FD Guest Lecture: And The Redeemed Innocent Fight On
John Krolik of Truth in a Bullet Fedora was excited about O.J. Mayo getting the FD treatment. So excited, in fact, that he sent me this ready-to-post essay that smoked anything I'd had in mind. Therefore, it is with great honor that we present it to you as the latest FreeDarko Guest Lecture.
I thought I'd say a few words about my USC class of '11 classmate O.J. Mayo, who has gotten an undeservedly bad rap from the pundits over the last few years. Going to school here, seeing O.J. around campus, and talking with friends who have classes with O.J., it's clear that he is nothing like the talking heads would have you believe. He's a nice guy who will be friendly with anyone regardless of whether or not they treat him like royalty.
Mayo goes to all his classes, including lectures, listens intently, pulls his weight on group projects, and is really interested in the material. (By the way, he takes actual GE requirement classes, not Golf, History of Rock and Roll, or (wince) Ballroom Dance.) He is never seen out partying, which is atypical of Trojan Athletes, even high-profile ones. He's the last one in the gym by hours. I saw him out on the row once, on my 2nd night here, and he was just sitting with the team cold sober, which is more than you can say about the author.
O.J. is one of the few hugely-hyped prospects whose game clashes with his image. He's got as much polish in his moves as Durant, and the best parts of his game—ballhandling, outside shooting, passing—are the parts of game that come from tireless work, while his hops and explosion ability are merely above-average. On a strictly basketball level, it could be argued that the resistance to O.J. is due to his position as a "shoot-first" point guard, which have never been beloved by the media (Francis, Marbury, et al.), while Rose is a "true" point.
However, O.J.'s shot is a significantly more efficient weapon than Francis, Marbury, and Iverson's, whose comparatively weak jumpers have always been weaknesses attributed to "laziness.", and their willingness to shoot their shaky jumpers in lieu of giving a shot to a teammate has been interpreted as "selfish." O.J.'s game most closely resembles that of Arenas, and while the media's reaction to Arenas is certainly a case with a sample size of 1, Arenas has never run into "selfish, lazy, Iverson-like playground play" backlash for his exploits on the court like O.J. already has; his prolonged fame, business savvy, and sense of showmanship on the court have already earned him a spot in Skip Bayless' "young black punk" throne for the next year or two.
And in defense of O.J.'s superfluous off-the-board dunk: he was 18. Last year, I came into pitch in the 4th inning with a 6-5 lead against another small private school, whose habit of making as much noise as possible during the our pitcher's windup had rattled our pitcher. They tried to pull the same crap on me, screaming for 4 innings and making an absolute frenzy in the last inning, but I shut them down and we won the game. Feeling the hubris of victory after striking out the last batter, I deliberately walked off the mound, stared at their dugout, and shouted "You're quiet now!" Our ex-navy coach heard and was not amused in the least.
If I were a national phenom, that would have been on PTI the next day and Wilbon would be calling me everything wrong with sports. And remember, this was a regular-season private school division 7 baseball game against New Jewish Academy, not the last game of a high school career that had made me a household name. The moral of the story: you do stupid stuff when you're 18. Leave him alone.
If anything, O.J.'s current rival, Derrick Rose, plays a much more unrefined, "blacker", game than O.J. does, with a lightning-quick first step and filthy crossover, unreal hops, and a shaky outside shot and little to no in-between game. Yet all of the words written about him praise his character and modest attitude, and I have yet to see any writer so much as imply that his work ethic is lacking. The question of "flash" also seems irrelevant here; O.J. seems to play the game with a bit more Rucker in him than Rose does, but who pulls off more Pistol Pete dribble moves and wrap-around passes than anyone in the league? Steve Nash, that's who. And anyway, Rose's crossovers and windmills separate him from the Mark Jacksons of this world.
Compare this to the LeBron/Carmelo debate of 2003, when their games seemed to match their personas: LeBron, the entitled and haughty one, had a game full of natural wonder and fundamental weakness, while Carmelo, whose character was initially beloved, had a college-proven game of jab-steps, spin moves, and mid-range jumpers. This was despite the fact that LeBron was a passer and Anthony a scorer, which is another hole in the "We like Rose better because he's a passer, not because he doesn't act black" argument.
When LeBron was later proven to be a business-minded family man of maturity far beyond his years, and Carmelo revealed as never having completely left the streets he came from, it was a clear indication that the media had allowed themselves to see what these young men were like off the court through what they were doing on it, which is the opposite of what we're seeing in the Rose/Mayo debate.
In recent years, we've come to taking what we like about people off the court and using it for a prism for what we see on it. Dwight Howard's game consists of jumping, muscle, and dunking, but since he is by all accounts a wonderful human being, he has never encountered backlash for the incompleteness of his game, and his displays of "swag," most notably the sticker, are symbols of youthful exuberance rather than megalomania. On the flip side, Rashad McCants is a refined scorer with a shot honed by hours and hours on driveways, but his punk attitude has led him to backlash. Zach Randolph and Kevin Durant are both artful scorers who can't play a lick of defense, but due to their difference in attitudes, Randolph's defense is a problem of laziness, while Durant's defense is a problem of inherent disadvantage. Neither of them pass, but Durant's scoring is a manifestation of his devotion to winning, while Randolph is a cancer.
I've bitten off way, way more than I can chew with this one, but basically it's interesting to see when the pendulum swings between game dictating personality, as it was in 2003, and personality dictating game, as it is with Mayo/Rose, especially when LeBron/Carmelo proved just how little we really know about players off the court. Instead of rushing to create "personas" for the players we watch, we should accept that the link between how a man does his job and who he really is remains, at best, an unsure one; if we can accept Enron executives as caring family men once they step out of the office, why can't we accept swingmen who dribble too much and need to work on their shot as upstanding members of society?