On Warfare and Mr. Dill
Very early on in the Great Mainstream Stat Wars, Silverbird5000 called me on the phone with misery in his voice. He was concerned that everything he typed for this site ended up flush with Marxist longings, the kind that make pavement crinkle and birds take flight. Silverbird's promising academic career was not built on this sort of celebratory posturing, and the tunnels of his mind are proofed against fire. Yet somehow, FreeDarko brought out the booming rector in him.
There's a good reason for that: since its inception, FreeDarko has been rife with overtones of prophecy, revolution, imminent change, and apocalyptic fervor. Hence the preoccupation with Futurism, the Old Testament, Islamic extremists, the Black Panthers, Heidegger, the First Continental Congress, and Herzog. I can't exactly say what draws me to these things, other than ennui and impatience. And though when I start writing about sports, these are the reference points I glom onto. Part of it is a reaction to the NBA's massive style quotient; the only appropriate response seems to be some mix of nihilism and idealism. But I also should probably confess that, like most people, I like to feel I'm in the presence of important stuff. And nothing dribbles weight quite like imminent upheaval.
This doesn't mean, though, that the tone we take with the NBA is purely satirical or self-serving. There are very real tensions in the Association, and the post-Jordan years set all the known stages for transfiguration: decay, decadence, famine, specters of greatness, virulent quarrels, and strange arrivals. If I sometimes come off as over-invested in LeBron or the Suns, it's partly because of how they arrived on the scene. Say what you will about LBJ's hype, but his first game made it all into truth. And when the Suns unveiled their 2004-05 act, you really had the sense that something qualitative had changed.
What we might routinely over-estimate is how widespread or systemic these movements are, or even how much sense it makes to look on them as movements. In part, I dread turning my fandom into just another snotty critical discipline, where taste governs value and reputation. History's over in art and music, but maybe basketball has yet to ride out that tide. The ripples of team destiny are what every fan's truly after, and I'm stuck trying to do this for the league writ large.
And at the same time, there had to be a counter-argument to critics of the league. They were organized, coherent, and on message (sound familar?); I wanted a response that was equally formal. There were plenty of rational accounts as to why the Right Way was needed, how fundamentals had disappeared, what thugs all players were, and just generally how far the sport had fallen. At least half of the revolutionary impulse is frustration and overthrow, but without the constructive part, that's just name-calling. You need an alternative before you can tell someone they're wrong; you have to tell them they're wrong before you tell them "I hope a bear rapes your mother."
That raises the question, though, of whether FreeDarko-ness beckons because we hate stuffy NBA thinking, or whether we hate that thinking because of a strong allegience to FreeDarko-ness. I honestly couldn't tell you; it's a bit like asking if revolutions are motivated by hatred for the present or hope for the future. FreeDarko walks like it does in part because it needs to dignify its hit-list, but also because we want to believe in basketball's future. And the only way to do that now is to hope for change, to aggressively note it at every turn. If we sometimes force the issue, or appear delusional, it's because someone has to camp at the vanguard for when reality's caught up.
Sometimes I worry that a lot of what we say is fruitless or misleading, that there is no great dawn on the horizon. For instance, the Positional Revolution is constantly stretched and tweaked so it can uphold its good name. I carry within me oodles of doubt, wondering if the linear future is as empty a term in sports as in all other fields of human endeavor. Those demanding redemption are cave-dwellers, but in asserting progress, am I not but a slightly less wretched knave?
Then, this Kirilenko situation. It's been like finding evidence of a furry dinosaur, or uncovering the tomb where Martians fell. Without resorting to any hyperbole, for there is no need for it in the hour of fulfillment: Andrei Kirilenko is the player of tomorrow. More than Garnett or Durant, he marks a turn in the game that is as material as it is conceptual or speculative.
In so many ways, he could not have existed before this exact time-span. Kirilenko plays every positon and yet no position; defies specialization, instead excelling at bundles of pell-mell production; hails from a far-off land and runneth over with cheeky personality; and, in a very real way, is deeply invested in the kind of ball he plays. When Kirilenko was reduced to jumpers and blocks, it produced anguish within him, as if his need to run free were personal, not functional. His basketball being stakes itself on an FD-ish environment, and his emotional well-being follows closesly from that. If Amir Johnson is our Baby Big Bang, Kirilenko is a snapshot from after the asteroid hit.
His problems with Jerry Sloan this year are, quite simply, proof that FreeDarko cries out not in vain. I like watching the Jazz, but with Sloan's preferred style in place they are anything but hospitable to such pure a fleck from beyond. That Kirilenko is so muted, so dismayed by life under this regime is proof that we do have a cause. There are athletes who need defending, flags to be raised, and tyrants to fall. We do this site not to make LeBron richer, or debate the merits of trading Marion, or even gloat when Josh Smith blows up. No, we are advocates for a world yet to come. And only by freeing its displaced kings, or properly memorializing a Warriors-like triumph, can we justify our own existence.
The prophet speaks so that one day he may be silenced, silenced by a world that has made him noble but irrelevant.