Don’t Talk to Me About Tanking

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Michael Carter-Williams, Guard / Milwaukee Bucks - The Players' Tribune

Picture this: Two grown men sitting on a couch in the middle of the day with protein shakes in hand, watching Ellen and abiding by only one rule: no sports talk. For most of last season, this was my escape. Now, after our 0-7 start this year, and me being hurt and unable to help my team, it’s my escape again.

Losing sucks. I don’t care how much money you make or what stats you put up. If you’re competitive enough to make it to the NBA, losing is absolutely brutal. If it’s a night game, you get home around midnight and your mind is racing. It’s almost impossible to sleep. You keep visualizing every game-changing play, trying to figure out what you could’ve done better. You beat yourself up. You try not to look at your texts. If SportsCenter comes on, it only makes you mad.

Every guy in the league deals with losing in his own way. Some come home, turn on the Xbox and try to get revenge on NBA 2K. The vets might watch a movie with the kids or jump in the hyperbaric chamber. The more progressive guys are turning to meditation and yoga.

I’m too impatient for that stuff. For me, it’s all about Ellen. I just think she’s awesome. So every weekday at 4 p.m., my stepfather and I pause the basketball talk, grab some snacks and watch The Ellen Degeneres Show. It might sound funny, but this is one of the ways I’m able to get away from the frustration of losing. Last winter, when we went on a near-historic losing streak, I was not a fun guy to be around.

Grown men are going to go out and purposely mail it in for a one-in-four shot at drafting somebody who might someday take their job? Nope.

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In the middle of the playoff race, a race we were decidedly not in, it seemed like the entire media spotlight was on us. And trust me, I get it. We had lost 26 games in a row. Of course, our roster had lost a combined 200-plus games to injury and we had used more than 20 different players in the lineup since opening night. That didn’t seem to be a part of the conversation. All anybody was talking about was “tanking.”

We knew it was going to be a circus when ESPN flew in Stephen A. Smith to Philadelphia for the 27th game against Detroit. In the locker room before shootaround, we got swarmed by reporters. You could barely move around the room. Somebody actually asked, “So how does it feel to be a part of the most losing team in NBA history?” Which was really funny because we hadn’t even played the game yet. Everybody just expected us to lose and set the record.

Here’s the thing: I can understand why the media seized onto the story. My problem is that it was missing a lot of context. We didn’t even have the worst record in the league at the time, but the average person watching on TV probably didn’t know that. The media spin was that we were tanking the season so we could get the number one draft pick. Now, let’s break that down for a minute.

First of all, there’s a lottery system. As players, we all know the math. The last place team only has a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. Grown men are going to go out and purposely mail it in for a one-in-four shot at drafting somebody who might someday take their job?

And then there’s the hype surrounding the No. 1 pick. Even before the season started, TankingForWiggins.com was a real thing. Once the narrative picks up, it’s over. We wished we could come out and say how ridiculous it was for people to think the players were tanking when there were guys on the team playing for their livelihood, but that only would’ve made it worse.

Nobody took the losses harder than we did. We deserved plenty of criticism, but we all put in too much work to be treated like a joke.

I seriously live basketball and I don’t take it for granted that I made it to this level. This entire summer, I spent hours face down on the trainers’ table getting my shoulder stretched to regain full range of motion. Some of the stretches are excruciating even without an injury. When physical therapy was over, I’d sprint up and down hills with an altitude mask strapped to my face looking like Bane from Batman. Try doing 10 sets of hills with hardly any air. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. All that hill work was just so I could get back to the court as soon as humanly possible.

So please don’t tell me I’m on the Chillin’ List.

In order to get to the NBA, you have to be crazy, over-the-top competitive. When I was riding the bench my freshman year at Syracuse, I used to stay in the gym so late doing dribbling drills that I had to superglue my fingers to stop them from bleeding.

You can question my shooting. You can question my ceiling. Just don’t question if I’m giving my all every single night. Don’t talk to me about tanking.

The media creates this narrative and repeats it over and over. That’s how Stephen A. Smith ends up in our locker room with a big smile on his face. I’m not picking on him. I know he’s playing a character. He knows he’s playing a character. But what happens when we break the streak by going out and beating Detroit that night? Now it’s another story. After the game, a lot of the reporters didn’t even stick around. The ones that did weren’t prepared. They didn’t ask us about the specifics of the game. They made up questions on the spot, like, “Uh, hey, you guys won … so how do you feel?”

We weren’t the story anymore. They were on to the next thing. Stephen A. didn’t really stick around. I guess he had a plane to catch. Believe me, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure he doesn’t come back for the same reason.

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