Your Especially Nimble Din
I have no idea why I didn't include that League of Psychology post in my Big Picture favorites. As much as anything that's ever been nailed up here, it gets at how I view the game on a day-to-day basis. Maybe because it's always seemed somewhat incomplete: the catch phrase sang of psychology, but it ended up being much more about the nexus of aesthetics and persona, or performance and history.
Not surprisingly, this is what leapt into my mind when I woke up late and found that one of my favorite players had, in very real terms, fucked up. J.R. threw himself and another dude through an SUV windshield, with his companion still in serious condition. As soon as I chased down the facts on Smith's folly, one thought kept sticking: does J.R. being the kind of person who nearly kills himself and others make me like him more or less?
To be perfectly insensitive about it, the situation sums up his style, and career, as aptly as anything could. If seasons can be terms "trainwrecks," then Smith is most certainly an SUV nightmare that splits the difference between grace and self-inflicted woe. On the court, J.R. is forever halfway between disaster and perfection, and I daresay that this is responsible for much of up-and-down Nuggitude. At the same time, however, wouldn't a man prone to ditzy volcanism end up with Smith's narrative and his kind of game?
Throwing about causal arrows is, well, a lost cause. There's the single basketball act, the competitive actor, the professional employee, the celebrity persona, the uncut sleaze, the real him, and all manners of in-between-ness. Saying what precedes what, and what can claim the chunkiest corner of "truth," misses the point. Athletes as they exist in total are part-real, part-imaginary; they belong to themselves, but are hardly separable from the subjective fog we cast about them. What's more, so much of their meaning derives from sports, which to most sane people are nothing short of trivial.
Here's the thing, though: the moment you allow the real world to creep in, you suddenly have to consider morality. STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE: Way back before age had a number, Silverbird, Big Baby and myself used to joke about a so-called "Moral Commentator." This indispensable member of the telecast crew would be charged with breaking things down in terms of justice. If this sounds useless, it's because it is. Sports have their own code, and it puts winning and losing above all else. To be sure, there is etiquette, but this idea of honor resembles that among thieves or soldiers: goals preceding goodness.
If Bruce Bowen behaved socially as he does on the court, he wouldn't gain grudging respect—he'd be reviled. J.R. Smith may, on some poetic level, need to nearly kill himself and others to justify his basketball existence. I hope all of you immediately recoiled at that statement, or else you are probably a sociopath. That would mean, though, that Smith's real world doings do affect our understanding of him as a basketball player. Had no one been hurt in this accident, we would have no problem drawing comparisons between this event, what we know of him as a person, and his basketballular make-up.
Instead, I'm also left wondering if I can still watch him on the court, and in the rumor pages, without affixing some sinister. Ray Lewis may have beat his case and rehabbed his image, but his having been tangentially involved in a murder put a new interpretive spin on his "killer instinct." At the risk of distracting the comments section indefinitely, Kobe's charges made his competitive zeal into something vaguely unsettling.
I'm not in favor of forgiving and forgetting when it comes to athletes. I don't think you can hold a semi-imaginary figure accountable as you would a friend or public servant. But to pretend that we let these extracurricular gaffs disappear forever is absolutely ridiculously. They do color the way we see an athlete, even if this judgment only temporarily overtakes the "athlete" part of things. If a League of Style is inseparable from a League of Psychology, then in some cases we are forced to admit the limits of escapism.