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 entered into an unprecedented experiment involving our favorite players and what they told others about our inner grimaces. Little did you know then what we know now: the NBA not only encourages this in its player’s public personas, it’s straight essential to what makes the great ones such enduring figures. This isn't the same old "NBA players are people, we think we know something about them as such" line, but the startling bustback of that: that granting a celebrity their humanity also allows them to have inner workings as recondite and bemusive as those of anyone else not conscripted by the cause of war or clear-eyed righteousness.

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
-Kobe: Kobe
-Duncan: flashed that humor when mic’ed up, but hides from the world
-Garnett: obviously
-T-Mac: read the fucking post
-Arenas: INSANE!!!!!
-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 nice little piece on Darko's freedom and yours truly's fine feelings on the matter. Somehow, I managed to think of even stranger ish to say on the subject of Milicic than I'd yet come up with in all our year of occasionally touching on the subject. Hopefully, any new readers it gets us won't be too disappointed at what they find here.


At 2/20/2006 6:22 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

if you read this post before seeing this comment, don't say anything until you look it over again. the first draft tripped over itself and was ashamed to be alive. now it rules, and is ready to tackle all comers.

At 2/20/2006 6:24 PM, Anonymous 412hater215 said...

The most important thing about the whole Ricky Williams matter was that it illustrated the absolute inability of sportswriters to understand atheletes. Sportswriters are perpetually seven years old and cannot undertand why on earth anybody WOULDN'T want to play pro sports for a living. I could think of dozens of reasons. However, they put Ricky on blast before anybody had any real clue as to what his reasons were. Any sportswriter would surrender his eldest child to trade his lot with somebody who can dunk or shed a 250 lb linebacker.

At 2/20/2006 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to let everyone know, darko is nothing but a big cry-baby bitch of a cocaine addict (yes he does infact do cocaine) who cant compete in the nba and he doesnt deserve the opportunity considering when he did get playing time with the pistons he didnt take it seriously and played like he didnt care. Darko is just a big tall dumbass Serb waste of space and nothing more than that. By the way whoever it is thats running this page is an absolute poopdick........jackass.

At 2/20/2006 6:32 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

jordan's retirements are seen as great, dramatic gestures in the sport's definitive career, barry sanders and jim brown bowing out before they were pulverized is thought of as an insult to the record books.

At 2/20/2006 6:43 PM, Blogger Ian said...

But I'm still a huge fan of the theory that Jordan's first "retirement" was a suspension for gambling in disguise.

At 2/20/2006 6:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You dumb shit Barry Sanders didnt want to chase a bunch of records because hes not a selfish prick, he couldve broke nearly all of the career rushing records if he had kept playing but thats not the kind of player he was. The sporting world needs more players like that who aren't all about personal accomplishments. I was around the Lions and Barry Sanders a lot when he was playing and he is a very humble guy. Don't disrespect Barry and Jim Brown they are the two of the best backs to ever play in the NFL and they've seen more success than you can ever dream of achieving. So Eat a dick.

At 2/20/2006 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an angry and crass anonymous commentor!

At 2/20/2006 6:52 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

"is thought of" DOES NOT mean the same thing as "i think." it's actually the opposite.

darko could pass out in the stall with a whole kilo and it still wouldn't be a more appealing nba drug image than the birdman breaking open oxycontins in an OK marriott.

At 2/20/2006 7:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About Jim Brown, he completely changed the position of runningback, Jim brown set the mark of success for running backs. And another thing, most of the records you say he didnt chase were actually already broken by him considering he was in his prime from 1958-1965 idiot. For Example: Guys like Emmit Smith, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, and Walter Payton obviously came after Jim Brown meaning that they were infact the ones who would be chasing records. You don't have the right to show amazing players like Jim Brown this much disrespect and you obviously are not too keen with football facts.

At 2/20/2006 7:14 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i can't believe i'm even wasting my time responding to this, but thankfully it can be done in a sentence or two.

barry sanders is my favorite football player ever and i am well aware the jim brown is probably the most dominant player the sport has ever produced. the point was that in football, retiring when you've still got something to give is VIEWED BY MANY as an inconclusive, if not disappointing, end to a career. no matter what the player's motivations.

At 2/20/2006 7:16 PM, Blogger sam said...

Anonymous, you're missing the point. What was said was, as far as I can tell, not an indictment against Brown but an indictment against those who say that Brown ran away from football.

Nice post, shoals.

At 2/20/2006 7:21 PM, Anonymous White People Don't Know said...

Wow, the cranks really came out of the woodwork on this one. Was it the mention of football?

In terms of T-mac, it seems that its not too big a jump from sleepy to sad. i know that he looks the same as he always did, with the drooping eyes and the quiet voice, but its hard to not think of him now as a the quintessential depressed hero—the abraham lincoln of the nba.

At 2/20/2006 7:28 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

WPDK, that was absolutely brilliant. he really is the abe lincoln of this league.

t-mac has always been one of my aces, but damn, that single comment might have vaulted him past arenas.

At 2/20/2006 7:54 PM, Blogger Rocco Chappelle said...

I think you've hit on gold here.

I know the comparison has been played to death but I really believe that basketball players are more like artist than any of the other major sport athletes. Although we may not accept it, we kind of expect artist to be psychologically eccentric and resistant to conventional value structures. The psych drama of an artist's life plays out in their work; be it directly or not, intended or not. That's what's so damn compelling about them; the analysis by the audience of the artist's awareness of his own neurosis. It didn't dawn on me until right now, but watching the NBA is very similar. No matter what he does, every time Kobe touches the ball, in a split second, the following runs through my head:

Lower Merion
Upper-middle class
Son of a baller
1200 SAT
Donnie Carr
Jerry West
The rings

All of that is part of every one of his possessions.

A short digression. I told a friend about FD and in attempting to describe it to him I was very specific about it being about the NBA. In responding to me, he mentioned it as a basketball site. I quickly corrected him. It is not a basketball site. It is about the NBA. He questioned what the difference was and I couldn't legitimately answer. I just told him to, "just read it".

Now I get the difference. When I watch the NBA, basketball is secondary to the internal plots of the proceedings. I'm watching Kobe/AI/Sheed's story evolve. The individual stories of the artists are of import. When I watch football, baseball, or even college b-ball, I'm experiencing the story of the game, season, or team(s). The drama is only human insofar as the participants are human, but the core remains sports related. The NBA exists outside of basketball.

Shoals, you've blown my mind once again.

This revelation gives Jay-Z’s “I walk like a baller” line more texture.

At 2/20/2006 7:55 PM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

a post about hoopsters with complex personalities and relationships with the game, and no franchise?

At 2/20/2006 8:36 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

rocco, you've hit on why kobe is the perfect example of this. by "this" i mean your extension of what i'd initially said, since i didn't finish taking it back to the court. I claimed that we knew their minds had more in them than that, and brought the game back within view. but you're right, this does all come back to the game. i should've realized that, since i did end with a picture of shaq and kobe getting along the only place it makes sense.

anyway, kobe's not just a personality who plays like he is; the turmoil of his personality is exactly what, as you said, makes his every action on the court so fraught with ever-shifting meaning. like a lot of nba observers, we've always said that nba players "express themselves" through their game. might make more sense to say that you can watch a player find and figure out himself as he plays.

sorry if i repeated anything you said--i'd been feeling like my post was missing something, and your comment made me see what it was. so i wrote it.

the reason i stuck to the all-stars was that i couldn't decide why francis belonged on that list but not marbury. because i do believe that.

At 2/20/2006 9:19 PM, Blogger elandfried said...

I think this has less to do with the NBA encouraging the psychological vulnerabilities of their players as this is simply the nature of the sport and the reason why we are all addicted to it. Why do we not expect them to buck up as in baseball and football? Because they have to DO EVEYRTHING, game after game. Football players play once a week, have rigidly defined roles (and those who have more freedom are the ones with "personality"), and are covered in pads and helmets. The fact that wide receivers can take Sharpies and cell phones out of their uniforms is damning enough.

Baseball...man. I've decided I fucking hate baseball. I always have, but I haven't always admitted it. Sure I love going to Fenway, but only because it's my version of a picnic. Bat 4 times, make 5 plays in the field (90% of which are routine). No room for psychology. If the hidden cell phone is football's proof, A-Rod's purple lips are baseball's.

Only in soccer are the players as exposed as they are in basketball, but their emotions are often concocted to get the attention of the referee (is it a surprise that A Yugo was the biggest flopper in NBA history?). And even in soccer, roles are much more defined. Ronaldo is not expected to save goals, only to score them (sorry if my soccer references are a bit dated). T-Mac on the other hand is supposed to score 25 a game, grab 7 boards, hand out 6 assists, steal 1-2 balls a game, make an insane block here and there, and show remarkable athleticism night after night. In no other sport are the athletes expected to do more. None. If you are that exposed with that much on your shoulders, it's only natural that the psychological quirks of the players are most likely to show themselves.

My apologies if this comment is obvious. I know we all know this...I'm simply contending that this is not as intentional as Shoals seemed to imply, it is the only way it can be.

At 2/20/2006 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fantastic post

Keep up the good writing

At 2/20/2006 10:17 PM, Anonymous Aaron said...

Shoals, great post. I'm confused by the 'role-call' a little bit. What are you proving, that all of the NBA stars are not only insane but demonstratively insane? That they openly 'emote' their insanity? That what we fans see as insanity is just the normal complexity of a human personality, displayed openly over the course of a long and very public season?

If that's the argument, then you're right that no other sport has it... except for Yankees-Sox. Yankees-Sox is a law unto itself and one can certainly construct a similar 'role-call' for Yankees-Sox. I think it's because the Rivalry is so inherent in the uniforms that you have to be insane/psychologically complex in order to put on a Yankee uni or a Sox uni. You have to want a championship more than sex, or want money more than happiness, or want publicity more than emotional well-being. Or, like Jeter and Nomar, you just have get stuck with it by a fluke of the draft.

At 2/20/2006 10:28 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

the role call was meant to prove that many of today's stars are appealing in part because of what compelling psychological cases they are. not personality types--that would be "action figures"--but living, breathing studies in how complicated and confusing it can be to be a human being, no matter what the exact natures of the forces tugging on you

At 2/20/2006 10:30 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

so yeah, exactly what you said it was.

At 2/20/2006 10:54 PM, Blogger Dodos said...

Great site.

"Trust me, you'll find action figures and trading cards, but nothing in the way of mankind unfolding before himself. "

This is what I've always loved about the NBA. Human drama being played out in public theatre. If you've ever seen Shareef Abdur-Rahim play, announcers always talk about his problems at the end of games and him never being on a playoff team. His failure makes him who he is - that's why watching him is so compelling to me. I know his story and the fact that the Grizzlies tried to get him to a see a sports therapist, but he refused. Can he ever overcome this or will he forever be a loser?

Re: T-mac. You have to wonder how not winning effects guys like him and KG - athletes who were supposed to be phenoms, but have never seen real team success (at least KG has one conference finals under his belt). As one commentator said, sleepy to sad isn't that big of a step.

Compelling stuff you guys write here. I'll be back.

At 2/20/2006 10:58 PM, Anonymous White People Don't Know said...

kobe is always at the center of discussions like this because, like it or not, there is no bigger psychological development in basketball over the last 5 years than kobe and shaq. its sort of trite at this point since the media has so beaten it to death, but the fact that this melodrama is by now a cliché should not make us deny its power. i know i am not alone in saying that i have never had as big a reversal of opinion that concerning mamba and the diesel. When they won their first two championships, I loved kobe as the golden boy. He was articulate, and introspective—seemed like a nice young man, straight from central casting as the poster boy of the league. Shaq, on the other hand, was an ogre, one who succeeded in the league through sheer mass. (forgive me, I was young.) to watch these players was to take sides in the battle between technique/intelligence and brute strength.

At this point the myth has been so completely up-ended that those primitive characterizations look ridiculous. Shaq turned out to be the one who was hiding the heart of gold, the one who tried to fight through pettiness with righteousness and humor. Kobe, on the other hand, turned out to be absolutely insane, in a silence-of-the-lambs kind of way that those who loved the golden boy (i.e. young me) were completely unprepared for.

Our loyalties are constantly shifting and refining themselves. I used to kind of like AI, now I love him. I used to love ricky davis, and now that he is gone from my team, I find that I no longer see our fates as intertwined. But rarely do our narratives completely destroy themselves.

By the way shoals, that chad ford line in the fox article was genius.

At 2/20/2006 11:26 PM, Anonymous T. said...

Not to delineate our collective love affair with the league and its players, someone was looking for video of the dunk contest yesterday


At 2/20/2006 11:54 PM, Blogger ForEvers Burns said...

I’ve loved this post and these comments have been fantastic, but I admit, they’ve made me a little confused.

Through his first years in Orlando, I loved McGrady. Here was a supremely confident, if not-yet-established phenom who chose to display his talents to the world on what might have been the perfect stage; he chose a completely unformed team that he was free to mold in his own image. As Grant Hill struggled through multiple rehab stints, T-Mac emerged as one of the best players in the league and a legit superstar.

But as soon as he had cemented his iconic status, he seemed to relax his intensity (sleepy didn’t always have to mean disinterested). It was as if making it big was really his main goal and once he achieved it, there wasn’t anything left for him to pursue. He went from being able to score in his sleep to actually scoring in his sleep.

Then he gets traded and he and his teams continue to underachieve. He was still great, but it was like the Band just giving up after Big Pink. Yet now, as his team struggles and he continues to deal with chronic injury problems, he’s been plunged into a profound emotional funk.

So maybe I was totally wrong. Maybe he hates having limits placed on him that are beyond his control (i.e. the back problems). Maybe he sees that he’s stuck in a bad situation in Houston that may not improve given the challenges of building a franchise around someone already earning a max contract.

But maybe (and this may sort of be related to Shoal’s post) it has nothing to do with basketball. Maybe it’s beyond my reach to try to make sense of such an enigmatic player and I’m just patting myself on the back for making “astute” psychological assessments when in reality, I know nothing about his situation. Maybe he’s having difficulties at home or a death in the family. Maybe his problems have nothing whatsoever to do with putting a ball through a metal rim.

I totally agree that basketball players are much more transparent emotionally and psychologically than athletes in any other sport. But that transparency has the illusion of revealing more than it actually does. I find myself a little embarrassed, because I spend so much time and energy thinking and writing about some of these players that I forget about how little I’ll ever really know about them. Yet because they’re athletes, it’s condoned and often encouraged to leap to conclusions about them and disregard our own ignorance about their lives and histories. I have a hard time feeling ok with that, but if it isn’t acceptable then how much more dull and impersonal does following sports become?

At 2/21/2006 12:02 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

-was that "as if the band had given up after 'big pink'" or "they did give up?" just so we're clear.

-wilbon said today that it was "multiple deaths of people very close to him."

At 2/21/2006 12:05 AM, Blogger mutoni said...

One of my greatest regrets is that Kobe and Jordan didn't get a chance to face-off in their absolute primes. Imagine a 27 year old MJ versus a 27 year old Kobe for oh say 10 years. That would blow anything Magic and Bird (not to mention Russell and Wilt) did right out of the water. Both are the two most pathologically competitive players to ever lace them up and are both undoudtedbly two of the craziest. Both guys, at the age of 27 only had their super-human athletic abilities as redeeming qualities and were the only justifications for their respective insanities.
One of my favorite quotes from Jordan is the following after having been asked what he would do if he were in Kobe's shoes when Shaq was still hooping at the Staples : "Man, I don't know what I would do if I had to deal with that!"

I know we're lucky and should be thanking the gods to have Lebron and Wade (with Melo playing the role of Isiah) for the next 15, but they're both not crazy enough to satisfy our appetites, I think you all know this. Both guys represent little more than the ability to hoop, and unfortunately that's just not enough.

Kobe should have been born on Feb.17-1963.

At 2/21/2006 12:11 AM, Blogger mutoni said...

Here's what I dug up on McGrady's situation : Keep in mind this was first published in 2004.


* HENRY ANDREWS, 20, friend. -- Died Nov. 7, 1997. Car accident.

RYAN T. McGRADY, 19, cousin. -- Died Dec. 5, 1999. Complications from asthma.

VANESSA JONES, 19, friend. -- Died Oct. 6, 1999. Shot.

JACLYN McGRADY, 38, stepmom. -- Died May 8, 2001. Cancer.

COREY BESS, 22, cousin. -- Died May 20, 2001. Shot.

ERIC ANDERSON, 25, best friend. -- Died March 16, 2003. Shot.

JOHNNIE RUTH GREEN, 73, great aunt. -- Died Jan. 28, 2004. Heart failure.

He said during the All Star weekend that what he's going through now is a combination of the above events so I'm guessing there have been more deaths in his family or circle of friends.

At 2/21/2006 12:23 AM, Blogger ForEvers Burns said...

Sorry for the lack of clarity. Definitely "as if". I certainly wouldn't hate on their self-titled album (or Stage Fright or their Dylan stuff, for that matter).

Also, thanks for shedding light on the situation. If he needs to take some time off to deal with the various tragedies in his life, hopefully people will be patient and understanding.

At 2/21/2006 7:40 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

the problem with jordan versus kobe is that jordan begat kobe. i would contend that kobe's pathologically competitive nature was made possible by jordan's example. jordan's GOAT status led many to excuse or even glorify his insanely competitive nature, when it wouldn't be acceptable or laudable in a player of lesser stature. players of the next generation, like kobe, have consciously emulated so many aspects of jordan's style that they feel they must also share his notorious competitiveness, even if it means basically being an asshole. i think in some ways, trying to be like mike allowed kobe to access his dark side, which maybe isn't a good thing.

At 2/21/2006 8:03 AM, Blogger jon faith said...

Given the moribund nature of this peice, it is likely untoward that I laughed heartily over Serbo-narco allusions and the Shoal's (priceless) riposte that such is still better copy than Chris strung-out in a Mariott.

At 2/21/2006 8:35 AM, Blogger mutoni said...

I think it's actually a great thing that Kobe tapped into his dark side and now seems to have fully embraced it. There were always signs from an early age but now there's absolutely no doubt. If anything it completes him and allows him to step out of Jordan's shadow.

Having re-read Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules this summer I began thinking that a reason Mike got away with his insane drive to win was more than the fact that he kept on winning titles but that he also used that will to fuel something that's widely accepted as very much a part of Americana : Gambling. Think about it, Mike's inability to reign himself in at the gambling table brings him a little bit closer to the common man and makes you think of him as just another deeply flawed human being (but only for a moment or until you pop in a tape of Come Fly with Me). Kobe doesn't have any of this. He doesn't do anything beside work out and watch game tape. The best thing for his image would be to develop a serious gambling problem, and fast.

At 2/21/2006 11:54 AM, Anonymous Aaron said...

I call bullshit, Mutoni. It wasn't Jordan's gambling that brought him closer to the people. It was that he kept winning titles, and he kept winning titles with that unbelievable smile on his face. If Kobe smiled half as well as MJ, he'd be the top ASG votegetter by far.

I think this goes with Burns's point that we think we know these players as humans more than we really do. Casual fans wanted to let Jordan, as creepy and hypercompetitive as he turned out to be, into the family, because he somehow managed to seem like a nice guy while doing it.

Hell, Kobe never made Space Jam, did he? I say that's the difference.

This post biased by the fact that I was ten years old during Jordan's prime.

At 2/21/2006 12:21 PM, Blogger c-los said...

I dont think its MJ's smile that seperates himself from Kobe. Kobe used to be seen as the Golden Boy just like MJ was. Then Kobe's rape trial and his feud with Shaq shed light on how he really was/is. I dont see how it differs from MJ's career at all. I just think that MJ came along at a perfect time and because of the lack of media coverage there was back then compared to now. Magic and Bird renewed alot of casual fan's interests in the NBA and MJ took it from there. It was a combination of great PR work done by Nike, MJ's game, Magic & Bird getting older, and the arch-nemisis Detroit Pistons. Unless you were from Detroit you were pretty much against the Pistons when they played the Bulls. MJ had that underdog in him for a while. Alot of fans grew up with MJ in the sense that they saw his early days. His one man show those first 3-4 years in the league. Then his, struggles with the Pistons. His first set of NBA titles. His retirement, and so on. Kobe could never accomplish these facts simply because MJ did it first. MJ pretty much created the whole notion of Sports Marketing. His intese will to win and his success he achieved because of it put him over the top. I think that MJ's personality was just as boring as Kobe's. It was MJ's game that transcended him onto another planet.

At 2/21/2006 2:10 PM, Blogger Dr. Lawyer IndianChief said...

If we're talking about smiles, we're talking about Magic and Lebron, end of discussion. Jordan and Kobe BOTH sport a cocky smirk (Jordan pioneered it, Kobe copied it). It's a very particular individualistic facial expression, one that shows no regard or respect for teammates or opponenets. Magic/Lebron, on the other hand, are pure "I LOVE THIS GAME"

At 2/21/2006 2:18 PM, Anonymous 412hater215 said...

I think the complex sporting personality only emerges when there is a particular kind of player on the scene. This baller is:
A)So damn good at the game that it's easy.
B)Aware of A.
C)Intelligent enough to think of A in philosophical terms.
D)Not down with/done with the hustler mentality. That is to say that getting paid to do something so natural and easy has ceased to be a source of amusement.

It's kind of like when Howard Willoughby quit the lunchtime kickball team at East Hills Elementary. He could kick it on the roof whenever he wanted, yet he still walked away at the tender age of 8.

At 2/21/2006 2:58 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

Magic's smile may have been on some "I LOVE THIS GAME" ish, but LBJ's smile is so calculated I cringe everytime I see it. Did you guys see that weird kiss/smile thing he did when presented with the ASG MVP trophy? Either he was showing love to his momma or maybe even his baby momma in the stands or just hasn't figured out how to smile appropriately. There's something joyless in Lebron's game, not that I mind but these comparisons to Magic in terms of charisma need to stop for they are simply untrue.

At 2/21/2006 2:59 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i think that lebron's image is being over-engineered, even kobe-ed. he made a point of showing us he's a funny, playful guy with "the lebrons", and that "follow him around before he's drafted" special they did back when proved that the kid's immensely charismatic in the most goofy, outgoing way (as compared to wade's dignity or melo's good-natured realness). but whenever he's around basketball, he really acts like a man bland beyond his years.

At 2/21/2006 3:01 PM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

lebron looked like a nervous kid when he was presented with the ASG MVP trophy. it's times like that and when he's biting his nails on the bench during the fourth quarter that we're reminded he's only 21. we still don't really know lebron. he seems like a relatively humble, grounded guy, but he's definitely got a cocky streak. remember--he has "the chosen (chozen?) one" tattooed on his back.

At 2/21/2006 3:19 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

He's definitely got to kick that whole nail-biting business.

His image has been carefully constructed from day 1, he even talked about it in SLAM (can't remember which issue). His cockiness makes me laugh though, he's always saying things like : "I was just showcasing my talents" "I do a great job of rebounding and passing, but I need to improve".

I would enjoy the Lebron Era a lot more if he talked more shit to opponents during games (a la Iverson, MJ and Bird) instead of talking shit to the media.

At 2/21/2006 3:26 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

one thing i do know about lebron: he is honestly a little overwhelmed by how good he is. not that he's not confident, but sometimes he seems at a loss when it becomes abundantly clear that he's already looking like an all-timer. that's part of how i interpret the asg presentation. no one's excited that he's the youngest ever, and he seems a little uneasy with how routine that scene's getting. as an athlete, esp. one with a competitive streak and the right attitude, how does he deal with it all coming so easily? you just can't ask someone that young to cope well with that kind of near-omnipotence.

At 2/21/2006 3:27 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

that should've read "that i think i know about lebron," as a nod to burns's fitting skepticism

At 2/21/2006 3:36 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

To add to what you said, Shoals, i sometimes get the impression that Lebron is a bit embarrassed by all of the success he's having. I think back to when he was on Oprah and during the East All-Stars' practice (broadacast on NBA TV).
He also seems to be the only one that's not surprised by his own immense talents. He's always coming out and saying that he knew that if he were given the opportunity he would be dominant. Remember how pissed he was to not be put on the All Star in his first season? This weekend his whole thing was "I'm just comfortable with the whole thing, no nerves". I'm almost convinced he was on a mission from the get-go to get that MVP. He did seem to be looking for his shot a bit more than usual, especially in the first quarter when he was launching all of those 3s.

At 2/21/2006 4:00 PM, Blogger Tigero is my Afro-Asian said...

The O-post proves the notion that Naismith's invention has turned into little more than drama in baggy shorts. The storyline is far more important then the precieved outcome. Arenas & Amare will never transend to superstar status on their own abilities (which are w/o question), their characters will never be developed beyond that of a Bruce Willis film, namely the action will always carry the show for them. This is the difference between the Mamba and MJ, MJ was TC, I mean Mission Impossible 2 was not good, but 20 million people proved this otherwise in one weekend. Kobe needs Phillip to put on a B rate show, much less a blockbuster. He's Steve Buscemi, ultra talented, has the bed post notches to prove his worth, just doesn't appeal on his own. I guess that makes Phillip the "best supporting actor."
This notion is further inforced by the crowds at typical NBA arenas. My views may be skewed as I hail from the unfasionable far north suburbs of Chicago (downtown Milwaukee), but Miller Park has a lot of sweatshirts, 1275 Lombardi Drive is famous for cheese on melons, but the BC is a virtual catwalk. People don't get dressed up to watch sports, they put on their Sunday best to go to the ballet and basketball.

At 2/21/2006 4:02 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

Gilbert's insanity meter has just gone up a bit more (courtesy of Simmons' intern):


Dude covered up the Adidas three stripes on his kicks this weekend in a silent protest because he wants better exposure from them and a more lucrative deal. Wow.

At 2/21/2006 4:18 PM, Blogger Dodos said...

Does anyone else think hat we may go through a period where Lebron is horribly selfish, then has to figure out which way to go - the Kobe way or the MJ way? LBJ takes some pretty horendous shots at times (as he did in the last minute of the ASG) and I fear that sometimes he is so good, he may start to think the only way to win is if he does it on his own by shooting. MJ hit his apex when he realized it was a team game (and got better players around him) - will LBJ go through the same transition, or do you think he will never go through it because he is already an unselfish player?

People argue that he is inherently unselfish, but the more Donyell and Damon Jones (talk about a psychological mess) struggle, the more bad shots he takes.

At 2/21/2006 4:43 PM, Anonymous 412hater215 said...

About the Arenas move, peach-basket game is becoming a merely a vehicle for more general branding-era market success for the YBFMOA (young black and famous with money out the anus) generation? There is a really strong parallel here to post-Wu rap game.

Rap and ball are basically the acknowledged starting points for emerging as a player in the self-referential YBFMOA brand game. Its as if young bols work on their double-crossover/double-time-verse after school and draw out their designs for bomber jackets and sneaks after dinner.

The skills are a pre-requisite, yet they are secondary. It's the marketable personalities that are the real commodity.

By the way, on a more familiar tip, is B. Shoals senior rounding back into fighting shape?

At 2/21/2006 5:34 PM, Blogger Don't do this to yourself said...

To go back to one of the original arguments, I think one of the reasons we identify so much more with NBA players than NFL or MLB is the fact that there are relatively fewer of them. I mean, you have 12 players on any active roster, versus 50-some for NFL and 30 or so for MLB. Thus, the percentage of time they spend in the spotlight is increased exponentially. This can only lead to greater identification with them on our part.

Also, the NBA marketing machine is radically geared towards individual players at the expense of team identity. This is not the case in the other big sports. For instance, I detest the Denver Broncos and it doesn't really matter who is on their team. As a contrast, I hated the Bulls in the 90s, but that was because I loathed MJ and Pippen (although I am a big Rodman apologist). Now, I don't have feelings one way or the other about the Bulls, because I don't care about anyone on their team.

For what it's worth.

At 2/24/2006 5:57 PM, Anonymous Fat Contradiction said...

Hockey players have this complexification going on, but it's harder to get to. They're geared up, thus harder to read, and they're indoctrinated with a NFL-style team-first media blandness, usually. That said, nobody on the NBA roll call rolled like Theoren Fleury: think a more undersized Barkley with JR Rider's habits; and no functioning NBA player comes particularly close to the roiling mass of insanity that pert-near every goaltender in league history has had. The key is that hockey is much more a role-player's game ("a game of styles", if you will) (you won't) than basketball is, so you get personality crises and identifications at levels beside the top. I mean, I love 'Melo, but in terms of game and approach, I'd have to identify with Eduardo. In hockey, it's easy to bro down with the checking winger and reconcile yourself to being a spear-carrier in the game of life, but with a league of style, who wants to hold down with the Fortson?

Or hell, maybe I just dig NHLers because they're explicitly over-consumers of beer, which I dig and am. It's probably not because they're white, though.

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