O’Neil: Is there benefit to Seahawks’ nebulous discipline? Presenting the Danny Fortson example
I’m asking for your patience right off the top.
That’s because I’m going to use a player that barely anyone remembers from a franchise that doesn’t currently exist to explain the benefits of Pete Carroll’s nebulous policy for disciplining players who do things like, oh, I don’t know, dial back their willingness to practice because they haven’t gotten the raise they’re looking for.
And as I pondered the purely hypothetical scenarios that a player such as Earl Thomas might present to Seattle’s football coach, I thought of Danny Fortson and smiled. Now, there are a number of reasons that thinking about Danny Fortson makes me smile. He was a 6-foot-8 power forward who weighed (at least) 280 pounds when he came to Seattle in 2004 and had “Snootchie” tattooed across the top of his back. It was his childhood nickname.
Fortson was also an absolutely incredible NBA rebounder and unrelentingly physical player who had a tendency to foul out of games unless, of course, he got kicked out of them first. That’s because one result of Fortson’s aforementioned tendency to commit copious amounts of personal fouls was that Fortson was prone to extreme hostility toward the referees who detected and then called those fouls. Dude got a lot of T’s.
And to be honest, Fortson generally had trouble with anyone who exercised authority, which was a big part of why the former lottery pick had been employed by four different teams before coming to Seattle in 2004. In his last stop before Seattle, Fortson played sparingly for the Mavericks before they shipped him to Seattle in exchange for the knock-kneed waste of money that was Calvin Booth. The Sonics were hoping to get something from Fortson in exchange for the nothing that Booth had provided.
At first, Fortson was an absolute revelation for the SuperSonics. He was able to defend opposing centers despite giving away significant height and Fortson and Reggie Evans formed a two-man tag-team in Seattle’s post. Each collected rebounds with impunity. Both fouled opponents with abandon.
But soon enough, Fortson’s aversion to authority also became an issue largely because he was constantly doing things that warranted the attention of those who were in positions of authority. Coach Nate McMillan threw Fortson out of practice because he wouldn’t stop yelling at one of the local referees hired to officiate the workout. Frustrated after he was ejected from a game against the Kings, Fortson threw a folding chair behind him as he left the floor. Only teammate Jerome James kept that chair from striking a fan. Fortson was still suspended two games by the league.
And then in March, he was benched for the first half of a Friday night game against the Knicks because he was either late to the morning shootaround or missed it entirely. When Fortson wasn’t substituted into the game to begin the second half, he left the bench and went into the locker room where he began changing out of his uniform so he could leave the arena. The team’s general manager – sensing the disastrous implications of a mid-game departure – went back into the locker room to talk Fortson out of bailing. The GM succeeded in deescalating the situation and Fortson returned to the bench in his warm-up suit. He neglected, however, to put his uniform back on. This would become a problem when McMillan called for Fortson to enter the game during the second half. Fortson couldn’t, prompting McMillan to tell the general manager that Fortson absolutely needed to be suspended and that the announcement had to come from the team.
Hard to blame McMillan. Not being prepared to enter a game when called upon certainly qualifies as conduct that is detrimental to the team. Fortson was suspended for two games.
But there was a cost to that decision.
Fortson played in only two of the team’s next 10 games after the suspension and was not as effective nor as consistently used the rest of the year. In the second round of the playoffs – when the Sonics desperately needed his size against the San Antonio Spurs – Fortson was nowhere near as good as he had been the first four months of the season.
There's Pete Carroll's way of handling rebelling players like Earl Thomas. And then there's how the Sonics dealt with Danny Fortson's aversion to authority.@dannyoneil uses the example of the ex-NBA bruiser to explain why Carroll's way works.
— 710 ESPN Seattle (@710ESPNSeattle) September 27, 2018
Now things were probably going to sour with Fortson eventually. He was going to run afoul of anyone who had authority over him, but as we talk about Carroll and how strict he isn’t with his players, it’s worth considering the cost of running a tight ship.
The suspension the Sonics handed down to Fortson didn’t make him any more compliant. In fact, he became less so. He was suspended (again) by the team a year later for skipping a practice. This was not in itself a surprise. The team hired a sports psychologist that year for players, and she anticipated that Fortson would rebel when confronted directly with authority.
That probably meant that Fortson’s tenure with the team was going to sour just as it had the previous four teams he played for. But I also know that tenure soured sooner than it had to because the Sonics took a hard-line stance with him over an incident that could have been covered up.
And when I look back on that suspension, I don’t think about what a meaningful message the discipline sent to the rest of the Sonics’ roster. I think about whether Fortson could have made the difference in that series against the Spurs if McMillan’s idea of consequences had been as discreet as Carroll’s.