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A BlackBerry Brought D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota


In this week’s newsletter, Marc Stein goes behind the scenes of the trade deadline for the Timberwolves and goes deep on the state of the Knicks.

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Amid the havoc wreaked by three trades he made last week, involving seven other teams and 23 players, Gersson Rosas of the Minnesota Timberwolves missed one of the most important news bulletins of his professional life.

Three days before the N.B.A. trade deadline, BlackBerry announced that it was taking another significant step away from the device-making business to continue its recent focus on operating as a software cybersecurity company.

“You broke my heart,” said Rosas, who hadn’t heard the news until I relayed it to him after the deadline.

Rosas, Minnesota’s first-year president of basketball operations, had been feeling rather triumphant otherwise after a series of trades that began with a Jan. 16 swap with Atlanta, which sent Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham to the Hawks in exchange for Allen Crabbe. When things finally settled after three further trades, Minnesota had at last acquired the former All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell to end a seven-month pursuit.

The BlackBerry development, though, undeniably stung. Rosas, you see, is one of four lead decision makers for N.B.A. teams known to still do the bulk of their business on a BlackBerry.

Rosas, Houston’s Daryl Morey, Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti and Toronto’s Masai Ujiri compose the confirmed quartet. Milt Newton, Milwaukee’s assistant general manager, is another Blackberry devotee. Perhaps more will become known after this article hits, but Rosas described the adherents as “a small community.”

BlackBerry stopped producing its own phones in 2016 but had a licensing agreement with a Chinese company (TCL Corporation) to keep making them, which led to the KEYone model in February 2017 and the KEY2 in June 2018. According to the Feb. 3 announcement, no new phones will be released through TCL after Aug. 31.

So barring the emergence of a new licensing partner to keep the brand alive, BlackBerry loyalists — subjected to a steady stream of doomsday headlines over the years — are thus forced to brace for the worst this time.

“It’s something,” Rosas said, “I haven’t been able to give up.”

I completely co-sign the sentiment. There is simply nothing in the smartphone game that can replicate typing on BlackBerry’s physical QWERTY keyboard — nothing.

I still assemble the first draft of every story I write on my KEY2. That’s largely because of the keyboard, but it is also because the phone is ultramobile and, unlike bigger devices that encourage the easily distracted (like me) to multitask, it helps me focus. I will bust it out on planes, in restaurants and at coffee shops any time the planets align and a stream of paragraphs hits me. Whenever I encounter N.B.A. executives who I know still use various BlackBerry devices, we always end up talking about our phones.

Rosas carries an iPhone as a companion device for music, watching videos and its greater selection of apps. (Confession: So do I.) Yet he estimated that roughly 35 percent of the work and negotiations that went into Minnesota’s three trades last week were BlackBerry-driven.

“In this day and age, you’re really using every device and mode of communication that you can — phone, email, laptop, iPad,” Rosas said.

While making it clear that there is no substitute for direct communication to “make sure you and your trade partners are on the same page to confirm deal terms and confirm everything that’s been talked about,” Rosas said, “the BlackBerry is a constant companion.”

It has been that way for Rosas since he broke into the league full time as a scout with the Rockets in 2004. Rosas also scouted for U.S.A. Basketball at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Just being a scout at heart, I’ve always been a guy who did my reports digitally,” Rosas said. “There’s no beating the keyboard. The feel, man.”

The most recent BlackBerry models typically received high marks in the areas of cybersecurity and battery life, but it’s that “feel” Rosas described that has kept the device from going extinct in the N.B.A.

Two of the league’s more popular veteran guards, Detroit’s Derrick Rose and the free agent Jamal Crawford, also can’t quit the phone that former President Barack Obama famously relied on so heavily throughout his two terms in the White House.

“I won’t give it up,” Crawford said emphatically.

“He was shocked,” Rosas said. “I actually woke him up. He was like, ‘You’re not messing with me, are you?’ I told him, ‘No — but don’t say anything. Keep it to yourself.’”

Rosas conceded that he had “paid a premium” for a player the whole league knew he wanted, but the Wolves desperately needed a shake-up. They were mired in a 5-27 funk, and Towns, the highly rated center, was clearly losing heart when Rosas found a way to deliver Russell, one of Towns’s best friends.

As seen repeatedly throughout the Bucks’ first 52 games, Giannis Antetokounmpo plows ahead as he chooses, attacking the rim with abandon and paying little heed to outside commentary. He kept that same approach when it came to the trade deadline mayhem on Thursday, insisting that he was just fine with Milwaukee’s decision to essentially sit it out.

The Bucks explored their options, knowing they could always use an extra shooter or big body, but they ultimately decided that there was no swap worth upsetting the in-house balance that has contributed to a 45-7 start.

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: I’d LOVE to hear your input 3 months later. — @imyoursteppops from Twitter

Here’s what Marc tweeted in December:

Stein: Saturday night was, uh, interesting. I probably received 50 tweets from Knicks fans along these same lines as their team’s winning streak hit four games with a victory against Detroit. I came away admiring the loyalty and coordinated effort of the fans — but also wondering how many in this angry lot, still aggrieved by a tweet I fired off in early December, actually read the whole tweet.

Nowhere, on any platform, did I say I disagreed with the firing of David Fizdale. The Knicks were 4-18 at the time and had just lost games to Milwaukee and Denver by a combined 81 points. The very tweet you cite A) was sent out the night before his firing and essentially predicted it and B) acknowledged that “a team has to do something” in those circumstances. Firing Fizdale was a natural response. The tweet also made the point that the Knicks have “veered way too far off course for anyone to think that a coaching change is all it takes” to put the franchise back on a hopeful track. Which remains 100 percent true.

Stein: You are correct, sir.

Two weeks ago, in a newsletter that contained a list of 24 separate statistics in the Numbers Game section in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, I mistakenly wrote that Bryant earned his first All-Star berth in his third pro season and in each of the 17 seasons that followed.

There were 17 in-season trades before Thursday’s trade deadline, starting with Utah’s Dec. 24 acquisition of Jordan Clarkson from Cleveland in exchange for Dante Exum and two future second-round draft picks. Twelve of those trades happened last week.


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