The Kyrie Irving Trade and the Pursuit of Happiness

The space available to a point guard wanting to dart between two defenders and get to the rim in basketball is often just a sliver. By comparison, how big or small was the say/feel gap during Kyrie Irving’s answers on ESPN’s “First Take” program the other day when asked about the trade he sought, the one that has now taken him from The Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics? The show’s main host Stephen A. Smith remarked afterwards that you have to go to the non-verbals in situations like this, situations where the answers given are cryptic. So let’s do that, using facial coding to judge the amount of space between what Irving said on the air and how he actually felt.

Here is arguably the key passage from the on-air interview, as Irving denies that his being the second best player on a team with the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, was a big factor in seeking a trade: “It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to be the second fiddle . . . being a second-class citizen, I have no idea what that is. Or being a second banana, I don’t have any idea what that is.”

Reality check: The first detail is that Irving signed his previous, five-year contract extension believing the Cleveland squad would be built around him. Then 10 days later, James let it be known he would like to return to his hometown. Second, who sold the second-most Nike sneakers in the NBA last season? That would be Irving. Guess who came in first? At the same time, however, it’s hard to see how Irving was stunted given that with a steady diet of passes from James last season, Irving sets career highs for shots taken and points scored. Moreover, Irving averaged more touches of the ball than any member of the championship-winning Golden State Warriors, including their star Stephen Curry; held the ball more often than James and shot more often than James, too.

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Now, let’s replay the passage and add in the emoting that is going on simultaneously: “It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile) anything to do with not wanting (eyes narrowed, anger) to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile, upper lip flares slightly in disgust) anything to do with not wanting to be the (lip suck followed by lips tightened in anger, plus again eyes close) second (outer eyebrow arches in surprise and fear, skeptical smile, another upper lip flair) fiddle . . .

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being a second-class citizen (eyebrows knit in anger, anxiety and sadness), I have no idea (head tilts back, outer eyebrow arches) what that is (eyes narrow in anger). Or being a second banana, I don’t have (eyes close, lips tighten in anger) any idea what (lower lip stretches slightly down and out in a sign of disgust) that is.”

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In short, has Irving made a dispassionate decision to move on to Boston, and away from James? Hardly. There’s far too much emoting going on, despite the innocuous language being used here. Is Irving being less than straightforward? Certainly. Here’s his dilemma. Irving is rightfully pursuing his dreams (and probably making a shrewd bet that the Cavaliers aren’t likely to win another championship anytime soon), but he also doesn’t want to come across as too selfish in what is, after all, a team sport. For people trying “to square a circle,” there is no lying muscle in the face that gives away their struggle to make palatable what isn’t going to be fully palatable to everybody else. But among the items to look for is whether somebody dissembling is, in effect, disappointed in him or herself for doing so by showing sadness. In this case, the repeated instances of either a downcast look or Irving’s eyes closing entirely for a moment could easily be interpreted as clues that he’s choosing “to be blind” as to the less than candid nature of his remarks. How about the signs of anger and disgust? Surely, they could be seen as clues to Irving resisting the idea of, in fact, being the second best player when matched with James on court (anger) as well as rejecting that situation (disgust) as he, in fact, did by asking for a trade.

Moreover, have we seen this situation before? Yes, we did just last year when Kevin Durant jumped from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors.  Then, Durant like Irving, here, said all the right things about wanting to develop as a player and also as a man. Only what did Durant tweet over the past weekend? Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote: “He didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan [the team’s coach]. His roster wasn’t that good. It was just him and Russ [Russell Westbrook].” A second tweet added: “KD can’t win with those cats.” Caught, at least Durant was honest in saying at a conference days later: “I happened to take it a little too far.”

Can we expect something similar, someday, from Irving? I suspect so. The Cavaliers have all sorts of issues to content with, ranging from good odds that James will leave after next season for the Los Angeles Lakers, or somewhere else; that the roster didn’t strengthen this off-season, leaving the Cavaliers no match for a Warriors squad that upgraded during the off-season (a likely, attempted trade of Irving by the Cavaliers may have been the final straw for Irving in deciding to leave on his own terms); to an organization in plenty of disarray. Is it easy playing with James? Surely, no easier than playing with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant was, to name but two super-stars with hyper-competitive personalities. Like Durant as well as San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, James tends to pout some and is rarely satisfied with anything short of stellar, on-court performances.

Several times during his on-air interview, Irving returned to this theme: a desire to be “extremely, extremely happy in perfecting my craft” (a big happiness smile). But then when the point guard said he “had nothing but love for Cleveland,” an equally big show of happiness was accompanied by a flaring upper lip betraying disgust. In other words, Irving was being on-message but only partially on-emotion. More disgust and anger was shown in Irving saying he wanted a “truthful environment, and I wasn’t getting that.” With James as the Cavalier’s star, and de facto coach if not also the team’s general manager, yes, anybody else is second fiddle there. Now in Boston, Irving can show everybody just how well he can or can’t play first fiddle instead.

I’m Lovin’ It: Donald Trump Jr. & Russian Collusion

When your father often behaves like a child, the enfant terrible of the family, it’s got to do a number on your psyche. Then throw in for extra measure this same father all but publicly lusting after your striking sister (“If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . . .” being but one of many vulgar examples). Now you’re really in trouble. So it goes with Donald Trump Jr. in what has to be a fruitless attempt to secure the admiration and affection of a father mostly obsessed with himself. On a daily basis, Donald Trump Jr. shares with his father, Donald Trump, and his sister, Ivanka Trump, the family trait of scoring relatively high on disgust. (“It’s disgusting, it’s so phony” Donald Trump Jr. told CNN when asked about allegations that Russia was trying to help his father’s campaign.) But whereas the mostly confident, even cocky Ivanka also scores high on contempt, her older brother Donald Trump Jr. wavers instead in another direction emotionally speaking. Along with disgust, sadness is the other most distinct feeling he displays – though not to the extreme, endlessly-disappointed-in-failing-to-secure-universal-acclaim level of his dad, the president.

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Father and son often share the chin-raising version of disgust, but Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump are likewise prone to the flared upper lip version of that same emotion.

All of this brings us around to the overshadowed son trying to bring home some sizzling bacon two months before CNN asked him about the Russia allegations. I’m talking of course about the now disclosed email trail that shows Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in hopes of getting some compromising dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016.

June 3, 2016, 10:35 a.m. email to Donald Trump Jr. from go-between Rob Goldstone

“[There’s an offer] to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary . . . . This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russian and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 3, 2016, 10:53 a.m., email reply from Donald Trump Jr.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

I include the timing here for the simple reason that simple isn’t always better, despite McDonald’s augmenting its long-running slogan, I’m Lovin’ It, with the newer The Simpler the Better over the last two years. Sometimes simpler actually isn’t very smart, as is the case here. Being eager to meet with an emissary from a generally hostile foreign government eager to meddle in your country’s most important political contest? Then holding the meeting in your office, one floor below the office of your father in Trump Tower, no less? Neither move strikes me as well thought out. What ever happened to stopping to reflect? Nor is this rapid-fire decision-making either very ethical or patriotic in an old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way.

First, the longing-to-matter son says the newly disclosed meeting was to discuss resuming the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Then by degrees the truth comes out, excluding of course an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. There the emoting by Donald Trump Jr. was a blizzard of downward eye-castings suggestive of sad disappointment in himself for getting embroiled in such a mess, along with a mouth tightened and occasionally, fleetingly stretched in expressions of grimacing fear.

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As for the president, he’s applauding his “high-quality” son for his “transparency” in releasing the email trail just ahead of a New York Times deadline for soliciting Donald Trump Jr.’s input on the soon-to-be published, newly more complete story of the Trump Tower meeting. Remember candidate Trump boasting in Iowa in January 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Well, Trump Tower is on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump Jr. having in effect shot himself by holding an ill-advised, possibly illegal meeting, followed by a clumsy cover-up. What we won’t do in search of love.

Police Shootings: Black and Blue (Yet Again)

Here’s a quick quiz for you to take. On average across three sources (two national polls, and a keyword research tool study of people’s most common online search terms), what are supposedly the biggest fears of your fellow Americans? Put the following list of 10 options into the correct order, ranking them from first to tenth:

  • Rejection
  • Clowns
  • Public Speaking
  • Terrorists
  • Spiders
  • Failure
  • Intimacy
  • Heights
  • Death
  • Flying

Notice anything odd about the list? I do. Among the possible top 10 choices, other people only explicitly appear twice: as terrorists and, improbably enough, as clowns! But how strong is people’s fear of being socially embarrassed? Pretty strong I’d say, considering that everything from rejection to public speaking to intimacy and maybe even (being judged a) failure make the list of possibilities; and clowns could I suppose fit there, too, assuming that what a clown found or made funny might include aspects of one’s own behavior.

Seriously, though, I think the list is crucially devoid of honesty in one key aspect because it doesn’t include people who don’t look like us (skin color) or believe in what we believe in (religion, politics, and social customs). Let’s just call this category: others. The 10 options I gave you appear in inverse order, which means that “flying” is #1 and “rejection” is #10, with “people” and “criminals” being options that might fit “others” but didn’t get strong, consistent enough results across these three particular sources to qualify for the overall, composite top 10 list.

Under “others” could be DWB, the acronym ruefully used by African-Americans to describe the dangers of Driving While Black. And what a huge risk it is. In a suburb of my city, St. Paul, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for shooting Philando Castile. In short, what began as a seemingly routine traffic stop because a brake light was out on the car being driven by Mr. Castile quickly turned deadly.

A dashboard camera video from the police car shows the exchange that resulted in Officer Yanez firing seven shots. In less than five seconds from the moment Castile finishes telling Yanez that he’s carrying a registered firearm, the shooting has begun, after a panicked Yanez repeats: “Don’t pull it out.” There’s no doubt that Yanez is scared, even “afraid for his life” as he testified in court. On the cop car video, Yanez’s rigid, frozen stance as he fires his gun, his hoarse voice, his panicked breathing, and his traumatized screams of easily a dozen instances of “fuck” after the shooting are fully evident.

As for the facial expressions of either Yanez or Castile, however, the cop car video is captured from too far away to tell us anything. But the victim’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was livestreaming the aftermath on Facebook, and from that video what’s remarkable is both her presence of mind to be able to record her summation of what she believes actually happened as well as her degree of calm. Yes, her eyes are wide and her mouth initially distorted with fear.  But otherwise she’s remarkably unflappable, reassuring Yanez that she’ll cooperate with his requests (“I will, sir. No worries, I will”), not giving in to anger, not yet experiencing much sadness (her eyes do close momentarily when she says, “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that”), and only once showing disgust (a raised upper lip when she says, “I’ll keep my hands where they are”). It’s not until she’s handcuffed in the squad car that a whimpering cry from her causes her preschool age daughter to comfort her by saying, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

In Milwaukee, Tulsa, Cincinnati and elsewhere, the police shootings involving DWB go on and the trials that mostly lead to acquittals do, too. I have a brother-in-law who’s now retired from being a traffic cop in Seattle. From hearing him recount his experiences, there’s no doubt that fear exists on both side, for black motorists and blue-uniformed officers. Body cam video rarely if ever reveals people’s facial expressions, but the abruptness of the shootings is unmistakably evident. Two, maybe three seconds and somebody else is suddenly blood-stained and dying or dead.

With fear, it’s a matter of fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the motorists freeze. Other times, they engage in attempted flight (running off or trying to drive away). For the cops, flight isn’t an option because it means they’re not doing their jobs and to freeze would be a greater risk to themselves than to fight by shooting a gun they’ve been trained to use.

Fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do.

The bottom line is that fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do. The fear that leads to abrupt shootings results in quick action, but the fear itself is long-standing and deep-rooted of course. The officers are scrambling to help maintain the status quo, the law of the land. They often live in dread while pledging to serve and protect the general public. Meanwhile, for their part it’s doubtful any black motorists would be surprised to know that when black veterans returned from World War One nearly a century ago, their newly acquired marksmanship frightened many whites. The resulting race riots of 1919 earned the nickname Red Summer, given the bloody and wrenchingly unfair outcome.

Two Quagmires: Greece and Afghanistan

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“Viet Nam is our great adventure—and a wonderful one it is!”

-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (1967)

In a single, 24-hour news cycle, I caught two stories that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry. What’s the underlying similarity of the European Union (EU) agreeing to unlock loans of 8.5 billion euros for Greece, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordering as many as 5,000 troops to Afghanistan?  They’re both manifestations of the all too human tendency to be susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.

For all of us, here’s a quick refresher:  the sunk cost fallacy describes how people justify increasing their investment of money, time, and lives into what are, quite frankly, hopeless situations. Prior costs won’t pay off. Behind this escalation of commitment lies another term: loss aversion. Human nature is to ignore or downplay the prospect of losses because then you have to admit to lapses of judgment, both to yourself and others. It’s far easier to maintain (false) optimism and a belief that you can still will a positive outcome.

Let’s start with Afghanistan, and Mattis’s latest testimony before Congress.  “We’re not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible,” the General told the Armed Services Committee. Sounds plausible, right? But that’s not true if you’re watching the facial expressions that accompany Mattis’s statement. After “right now,” the General’s glance lowers and stays low in an unmistakable sign of sadness. He’s on-emotion, faithfully conveying emotionally what his message is: I’m disappointed in events there.

What’s off-emotion, however, is when Mattis adds: “And we will correct this as soon as possible.” After “correct this,” Mattis smirks. After “as soon as possible,” the sad look-away returns. Therein emerges reality. A smirk is a sign of contempt, of distrust and disrespect—in this case, I believe, Mattis disrespecting himself for his assertion that things will get better in Afghanistan. Mattis knows better. America doesn’t have control over what will happen. Between Afghan tribalism and corruption, and Pakistani self-interest, the Taliban can’t and won’t be effectively sidelined.

The situation in Greece is only better in that nobody is outright dying. Grinding poverty and loss of hope are more the issues of the day. The Greek debt crisis has now been going on since 2010. In fact, it began on the very day I was leaving Athens after speaking at a sales conference. At the airport, the newspaper headlines were blaring the Greek government’s first admission that the scope of the country’s EU debt (to German and French bankers, among others) vastly exceeded prior admissions.

I don’t deny that the Greek crisis has its tragic-comedic aspects.  Remember the 2012 quarterfinals match between Greece and Germany in the run-up to deciding that year’s European soccer champion? Prior to losing 4-1, Greece momentarily tied the score at 1-1. In response its fans unleashed the chant, “We’ll never pay you back,” taunting in particular the most notable German fan in attendance, chancellor Angela Merkel.

But buried within the EU/Greek dynamic, you’ll find the same emotional cocktail of sad misgivings, fear of exposure to risk, blind optimism, and abiding anger—as if the situation really can be brought under control—that is evident in Afghanistan. “Overall, I think this is a major step forward,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of the latest loans to Greece. The loans will supposedly “enable Greece to stand on its own feet again over the course of the next year,” he added.

Never mind that Greece’s economy has shrunk by nearly a fifth since 2010, that unemployment stands at nearly 25%, or that some of the Greek debt now has due dates stretching out to mid-century. Everything will be fine, of course. Egos and pocketbooks won’t allow for any other forecast. Loss aversion rules. At least as the saying goes, “throwing good money after bad,” isn’t as reprehensible as trying to apply that cliché to Afghanistan. In that case, we would all properly shudder at the notion that there have been “bad” lives lost, for which more good U.S. soldiers will now get thrown into the fray.