday. After the emotional victory, it’s easy to see why he’d prefer attention land on the game. Thompson had a career night. He’s also a supportive teammate who wants to shout out Alfonzo McKinnie‘s defensive stops and Knight’s play with Kevin Porter Jr. injured. Thompson could have seen an opportunity to move on and leave the thugs-slugs issue behind.
To be fair, Thompson is not a public-relations expert. He’s a basketball player. Not understanding how to diffuse this controversy would hardly be some major offense. With prior scandal, Thompson served himself well by not talking about it. That kept the noise at bay.
But sports media was already widely discussing Beilein. Like it or not, this issue was in the forefront.
Which raises another question: How did it get there? Most Cleveland players who spoke publicly yesterday said Beilein’s use of the word “thugs” didn’t jar them in the moment. Only Sexton said otherwise, and he added he wasn’t alone.
“Everybody was shocked,” Sexton said.
Yet, Sexton also provided a defense of Beilein against the (absurd) argument that it’s inconceivable he’d use the word “slugs.”
“He says it all the time, so it’s all good,” Sexton said. “…He calls us slugs, because we move slow. But it’s good. We knew what he meant.”
Do all the Cavaliers know what Beilein meant, though? That remains an open question.