NBA Geo-Ethnic Semiotics Arrives
"Give him a soccer ball," the Lakers' Kobe Bryant said when asked what could be done to stop Barbosa. "Tell him Brazilians should be playing soccer, not basketball."
On the surface, this is borderline xenophobic. "Brazilians should be playing soccer" has the same exclusionary slant as "blacks don't belong belong in NASCAR." That it's out the mouthpiece of Kobe makes it diaphanously important. Let's begin with the "soccer" part of the statement: Bryant is a well-known soccer aficianodo, so it's not like he's deriding the game. During his carefree childhood in Italy, Kobe grew fond of the rest of the universe's favorite game. Apt pupil that he is, Young Kobe would doubtlessly have become familiar with the marvel, the buffet of frequent style, that is Brazilian futbhl. Therefore, for him "Brazilians playing soccer" is as hallowed a point of reference as can be imagined.
I also don't consider it a stretch to assume that Bryant gets that there's such a thing as race in Brazil. Or at least knows that many athletes are poor, dark, and held up by their countrymen as supra-human entities. Saying that Barbosa belongs in soccer is a friendly acknowledgment that this tradition parallels the NBA. It would make no sense to claim that an American black man would point to a racialized international sports continuum in an attempt to assert his ethnic superiority over a foreigner. If anything, the suggestion here is firmly that of "separate but equal," with the joke that he'd rather Barbosa stay on his home turf. It's in no way malicious; on the contrary, it respects Barbosa while allowing Kobe to imagine a world without him.
Of course, "separate but equal" never works. Which is why it's worth our sweet time to step back and remember the exact nature of the speaker: Kobe Bryant, raised overseas and brought up in the shadow of soccer. As a player, he's a highly methodical brainstormer who is always looking for a new advantage. It's plain to me that Kobe sees himself as incorporating some of soccer's spirit—maybe even a specifically Brazilian ones—into basketball, and can do this because of his dual Af-Am/international heritage. He sees Barbosa doing something similar, and thus considers him kin; this remark is a knowing "get off my turf. . . shouldn't you be playing soccer?" that winks at Barbosa with the eyes of a friend. Kobe Bryant's main problem isn't that he's hard to understand, but that he rarely seems to care if anyone does get his real intentions.
I DON'T EVER EXPLAIN THESE, BUT THAT ONE ABOVE IS ABOUT CRYPTIC GESTURES, NOT RAPE. GO LAKERS!!!!!
NBARS if you want it to be: Silverbird pointed out to me yesterday that announcing teams have gotten way carried away with T-Mac "rising up." Yes, the man elevates, and against the Jazz this aspect is made to boom by contrast. But it also has a nice metaphysical ring to it, what with McGrady expected to make postseason unlike all of his others, and the team needing his 25-30 ppg to get wins. And you would be a mistaken reader of FreeDarko if you didn't hear a distinct echo of churchs and moaning in the embattled T-Mac "rising up" to fulfill his life's promise. Maybe this belongs under "NBA Theological Semiotics," but I wonder if you'd ever hear "Go Down, Matt Harpring" on the call.
Matt Harpring looks just like David from Six Feet Under, and I wish I didn't have to be the one to say it.
(Thanks to reader CM for the first image.)
(Oh, and anyone seeking proof that I can write a straight line should check out the special FreeDarko Guest Quickie over at Chez Shanoff today. Dr. LIC and myself cover all sports, and do so semi-responsibly.