It’s hard sometimes to figure out what people are so upset about. I’m thinking of Ricky Davis in the spring of 2003, kissing the ball off the underside of his own basket and retrieving the attempt. This was in the dying moments of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 12th win of the season. With that blowout victory over the Utah Jazz, they snapped a seven-game losing streak and brought their overall record to 12-and-53. It was one of their most impressive performances of the year, though it did nothing to impede their descent toward the darkest sub-basement of the league standings, accruing as many lottery balls as possible and drafting LeBron James with the first overall pick the following summer. Davis, in the midst of his best statistical season as a pro, forming the silhouette of a star shooting guard if you checked the box score without watching the game, was one rebound short of a triple-double and with six seconds left tried to fudge the numbers. For his trouble, he got hacked by a bewildered DeShawn Stevenson. The refs conferred and the scorer didn’t count the board. As the teams walked off the floor, Jerry Sloan asked Bennett Salvatore something to the effect of shouldn’t that have been a tech?
Sloan had more to say in the postgame presser. “[Ricky] shot at his own basket,” he explained to reporters. “And he was trying to embarrass somebody by doing that. DeShawn fouled him. I would’ve fouled him too; I’da knocked him on his a**.” DeShawn (0-for-4, one assist and one turnover) agreed with his coach: “there’s too many people who have done too much for this sport to act like that.”
David Aldridge, in an op-ed for ESPN, called for Davis to be suspended: “it is Davis who needs to be shown that there are lines that just can’t be crossed once you cross the lines and go onto the floor. Not because he’s a bad kid, but because he’s a young one, and he needs somebody to show him, by barring him from playing, what a terrible thing he did.” The apparently Davis-tarnished legacies of Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and Magic Johnson were invoked. Indeed, the discourse came down heavy on the 23-year-old gunner, as if he were scandalizing the youth and subverting the markets, rather than trying to pad his stats in front of a reported crowd of 11,578, most of whom were probably in the parking garage or already on their way home, because it was a 25-point game. The Jazz, apparently able to swiftly recover from the trauma of the event, won their next six, and went on to get destroyed by the Sacramento Kings in the opening round of the playoffs.
Standing here in 2021, this old outrage seems beamed in from another planet. Ricky Davis is now understood as a kind of witless comedian, an emblem for a generation of talented goofballs who refused to get their acts together, foils against whom pious sportswriters would contrast LeBron and Chris Paul’s more serious demeanors. In the end, it was just never that big of a deal, neither Davis’s failed triple-double stunt nor his generally aimless career. The former was memorable, at least. It was funny.
I bring this up because there’s another supremely bored Cavalier in the news, checked out and going through the motions as his team wraps up an unhappy season. Kevin Love’s been sick of Cleveland for a while now—you’ll recall the time last year when he loafed to the top of the key to show up Collin Sexton—and on Monday night he shut off completely when, with the Cavs down six to the Toronto Raptors late in the third quarter, he felt hard-done by a pair of non-calls and expressed his dissatisfaction by listlessly pawing at the ball after the official passed it to him, resulting in a quick turnover and a made three for the Raps. Love didn’t apologize or make any motion to indicate that he’d screwed up. He walked up the court and complained to the ref like look what you made me do.
Rotten stuff, and meaningfully worse than Ricky Davis’s lark. The 2003 Cavs were actively tanking for LeBron. Davis was left to entertain himself because everybody in the organization had fully embraced the meaninglessness of that season. These Cavs, despite not being any good, are a young and overmatched group that’s trying to win. There are bright spots. Collin Sexton is averaging nearly 25 points per game with solid efficiency. Darius Garland’s having an encouraging sophomore season. Isaac Okoro is struggling to improve his offensive game while tackling tough defensive assignments every night.
The fact Love is all the way over this is his prerogative, and it’s understandable enough. He’s 32 years old and if this core ever starts to flourish, he likely won’t be around to participate in their success, but you would expect someone making $31 million this season to not actively sabotage his team, and to be minimally supportive of colleagues who are putting in an honest effort. It’s not so much to ask, for him to be emotionally present for a few hours every couple of nights.
The Cavs traded Ricky Davis away halfway through LeBron’s rookie year. They booted Darius Miles too, who was similarly not setting a great example for the young deity. That made a certain amount of sense. Koby Altman would probably like to do the same thing with Love but his contract, which has two more years remaining after this season’s end, is untradeable. Are they really going to cut him or agree to a buyout with that much time and money left on the deal? Perhaps Love figured, when he signed his extension—after LeBron had already left for Los Angeles—that he would play well enough to get moved. Whatever he thought at the time, he currently seems completely uninterested in making that happen. So everybody’s stuck.
J.B. Bickerstaff and Love’s own teammates covered for him publicly after his brief meltdown. Bickerstaff said “he’s been great for us from a leadership standpoint this whole year,” and Darius Garland downplayed Love’s mistake: “that was just a little breakdown he had… he just got frustrated.” Those are pretty generous glosses on the situation. But let’s not veer too far in the other direction either. How about this: Kevin Love’s been a brooding presence these past two seasons. Aloof, sometimes downright surly. He’s been a pretty bad teammate, from what we can see from outside the building. Whatever that’s worth, whatever damage it’s done, Garland and Sexton and company aren’t going to describe it for us. But it is lousy to watch, a sulking and thoroughly bummed out former star imposing his dissatisfaction on everyone else, uncaring and unaware. He sets a professional standard that just about anybody could clear. To give credit where it’s due, on the night that made him infamous, Ricky Davis was engaged enough to know he had nine rebounds.