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.


At 8/16/2007 11:45 AM, Anonymous Laphonso said...

I generally try to shy away from dickriding, but this is why we come here. An unraveling of the myths that live within all of us, played out on the hardwood or in the sports pages. Preach.

Keys open doors.

At 8/16/2007 12:42 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

I would nominate this essay, if someone would invent the right award. Myths and koans.

At 8/16/2007 1:04 PM, Anonymous pat said...

J.R. Smith is a buffoon, and good only for novel headlines and drawing attention to himself. The sports writers were merely taking pity and not reporting that true opinion. That our feelings of sympathy or empathy toward him allows us to feel his humanity does not change his essential being on the platform that he has set himself up for judgment---basketball. His suffering is not heroic. One fatal car accident does not change ingrained character flaws in a matter of months. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the worst of shallow thinking that is best characterized by those hagiographies during Olympic telecasts that depict the tired story line of an athlete "overcoming all the odds for gold." He is worth serious thought only as a contradistinction to what is actually good about humanity or good humans in basketball. It's that pole of goodness that we celebrate as heaven on earth, not the opposite which sets the good into fierce relief.

At 8/16/2007 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darkofan: Football as myth is fine. It is football as war that is offputting to the point of "boycott".

(Missed the disposition of the prosecutor's accident investigation. Perhaps there was a significant, early civil settlment in the background, which is closer to justice than a criminal prosecution.)

At 8/16/2007 1:59 PM, Blogger Brickowski said...

Awesome stuff, Shoals.

Pat, when does the mainstream sports media EVER take pity on relatively obscure young black NBAers? Sports media in this day and age is exclusively concerned with creating stories that generate ratings. This is the opposite of that. This is a writer throwing up his hands and admitting that JR is confounding in way that doesn't make for good copy.

I imagine most readers here are as bored with your good vs. evil contrast as I am, but I'm curious as to what JR's "ingrained character flaws" are.

At 8/16/2007 2:06 PM, Anonymous Cyanide said...

Umm, maybe I don't have my deep thinking cap on today, but when I initially read the article referred to in the post yesterday I just took "enigmatic" at face value.

That JR is a super athletic 22 year old that always seems to be positively brimming with upside, but is coming into his 4th season (and possibly his 4th team) and you wonder when he's gonna show it. Not necessarily the polarizing, intangible quantity we want to see him as.

And yeah, it's unfortunate his friend died in that accident, but he's still a fuck up until he stays straight for a LONG time given that mountain of moving violations. I'll take my Gerald Greens and Martell Websters over him any day, thank you very much.

At 8/16/2007 2:52 PM, Anonymous pat said...

what was that about literature as pugilism?

brick, perhaps I didn't state my opinion clearly enough: I'm just addressing a different aspect of shoals theme, not trying to entirely undermine his well stated thesis. A thesis which invited a jab or two due to his Norman Mailer reference. But please forgive it, as the point and effect of the 10 or so free darko posts that I've read seems not be clarity, but the metaphor.

But your so called "boredom" is betrayed by even bothering to ask a question from some random dude on the internet; and also belied by your perception that the traditional media is exlcusively concerned with generating ratings is somehow a fresh insight, or even debatable. Stop the presses, brick, no one had heard that little maxim before.

I'm not sure what traditional media universe that you live in. Every time there is some perceived tragedy in the life of your NBA player is when they stop to take pity, for melodramatic effect. That is a story that gets ratings, and always will. It's the archetypal storyline. And, if you don't know what J.R.'s character flaws according to the standards that we can judge him on---basketball---then you haven't been following him for very long and are just blinded by his dazzling style, athletic ability and three point skill.

At 8/16/2007 2:54 PM, Blogger goathair said...

One of the problems with the NBA mindset is that guys like J.R. Smith never really find a home and have to drift from team to team.

At 8/16/2007 3:01 PM, Blogger Brickowski said...

I'm about to get slayed in my property class in 30 minutes, but very quickly:

1. Where did I ever say the notion that media is mostly interested in ratings is "fresh insight"?

2. Sorry if I read you wrong, but I have never associated flaws as a basketball player (and yeah, obviously JR has lots of them--watch that 07 Nuggs-Spurs series for ample evidence) with "ingrained character flaws."

At 8/16/2007 5:05 PM, Blogger nerditry said...

Pat : I think I'm in agreement if the idea that you're mulling is that the sports writer who has nothing left to report on JR that isn't petty in its negativity will use the enigma tag to avoid taking a useless stance.

Regarding JR...there's not much left to say about him as all of his potential has been balanced by the negative flow of his career. It's not that he's a question mark lacking a definable answer, there's just nothing left to ask about.

At 8/16/2007 5:20 PM, Blogger PIGS said...

Maybe this rubs against some of the governing assumptions of the site, but: Why is it desirable to make professional sports a scene of individualized personalities? I mean, professional sports are like the only scene of mass culture not predicated upon psychologized individuals hamming it up in obsessive rituals of self-production (legible [Shaq] or otherwise[Arenas]). When you watch an NBA game you at least have the chance of witnessing amazing manifestations of physical intelligence shorn of the banalities of human interest. Why make it about narrative?

You know, just sayin...

At 8/16/2007 5:47 PM, Anonymous The Gong said...


At 8/16/2007 7:00 PM, Blogger Leee said...

Because in Soviet Russia (aka the NFL), banality of human interest shears YOU.

At 8/17/2007 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i haven't given much thought yet to how archetypes like jungian ones (possibly because i don't know a lot about jungian archetypes) relate to football as myth. ernst cassirer has this wild setup where mythology is a stage in human thought, science being the last. man is a symbol making animal, building and interpreting the world using language, myth, art, science, etc. what if these stages are present all at once? what about mythic thinking today? we're not getting myth from out big three religions (though they sure as hell got themselves in with the cream and sugar in our morning cup of politics). it seems that’s what draws a lot of us to sports. fashion victims– male, female, gay, and straight – and the culturally secular get it in celebrity lives or talk soup or reality televsion shows, albeit frightenly skewed in its forms and morals – morals like what comes at the end of a fairy tale not like ‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s dune buggy’.

the canned commentary certainly does weigh the whole show down in every sport (except maybe telemundo broadcasts of the other football – even better if you don’t understand spanish). but i've never known anyone, any sports fan, who didn't groan along to the commentary. sports ‘narrative’ in that sense is crap. where emotion come alive is in the spectating, unchecked utterances exploding from our normally reserved confines. and where idea comes alive is in the conversation. that’s the idea-making realm of sports i’m talking about and trying to get at. in that sense, i’d very much agree that basketball’s power is in it’s ambiguity… morally and otherwise. that should give it staying power until the barbarian hordes swarm in from the far lands and topple the coliseum and knock us all back to the history pages.

the luddite in me prefers the subversive down-homeyness of pro football. like bismarck crushing the elite between himself and the masses. the ugliness is something that you can love, whether it’s the fat girl or the vikings run defense (wait, that might be the same thing). but damned if lebron vs the pistons doesn’t make my mouth pop open like listening to eyvind kang, even if that awe is left groping for words that i don’t know and sounds that i can’t form.

thanks for linking to my post, though. love this site. i have to tell myself every day that ‘sports aren’t important, they remind of us things that are’.

cian @ fuhbaw


Post a Comment

<< Home