Cleveland Cavaliers Coach John Beilein was wrapping up a 45-minute film session with his team at a Detroit hotel Wednesday when he meant to compliment his struggling team for playing harder in recent games. He botched the delivery, however, telling his group of mainly black players that they no longer were playing “like a bunch of thugs.”

Beilein later told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that he meant to say “slugs,” not “thugs.” On Thursday morning, Beilein gave what Wojnarowski described as an “emotional apology” to his players.

“I didn’t realize that I had said the word ‘thugs,’ but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein said Wednesday. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow-moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”

Cavaliers players were “initially stunned,” Wojnarowski reported, citing sources, but “increasingly disturbed as they dispersed out of the meeting.” And according to’s Chris Fedor, it’s gotten to the point that Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman canceled a week-long scouting trip to deal with the situation in Detroit, where Cleveland plays Thursday night. He was scheduled to fly there Thursday from Atlanta, Fedor reported.

The word “thug” has long carried connotations of criminality and lawlessness, and in recent years it has become racially charged.

“The truth is that ‘thug’ today is a nominally polite way of using the n-word,” John McWhorter, the director of Columbia University’s linguistics program who often writes about language and race, told NPR in 2015 in the wake of rioting in Baltimore. “Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about ‘thugs’ ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying, ‘There go those black people ruining things again.’ And so anybody who wonders whether ‘thug’ is becoming the new n-word doesn’t need to. It most certainly is.”

Nine of the 15 players listed on the Cavaliers’ roster are black or biracial.

The slip of the tongue is the latest issue to confront the 66-year-old Beilein, who is in his first season as an NBA coach after a lengthy career in the college ranks. After winning just 19 games in 2018-19, Cleveland (10-27) has lost five straight and sits in 13th place in the Eastern Conference. In December, the Athletic reported that players were “bristling” at Beilein’s “nitpicking over basic fundamentals, too much harping in lengthy film sessions, not enough versatility on offense and a broader lack of understanding of the NBA game and opposing players” and looking more to assistant J.B. Bickerstaff for guidance.

“Guys drowned out his voice, and when guys start searching for the next in line for help, I believe you’ve lost them,” an unnamed Cavaliers player told Joe Vardon and Shams Charania of the Athletic.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, meanwhile, said on a recent podcast that all-star forward Kevin Love is unhappy in Cleveland and wants a trade. During Saturday night’s game against Oklahoma City, Love threw his arms up in disgust several times while on the court, fired a hard pass in anger and had his back turned on defense as a Thunder player ran past him to the basket. This all came after he confronted Altman before the game because of the fine he received for a Dec. 31 outburst against the Toronto Raptors.

Despite all this, Wojnarowski says the Cavaliers plan to “continue” with Beilein as their coach.

Read more on the NBA: