On Oct. 3, 1974, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then the 27-year-old reigning MVP of the NBA and the biggest star the sport of basketball had ever seen, told the brass of the Milwaukee Bucks that he didn’t want to play for them anymore, and requested a trade. He had one year left on his contract and, as he recounted to the Los Angeles Times years later, “I told them I really wasn’t interested in signing up again. I wanted to leave Milwaukee. If they would trade me, it would be the best thing for everybody.”
According to Wayne Embry, then the GM of the Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar even specified his preferred trade destinations: New York or D.C., followed by Los Angeles. He was prepared to make the trade happen. As William Alverson, then the president of the organization, told the Times (emphasis added):
“What had been fine since the new contract, Sam [Gilbert, a UCLA booster who acted as Abdul-Jabbar’s advisor] told us wasn’t fine anymore. Milwaukee just wasn’t where a big-city boy could be comfortable, he said. In essence, it was a foreign culture to Kareem. He wanted out, he would be out, one way or another. The implication was that if he had to sit out a year, he would. We believed him.”
The team brass felt it had no choice but to comply. Around eight months after Kareem made his request, in June of 1975, the Bucks traded him to the Lakers. This was big news for the league at the time, of course—anything to do with Abdul-Jabbar would be—but not even 10 years had elapsed since the last time the most famous basketball player on earth had forced his way to Los Angeles via trade. In July of 1968, the Philadelphia 76ers honored Wilt Chamberlain’s request for a trade specifically to the Lakers—because, at least according to the Sixers’ then-coach Jack Ramsay, Chamberlain “demanded to be traded to the Lakers or he said he would jump to the ABA.”
In any event, a year after the Bucks sent Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles, he won his fourth MVP award, this time as a Laker. The following season, he won another. He won five of his six championships on the team to which he’d forced his way by threatening to sit out the entire final season of his contract, and retired as a member of that team, as well as the consensus greatest player in the history of the sport, at the end of the 1988-89 season. And a few months shy of 30 years after that, Bill Simmons’s website, The Ringer, published the following sentence about Anthony Davis, who requested a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers a little less than two months ago, but who did not threaten to sit out any games or join a rival basketball league (or switch sports altogether), and returned to his team, the New Orleans Pelicans, when they reportedly made a weeks-long public mockery of his request and then refused to grant it:
The generation of players now taking over the league has been exercising control in one way or another ever since they got here; now we are seeing how far they’re willing to go to grasp it at the highest levels—no matter how misguided the attempts may be.
That’s the kicker of this article, bearing Justin Verrier’s byline but absolutely reeking of the heavy hand of his boss, titled “Anthony Davis Might Be Too Melo to Be the Star He Thinks He Is.” The pretense of this article is that it is a sober and evenhanded look at the damage Davis did to either his “legacy” or his “brand” when he requested a trade—which, again, is all he did—and thereby a high-minded examination of the perils of this allegedly newfangled era of empowered basketball superstars.
Here it’s worth remembering that, as our own Tommy Craggs put it back in 2011, “a sportswriter talking about a legacy is just a fart talking about its own smell.” This gets at the actual business of Verrier’s article, which is not so much to examine the state of Davis’s “legacy”—an absurd exercise on its face, even relative to its stupid genre, given that he made his trade request less than two months ago and likely isn’t even halfway through his career yet—but to meekly participate in punishing him, here and now, for having attempted to exercise some self-determination over his career. According to Verrier, the trade request was an “insurrection,” with Davis grasping for control, for “spoils.” The apparent conclusion is that Davis is now at risk of becoming the next Carmelo Anthony, who himself is characterized here as something of a tragic, self-obsessed loser whose own reckless trade demand led him down a path with no lasting success either as a player or as a cultural figure.
This is something of an odd conclusion to arrive at, given that the only parallel Verrier can find between Anthony and Davis—other than that both “entered the NBA riding the high of a decorated single season in college and achieved immediate individual success,” which broadly describes any number of other NBA stars—is that they both requested trades at some point in their careers. Is Kawhi Leonard, presently leading the Raptors to the No. 2 seed in the East after forcing his way out of San Antonio by taking nearly an entire season off, also at risk of becoming the next Carmelo Anthony?
Never mind that Melo never was Davis’s equal as a player, or that he had a fine reputation until sports media smarmers decided his trade request had to mean he was a selfish diva, just as that same class of people now are doing to Davis. Never mind that a list of NBA stars who’ve requested and/or attempted to force trades—including to specific preferred destinations—also includes players who threatened to refuse to play and/or leave the NBA altogether if their requests were not granted, yet finished off Hall of Fame careers with their reputations intact decades before Davis was even born. Never mind that not even two months have elapsed since Davis made his request, and that pretending to discern any particular career “trajectory” in a seven-week stretch of part-time play forced upon him by a tanking organization is a profoundly useless way to spend one’s time. Verrier does this anyway, though, pressing 23 whole regular-season games into service of the disingenuous implication that, actually, the Pelicans might be better off without Davis:
Underneath the impressive individual numbers in his 14 games post-insurrection you’ll find a net rating of just below zero—a tidy bit of symbolism for a player who is there but not present. More telling is that the Pelicans have been better when [Jrue] Holiday is on the court and Davis is not, which is a sharp reversal in the numbers that have paced the franchise since the 2016-17 season. Davis is clearly a brilliant player—the best New Orleans has ever had and perhaps ever will. But it’s no secret that the team has looked better without him of late; the only time the six-time All-Star took the floor during a thrilling 22-2 run to topple the Jazz in Utah two weeks ago was when the coaching staff rented out his long limbs to guard the inbounds pass on the final possession. Since his trade demand went public in late January, the Pelicans are 5-9 in games Davis “plays” and 4-5 in games he doesn’t.
Who did the Pelicans play against in this tiny sample? Who else was available or not available to play? Are there any reasons to doubt that the top-line results during this deeply weird, dysfunctional, and brief stretch of a single lost season actually can reveal anything meaningful about Davis or the Pelicans? Verrier never gets around to these questions; he’s got more pressing matters on his hands, like explaining that “you admire Davis, like a sculpture in a museum, more than you obsess over him.” (I do?)
One last time, with feeling: All Anthony Davis did was request a trade, something professional athletes, famous and less-famous ones, have been doing for decades in all the major sports of the world. It was neither an unprecedented move nor even a particularly ambitious one. He asked the people who run the Pelicans to trade him, and told them where he’d like to go. All the rest—all the theorizing about a sinister conspiracy between Davis, Klutch Sports, Rich Paul, LeBron James, and Magic Johnson; all the tittering about palace coups and power grabs and the players taking over the league at the risk of their own legacies; all the underpinnings of Verrier’s mess of an argument; all of it—is an artifact of a media culture habituated to jacking itself off by pretending it can read the legacy-defining contours of every NBA story that bubbles up during the season. If The Ringer is looking for somebody to blame for those dismal conditions, the search can start closer to the office.