A complicated game for complicated men
Driving back to Austin every Monday means one thing and one thing only: more sports talk radio than I can start a farm at. So it was with no great amount of trepidation that I entered the dial this morning, knowing that Bonds and Ricky would be fast-tracked for obnoxious story of the day. I’ve had a lot of feelings about these two over the years, most of which I haven’t bothered to share with this audience because I resent having to have these feelings in the first place. To me, Ricky is a much-needed “fuck you” to football’s smug trooperdom, and Bonds, whopping power or no whopping power, has the best eye at the plate since the Splinter left town—and a similar temperament. Yet time and time again, I’ve been forced to assume a defensive crouch whenever their names come up in the media, for the simple fact that fans thrive on mocking them for, well, being complicated athletes.
I know that Bonds is a deceitful prick, and Ricky an irresponsible flake (plus, there is no excuse for not being able to quit pot. At least fuck with something legitimately addictive and overwhelming). Still, no one’s just calling out Bonds for ill humor or Williams for his inability to put aside his hobbies and pay back the Fins. Instead, it’s as if these two are somehow lesser sportsmen, less respectable bombs of ego-dom, for not being the kind of straightforward, firm-browed American stallions who live and die for the love of the game. Better even that they be a flamboyant playmaker, Chad Johnson or Moss before the fall(s), than the kind of non-committal, accursedly reflective character we see in the persons of Ricky and Bonds.
Ricky failed a drug test, but this is part of a longer story about an exceptional talent who is truly ambivalent about the sport he could command at will. Bonds may be evasive, elusive, duplicitous, manipulative, and downright unlikable, but that’s inseparable from his own confusing relationship with greatness, history, and his conflicted impulses towards everyone in the world not named Barry Bonds. Call it vulnerability—the same kind of thing that A-Rod caught hell for when he sought out the help of therapist—or, in FD slang, consider it the right to be a psychological being. To have a psychological make-up beyond the mind games and prep work that go into competition itself.
This may be the case when you’re fucking with the ‘ol pigskin and the diamond that traps its shine inside. But I have come here to announce to you this afternoon that verily, this is a league of psychology. We got cursed left and right in December when The Recluse, DLIC, Burns, and myself
Last week, it came out that T-Mac was seeing a therapist to deal with the stress of a disappointing, injury-plagued campaign, some undisclosed personal issues, and a lack of interest in the game. This was mentioned prominently during the Thursday night TNT telecast of the Rockets/Suns event, and then emerged as one of the major stories of the All-Star Game. He sought counsel with Magic and Charles, both of whom are personalities with glaring psychological dimensions (Magic: from angel to AIDS and back with both, the Chuckster: where to start?), and became a double incentive for his Western teammates to try and hand him the MVP. T-Mac wasn’t the sentimental favorite, as Nate Robinson on Saturday; he was a well-liked guy going through some things not easily expressed, not necessarily good copy, and probably not clear-cut enough to translate into peals of sentimentality. T-Mac’s privacy was respected and truth be told, his problems might have only made logical sense in his head. That’s the very definition of the psychological, and it was that condition that made his wellbeing into such a central theme of Sunday.
T-Mac is hardly an anomaly in this. By and large, most of our favorite NBA stars are presumed to be people whose inner lives consist of some degree of complexity. I’m not arguing that most of them are exceedingly self-conscious, or that all of them are mulling over much more than the typical issues in the life of a young black millionaire whose job consists of performing in front of a vast audience with outrageous competitive and business stakes on the line. Just that we allow, even expect, their dealings with these matters to be an often imperfect process. Maybe this represents some kind of racism, or infantilization; why can't we expect them to knuckle under like their peers in football and baseball? Why is their in-game performance so often affected by, or at least expected to be linked to external concerns of "personal issues," side projects, contracts, trade demands, their team’s record, feelings toward coaches, or the opinions of fans and the media? However objectionable this stance may be, looking at this year’s All-Star’s, it’s also clearly an important part of the image they’ve cultivated. A quick glance reveals:
-Ray Allen, the smooth, cultured gentleman playing the position of a show-off
-Duncan: flashed that humor when mic’ed up, but hides from the world
-T-Mac: read the fucking post
-Vince: the graduation, the ups and downs, shy but a born showman
-AI: he’s Allen fucking Iverson
-Jermaine O’Neal: if we were serious about what makes a FBP, or what it means to have an aggressive conscience
-Shaq: no one is as self-conscious about his place in history and place in the league. . . except for #8
-Pierce: remember his “get even” years? and now this rep for supposedly dogging it. . .because the Celts are young and disrespected?
-Big Ben: the believer, the guts, the slow climb to the top
-Sheed: Artest before Artest, now rock and redeemer of self and others
And to those of you who think this is weak science, attempt a similar roll-call with any of the other major sports. Trust me, you'll find action figures and trading cards, but nothing in the way of mankind unfolding before himself.
As Bron was being presented with the MVP, which surprised no one and, despite setting a record for youngest recipient, was a non-event (expect many of these anti-climactic accolades over LeBron’s career), Carter walked over to T-Mac and embraced him heartily. T-Mac may have dropped thirty-six, but the entire West was trying to get him that trophy, even Kobe (who no doubt had his own reasons). Bron responsibly got his from the first quarter on, and out of nowhere took over the game when shit was on the line. But that cousin Vince would feel the need to congratulate or comfort T-Mac anyway, especially in such a fruity way and at such an awkward, televised moment, proves that these stars aren’t afraid to wear their emotional quirks on their sleeves. Even when, and maybe most urgently when, there’s really no way or need to explain things any further.
Our man at FOX, Peter Schrager, just did a