Mountains out of Molehills

Wally Szczerbiak, ESPN The Magazine, and team chemistry

I was fully prepared to spend part of this column ripping ESPN The Magazine's March 4 cover story on Wally Szczerbiak, which I'd heard was a hatchet job, depicting the Wolves' shooting guard as an unpopular, egotistical ball hog. In the Wolves' locker room after a win over Portland just before the All-Star break, I'd developed an instant dislike for Ric Bucher, the author of the piece. He was a tanned, blonde dude--a GQ-ready pretty boy who seemed to purposefully set himself apart from the local grunts covering the team. It didn't help that the Wolves organization and players, grateful for some national media attention, appeared to behave with extra deference and care when they interacted with him. So when word got out that Bucher had penned a piece that besmirched Szczerbiak's character and the Wolves' vaunted team chemistry, I figured him for a guttersnipe who'd buzzed in for some quick-and-dirty sensationalism that my own years of covering the team could easily rebut.

Then I read the story. Bucher does not hide behind the veil of anonymous sources. He quotes point guards Terrell Brandon and Chauncey Billups at length, who tell of the pressure they feel from Wally to get him the ball, and how Szczerbiak will go so far as to steal passes meant for other teammates. Respected veteran Sam Mitchell is also quoted by name, cautioning that Szczerbiak needs to remember how much his success is a byproduct of the unselfishness of superstar Kevin Garnett. And comments by KG and veteran Gary Trent infer that Wally sometimes strays a bit too far from the smooth, team-oriented passing offense instituted by coach Flip Saunders.

Bucher appropriately contextualizes the attributes of Wally's gunslinger mentality on offense, noting that KG, Saunders, and Brandon, among others, realized that the Wolves needed to exploit his scoring prowess more often in order to improve as a team. But the dominant theme of the article is one of negative conflict, from the cover art (showing KG and Wally with arms crossed, regarding each other coolly) and Bucher's opening paragraph: "Just about every member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, at one time or another, has wanted to crack Wally Szczerbiak in his white-picket-fence mouth."

Is Bucher making a mountain out of a molehill? Did he cull a half-dozen or so choice comments out of hours of interviews o stimulate controversy and sell more magazines? To both questions, I'd answer yes. And I understand why Szczerbiak says he might punch Bucher in the mouth the next time he sees him.

But, for what it's worth, I don't condemn the article. Using attributed quotes from a variety of relevant sources, Bucher has amassed a fair-sized molehill, which he then turned into a mountain. Or, to twist another trite analogy, the story is less a hatchet job than one that needlessly draws blood through some deftly executed scalpel work.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a column describing the issue of whether or not Wally was getting frozen out of the Wolves' offense as a "silly, stupid controversy." In retrospect, perhaps the question should have been: Are Wally's teammates beginning to chafe at how much he demands the ball?

Still, even after reading Bucher's piece, this tack feels equally moot. For better or worse, I no more want to be a scandal monger than I do a sycophantic jock sniffer. To me, locker room soap operas are relevant only if they are blatant or affect what happens on the court. And whether Wally feels frozen out or his teammates resent his ego, it is a subtle dynamic that hasn't prevented the Wolves from exploiting Szczerbiak's talents en route to the best overall performance in franchise history. (That said, Wally's constant, effusive comments about how close he and KG have become and how happy his teammates were when he was selected to the All-Star team is irksome bullshit.)

When the Wolves explained that they frittered away an easily winnable game at Houston because they were broken up over the departure of Dean Garrett in a trade to Golden State, it was worthy of comment and condemnation. And when the players admitted about a month ago that it took two days of hard practices to refocus their commitment to team defense, their dedication deserved to be questioned. But resentments over how much or little Szczerbiak is involved in the offense? The Wolves should have more "problems" like this.

The bottom-line is that controversies over "team chemistry" usually amount to much ado about nothing, and are mostly relevant in determining how well a team can respond to media distractions. For fans and the media, it is a lazy, prurient way to cover a team. Recall all the ink that was spilled last year over the ego battles of Shaq and Kobe on the Lakers, and how little it mattered during their subsequent playoff blitzkrieg. Recall the great controversy earlier this year in Sacramento, when there was actually serious discussion about whether Chris Webber's return to health and the starting lineup was a good or bad thing for the Kings. Then, for a taste of locker room dysfunction that actually did affect a team's performance, recall the old Timberwolves squad that had a Christian Laettner and Chuck Person visually and verbally shooting darts at each other across the locker room; or the infamous struggles between Laettner, Tom Gugliotta, and J.R. Ryder a few years later over who should be the "go-to" guy at crunch time.

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