How Terrell Owens saved the NBA and SAS probably should

I’m going to drop a real bombshell here: some of us in the FreeDarko lair of healing pay a little attention to football. It’s nearly impossible to be a fan of sport in America and not get swept up in at least the beginning and end of the NFL season, when it seems like the fate of our entire civilization hangs in the balance. And since wide receivers might as well be NBA players*, I don’t see how any remotely responsible hoops fans can’t be closely following the recent T.O. and Randy Moss storylines (such definitive wideouts that they actually are semi-professional basketball players).

*Me, I’m partial to creative backs, since making tacklers miss in tight spaces is analogous to breaking someone down off the dribble. But that comparison depends on knowing something about football and using the imagination; WR’s have to beat a single defender (or a individual-based zone), jump a lot, make the highlight reels, act like they did it all themselves, showboat, and lap up the spotlight as a reflex. Factor in the similarity in body type, and it’s the obvious entry-point for anyone more familiar with basketball than football (if those people actually exist outside of a few FreeDarko-ites who shall remain nameless).

(I’m hoping someone will stick up for right about now)

The parallels are so glaring that Owens and Moss are actually capable of turning the NFL into the NBA, one trope at a time. Owens’s recent drama feeds directly off of the NBA player’s newfound right to demand a trade, the dirty little secret that no one in the Association wants to talk about. Moss, the selfish headcase with attitude problems, a rep for coach-killing, and nearly infinite potential, has managed to convince the usually unforgiving NFL that, given a second chance and the freedom to reach maturity as a talent, he’s now ready to step up, harness his capabilities, and lead on all fronts. If that ain’t the story of Iverson’s career, I don’t know what is; when similar things go down in NFL, if ever, it usually involves a “cancer” allowing himself to be subsumed by the team concept, like Corey Dillion with the Pats. That’s textbook football ethics, and it’s no accident that Sheed’s “redemption” with the Pistons is forced to fit that mold (I’m saying, Detroit is the football of the NBA).

What it’s really made me think about, though, is that, in the same way that Iverson, Kobe, Toine, Ricky Davis, and Marbury are all very different “difficult” ballers, flashy receivers take very different paths to get to the same place. The secret here is that Moss, for all his embarrassing flaws, wants badly to win, thinks he can do it better than anyone, and has the kind of volatile, unpredictable interior monologue that doesn’t mix well with complicated, disappointing, or compromising situations. Owens, on the other hand, is possibly the most vile professional athlete of our era, a prodigiously gifted performer who’s almost indifferent to the game itself or any on-field action beyond himself. In short, he’s a worse NBA villain than even the NBA itself has to offer, and his rep’s reliance on natural ability, sheer virtuosity, and one-man myth-building is straight out of the Rucker. And I’m saying this as someone who can’t stand the Eagles front office, would rather watch Owens than any other receiver (Moss just doesn’t get the ball as often), and could end up naming my firstborn Rucker Shoals.

But just because I give Moss the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t mean that I find him particularly intriguing as a personality. Bottom line is, basketball players are more complex figures than their football counterparts—and we’re talking about receivers, the NFL’ers most likely to be tagged as “enigmatic,” “mercurial,” or “eccentric” (Clinton Portis is the exception that proves the rule). Football is a soldier’s game, while the NBA, well, it’s more like auditioning for Mortal Kombat (and remember, every fighting game has its equivalent of effective role players, big dumb centers, and characters no one ever wants to be, for reasons as personal as they are practical). As long as he's a football player, Moss will alway be more like a colorful, unpredictable grunt than a member of The Dirty Dozen; the NBA may be a league of stars, but it’s also a player’s league, which is why even the coach seems more and more like "that older guy" than a four-star general.

What this really means is that, like it or not, it’s a league of individuals. Even the most workaday NBA guy is concerned with having an identity, a style, a self to assert on the court—even if, paradoxically, it’s “team guy” (does it even make any sense to call someone in the NFL a “team guy?”). A good deal of the drama in a Moss or Owens comes from the tension between individuality and team spirit; with Iverson or Kobe, that’s by far the least interesting, most rote, aspect of either one’s personae. Owens, like Keyshawn, spends most of his time just asserting himself without ever adding much substance to it.

Owens may be so NBA it hurts, but he’s kind of missed the point of the NBA identity. He’s the NBA as its worst critics imagine it to be (at this point, I’d like to offer up shoefly favorite Chad Johnson as the only receiver whose sense of self could hack it in the NBA). These people imagine the NBA ego to be purely a function of petulance, defiance of authority, and degradation of the team game; talk to any NBA player, and I guarantee you’ll find that having individual game (and self-awareness of it) is a prerequisite for being a part of meaningful team chemistry.

You may have noticed that, after much fanfare, Stephen A. Smith’s interview with Artest came and went without any comment from the FreeDarko staff. It’s because, as much as the press (Smith included) want to label Ron Ron “an enigma,” he’s really not much of one. Artest was a total disappointment, admitting that he has a temper, saying that he’s learned that he needs to control himself in certain situations, but that he’s from the hood and not about to back down. To me, that’s just as clear-cut as Owens’s spirited problems with being stuck in a team game, or Moss’s bizarre, narcissistic reactions to the trials and tribulations of life in the National Football League. With Artest, we all expected to find a man we could separate from the Brawl, some complex of impulses that transcended sports (unlike, say Moss’s tantrums, which are relevant only to football and really don’t tell you much about Moss as a whole, or T.O.’s antics, which are him chafing at the limitations of football). Unfortunately, there just wasn’t much beneath the surface.

Basketball is the only sport where you can justifiably find the man in the on-field performance, for the simple fact that it’s a sport predicated on deciding for yourself who you are and owning that. Whether it’s a matter of refining your style, or deciding how you want to interact with teammates, that shit can only come from inside—there’s no such thing as a scheme or system in the NBA, and even what you decide to work on in the gym goes back to what kind of player you feel compelled to be. Artest, however, turned out to be fairly simplistic as a person, and, like Owens or Moss, all the ambiguity came from friction between him and the nature of the game.

The most you could say about Artest is that he’s an intensely competitive guy who's prone to fly off the handle, and that this doesn’t mix well with the relatively non-violent game he so excels at (also worth noting: aside from his single-minded defense, Artest really doesn’t have much in the way of style). Even Marbury, arguably the most straightforwardly “difficult” star in this league, brings more intricate baggage to the court. You can’t tell me that a serious interview with Marbury wouldn’t end up being not only about the fact that he hogs the ball and can’t run an offense (team-oriented, me-first shit) but also how he approaches the game as an individual, the root of the cockiness, his back story, the hood, the mixture of joy and pain that motivates him, what it’s been like to be a prodigy since forever, the NYC point guard lineage. . . some of these might be a stretch, but you’d doubtlessly find out that a conflicted player reflects a conflicted soul. Artest, by comparison, is dull unless you’re waiting to see if he’ll let his aggression get the best of him. That, my friend, is some NFL shit.

Conversely, whatever style you see in Owens, Moss, and any other distinguished skill players is first and foremost about playmaking, with the personal dimension drowned out by that game, that team, that season. With “difficult” basketball pros, style deepens our sense of their “difficulty” (it’s equivocal because I wrote it that way); if Owens and Moss dare to announce their style to the world, the principle of it gets the attention, specifics be damned.

Isn’t it about time we all admit that the reason Stephen A. Smith’s show seemed so promising is that only he could deliver us the whole story of what we’re seeing on the court? Artest may have been a dud, but can’t he still do for Garnett, Kobe, Webber, Jermaine O’Neal, Arenas, Nash, Duncan, T-Mac, Payton, Ray Allen, Spree, Sheed, Big Ben, LeBron, the Franchise, Yao, Vince, Shaq, Melo. . . there’s a reason the NBA has an All-Interview Team, and why there have been so many casually classic interviews in the Sunday Conversation or with John Thompson. At the risk of blowing what little credibility I have left after writing this, we want to get to the bottom of all of them as people, exactly because the sport makes us think we’d find something there. And while in some cases this might be an illusion, it’s the relationship between their front-and-center game time selves and the people they may or may not reflect that makes all of them more “enigmatic” than Owens or Moss.

(Don't be surprised if I edit the living fuck out of this thing at some point tomorrow. But I've spent way too long fretting over this to not just throw this up here and see what happens)


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