Find out the new goal
Note: The following post will proceed without mention of the Spurs, who for the good of our readers I have decided to remain silent on for the season, and the Pistons, who are the NBA equivalent of Gangstarr circa Hard to Earn.
Even if you’re one of the thousands upon thousands of individuals who tuned into FreeDarko for the first time yesterday, you should have no problem chewing your way through the live flesh of this brief pop quiz:
1.Which of the following statements has never been made on FreeDarko, and would most likely never be made by anyone with a reasonable grasp on the affairs of the National Basketball Association:
a. This is a league of stars
b. This is a league of style
c. This is a league of African-American identity politics
d. This is a league of youth
e. This is a league of experience
If you guessed “e,” administer upon yourself the preferred form of self-congratulation; if any other answer you did choose, I am not entirely sure I want you reading any further.
Yet despite this blatant feature of the ’05-06 Association, agedness and the wisdom that comes with it remains a nauseating staple of hack observers and fans who mindlessly model their “informed” patter after these jokers. For as long as I’ve bared my arms to the Association, broadcasters, columnists, analysts, and radio callers out to establish for themselves some fleeting credibility stress the need for a “veteran presence,” or insist that playoff success comes not easily to teams and/or players who have never underwent that most seasonal of second seasons (despite the fact that almost every remotely competitive game is described as having a “playoff atmosphere"). I am here, lovers of newness, to violently disembowel this myth of the irreproachable might of the veteran and his leadership.
As someone who spends a lot of time trying to construct grand narratives for anything and everything, whether it be that night’s attempt to stop starving or the reason why I lose feeling in my feet on a regular basis, I know a thing or two about the NBA life cycle (as created by the media and that yellow gnome in Mount St. Helen whose job it is to churn out sports truisms). Stated with the least possible respect and an utter lack of attention to detail, it goes something like this:
1. raw (optional)
5. cagey veteran
In a sport that leads the major sports in players who “don’t get it,” this model exclaims, with a complete and totally lack of subtlety, that “getting it” is an ongoing process, having mostly to do with how many years a player’s been in the league. It’s for this reason that Darius Miles can continue to renew his “potential” card every season: by virtue of sticking around, he will at some point “get it.” By that same token, someone who has been around ten years knows things about the Association that a mere third or fifth year expert could never hope to grasp.
“Veteran tricks,” rather than being something one picks up after taking their rookie lumps, are in fact an ongoing canon of discovery, such that vets are always finding their way into new and wily ways of confounding their juniors. No matter how much rookies grow up, vets are getting older and wiser; the learning curve is so absolute that, even if teams hired a retired pro to school the young bucks on “veteran tricks,” there would still be something missing from their understanding of this most secretive (and usually trivial) branch of the basketball arts until they’d made it there themselves. The last time this happened, it was called Oakley to the Baby Bulls, and it didn’t lead nowhere.
This is like night and day with the NFL, in which prime is over before it started (the running back at thirty rule, for instance), and, since the NCAA feeder system forces players to get their on-field education as a condition of getting to the league, experience, manhood, responsibility, whatever, is built into the combine-era pre-history of any draft pick ready to soldier. I’m not saying that NFL rookies don’t go through some things, but they’re assumed to have a working knowledge of football, a foundation upon which they can build—usually in the form of a specific offense, specific skills, mistakes you can point to on film and correct for the future. Basketball goes through the motions of this highly effective learning on the job, but to listen to the pundits, you’d think that they take a backseat to the elusive process of growing up, maturing, getting it, whatever it is that starts the second someone enters the league and continues until he retires. And of course, every team needs a vet—not to teach the kids their secrets, but to counter other vets’ mysterious powers and set an example, in the abstract, of how it is that the prospects get on the path to righteousness.
(Interesting note of proportion: whenever the NFL is cast in similar terms, it’s almost always in reference to receivers and corners, who I think we all know are the bane of the NFL that America believes in with such depressing urgency.)
But perhaps some of you are getting antsy at my lack of names, dates, and faces, the same liability that prompted such a wacky plaza of silence in the wake of my well-oiled T.O. post. You need look no further than today’s top stories to see just how little veterans really matter (as a rule). LeBron, Arenas, Wade, Melo, the Baby Bulls, Joey Johnson brought in to save the Hawks. . . throughout the league, it’s being proven (or at least wagered) that leadership, character, comprehensive feel for the game and yes, “getting it” in droves are not necessarily a function of ongoing age. Or college. Or any of the old structures of basketball society that have now gone the way of the Loyalists. Jordan broke space in two, but Bron has defeated time itself.
The age limit wasn’t about “salvaging” a game that had become corrupted by blackness. Instead, it was meant to reassert the myth that age mattered in basketball, which was important to both the NBPA and the older fans (for whom a veteran-venerating game was also a respectable, honest game; it was never really about style). In fact, this generation gap is right behind race/class in the long line of socio-cultural factors that churn mightily at the heart of today’s Association. This is what Cuban said, what Stern meant with his head-scratching remarks about fanbase, and why Phil thinks he can get away with what everyone else recognized as rank discrimination. Iverson may have been the hip-hop revolutionary, its signature outlaw dressing crazy on the corner. But Bron and the gang are the heralds of the mass culture-borne “hip-hop generation”—Jay in the board room, Curtis Jackson a multi-million dollar corporation, the People’s Champ as small business provocateur. All the smoke and mirrors is just denying that they’ve already pulled a seat up to the table.