The Iron Clatter of Shared Indignities
It seems like so close to now that J.R. Smith was teetering on the brink of illegal. Then, someone somewhere—maybe in the control room of the big palace where they mete out justice—realized that dude had accidentally killed his best friend, and just might have learned his lesson already. That and no one had seat belts on, which is kind of like getting beat down while wearing a Jose Padilla tall tee.
So this site's second or third patron saint managed to avoid incarceration. Big sigh of relief. What I’ve climbed down from the night sky to comment on is another milestone for the Prince of Denver: yesterday on Florida Today, he got referred to as "enigmatic." That right there is tremendous; it's nothing less than a normal sports writer admitting that, like it or not, J.R. Smith is powerful in exactly the way FreeDarko wants him to be.
Sports are by and large about all types of masculine exertion. Physical, intellectual, playing, talking, a large portion of the culture surrounding pro athletics has to do with complete and total will imposition. That's why people talking on the subject are way too invested and usually only partly coherent: above all else, they want to be right. If sports and politics have anything in common, it's that both eschew the rhetoric of compromise or sympathy until well after the show is over (yes, even sometimes during the NBA regular months).
Sad to say, but many people writing about sports do so with the same mindset as those playing or coaching the game. This is supremely fucked up, since critical thinking is supposed to complement the sanguine crawl of battle. They don't consider themselves lowly fans, as we well know. Instead, they're experts, pundits whose command of the knowledge is the mindly equivalent of every big play they ever saw. If Norman Mailer could conceive of literature as prizefighting then damn it, their weekly column or radio spot is going to be their own private Polo Grounds.
That's why I find the occasional deployment of "enigma" so positively remarkable. In essence, it’s the sports section admitting that it can’t even pretend to figure someone out. Sure, part of it is “I have no fucking clue what this zany fella will pull out next from his proverbial wide-brimmed hat.” But there’s also the sense in which any and all blanket generalizations will fail. He’s not a thug. He’s not a bum. He’s not a cancer. He’s not an asset. He’s not a raw talent. He’s not a bargain. He’s a mess of some it all, and thus not even any of it. J.R. Smith defies even those dead set on defining him for easy consumption.
In theory, this is what all athletes should be. Archetypes are great and everything, but they’re an awfully reductionist way of considering fairly vibrant public figures. Fuhbaw wrote this passage about the NFL which I rather liked, despite my having decided to boycott all games not involving Tomlinson or Reggie Bush next season:
football, on the other hand, is mythology. not in the sense that it is a thing of the past, but it is modern mythology, real tangible connection between the ideas that shape our world and ourselves. in the same way that the greek gods could be petty, because they were real, the uglier truths can exist without threatening the fabric that connects us, the fans, to the sport.
I totally agree, and yet find myself disheartened over what it spells. They are myths on earth, archetypes made honest by their ugliness and imperfection. It’s a way of saying that lo, gods can be a part of our lives because they are as busted as us. At the same time, we can aspire to their noble contours because our noise, cracks, and vomit is, like theirs, ultimately incidental. At the end of the game and in the core of us all there is transcendence, even if slime paves its own way up to the doorstep. That’s football’s heaven on earth, and that’s the version of mankind it feeds into. Not suprisingly, it’s the same pattern of thought that turns revolutions bloody and, makes fascism out of swarmed hope.
Maybe I’m biased, but I think that the NBA does otherwise. Some may see a lack of moral clarity, pits of ambiguity, and some drastic breaks with the usual sport-swallowing. But in this moment of J.R. Smith, as I did with the Warriors this May, I see the absolute crystallization of why I love this game, why T-Mac or Arenas will always confound cliché. At its best, professional basketball lionizes humanity—many versions of it, in all its uneven goodness. We marvel not at how grand or bluntly symbolic its order is, but at how radiant the peaks and valleys of man’s soul can be. That is the player, the season, the player’s season.
I don’t want to be told that I can be like them. Instead, I want them to uplift what I already know myself to be.