Picture this: You’re the head coach of a college basketball team that hadn’t won more than 11 games in the previous 4 years and haven’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament in 21. Now, you’ve led this team to a regular season title, a conference tournament title, a 20-win season for the first time in 20 years, and most importantly the big dance. You’re winning where winning hasn’t been a thing in a long while.
Tuesday night, Mark Slessinger – a real guy living out the scenario laid out above – is coaching his ass off for New Orleans against Mount St. Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament (no matter your feelings, the First Four technically counts). Your guys are out there fighting and competing. Then with 6:36 left in the 2nd half of a 3-pt game, two of your players get in an argument on their way to the bench during a media timeout, some shoving ensues, but then it goes too far. Your starting forward Travin Thibodeaux puts his hands on the throat of his teammate, Christavious Gill.
Whether it’s pick-up games or organized hoops, there’s going to be arguments and even scuffles. A line is crossed once you grab another man’s throat and coach Slessinger recognized that. He made sure his team recognized it too.
New Orleans came out of the break with Thibodeaux on the bench. Up to that point, he’d played 12 minutes in the 2nd half. Thibodeaux had scored 10 points on 5-5 shooting and assisted on another basket. There was a 3:36 stretch where Thibodeaux scored or assisted 8 straight points – scoring 6 himself. He was dominant that half – 1 of the 2 or 3 best players on the court.
Whenever the horn sounded, I’d say to myself: “I hope Thibodeaux isn’t checking in”. In my mind, you don’t get back on the court after choking someone, let alone a teammate, over some on-court disagreement. Thibodeaux didn’t step back on the floor until the final buzzer sounded and New Orleans season came to an end. They lost by a single point.
I won’t claim to have watched ANY New Orleans basketball until watching every second of Tuesday’s game. One thing I can tell you is Thibodeaux was a difference-maker before the choke and they’re advancing if he plays the final six-and-a-half.
Mark Slessinger sent a message to a program he was rebuilding. Mark Slessinger did not fold to the pressure of winning in a world where winning is the only measuring stick. Slessinger stood for something, no matter the result. Whether amateur or professional sports, you rarely see those in charge hold their ground if success is being sacrificed. We get all the clichés: “we don’t stand for that” or “that’s not what our team is about” or “we don’t tolerate that type of behavior”. In the end, it’s all just lip service.
Too often in sports, athletes are given a pass without showing any remorse for their actions because of their abilities. Feigning resolve is just as bad as having none at all. Benching a guy until the next stoppage for choking his teammate over a disagreement is just as bad as not benching him at all. Don’t just state your message. Send your message and hold true to it.
While this offense skews to the less egregious end of the spectrum, I respect the hell out of Coach Slessinger for his decision and I hope others see there’s a message to be learned: be a leader, not a pawn.