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.


At 12/02/2005 9:19 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

just how many psychologists write for free darko now?

At 12/02/2005 10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

burns, you're good. no you...
I can almost picture Kwame sitting on my dormroom floor indian style with the binger between his legs.

At 12/02/2005 10:32 AM, Blogger El Huracan Andreo said...

I wonder how much this profile of Kwame would translate to a profile of Darko. Problem is we know so little about those eastern europeans!

At 12/02/2005 11:01 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

caveat: this is very, very rough and over-generalized, but i wanted to get this out there and don't have time to make any more sense than i do below.

what i wonder about is whether burns is describing here goes as much for preps heroes from big northern cities as those from broke down southern areas (or texas, which even in the major cities can verge on that). as i'd suspected and burns confirmed, a disproportinate number of high school entrants come from the south. compare kwame to, say, telfair, the most new york baller to ever make that jump. i'm not sure what the difference is, but there certainly is one; it's almost as if someone like telfair is better adjusted, more mature, ready to deal with the vicissitudes of that rookie campaign. j.r. smith, too.

to go off of what andreo said, these southern high schoolers are almost closer in situation to euros than their more cosmopolitan peers. i mean in terms of transition into the Association, from the draft season onward, and often (see darko) the way basketball fits into their life. i feel like city basketball is so much more than just basketball that there's a certain sense of identity, participation, and comfortable tie to a tradition that happens, meaning you fit into the world and can start developing. with euros or southerners, they're in limbo until they make the league, and it's basically boom or bust for them as people and players.

this is a total mess, so i'd like to close with the oft-made comparison between the katrina situation and america's attitude toward third world nations (which for many americans would include eastern europe). not saying that telfair didn't want badly to make it as a pro, but he'd actually had a life before that. he wasn't just counting on the nba to start it up for him.

At 12/02/2005 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post... and a great followup to your grand entrance a couple of weeks ago.

Anyway, I wouldn't be so quick to judge Kwame's current production in LA. Phil will never ask him to be consistently great or even great at all, for that matter. All he has to be is a steady facilitator for Kobe and Lamar, and he's doing that if you judge by, of all things, his higher turnover numbers (more touches in the offense). Otherwise, his raw numbers are not important to that particular offense. Look at Bill Cartwright's numbers from the Bulls' first three championship teams - '91, '92, and '93. They almost mirror Kwame's current production in every way. Then look at Luc Longley's production from years '96, '97, and '98... again the same pattern (slightly higher pts). Both of those guys were average at best but that's all they needed to be. The only difference is that they weren't drafted too young with an entire team's hopes resting on their shoulders.

I would say that neither Phil nor Kwame have any intention of trying to develop that former phenom talent into a superstar (or even all-star) level player. He's there, he's starting, he absorbs just enough D for the true scorers to shine, and he plays just enough D to keep his minutes.

It's sad that he had to be the poster boy for the NBA age limit, but at least he has a role now where he can be comfortable and live up to someone's expectations. And I think that's a small success.

At 12/02/2005 11:59 AM, Anonymous Jason said...

As a Wizards fan, I have read numerous articles about why Kwame hasn't lived up to his expectations, but I think this points may have analyzed it best. Or perhaps it speaks to me because I, too, have a very good friend (who was brilliant) who never finished college, and I wonder if this is the explanation.

Nonetheless, thanks for the psychological perspective on the worst #1 overall pick in NBA history.

At 12/02/2005 1:17 PM, Blogger c-los said...

@2nd Anonymous...

Kwame is the worse kind of bum, one who doesnt care. Its understandable if you suck because your just not good enough, skill-wise or athletically speaking. Its pathetic if you continue your lackluster effort and play like its your job and not your passion.

#1 Picks are supposed to be stars, not Bill Cartwright's or Luc Longley's. Yeah he does start but keep in mind that its on a bad team with no big guys beside Lamar and Chris Mihm. I'm a Zards fan and have seen him play his whole NBA career and we got the better end of the trade. Caron and Chucky for Kwame was a steal. Only a matter of time before Kobe punces Kwame in practice

At 12/02/2005 2:11 PM, Blogger Rocco Chappelle said...

Great post.

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.

How do you know me?
I really could get A's if I wanted to. No, seriously, I could. Please believe me? I'm smart damnit. Whatever, I don't care. I don't need to convince you, bastards.

I think there is an obvious connection between elite child athletes and child entertainers. If the emphasis of your youth is more so about your production (be it on the court or the screen) and the regional/international celebrity that the production brings you’re going to have a hell of a time later in life separating your identity from that production. When the relative value of your production diminishes due to the leveling of surrounding talent or simply because your freckles fade as you age, therefore you are less cute and commodifiable, I would assume that it would be difficult for most former prodigies/celebrities to reconcile that they are no longer "special". It would be like gaining the throne to a vast kingdom due to divine providence at age 4 and then when you’re 14 and your voice starts cracking you’re told by your subjects that god had made a mistake, you’re really only a sheepherder like any other chump.

I wonder who the Danny Bonaduce of the NBA would is?

At 12/02/2005 3:24 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

for some reason the thing about kingdoms helped me clarify what i was trying to say this morning. kwame brown was crowned absolute ruler of tiny province, with all the paradoxes that came with it. bassie was a high-ranking prince in the mightiest land, with a sense of lineage and elders and stuff. one is might in a vacuum, both all-powerful and meaningless, the other is seasoned by perspective.

At 12/02/2005 4:30 PM, Anonymous Henry Abbott said...

I think the phenomenon you're describing here is something almost every NBA-caliber player has to fight. Many fight it more successfully than Kwame, sure, but there are a ton of guys (Harold Miner!) who have the talent and the tools but lack the SOMETHING to get better every day.

Now that Kwame is such a broken bird, however, I think the best thing for him would be a year away from basketball. The T.J. Ford/Ricky Williams treatment. He needs to wander a little to find himself, then hopefully, once he sees what else is out there for him he'll decide to come on back to the good ol' NBA, this time with some conviction.

At 12/02/2005 8:12 PM, Anonymous Lafayette Contradiction said...

A little historical perspective...

The worst #1 pick in NBA history is LaRue Martin, Portland 1972. 4 years in the league, career averages of 14 minutes, 5.3 points, 4.6 rebounds. (Disturbingly similar to Kwame, but, with that contract, he ain't going nowhere.)

1977's #1, Kent Benson, was a worse player, though perhaps a stouter contributor, than Kwame, with 11 seasons, 23.1 minutes, 9.1 points, 5.7 rebounds. But just a gawdawful player. Something like a rich man's Frank Brickowski, or a poor man's mid-career Danny Schayes or something.


At 12/04/2005 7:51 AM, Anonymous the sockk said...

This season may be where the paths of Kwame Brown and Desagana Diop diverge. Gana isn't the second coming of Deke, but he's showing effort to be better. If I used triumph as light to aspire towarards, right now I would look to Diop. However, that's not how I operate.

When I worked in a window factory I came across the most reprehensible person I have ever met. If I was Plato, my faith in the realm of the Forms would have been shaken because it appeared that the Form of the White Trash Shitbag was corporeal and standing six feet away. And the icing was that he compulsively lied. I come from poor Whites and Italians in the rust-belt, so I assume that we had a common starting point. I saw too much of what I came from in him to be comfortable. He was what the Ghost of Christmas Future would have shown me and I was terrified. And to spite what he was and the tacit acceptance of being inferior that he represented, something that I recognized and feared in myself, I went on a warpath and put my entire body and mind into that job. I was determined to be better at that job than he ever could be and to seperate myself from the failure he lived, the failure that I risked by not trying. Maybe Kwame will find a way to drive himself and become something other than a catastrophe or maybe Kwame will show Greg Oden something that Oden sees in himself and cause him to challenge the limits of his potential.

At 12/04/2005 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

perhaps the bonaduce of the nba was/is glenn "big dog" robinson? (minus the muscle shirts, anchor tattoos and 50-a-day marlboro red habit, of course).

At 12/04/2005 4:57 PM, Anonymous Mr. Borino in Laguna Beach said...

I'm a Laker fan and have already concluded that while Kwame is big, strong, and tall he can't play basketball very well. Can't dribble, pass, or shoot -- in fact, he has few if any skills. Acquiring K.B. was another awful move by our empty-headed g.m. Mitch Cupcake, the Wes Unseld of the left coast.


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