PHILADELPHIA - There was nothing particularly surprising last week when Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the majority owners of the 76ers and New Jersey Devils, brought down a storm of bad publicity on their heads by announcing salary cuts for employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn't surprising that private equity investment bankers would make that kind of decision. It wasn't surprising they would be tone-deaf to how it would play in public. And, least surprising of all, they ran from it like rabbits when called out.
"This is an extraordinary time in our world - unlike any most of us have ever lived through before - and ordinary business decisions are not enough to meet the moment," Harris said in a statement released as the pay cuts were rescinded one day after they were announced.
That pretty much sums it up right there. When there is a downturn in business, billionaires taking money away from the little people who work for them is an "ordinary" decision. Happens all the time. Still can't understand the fuss this time, but, hey, look at us doing the right thing. Where's our cookie?
No, that entire show was predictable, and somewhere among all the decimal points being crunched at Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, it was probably defensible. It just wasn't very smart. Their business isn't like other businesses. The Metropolitan Opera, which has the largest budget of any performing arts organization in the United States, just laid off all its union employees, and no one got on talk radio to scream about the Met.
What wasn't predictable - and never is - was center Joel Embiid's response to the kerfuffle. His response was to utterly embarrass his bosses. He did it in such a blatant and cutting way that it raises the question of whether Embiid will remain long-term with the franchise when the NBA eventually returns to whatever new version of normal lies ahead.
The question is laid out on a two-way street. Will Embiid want to play for owners he considers dolts and an organization that has done nothing to make him happy recently? Will Harris and Blitzer want to keep around an employee who has been dismissively critical of superiors before, was witheringly effective in doing so this time, and will almost certainly keep doing it?
Give whatever answers you like, but those are pretty good questions.
When Harris and Blitzer announced that "at-will" employees would have their pay reduced 20% from April 15 to June 30, Embiid spoke up and said he would help out those affected by the cuts. That was in addition to pledging $500,000 for relief measures relating to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Now, Embiid has money. He made $20 million even before signing the five-year, $148 million extension that began last season. He's on the books for $27.5 million this season. He can afford to be generous. But Harris and Blitzer are billionaires with a capital "B." They got money, too.
Sufficiently shamed by Embiid, the owners tried to pull their feet out of what they stepped in. "To our staff and fans, I apologize for getting this wrong," Harris said.
Embiid sent out a Twitter message saying, "In these trying times, I'm proud of the Sixers organization for reversing course and 'doing a 180.' Let's focus on beating this Coronavirus now. Let's be responsible and Trust the Process!!"
In citing "The Process," Embiid reminded everyone of his differences with the organization, particularly his antipathy toward Bryan Colangelo, the doofus Harris handpicked to neuter Sam Hinkie. Embiid's tweets at the time of Colangelo's 2018 self-immolation weren't subtle.
"Sam Hinkie is better and smarter than you," Embiid tweeted to one of the Colangelo burner accounts a full week before the Sixers finally fired their disgraced general manager.
Harris and Blitzer can't appreciate being reminded of that monumental misstep with the front office, any more than they like being showed up by their star player. Not that Embiid cares. He wanted the organization to bring back Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick and got a good taste of how much his opinion is valued.
This relationship between the organization and Embiid has always been fractious. Much of that has been blamed on Embiid's supposed immaturity, and there is evidence that is a factor. More and more, however, it seems that the player has gotten a good look at the inner workings of the franchise for six seasons and respects neither its direction nor its directors. And it might be the feeling is mutual.
The crisis that grips the world will be the breaking point for many things, some we can't even imagine yet. All of them will be more important than the fission of a sports team and one of its players. Still, what took place last week felt different for the Sixers and Embiid. When the virus subsides and life resumes, what, if anything, will remain of their life together?
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