When Matt Guokas was fired as head coach of the 76ers during the 1987-88 season and assistant coach Jim Lynam was promoted, the team's first game under the new head coach was the following night in Atlanta.
Professional athletes are willing to be coached, but they aren't willing to go through a lot of nonsense in the process. When a new guy shows up, they always take a measure of the man, and their devotion to following his leadership will depend on what they decide.
That first night in the Omni, the game came down to a final Sixers possession with the Hawks leading by two points. Lynam gathered them for the huddle and this was one of those moments.
"Let's shoot the three and get the hell out of here," Lynam said.
It hardly matters whether they made the shot or didn't. (For the record, Charles Barkley back-rimmed it and finished with 47 points instead of 50.) Lynam showed them he was going to coach them like professionals, not submit them to a lot of happy horseshoes, and they resolved they were going to play for this guy.
That motivational moment came to mind last week when Eagles coach Chip Kelly, in his first opportunity to choose between professional pragmatism and collegiate cheerleading, decided that the Eagles will stick with the starters and play for blood Sunday against the Giants even though there isn't even water on the line.
"It's not about trying to see what the future is. It's about, we got a game. I would not be [true to] any of my beliefs and I would not be fair to any football player right now if I said to some guy, 'Hey, I know you're a better player, but I'm going to play a younger guy now.' That's not what we're about. If you want to do that, go somewhere else," Kelly said. "The upside is we're going to go win a football game, and that's what this whole organization is all about."
Well, it wasn't so much about winning last Saturday, although not for lack of trying. But the loss to Washington did eliminate them from the postseason, making Sunday's finale against the Giants moot.
If the Eagles had qualified for the playoffs and the Giants game could neither help nor hurt their seeding, the game would be played like an exhibition to guard against injuries. Why should the current circumstance be any different? Many of the starters who will be on the field are expected to be back for the 2015 season. Why risk a torn-up knee or a concussion or any number of injuries that might happen in this meaningless game? This isn't college. These players might run out of career, but they won't run out of eligibility.
"We're going to go play football. That's the message from the owner to me," Kelly said. "That's what we're going to do. If it wasn't like that, I wouldn't be here."
Let's leave aside for a moment whether the owner is able to dictate strategy and philosophy to Kelly, or whether it is actually the other way around. That doesn't matter. What matters is that the veteran players being put in harm's way might have a different point of view.
This is a demanding system - a demanding culture, as Kelly might prefer - that the Eagles have experienced starting with spring minicamps. They accepted the pace and the endless repetitions, the blaring music and the sports-science mumbo jumbo. They tried their best, and they played hard. For whatever combination of reasons, the effort didn't produce enough wins, and they have fallen flat in the previous three games. In some ways, they were used badly by the offensive and defensive schemes, and they knew it. Now, they are being asked to rah-rah their way through a game in which the rewards are negligible and the risks are not.
Maybe it won't matter, and certainly the players said the right things during the practice week about supporting Kelly's decision. This is the kind of moment, however, in which professionals take that measure of their coach and separate the necessity from the nonsense.
If Connor Barwin blows up a knee while Marcus Smith stands on the sideline, or if Jason Kelce tears his groin again while David Molk and Julian Vandervelde watch from afar, or if any one of a dozen unfortunate outcomes takes place, Chip Kelly will have lost some commerce in the locker room.
The coach isn't worried, because he is being true to the culture, and the culture is what will endure. The players are fine with that, but they wouldn't mind enduring, too.