Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein made an emotional apology to his players Thursday morning, insisting he regrets referring to the team as “a bunch of thugs” in a Wednesday film session, league sources told ESPN.
Beilein also met with general manager Koby Altman on Thursday, sources said. Altman talked individually with players to get a sense of how they viewed the verbiage in Wednesday’s film session and how accepting they were of Thursday’s apology, sources said.
“There was really positive reinforcement from the guys this morning and last night,” Beilein told reporters after Thursday’s shootaround in Detroit. “Very understanding, but it’s something that certainly they understand that it was serious. Something that shouldn’t have happened.”
The Cavaliers are planning to continue with Beilein, who is in the first season of a five-year contract, sources said.
After stunning his players with the comment Wednesday, Beilein reached out to players individually to insist he instead meant to use the word “slugs.”
It remains a significant question whether Beilein can seize the respect of a locker room that sources say was always teetering before the racially charged verbiage.
Delivering the term “thugs” to a group of largely young African American men carries obvious racial connotations, and Beilein acknowledged to ESPN in a telephone conversation Wednesday night that he understood that.
“Yesterday in a film session, I used a word — meant to say slug; thug came out. It was brought to my attention a couple of hours later,” Beilein told reporters Thursday. “Talked to all the players afterward, explained the situation. We met about it today; I apologized about it today as well. It was never intended, and players understand that now.
“It was something I have to learn from, just enunciate better, just be clearer with what my words are. They all know it, they understand it. But it’s something that’s unfortunate that we’ll get past.”
Beilein was wrapping up what had been an off-day film session in Detroit, and a hush fell over the room when his players and staff heard the words come out of his mouth, sources said.
The Cavaliers players left the room initially stunned and were increasingly disturbed as they dispersed out of the meeting, league sources said. Altman was alerted to the issue in the aftermath of the meeting and reached out to Beilein for clarification.
Beilein held the film session at a Detroit hotel on Wednesday and largely derided his players for poor decision-making and execution, sources said.
“He made a mistake. We all make them, but he apologized, owned up to it, and at this point, that’s all we can ask him to do,” Nance said. “We all heard it, we were all there. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s any player on the team that believes there was mal-intent behind it.”
Nance said Beilein’s comments didn’t immediately sink in.
“It wasn’t one of those things that like, ‘How dare you?”’ Nance said. “At second glance, yes. We realized he was wrong, he realized he was wrong. That’s why he doubled back afterward, but at the time it happened, it didn’t catch me right away.”
The Cavaliers visit the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night.
Beilein’s first pro season at 66 years old has been partly defined by his struggle to connect with players and adjust to a dramatically different NBA environment than what he had experienced in 40-plus college seasons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.