Ron-Ron and Contemporary Fan-dom: This Ain't No Damn Game Here!
To say the least, Mr. Ron-Ron Artest is a complicated man.
He’s simultaneously one of the most beloved players in this league, and, one of the most hated. He embodies so much of what some of us love about the game of NBA basketball, and also, what many hate about it. He’s generally regarded as one of the most passionate players in the league (as illustrated by his emotional outbursts that rival those of a 5 year old who wants his cookies before dinner) and yet proclaims repeatedly that once he wins a championship, he’s done with basketball. He’s also regarded as one of the most hard-working players in the league who plays hard-nosed, physical, un-selfish basketball, yet he’s hated by a lot of old white folks who long for the days of hard-nose, physical, un-selfish basketball. He's a complicated enigma that embodies the entire spectrum of what's great and not-so-great about the Association.
Oh, and, of course, we can’t forget that he’s responsible for the NBA’s only Shot-Heard-Round-the-World/"Where were you when it happened?" moment.
For those completely in the dark, Ron Artest recently declared he wanted to be traded from the Indiana Pacers. His reasoning? In his own words, he says it’s because "I still think my past haunts me here," and "I think they will be a better team without me" and because of differences with Rick Carlisle’s coaching style.
What needs to be clarified immediately is that his reasons for why he wants a trade are patently ridiculous. Nobody wants to be traded because they think the team will be better off without them. That's bullshit. Likewise, he claims that he’s not getting enough shots and that he’s too selfish and, yet, in the same breath declares that ideally he’d be playing with the Knicks. That's bullshit. The idea that Coach Brown would somehow grant Artest free reign to shoot whenever he wants is ridiculous and I can’t imagine Artest really thinks that that’s a legitimate possibility. Suffice it to say that, while I’m sure Artest isn’t lying about the fact that he doesn’t like playing for Rick Carlisle and he'd rather be playing in his hometown, there’s something a bit deeper at play here that we aren’t being told. Likely, Artest just doesn’t like his teammates and/or living in Indiana or something, but this piece isn't gonna be too concerned with the reasons why Artest wants to leave the Pacers. But, whatever the reasons are for the trade, it’s still worth looking at the unstated implications of this demand.
Why? Well, of course, if it was any other player requesting the trade, I wouldn’t be writing about this right now. It’d certainly be "a story" in the sports-journalism sense of the word, but this is a story because of Artest’s recent history. Thus, Artest is right about the fact that his past haunts him. His past makes this demand for a trade worth examining more closely. And, his past makes this demand for a trade to be a very interesting and, yes, complicated one.
Let's back track a bit, though.
After last year’s brawl, I remember many players-turned-commentators loosely sticking-up for the actions of Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, saying that NBA players were a fraternal bunch that had a unique bond. They claimed there was a certain unstated loyalty between all the players that created itself through the "shared experience" of playing in the NBA. You know how at the end of every season of the Real World the characters are all crying and wind-up proclaiming in the confessional how much they love each other and how much they’ve been through together and you’re all just like "Motherfucker, you did nothing but get drunk and hook-up with people for 6 months! What the hell are you talking about ‘all we’ve been through together’?"
Well, as fabricated as it all is, there’s obviously a certain truth behind the sentiment that sharing a unique set of experiences with a group of people (no matter what those experiences may be) will inevitably bring you closer. So, it’s not hard to buy the argument that the NBA is indeed just a huge fraternity where most of the players (ESPECIALLY players on the same team)—no matter how much they like and/or dislike each other on the court—have a certain loyalty and respect for each other. Therefore, when Ron Artest went out into the crowd to start throwing some punches at Detroit's unsuspecting beer drinkers who had just a twinge of "Yeah, I just threw a beer at you" guilt in their eyes, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal said "Eff it, I’m riding for my teammate." Folks like my dad just accused them of being " bunch of thugs,"but anybody that’s played in a team sport seriously can you tell that it’s deeper than that. There IS a certain team unity and loyalty where you are willing to back-up your teammate in any situation. So, when Artest, Jackson, and O’Neal started smacking around the Detroit fans, it was an act of team loyalty and solidarity. They were defending their dude. It wasn’t even something they thought about. It was just the right thing to do.
What’s more, this loyalty and solidarity was contagious. The Pacers fans at home immediately followed suit, rallying around Artest. They supported him through his suspension and raised their fist in solidarity with the hard-working, hard-nosed player that they respected and grew to love. If anything, the adversity hardened their love and respect for him. Sure, he would sometimes get upset and do dumb stuff like destroy TVs in locker rooms and get silly technical fouls, but, hey, you’ve got to take the good with the bad, right? Sure, it was the biggest catastrophe in recent sports history (ever?), but Artest was "their guy" because he was a Pacer and the Pacers were/are "their team." So, the Pacers fans supported "their guy" and "their team" and were happy to do so.
All of this strikes me as pretty obvious up to this point.
But, what must be said about this huge show of support for Ron Artest after this debacle is that this huge show of support would’ve arisen literally wherever Artest was playing at the time (except for maybe Utah or something).
That's worth repeating.
The very genuine sense of loyalty and support that the city of Indianapolis showed to Ron Artest would've been mimicked in absolutely any other city in the United States.
This isn’t solely because of who or what Ron Artest is (though it helped that he played hard and was, despite his anger problems, fairly likable on the court). This is just the nature of American fan-dom. Just as O’Neal and Jackson defended their guy out of loyalty, the Pacers fans did the same. Rest assured, if Artest was in New York, there would have been thousands of New Yorkers rocking "Free Ron-Ron" shirts. Or, if he was playing in Seattle, you know Danny Fortson would’ve been in the crowd banging on fools just like Stephen Jacskon, and the Sonic fan Seattlites would’ve started drinking Ron-Ron lattes or something. The point is, the support for Artest after the brawl wasn’t a support that would’ve been unique to Indiana. It was only unique to Indiana because of the somewhat coincidental fact that Mr. Ron Artest happened to be playing for Indiana when he smacked a couple fans around. Pacers fans sided with the man because they felt somehow connected to him, like they too were an integral part of the team and that it’d be an act of cowardice and disloyalty to NOT support the man. Just as Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal threw punches on Artest’s behalf, Pacers fans did what they could to throw their own “punches,” buying the man’s jersey, continuing to support the under-manned Pacer team, and anxiously awaiting Ron-Ron’s return. Again, there is nothing uniquely Indianapolis-ian about this show of support. This is the response that American sports asks of their fans, and this is the response that most fans are happy to give (I do realize that not everyone in Indianapolis supported Artest, but the overwhelming majority did).
But Ron-Ron wants to be traded, and that totally flips this dynamic on its head, doesn't it?
When Ron-Ron demanded a trade on Sunday, a whole legion of fans that sided with the man strictly out of faithful and fan-atical devotion felt betrayed. After hearing about the trade, a Pacer fan buddy of mine said in a public forum, "after supporting dude for a long while, this ‘asking to be traded’ shit without speaking with pacers management is seriously weak…. Anybody want to buy a couple of Artest jerseys?" In a private message to me he shared further thoughts saying, "Artest broke my heart, and I took it very personally after spending my dollars on tickets and jerseys and such." As fans, I think this is a state of heart-broken rejection that we can all empathize with. Sure it’s silly, but I don’t think it’s altogether unfair to say that, in sports, we give ourselves over to certain teams and certain players the same way we give ourselves over to lovers and/or friends in our interpersonal relationships. We make sacrifices for them, make investments in them, and expect certain things in return. When they don’t come through, it hurts. We feel betrayed.
But, it’s a much different situation for the players. The relationship that the fans have to the players is not even close to the same relationship that the players have to the fans. Artest demanding a trade did not and does not betray any unspoken rules of loyalty in contemporary sportsmanship in today’s NBA. Instead, Artest demanding a trade articulates clearly that the relationship between fans and players—and even between teammates—is not what we’ve thought it is. It's simply not what we've been taught it is.
Artest’s trade demand is a demand that is uniquely aware of the huge rift between fans and the players they depend on. I think Artest is aware of the fact that this overwhelming show of support from the Indiana fans could've and would've happened anywhere. In fact, I'm not altogether convinced it hasn't. I know people from all over the US who supported Mr. Artest after the brawl. The Indiana fans feel betrayed because they feel like they have a certain entitlement—like Artest owes them some give-back for the fact that they supported him through thick and thin. But, it seems to me that Artest is keenly aware of what this support actually is: just the Indiana fans going through the motions of being Indiana fans.
This isn't meant to be criticism of the Indiana fans. Just as I think Artest would've been supported equally if he was playing in almost any other city, I think every other city would respond the exact same way that Indianapolis has when Artest demanded this trade: with a resounding "Fuck that." But, this trade demand calls attention to the mythical "give-take" relationship between players and fans. This trade demand (coupled with last year's brawl and all of the support and criticism that came along with it) clearly articulates the rift between players and fans.
NBA players today are not like the fans. They're obscenely large and athletic men that are simply not like you and me. The fact is, they can do things that we can't and that's why we watch them. Of course, this is the case in every single professional sport, but in the NBA the gap is larger. In the NFL, you still have work-horse athletes that you and I and middle-class, blue-collar white folk can relate to. The very nature of the NFL is blue-collar. Likewise, in baseball, you've still got fat old guys who can still perform. In the NBA, the players are a markedly different breed of human. They're either extremely quick and crafty, or huge, over-powering, and incredibly athletic. It also doesn't help that, in a very literal sense, there's little-to-no separation between the fans in the stands and the players on the court: court-side tickets are literally on the court and, given a lapse in security, any old Joe can run out on the floor and catch a sliding right hook to the grill from Jermaine O'Neal.
So, I suppose this is all just a rather long-winded way of saying that, yes, it appears that Mr. Ron-Ron Artest has no loyalty to his fans that have showed him so much loyalty. And, yes, it appears that he has no loyalty to his teammates who have stuck up for him, too. But, I don't want to really comment on whether or not I think this is a good or a bad thing. The only thing we can really take away from this is that, while players and fans are obviously hugely dependent on each other in very obvious ways, this dependence manifests itself as resentment just as often as it manifests itself as fandom. Giving one's self over to a player and/or a team is what we've been taught to do by the sports nation, and we expect certain things from players without ever really thinking about these expectations and how fair they are to the players. Hell. They're rich, right? They can make a few sacrifices for me and my city, right? Hell. All they do is play basketball all do while I bust my ass at my shitty job, right? They can stick it out, right?
I don't mean to criticize these questions or expectations, but I wonder how valid they are in today's sports environment.
Is it really reasonable to have "loyalty" to certain players in contemporary, business-first sports world? Let's be clear about this, after all. David Stern has gone to great lengths to market the National Basketball Association as a professional business like any other, and it seems that, while the NBA has technically always been a business, that the dynamics are changing. As the NBA becomes more "business-first" and as it evolves, is it possible that we as fans are operating under an out-moded sense of what being a "fan" is all about? Perhaps that's why there's so much resentment for the players and the game these days. Perhaps the resentment is there, not because the actual way the game is being played has changed so much, but because the way the sport has operated has changed so much, while the way we as fans engage the game and the way we as fans relate to the players hasn't changed at a parallel place.
Or maybe not.
One thing's for sure. Artest won't be in Indiana long. I can't blame the Pacers fans for being happy about that. I'd respond the same way if he pulled this shenaningan's in Philly.
But, that being said, he didn't... and I hope he comes to the Sixers.