Loud Soda's Value: An FD Guest Lecture
We at FreeDarko have long been admirers of Joey's work over at Straight Bangin', so it was only right that we turn to him for the third installment in FreeDarko's Community Outreach Program. Enjoy.
Pete Maravich never won an NCAA or NBA title, and no one holds that against him.
Oscar Robertson didn’t win one in college and couldn’t win a title in the NBA until he was paired with this dude called Alcindor, and no one holds that against the Big O.
As the Karl Malones and Charles Barkleys of the world can attest, conventional basketball wisdom dictates that anything less than a championship is failure of some degree. But I’m not mad at the Pistol or Oscar. They were transcendent.
History hasn’t been as kind to Patrick Ewing, another college basketball phenomenon that didn’t win big in the L but was also never rescued by leaving an indelible mark on the professional game. He was great, but he wasn’t Oscar or Pistol great. Instead, Ewing is remembered for who he wasn’t and what he didn’t do. And while that partially owes to the aforesaid conventional wisdom, it also owes to the way that we follow college hoops.
But first, more about Ewing.
For every sensational block or sweet jumper from an NBA career that helped define an era and might still delight the most committed fans, there are the tempering and enduring images of the big man’s failure: the head hung low as he left the court while another team celebrated; that missed layup against the Pacers; that crotch-eyed-view punking administered by Scottie Pippen. Those are moments that capture the ultimate futility of Ewing’s unfulfilled quest for basketball immortality, a unique lionization earned in June when there are no teams left to beat. The Knicks were close for so many years, and yet Ewing was never able to emerge as the reason for anything other than the annual admirable attempt. The fortunes of the Knicks ran parallel to Ewing’s, a leading figure who was a perennial all-star but routinely looking up toward some other center; a valuable player who never won MVP. Always with sweat pouring down his neck, bandages tightly wrapped around his knees, and the sad rhetoric of a beaten man too proud to abandon hope, Ewing was a figure who all but demanded your sympathy and for whom a cavalcade of compassion was the melancholy reward.
That the Ewing legacy is confined to this grim basketball purgatory is not just a tragic NBA tale but more so a crushing reminder of college basketball’s bittersweet manipulation. How cruel is it that a player whom we at one time celebrated as a basketball deity was ultimately never more loved, appreciated, or worshipped than when he stood at the threshold of his professional destiny, only to later on appear diminished by doing what we wanted of him—crossing over and moving toward what we had hoped would be something greater. Really, that is among the most disheartening of basketball injustices, and it is something for which basketball fans still have no answer when following the college game. We seize upon potential, proclaim greatness, romanticize the future, and then hold a player accountable for not learning the lines to that script. All I can say is that people had better enjoy Kevin Durant while they can, because when he leaves Texas, the majesty of his anticipated triumph will be gone as well. And the reality may be hard to reconcile.
But again, about Ewing: As he burst onto the scene, established Georgetown, elevated the Big East, and assembled one of the most storied careers in recent college basketball history—remembered for the awesome power of the Georgetown swagger, the cultural and racial implications of John Thompson’s success, the epochal nature of the Hoya triumph, and the still shocking reality of that team’s failure—Patrick Ewing was arguably the most significant college basketball figure since Bill Walton. Aided by what transpired in the NBA, we can now easily point to Michael Jordan’s ascendancy as the defining basketball trend of this modern era, but in some ways, to do so is to engage in revisionist history. Coming out of college, Michael was an All-American, but Patrick was a god.
I offer all of this so that I might stitch together this gnawing conundrum: following college basketball is, to some extent, an exercise in masochistic idealism for the devoted hoop head. While we surely conjure mythology to accompany the exploits of our favorite players in the Association, projecting our feelings onto these invented heroes, there is a unique version of this process in which we engage while keeping track of the college kids, and it sets us up for disappointment. Ewing is the object lesson that might now inform our treatment of Durant.
If you love basketball, watching the game played well is a visceral thrill. And that’s not just grandiloquence: there have been many nights when I’ve been unable to suppress the spontaneous yelps of excitement. It can happen when you see someone get crossed up; when the game appears to be unfolding in slow motion for a true talent; when a player that big makes a pass that good and sees the floor that well. I don’t need to explain this; you know. It’s among the best feelings in the world, and it spoils us. We get used to it as we see Jason Kidd orchestrate an offense or Reggie Miller wash away an opponent’s will as the threes rain down amidst a series of screens, all the while with no dribbling required. Having come to expect the extraordinary, we start looking for something better, something that can restore the initial sensation. How will someone top all of this? When will someone top all of this? Could someone please top all of this? Inevitably, we cast our glances upon the college ranks, the incubator for potential and hope.
We’re motivated by evolution theory: we’ve been conditioned to assume that once a dominant skill expresses itself, it will slowly be replicated as the recessive basketball efforts are rendered obsolete. Someone gains an advantage; the advantage spreads; those unable to adapt die out. It starts in the NBA and trickles down to college and then high school. So as NBA players redefine the possibilities of basketball performance, we begin to anticipate even newer definitions and hope that there are prep players that will demonstrate their possession of the requisite basketball genetics. We collectively believe that we can see the future in the basketball youth. That’s where we start to betray ourselves, as fans. As we seek out the next generation and hope to find a fix of the basketball elation which we crave, we invest too heavily in the attendant romance of potential and youth. Don’t forget, we judge based upon jewelry.
Look at our treatment of Durant. No one, least of all me, is denying his abilities. Nor would I assert that he’s anything but exceptional: a true big man with a knack for rebounding and perimeter skills befitting an NBA point guard prospect. Not even Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady, the longtime theoretical archetypes for the player I describe, were as skillful when they were 18. Durant is nearly surreal. And while that may not be hyperbole, it surely is a symptom of the problem I describe.
Were Kevin Durant to play in the NBA tonight, he would probably be an effective player. Inserted into the lineup as a guard, he’d likely shoot and rebound over his defender; inserted in the lineup as a forward, he’d be liable to take his man to the hole or disrupt the defensive scheme. (This all assumes, of course, that some coach wouldn’t ask him to play like he was supposed to given the rigid rhythms of NBA basketball.) But he would get caught on pick-and-rolls; he would get shoved around by Dwight Howard and Chris Wilcox; he would foul out trying to draw the absurd charges that college referees tolerate; and so forth. He wouldn’t know the game, and he would need time to adjust. That doesn’t sound all that surreal, does it? But then we remember that he’s just 18; that he has to fill some of the time he could be working on basketball with things like class and homework; that he is not receiving elite-level coaching (with Rick Barnes, that’s damn sure); that he has not been subjected to an NBA weight-training routine. We remember all of this and it emboldens us to keep dreaming. We dream that he’ll bulk up but remain quick; that his defensive techniques will improve; that his basketball savvy will grow. And most of all, we dream that a player with a game over which we salivate will develop the accompanying mental fortitude required to lead a team to a championship. It’s the only outcome that Durant’s skills will allow us to envision.
That a player with seemingly limitless ability would be limited to starring in such a narrow vision is not a paradox for basketball fans. As noted above, we’ve been encouraged to assume that the prevailing order of the basketball universe will see the NBA game changed by standout talents. Russell, Wilt, Bird, Magic, Michael. Even better, we expect that these transformative figures will have shown themselves to be candidates for the preferred destiny while still in college, something we saw from the preceding five and players like Robertson and Maravich. We assume that the line will go on, and we expect that as pros, some of the most promising prep stars will transform the game and take us along with them as the ride out into the Elysian plain of basketball immortality. This is just how we think as basketball fans, and like addicts, we can’t escape the grasp of this pleasure. That, as humans, we can build in themes of purity (think: a basketball savior) and redemption (think: the exceptional man leads a downtrodden team to greatness) while projecting our morals onto these figures makes the thrill of college basketball unique and all the more ensnaring. After all, there is something far less attractive about myth-making when the canvas isn’t blank.
This quest is destructive, though. It leaves in its wake realities that could never match the fantasies, legacies that are unfairly judged within the common basketball value system, and junkies who don’t know how to help themselves. To succeed when playing with these rules requires one to average a triple double for an entire year or die a cult figure worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame as its youngest member. To succeed when perpetuating this is even harder, because fans are usually wrong. And as we have sadly learned from Patrick Ewing, one-time Lord and all-time disappointment, even those who display the greatest of potentials and embody the highest of a basketball fan’s hopes sometimes must settle for no rings and something less than transcendence.
Is Kevin Durant ready for all of that? Should he have to be?