The Emperor Still Wears the Same Old Threads
On TNT last night, the Lakers played again without Kwame Brown and while they definitely needed a low post presence, they definitely didn’t need his low post presence. Like anyone else, everyone I watched the game with had some opinion of him, but the frequency with which he is simply thoughtlessly labeled bothers me. So at the risk of delving into too much psychological nonsense, I want to try to shed some light on the why of Kwame Brown that is so frequently left out of the conversation.
A few months after the 2001 NBA draft, my brother and I drove out to Boston to watch several teams of recent draft choices, nonroster invitees, and warm seven-foot largely Caucasian bodies (Mike Mardesich, Kris Lang, et al.) scrimmage each other at Shaw’s Pro Summer League. Most of the players were no more likely to make an NBA team as they were to join a convent, but we were willing to withstand the barrage of turnovers and missed lay-ups that would ensue because we were there for a singular purpose: to see Kwame Brown, the future savior of our moribund Wizards.
Though Brown played sparingly, and not particularly well, by the end of the game my brother and I both knew that unless drastic measures were taken, Kwame would bring about the end of basketball as we knew it. He was a lone particle in a sea of atoms that could somehow extend its middle finger to classical and quantum mechanics, defying every conceivable physical limitation of human beings. The five-hour drive home consisted of little more than shouting prognostications back and forth.
“They’ll have to raise the hoop to 15 feet so he doesn’t block every shot!”
“They’ll have to make him play with one of the ball boys clinging to his back!”
“As soon as he turns 21, they’ll make him drink a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 before every game!”
Of course, Kwame also displayed his numerous flaws, but I was too busy basking the utopic vision of tomorrow to bother with pitfalls of today. After all, how many members of Heaven’s Gate mused, “Wait, maybe we don’t really gain all that much by castrating ourselves”? By looking only towards his future, rather than his past, I never realized the inevitability of his failure.
Kwame’s hometown of Brunswick, Georgia is really not much different from any other in the deep rural south. For many poor black children, specifically male, from a troubled home, basketball is seen as the way out. What happens to prodigies in places like Brunswick is well documented; people only whisper in their ear that they can do no wrong, that they’re God’s gift, and that they’ll never fail.
With nothing else in Brunswick, basketball became the entirety of Kwame Brown’s identity. More specifically, and more importantly, that he would only succeed as a basketball player became the entirety of Kwame Brown’s identity. All through high school, this identity was validated again and again. No tiny rural school had any player that could match Kwame’s athleticism or size, and so every game became a confirmation of that self-perception. College coaches fell over themselves to recruit him, telling him how great he would be in their program. Everyone in his community told him that he was going to be a star, and nothing suggested the contrary. So of course, Kwame could confidently declare to Jordan, as if channeling Elijah the prophet, “If you draft me, I’ll never disappoint you.” In his mind, there could be no other future.
Some kids drop out of college because they’re not ready for the environment. Waking up only to get stoned and watch the Teletubbies proves to be a difficult activity to perpetuate. However, some drop out because they can’t bring themselves to go to class or turn in a paper. A friend of mine fit into the latter category. He easily graduated at the top of his class in high school and expected to find college equally simple, only to find out that A’s would not come again so easily. Rather than settle for B’s or C’s, he simply didn’t try. Working hard for a B would force him to reconsider his perception that he’d always be one of the smartest, so by never opening a book and exerting any effort, he could blame his failure simply on not trying, telling himself he’d get A’s if he really wanted them. On some level, this is one reason why someone with major depressive disorder can’t get out of bed. If they try to meet people, they run the risk of rejection. Exerting no effort is a surefire way to protect your self-image, though at the expense of your actual self.
Gradually, my visions of vicariously hoisting the Larry O’ Brian trophy through the young deliverer disappeared and I went back to sulking and performing voodoo rituals on Christian Laettner. Kwame never improved and watching him play revealed why. He was never excited to enter the game and most of all, he never seemed to want the ball. His hands rarely rose above his waist; his shoulders narrowed to make him easier to defend in the post. He even told reported Sally Jenkins that he was “scared to do anything.” As others posed for cameras and fans, a seven-foot tall boy meekly shrank himself to nothing on the court.
During his first summer league, it undoubtedly became all too clear to Kwame that he couldn’t dominate as he did before. Worse still, compared even to the likes of Popeye Jones and Jahidi White, Kwame was bad. Rather than own up to his predicament and use his immense talents to leapfrog through the learning curve, Kwame protected his identity and hid.
We only learn through our successes and failures. In the NBA, failures are often mythologized as a necessary prerequisite for success; Michael Jordan even says as much in his commercials. Any teacher would say that you can’t learn if you don’t risk failure and try and it’s clear that after four years, Kwame hadn’t learned much.
Yet Kwame sees himself as the target of a series of ongoing conspiracies. Sure, things didn’t work out in Washington, but it wasn’t his fault. Jordan yelled too much; Doug Collins expected too much; he got hurt too much; the fans criticized him too much; his teammates distrusted him too much. Through four years of unequivocal disaster, in his mind, he could still be infallible. His excuses are many and varied, but have one thing in common: they don’t involve himself.
Most prep to pro stars struggle when they first enter the league but several have gone on to prosper. However, in all of these cases, these players reached a psychological turning point that forced them to face the reality of their situations and put a chip on their shoulder. Rashard Lewis saw every team pass him up in the first round; he added pieces to his game and improved steadily every year before becoming an all star. Jermaine O’Neal spent four frustrating years on the bench; when he was traded, he was finally given an opportunity to show up the team that never gave him a chance. Kwame has the talent to become one of those players. Desagana Diop will never succeed for the same reason that putting legs on Jabba the Hutt would not make him a basketball player either. The Wizards handed Kwame his moment by trading him in disgrace, but as more of the story was revealed, it appeared that they didn’t give up on Kwame, he gave up on them. If his play so far this season is any indication, Kwame will continue to struggle, all while periodically shining like fool’s gold. If Kwame couldn’t use that turn of events to alter the path of his career, then I can’t imagine that he ever will.
Kwame’s story is certainly a tragedy and I hoped to shine a more sympathetic light on him. He seems like a nice kid who simply lacks the maturity and self-awareness to utilize his gifts. The psychologist in me wants to see him succeed, to overcome his considerable psychological barriers and lead a less self-delusional and internally troublesome life. Yet the basketball fan in me always wants him to confirm my forecast, as if the hopes of mine he dashed merit an unfulfilling career where he’ll always be labeled a bust and a malcontent. Then again, maybe it’s me who lacks maturity too.