11.29.2007

A Million Miles Away



When Iran won some FIBA tournament last year, I was a little disappointed. Well, first I was excited, then I got majorly bummed to pieces when I watched footage. However foolishly, I'd expected Persian hoops to be, well, exotic.

It's all fine and good to say that a sport, like basketball, is a universal language through which each nation-state gives voice to its identity. But the best shit happens when a culture with a surfeit of style—and let's face it, for thousands of years Iran has that—actually puts a twist on that basic language. The only other examples I can think of are the totally foreign twitches of rhythm in Manu and Barbosa's games (KOBE SAID IT, NOT ME). Or, if I have to say it, the whole Af-Am-ization of the NBA from Elgin Baylor on.

I would like international play a lot more if it were more like this video, which is apparently how pick-ups games go down at Baghdad College. I think these guys aren't very good, but the last thing we need is more boring basketball, clinical basketball, or basketball reinforcing NCAA values. The least a far-flung country can do is come up with a shock to the sport's system. That's what the Warriors did, right, and they live in America!

One year, ESPN Mag's NEXT issue got so insane they started tracking down athletes who might could be NEXT in four years. There was a story on scouting for players in the Sudan, which is apparently full of lightning-quick, vista-long 6'9" kids who can jump over anyone despite not owning shoes. They pass well and can handle okay, but have no idea what the rules are. They can't shoot, either, which actually sounds this sound like a country of embryonic Julian Wrights.

If basketball is indeed a tool for the left, which I like to think it could be, then we need to fight hegemony within the sport. The NBA's adoption of the Pan-Euro Invasion didn't just "help" the Association. It was also a way of stamping out regional resistance, of making international competition into the European Union.

Baghdad College won't stand for none of that. Sissies.

FD Guest Lecture: Better Basketball = Extra Schmedium Shorts

Today I would like to present to you the next installment in our FREEDARKO Guest Lecturers series. Today's tome comes from Dr. William Sunday, whose true identity can be speculated upon in the comments section. [Note: This essay comes with a disclaimer that "Dr. William Sunday is not an accredited physician in the United States, or any other country for that matter."]




FreeDarko Nation! What it do party people? Right now I feel like KanYe West after he won all those Emmys. I can’t believe I’m talking to the F.D. famlay. I was a little shook at first to come in over here because y’all cats are mad polysyllabic with your shit, but your boy said that I should just get in where I fit in. Hopefully there’s someone on this side to translate retahd-speak.

The 2007-2008 campaign for the Association is well underway and just like we all imagined they’d be, Boston is a beast. LeBron and the Cavletics might be able to served up some comp if that dude Jesus Shuttlesworth can keep choking with under a minute left to play. The West is still the best. I was quietly hoping that Houston would step up something serious so that maybe we could have a repeat of one of the classic Finals’ matchups.

The Rockets and the Celtics butted heads[ll] twice for ‘Chips and both times Boston prevailed on the back of Larry Bird. The Celtics superstar forward for this tilt would be the wunderkind Kevin Garnett, while the Rockets foreign exchange center is from Africa by way of China, Ming Yao. The marketing is already in place so it makes the regular season kind of a waste of time. Sort of like the first forty-six minutes of most b-ball games.


The league can work all of its magic to engineer this matchup, but the one element that would have made this series an instant classic has been stashed away in the NBA’s closet of shame. Cocaine, you said? No, but you were close. Tightpants would be the correct answer. In the last twenty plus years since the decline of tightpants the Association itself has been foundering. The beauty of the game is now interminably lost as the players run up and down the court in Capri shorts, or are they coolots. Assists on an overall basis have been declining steadily as well as field goal percentages. Three point field goals made are up from the 1980’s numbers, but how hard is it to shoot a three pointer wearing board shorts?

Show me a professional sport, that is enjoyable, where the entire uniform can be worn as street clothing? I rue the day that Michael Jordan came into the league and altered the minimum length of the player’s shorts. This was the death knell for great basketball play. Baggy pants ruin everything they touch. Zoot suits turned gangsters into comedians. M.C. Hammer ruined rap music. Capri pants killed the NBA. Do you think Elgin Baylor would have been the Rookie of the Year if he didn’t wear tightpants? How the hell do you think Magic Johnson got his nickname? Pause[ll] to that last sentence.

Tightpants are what made an average player like Dennis Rodman into a Hall of Fame caliber player. To bad for Dennis that he was fucking crazy. Don’t blame the tightpants though. John Stockton, arguably the greatest point guard of all time wore tightpants well into the new millennium and for no other reason were the Utah Jazz still a competitive force. Let’s face it party people… Cocaine and tightpants made the Association what it is today. Provided that you don’t overdose on the former, and you don’t elongate the latter you might still have the greatest show in town. Word to Oscar Robertson.



11.28.2007

Come Take A Ride In My Zeppelin

I was reading over Shoals' post outlining his feelings over not being a basketball "expert," and I realized just how glorious it is that FD is, until recently, almost entirely bereft of predictions.

A little while back, during the great Hollinger/Berri statistical formula debate, some dutiful citizen suggested that Hollinger and Berri test out their systems with a cowboy-style throwing of the gauntlet: Each statistician would use his formula to predict how many games each team would win the next year, with the one who got the closest being declared the winner. Berri copped out, saying something to the effect of "If I told you what would happen next year, than it wouldn't be any fun to watch, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for all of you."



Of course, that statement probably meant something more along the lines of "I honestly have no idea if my system can actually predict things rather than award credit for things that have already happened to players who rebound a lot, and if I was proven wrong, I wouldn't get to write smug missives daily about how everybody is dumber than I am. Regression Analysis something something." Even so, Berri did stumble upon some nugget of truth in his haste to wuss out; the institution of prediction can indeed ruin the game we love.

It used to be that we got our predictions from only a few sources; at the beginning of the year, an esteemed analyst on TV or in a newspaper would tell you what he thought would happen, we'd consequently tell our friends what we thought would happen, and then the season would happen, most of us would invariably be wrong, and our prior predictions would quickly be swept into the dustbin as we made new ones and collectively pretended that the old ones never existed.




























Nowadays, things are different; studio shows are dutiful about recording the predictions their pundits make and delight in replaying them when the broadcasters are proven wrong; hence, Charles Barkley was held accountable for his prediction that the Mavericks would beat the Warriors four consecutive times after the lost game 1. The internet has changed everything on this front as well; instead of having to leaf through old newspapers, we can find Charlie Rosen's prediction that LeBron would disappoint, Bill Simmons' prediction that passing up Jay Williams for Yao Ming would be an unmitigated disaster, or Chad Ford apologizing for hyping Darko with a few clicks of the mouse. Hell, if you were so inclined, you could find a post I wrote on a Cavaliers message board a year ago defending signing Larry Hughes over Michael Redd. It's horrifying just how often predictions made by the supposed literati of sports turn out wrong; say what you will about Bill Simmons, but it's clear he spends more time watching and thinking about professional football than anybody this side of Ron Jaworski, and he can't seem to crack .500 picking football games against the spread.
















However accountability of predictions has affected the way we view sportswriters, it's far more important how it affects us as fans. This year, I picked up fantasy basketball for the first time in a few years, and what is fantasy basketball but a measure of how good the average fan is at predicting what is to come in the season ahead? Because of my fantasy team, I'm rooting for the Jazz, who knocked my beloved Warriors out of the playoffs and feature Carlos Boozer, the man who may have cost LeBron his legacy, in a prominent role, because Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, who I believe now only feels loyalty to his fantasy owners, are prominent members of my team. The league isn't even for money; it's just a casual Yahoo! league between a few amateur internet basketball writers. Even so, the need to have my predictions validated trumps all of my previous hard-won loyalties.












The compulsion to be right about my predictions and thus be recognized as some sort of authority on this game has even ruined what should be one of the year's best storylines for me. The first real exposure I got writing about basketball, indeed the first time I got my name mentioned by this site, was over a piece I wrote saying how Kevin Durant would disappoint us all. When I originally wrote the post, I made sure to mention that I hoped I would be wrong, and that Durant would shine as bright as we all hoped he would; in retrospect, I wasn't being truthful with my readers or myself. Maybe it was all the commenters who called me an idiot for doubting KD, but more likely it was my own arrogance; in any case, while I hate myself for doing it, I'm rooting against Durant.

I'd like to say that LeBron's my favorite athlete because he really does redefine what we think it's possible for a basketball player to do, making jaw-dropping plays regularly and emulating Jordan's dominance with none of his subtlety; where Jordan had beautiful change of direction ability and quickness, an unstoppable mid-range jumper, and the intensity to make sure his team would always come out on top, LeBron simply is a different kind of athlete than everyone else on the floor with him, combining size, speed, strength, and skill in a way that has never been fathomed before. Again, that's why I tell people LeBron's my favorite player; in reality, it's probably because when LeBron dominates, the lines all seem to finally fit between what I thought would happen and what's actually happening, validating the 14-year old sports fanatic in me's wildest dreams.

Likewise, I'd like to say that I've never quite embraced Dwayne Wade because of his style of play, which is a calculated assault to draw fouls instead of LeBron's glorious improvised spurts of the impossible, and the free pass he's gotten from the media since day one, never encountering the kind of scrutiny for a shaky outside jumper or an inability to stay on the court that LeBron has gotten for wearing the wrong hat. In reality, Wade threatens the order of my LeBron-centric universe, and I can only really appreciate players who aren't in direct competition with LeBron for the heir to the Jordan throne, which is why I've come to love Carmelo, Gilbert, and Amare so much in recent years while remaining lukewarm about Kobe and Wade.

This could be what lies at the media's fascination, and our fascination as fans in general, with phenoms like LeBron: we all make predictions, many of them positive, about guys who have hype built up around them as soon as they come into the league, so we magnify their triumphs and faults because at some level it's a reflection of whatever thoughts we formed about them. Despite our professed love for the underdog, we really only have a passing interest in them; as much as we love Jamario Moon, Earl Boykins, and those of their ilk we'll never be as attached to their successes and failures the way we are to LeBron's, Oden's, or even Kwame Brown's-we celebrate their achievements on a muted level (has Jemario gotten nearly as much attention as Kevin Durant, despite the fact that he's exceeded every possible expectation of him while Durant has failed to live up to his?), while accepting his failures wholeheartedly, because he's not playing with our money.
















Carlos Boozer could well be playing better basketball than Dwight Howard and Yao Ming right now, and he's certainly physically dominating enough to grab our attention, but his 2nd-round pedigree and injury-plagued early prime years have relegated him to being interesting mostly as LeBron's lost companion, while Ming and Howard are the shining hopes for big men in this league. It's not impossible for those who went under the radar early to blow up into superstars, but they generally have to do something spectacular, such as win two MVP awards, emerge as a franchise player as a teenager, or be Gilbert Arenas for us to put the kind of investment into them that we put into phenoms.
















Liberated fandom, is, in some ways, a scary thing; there's safety in sticking with your childhood team through thick and thin, as it's really not a reflection of you as a fan how well your anoited team does from year to year. By picking our favorite players and teams instead of having them handed to us, we accept more responsibility for how they do, which puts a pressure on us, driven by our need for confirmation of our beliefs, that was previously non-existent. It's natural to need to be right, but basketball is one of those rare areas where we should set aside our personal prejudices and vendettas and just allow the joy of the game to wash over us; such is the glory of liberated fandom, and that is what I shall continue to preach during my time at Free Darko while trying to cure myself of my own prejudices. After all, it's all about Love. (Not Kevin Love, mind you; he's not athletic enough to succeed in the NBA, and NBA defenders are fast enough to cut off his outlet-passing game.)

11.22.2007

Government Bathe


I'm thankful for this ^ and Jamario Moon.

11.21.2007

The Past Will Never Forget #2



Sportsfans,

In our continued mining of Free Darko's past glory, we bring a few more blasts from the past to take you into the Thanksgiving Holiday.

--One of my favorite short posts of all time. This says it all: Shoals' epic response to when the Spurs signed Michael Finley.

--Timely football rumblings from Shoals and Mark Clayton.

--Rocco Chappelle. Come home NOW.

11.20.2007

Chiron's Undelivered Lesson

My impression of Paul Pierce crystallized upon his ejection from game six of the 1st round of the 2005 playoffs. With the Pacers down one with a few seconds remaining, Jamal Tinsley, fat Snidely Whiplash that he is, intentionally fouled Pierce by punching him in the neck. Pierce, his brain undoubtedly occupied with the unending task of repressing any expression of joy, responded by shoving Tinsley, drawing his second tech, and giving Indiana the free point that would send the game to overtime. Pierce’s actions, both inexplicable and unforgivable, revealed an undeniable psychological weakness and egotism that I was sure would forever bring down his game.

Last Tuesday, a similar circumstance arose at Conseco Fieldhouse. As Pierce drove to the hoop, Tinsley smacked him hard across the face. Immediately, Pierce turned towards Tinsley, his usual scowl replaced by what those in the business of psychology would call “the crazy eyes.” Yet miraculously, Pierce managed to stifle his rage, approach the free-throw line, and drop to the floor for a couple of push-ups. While no one would confuse his emotional state with Zen-like calm, he seemed able to control his temper, rather than the usual converse. After draining both free throws, he then proceeded to score 13 points in the next three minutes.

While several newspapers interpreted the push-ups as an attempt to show up the Indiana crowd, in a radio interview after the game, Pierce revealed that they served the sole purpose of managing his anger. The interviewer, sounding as shocked as I was at Pierce’s newfound sense of self-restraint, asked where he learned such a coping skill and Pierce replied that Kevin Garnett had suggested the approach earlier in the season. Garnet managed the impossible; he convinced Pierce, a star who for years had seemed largely immune to discipline and reason, to show some discipline and act reasonably, thus displaying the true and unique nature of KG’s leadership.

Generally, leaders in the NBA have been identified by their ability to “make their teammates better,” a quality that has been most frequently bestowed upon the three Golden Age superstars. On the Showtime Lakers teams, Magic Johnson acted as drill sergeant, mocking players who arrived late to practice or demonstrated any lack of effort. Jordan and Bird took similar, but more passive-aggressive approaches to ensuring that their teammates played to their liking. This Machiavellian attitude could not have yielded success without two prevailing facts: each leader was undeniably the dominant force on their team and their teammates relied disproportionately upon each leader to attain their own career goals (money, rings, etc.). Expectedly, the effects of this deified trio’s leadership were ephemeral at best. Despite years of Jordan’s influence, Pippen behaved childishly in his absence, most famously refusing to enter a playoff game upon learning that the final play would be run for Toni Kukoc.

Leadership that depended on fear and dominance would tear apart a team centered around roughly equal stars. Yet KG leads, not from a position of superiority, but as a peer among stars. He helped Pierce control himself without even needing to engage him in the moment. Garnett is so respected among his teammates that a player as demonstrably self-centered as Pierce managed to take a somewhat ridiculous suggestion from a peer completely seriously. In a similar situation, Jordan or Magic probably would have barked at Pierce to settle him, or in their minds, put him in his place, a tactic that I imagine only would have intensified his rage. Instead, Garnett found an appropriate time to privately suggest to Pierce an alternative response to a cheap shot and managed to reach him without offending him. I’m not suggesting that Pierce doesn’t want to become a better player, his effort and work ethic are self-evident. However, the process of changing problem behaviors of someone whose sense of self on the court is so closely tied to his alpha status requires a delicate touch from a non-threatening source who commands a great deal of respect. I can’t imagine any player other than Garnet could fill that role.

Jordan, Bird, and Magic did indeed elevate the play of their teammates, both by aiding extrinsic motivation and by occupying opponents so much that the game literally came easier to their less-talented compatriots. While Garnett is a prodigious talent, defenses don’t regard him the same way they did Jordan, yet his Celtics teammates obviously seem to be elevating their games in response to him. Instead of playing the role of ruthless dictator, Garnett has deftly dealt with those around him, particularly the volatile Pierce, who has shown greater restraint in both his temper and his shot selection. Garnett seems to reach and motivate his teammates in ways few other players or even coaches can, helping them change their behavior without threatening their self-respect.

In the past, Garnett has been surrounded by teammates who lacked either the ability or desire to help win a championship. In Pierce, he’s paired with a player who wants to and can win, but has never demonstrated the maturity to do so. When properly motivated, Pierce has the ability to take over a game in ways that elude even the likes of KG and Ray Allen. Only by breaking the traditional mold of NBA leadership, can Garnett get the most out of Pierce and in so doing, has managed to help turn his fragility into strength.


11.19.2007

The Man Whose Head Expanded



On Wednesday night, LeBron James took 27 shots on his way to 39 points and a Cavs loss. While it’s difficult to chastise the man for not getting the Lebronettes involved given that he had 14 assists, that sort of behavior, when it comes from a lesser player, is usually termed selfishness. Another of the league’s beacons of hope, Kevin Durant, regularly shoots a sub-40 percentage in losing causes. Once again, that performance will not go criticized. The selfish ballplayer remains one of the strongest mainstream clichés of the Association, but we refuse to accept it in regards to our superstars and brightest prospects. How can something so often reviled become a necessary characteristic of the most appreciated people in the NBA?

LeBron’s situation can be handled fairly easily. As Preordained Messiah #1, he operates within an almost-limitless field — the high volume of shots he takes, particularly on this talent-deprived edition of the Cleve, is simply a manifestation of his divinely foreseen narrative. It is quite telling that LBJ has been criticized most often for not taking shots in crunch time. For him, selfishness is a birthright, the refutation of which represents a loogie in the face of the order that has developed him since his youth. A powerful drive into traffic symbolizes the fulfillment of the prophecy, not egotistical exhibitions.

Durant presents a trickier case, but his acceptance also partially hinges on the establishment. In a way, KD’s smoothness renders all arguments against him moot; it doesn’t matter what he forces as long as the jumpers and drives remain effortless. On a deeper level, though, Durant’s shot-taking is built into the Sonics’ system. Presti’s Purge effectively handed the team over to the young star, expressing a need to see him grow into the role of savior laterally instead of vertically. On a team of Delontes and Wallies, Durant must learn how to be The Man on his own instead of by learning from a veteran. Without his selfishness, Seattle would have no culturally acceptable identity or purpose.



For a successful star-driven team, then, selfishness is in some way a prerequisite. (Nash and Duncan are the obvious counterarguments, but I’d submit that their selflessness has become so necessary to the propagation of their myths that the need to maintain those perceptions has somehow become selfish. Alas, those are stories for other times.) The alpha dog who thrives within that structure acts selfishly in that he takes the majority of the shots and gets most of the credit, but he cannot be termed as such unless he goes well beyond the parameters (in either direction) of his role. For instance, Kobe Bryant often gets called ballswine for taking many shots with few assists, even if the latter stat depends on the performances of his frequently inept (in the past, at least) teammates. Additionally, Kobe’s panoramic assertiveness is more identifiable as selfishness in the strictest definition of the term. His obsessive need to transcend history through his game – as argued on this site before, to rewrite tradition – can be seen as pompous even though he clearly respects those who came before him. The deeply personal nature of Kobe’s struggle causes it to read as much more selfish than the systematically accepted roles of LBJ and KD. However, as is the case with LeBron and Durant, the style and narrative in which Kobe – or any superstar – carries out the selfish impulse affect our willingness to accept that necessary character trait.

Lesser players function along similar lines, although they must be more strenuously pilloried for their transgressions against the system. JR Smith’s questionable shots in last year’s playoffs would not have been rejected quite so fervently if they’d come from Melo. Yet JR’s actions were damning because he failed, not because he went beyond his presumed role.

Victories, then, must play some part in the reception of the selfish player, and it is here that we turn to unsuccessful teams. The hierarchies of lottery teams are necessarily vaguer than those of contenders, but they do still exist. Teams like the Sonics – and, not so long ago, the Cavs – tailor these systems to their presumed next-wave heroes, the players who will bring clarity to these murky franchises once they ascend to higher levels of stardom.



More unlucky teams create their own very different ways of legitimizing behavior that respect the difficulties they face as perennial losers. A few years ago, Junior Dunleavy took on the role of late-game assassin for the Warriors. Scores of airballs later, I found myself upset at him for missing those potential game-winners, yet not for his chucking those shots in the first place. The team’s lackluster personnel demanded that he play a role in crunch time – the onus for that problem rested on the front office’s collective shoulders. Simultaneously selfish and limited players on terrible teams act out of necessity far more often than similar players, which necessarily mitigates the perceived obscenity of the act.

Unfortunately, that model assumes that every bad franchise functions like that directionless version of the Warriors. Most lottery teams, however dire their straits, attack with some sort of plan, even if they are often half-baked. The selfish player can easily run afoul of youth movements or shifts in strategy, as in the case of Ricky Davis in Minnesota. (The funniest thing about the Davis trade, of course, is that Minnesota got Walker back in return, but trading a roadblock for a traffic cone is still progress in the mind of an evolving team.)



If Ricky had stayed with the Wolves, though, could we really have gotten angry at him for taking lots of shots when the losses were all but guaranteed? After all, players can only work with what they’re given, and Davis would have been given a situation in which he was one of a few established players on a team grasping for positives. Furthermore, selfishness is not entirely determined by the genetic lottery – these players think highly of themselves due to years of success in church leagues, pickup games, grade school, middle school, high school, select camps, AAU tournaments, college ball, and, in the rarest of cases, the NBA. At some point, the majority of players are bound to realize that they’re no longer without peer, but that does not preclude a situation like that in Minnesota from unleashing old habits.

Any moderately successful professional athlete, no matter his stature, believes in his ability to be a worthwhile figure on any team; if he didn’t, he simply wouldn’t ever have become a member of the player’s association. On a basic level, someone has to score points on a bad team, but Ricky Davis’s compulsion to shoot goes well beyond necessity. His journey to his current status required selfishness, so it follows that, as one of the few established players on an awful team, he would enact the same personality traits that allowed him to succeed when similar lower levels of the game. Like a small-scale Kobe, Davis appears exceedingly more selfish than others on his level because he embraces the role of top dog with a bear hug instead of a weak handshake, but the baseline attribute still resides in all players.

With legitimate options in low supply, the selfish player must strive to prove his legitimacy when offered the chance to do so. Scold him for failing, if you must, but not for seizing the opportunity. The existence of that unfortunate situation is not the problem of the player; it is a sign of a lack of institutional control that forces these players into taking seemingly desperate measures. Selfishness is not an outlying characteristic, but it only becomes identifiable when the hierarchies of franchises fail the individuals they’re supposed to protect.

11.16.2007

Pierce That Aura



We might have something later today, but right now I need your help.

Yardbarker has arranged for me to interview Carmelo Anthony, and they want me to do it with an FD-ish slant. Within the realm of reason, of course. So at some point in the next few weeks—dates are still fluid—I'll be flown somewhere to conduct a sit-down with Melo.

Any questions you all wanted asked? I ask this both out of generosity, and out of the need for extra brainstorming. Don't even bother with Wire-related questions, I think I'm covered on that front.

11.14.2007

The Past Will Never Forget #1



A few links of note:

-We now have a bi-weekly column on Deadspin. Here's my first toss.

-I'm quited pleased with today's Longform, which reconsiders Melo/Bron.

-Not only did Adande shout us out—he asked Phil Jackson some questions about Woody Allen's deleted philosophers/Knicks scene.

I would also like to announce a new feature called, I guess, "The Past Will Never Forget." Or "forgive," I'm not settled on one yet. This hopes to address the utter unnavigability of this site's archive, as well as the fact that no one read us in 2005. Periodically, I'll dig up some links to older material that still stands up well today. If you've already seen it, please reminisce about those foregone days.

-Reading Yglesias's epic guest appearance, I was reminded of my own, far less cogent, take on the NBA's place in the imperial prophecy.

-Speaking of other countries, here's the EVERY PLAYER PREVIEW done for Euros.

-These tales of the wild, crazy David Harrison have long since disappeared from the web, so thank Dr. LIC for actually pasting some into his post.

-Lastly, we revisit our first ever guest blogger: Fran Vazquez, who offered us a diary of his day in the draft (1, 2, 3).

UPDATE: HAWKS/BOBCATS TONIGHT!!!!! Sadly, I have to go to the doctor and will probably have to watch it later online. And yes, I did leave it off of my AOL picks; I didn't want to get in the habit of spotlighting the Hawks every week. Of course, I felt so bad about it that I promptly repressed this knowledge until Silverbird reminded me.

11.13.2007

Brett Ashley Was A Good Time

After watching the Lakers lose to New Orleans last week, I finally figured it out: Kobe is basketball's answer to Jay Gatsby. Jim Gatz, singularly driven to achieve his holy grail, reinvented himself through hard work and sheer force of will into Jay Gatsby, the ultra-wealthy and mysterious baron of West Egg, armed now with everything he needed to obtain that haunted him. So it is with Kobe and his (Shaq-less) pursuit of Jordan's legacy.



When I first shot this one along to Shoals, he mentioned that since Kobe comes from a privileged background, and had a father who played professional basketball, his seemed anything but a rags-to-riches story, and this article turned from a lengthy dissection of Kobe's Gatsby-like doomed pursuit of immortality (which can be seen in its original form on SportsHub LA), to something altogether different. When Shoals mentioned how the facts of Kobe's life don't seem to jive with Gatsby's, we realized that the NBA's class hierarchy has little, if nothing to do at all, with the rest of the world's definition of an advantaged upbringing: Ricky Davis is seen as spoiled, Luke Walton is an accepted member of the proletariat, and Bill Lambeer, the ultimate blue-collar player, was the only player in the NBA whose father made more than he did.

Clearly, the NBA version of class has nothing to do with how rich your parents actually are; men who grew up in the projects are looked at like lazy rich kids, and men who grew up in the suburbs are looked at as having overcome their circumstances to succeed. Carter touched upon the racial implications of "hustle players" in his post about Turiaf, and a lot of them carry over to the rich/poor, label, as well as the "demeanor defining game" effect I talked about in my O.J. post, (imagine how differently we'd see Barbosa if he wasn't so damn likeable; he's lightning-fast, is a great shooter, but hasn't figured out how to involve his teammates and will follow up 30-point explosions with 8-point wimpers.) but there do seem to be some consistent characteristics in players leading to their definition as bourgeois or proletariat.



Point guards are almost invariably proletariat, with the "privileged" ones being the guys with the ability to split double-teams, thread the needle with their passes, and make an uptempo attack work; the most bourgeois point guard is probably the aforementioned Chris Paul, with Nash's lack of athleticism, willingness to break his nose, and all-around "whiteness" granting him a blue-collar label even though he doesn't really play defense or look for contact that often. Deron Williams' need to overcome his slightly voluptuous figure and his place in Jerry Sloan's rigid system likewise makes him a bit more working-class than Paul, as does Jason Kidd's linebacker body and hard-nosed defense. Tony Parker is as physical of a scorer at the point as you'll find, and has put in some good old-fashioned work on his jumper, but his immense natural talent, as well as the fact he's married to Eva Longoria, keeps him from joining the working class.

As the most athletic points tend to be the best defenders, defense is much less of a factor in being blue-collar than it is with other positions, and hence Devin Harris, Rajon Rondo, Marcus Banks, and our beloved Smush have never been embraced as scrappers. The easiest way to be a "hard-worker" as a point guard is to:

-Pass a lot
-Be white and unathletic

Hence the blue-collar points are guys like Hinrich, Ridnour, Nash, Farmar, Steve Blake, and the unfortunately on hiatus Jared Jordan. Despite wild differences in shooting ability, defensive ability, and willingness to scrap, relying on your passing ability to get by despite limited athleticism is always a good way for a point guard to get the Marxian seal of approval.

The best way to be a member of the "lazy rich" as a point guard is to not pass as much as you should or make a lot of turnovers, which is why Telfair, Terry, Francis, Arroyo, and Starbury have all hit some static in their careers. Also, it's not a good idea to be one of the most promising points in the league and then eat your way into mediocrity. (Tinsley.) Even though Telfair and Starbury grew up in the projects of Coney Island, Terry was one of 10 kids raised by a single mother, Francis had to toil in Juco purgatory before reaching the University of Maryland, and Arroyo is from a providence in Puerto Rico with a blank under Business, Agriculture, and Education on Wikipedia, they have been seen as sons of privilege as soon as they hit the NBA.



With perimeter players, it's a little simpler, as athleticism reigns so supreme on the perimeter; the most bourgeois perimeter player is definitely LeBron, due to the virtue of the sheer impossibility of his gifts. The two easiest ways to be "blue-collar" are to excel at spot-up shooting and/or defense; hence, our favorite scrappers are Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen, and we have soft spots in our hearts for guys like Jason Kapono and Eduardo Najera. Since pure athleticism is more important on the perimeter than anywhere else, having tremendous athleticism and failing to dominate is the easiest way to get the "lazy rich" label; see D-Miles, Ricky Davis, J.R. Smith, Gerald Green, Martell Webster, Dorell Wright, and Travis Outlaw; they are the perimeter players most often accused of squandering their gifts, and even though many of them are excellent shooters/role players, the burden of expectations their gifts bring them will prevent them from being embraced like Anthony Parker, Kyle Korver, Ime Udoka, and Matt Carroll have been.

Big men are, again, different; being a great shooter as a big is probably the easiest way to not be a member of the proletariat. Unlike perimeter players, where an advanced knowledge of fadeaways and jab-steps will invariably lead you to Dick Vitale's good graces, offensive artistry from a big man has an almost directly inverse relationship to getting the label of "maximizing your talent."-see Randolph, Okur, 'Sheed, Gasol, Amare, and Yao, whose ability to score in various ways near and away from the basket has led to all of them being labeled "soft" at one point or another. Even McHale, the undisputed master of all things post-move related, was thought to be lazy by none other than Larry Bird, and Wilt, the original gracefully forceful big, dealt with laziness whispers his whole career.

Defense and rebounding is the key to being a proletarian big; since all big men are such freaks physically, being under-athletic doesn't work, especially since most slower big men are "soft" perimeter shooters anyways. Occasionally, a big will get a ticket to the proletariat by being undersized (Wallace, Ben), but a lot of undersized true bigs are such mind-bendingly athletic freaks (Maxiell, Ty Thomas, Josh Smith), that they don't get much sympathy either. Poor shooting, even from the free throw line, and a lack of post moves can be forgiven so long as a big is willing to mix it up in the paint and grab boards; hence, we love Chandler, Big Ben, Zydrunas, Biedrins, and David Lee. The upper-class for big men is inhabited by those who are able to build upon a base of defense, rebounding, and scoring at a high percentage around the basket to become big-time scorers as well; Duncan, Garnett, and classic Shaq. Ignoring your defense and rebounding, and hanging out around the perimeter are the best ways to become "lazy rich" as a big.

At the end of the day, the logic of what is given and what is earned in the NBA will always be a little backwards; we all think that we could shoot better than Rajon Rondo if we worked hard someone was giving us $3 million dollars to do it, but would we be as good as Kyle Korver? For that matter, would we be Rajon Rondo? Is Steve Nash really the hardest worker there is, or was he blessed with eyes in the back of his head like Darius Miles was blessed with the ability to get his head eye level with the rim? In what world can Bill Walton's son ever be considered less privileged than Carmelo Anthony? How is it that Kobe can spend 12 hours a day shooting fadeaways in the off-season and still have a resume less complete than a man who pretends to be a policeman in the off-season? That's the beauty and tragedy of the NBA; wherever you come from, you're still flat broke all over again 82 times every year.

11.12.2007

A Break From Dawn



First, a link: This blog PhDribble is really good, especially when he lets loose with some withering knowledge on Chinese history and Yao, or Yao/Yi.

Despite the omniscient voice and eye-of-the-cosmos density, I'm actually a very insecure person. No, please, don't drop dead with surprise. I spend at least a third of my life worried about the problem of authority in basketball writing, especially when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts stuff. On any given night, I'll watch excerpts of about a third of the schedule, less if there's one worth seeing through from start to finish. I'm fine with this as a reasonable level of commitment; the yoke of Liberated Fandom demands no less, since I can't take the homer's grease-lined path. And I know that only one man watches every single game, and I would never purport to approach Kelly Dwyer's level of know-how.

I think I'm at peace with this now, but along the way I've done a lot of "what is basketball knowledge?" soul-searching. Like what do I need in the way of evidence to make claims about teams, and what sort of viewing counts toward this? I'm still a strong proponent of going distraction-free, since this sport doesn't lend itself to piece-meal apprehension. But the busier I am, and the more I feel compelled to keep an eye on, the less and less of an option this is. It's a compromised experience, to be sure, and yet at the same time it's almost like a bodily function. I'm not really watching for poetry or chills, but for the steady stream of information it provides. While I might be missing the holistic brilliance, keeping League Pass open on my desktop allows me to mainline the basketball ones and zeros I need.



However, there's a hitch in this ticker-like set-up, and it comes mostly from the way certain teams are constructed. There's a fine line between avoiding analytic cliche and working within obviously important themes or topics. I don't buy a lot of the expert judgments on, say, the Phoenix Suns, but that doesn't mean I can avoid addressing these discursive nodes. Excuse a former grad student his turn of phrase; when we watch well-publicized teams, the channels of information are, to some degree, already outlined by discussions in the media, on blogs, and among friends. That's not to say that we can't have an original thought when watching Steve Nash, but at least some part of brain is preoccupied. After all, it takes some energy to sort and apply each play to what we know, or think we know, or think others don't know, about such a endlessly scrutinized basketball object.

On the other hand, when Charlotte/Atlanta takes the screen, the sense of open space and freedom can be almost overwhelming, like listening to Husker Du in a clean room. You've got two choices--ignore the game completely, or fully invest yourself in making some sense of what's transpiring in front of you. What's more, there's very little orthodoxy to tether your thinking. It's easy to imagine that Josh Smith's inconsistency is something remarkable and possibly beautiful, since you so rarely hear anyone address it. In a way, it's less real than Gilbert Arenas's off-nights, but then again, it's also more so. You can take your sports endlessly mediated and totally intelligible, or you can stand before the utter, full strangeness of third-tier teams and obscure players.



That's one way in which, forever and a day, FreeDarko differs from music or art snobbery. Those practices prize discipline and control, the posture of having the entire world in their palms. As I said eons ago, I watch this game to be surprised and intrigued, to have some players exist for me as open questions or immodest ghosts. The unknown is the necessary prelude to the most overwhelming sense of discovery, of coming face to face with something for the first time. In a perfect world, every game I watch would smack me across the face like this. And I think it could, if I lived an untroubled, unbusy life surrounded hedgehogs and downers. Given the conditions on the ground, I thank the league every day for these bounties of League pass, that keep me honest and in the clearing of enlightenment.

11.08.2007

With feathers

Before we begin, make sure you check out Bethlehem Shoals in a special guest appearance with MJD and Danks on the Postin' Up Podcast!

I may be the only regular contributor to FreeDarko without any Jewish blood, but that shameful fact doesn't mean I am any less of a Woody Allen fanboy than the rest of the crew. Although I've seen "Annie Hall" many times, I only recently learned the story of how it went from a two hour and twenty minute examination of Allen's neuroses (proposed title: "Anhedonia") to the prototypical romantic comedy we all know and love (proposed title: "Me and My Goy"). In his book When the Shooting Stops, Ralph Rosenblum recounts how, in order to maintain a coherent narrative, he and Allen had to cut out many surrealistic scenes from the film, including one featuring five famous philosophers playing basketball against the actual New York Knicks.

Allen has been notoriously reluctant to include any deleted scenes in DVD editions of his work, so the chances of anyone getting to analyze the form on Kant's jumpshot are extremely slim. (If anyone can get this on YouTube, you will have FreeDarko's eternal gratitude and enough FD t-shirts to clothe your family for generations.) Without the film, we will have to rely on Rosenblum's memory of the play call:

Knicks ball - out of bounds - Jackson to Bradley - shot! No good! Rebound - Kirkegaard. Passes to Nietzsche - fast break to Kafka! Top of the key - it's Kafka and Alvy - all alone - they're both gripped with anxiety - and guilt - and neither can shoot! Now Earl Monroe steals it! And the Knicks have a four on two




The scene also comes up in an amazing piece on the Knicks that Allen wrote for the Guardian a few years back, which Dr. LIC recently found. He provides some explanation for how he came up with the idea and also gives the result of the game!

I was extolling the concept of the physical over the cerebral, so I wrote a fantasy basketball game in which all the great thinkers of history - Kant and Nietzsche and Kirkegaard - played against the Knicks. I cast actors who looked like those philosophers to play those roles and they played against the real Knicks. We used the players on the team at that time including Earl, Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier, and we shot it inside Madison Square Garden after the last game of the season. Of course the Knicks were smooth and beat the philosophers easily; all their cerebration was impotent against the Knicks.

The essay is full of interesting facts (he had Knicks season tickets with Diane Keaton; he named an adopted son after Moses Malone), but what struck me most was his discussion of basketball's unique appeal, which absolutely cements his status as FreeDarko precursor:

I love the showmen in basketball, the extrovert players....Basketball is a game where individual style comes into play....In basketball now, these kids learn in the schoolyard and develop their own styles and rhythms and moves....Just as Marlon Brando had this highly-individual, original style which was like no one else's and everything he did was very poetic, so Michael Jordan was something else.

Is basketball poetry? Is it method acting? Is it jazz? None of these serve as the perfect comparison, but it's clear to me and Woody that basketball is an art form unlike any other in American sport. And for that reason, I'm looking forward to a winter of watching Kevin Durant, The Warriors, and other assorted favorites. I know they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd and, but uh, I guess we keep going through it...because...most of us need the eggs.

We Dance to All the Wrong Songs



As some of our most tried and true idols begin to lose some of their luster, now more than ever we must focus on the construction of the mythology of tomorrow. Even in its darkest hours, this will always be a league of heroes, both big and small, worthy of celebration. In serious need of breaking into that canon is the mythical beast that is Ronny Turiaf. During his first year and a half in the league, he perfected the role of the bench cheerleader. Now, in just his second full season, this is the year he makes the leap from local fan favorite to league-wide cult hero while revolutionizing what a "hustle player" should be.



When Ronny Turiaf's promotion to the starting lineup was first announced, my immediate concern was not of his absurd foul rate or even the fulfillment of the TOIH prophecy, but of how the bench would handle his absence. By which I mean, not so much how the second unit would adjust to not having Ronny around to provide the spark, but how the cluster of individuals still in warm-ups would sustain its influence on the ebb and flow of the game if Ronny was checked in rather than busting loose on the sidelines during key stretches.

We hear about a player's off-court issues or on-court personality, but the Turiafs of the world remind us of the oft-ignored side-of-court dimension. For the majority of last year I thought of Ronny as a human-like mascot that was allowed to wander onto the floor occasionally for reasons unknown. But in his role as a sidelined sideshow he is by no means a purely ornamental decoration; there is both utilitarian and aesthetic value to Ronny's out-of-bounds outbursts.

While previous bench favorites such as Mark Madsen rarely succeeded at eliciting more than giggles, Ronny's celebrations are capable of consistently providing a shot of adrenaline for the fans, himself, and his teammates. I firmly believe that he more than once spirited the crowd and team to victory last year from the end of the bench.



All that said, my initial trepidation about the effect of an increase in playing time and the corresponding loss of much needed towel-waving time was clearly misguided. First off, he hasn't quite worked out that foul rate issue, guaranteeing he'll continue to have at least 20 minutes a night not-so-firmly planted to the pine. The fact that he enthusiastically takes credit for every foul in his vicinity, while badass in its distinct way, might not be helping that situation. More importantly, however, what Ronny accomplishes on the court can't really be viewed in any way except as an extension of his sideline antics. Whether it's by committing an uncalled technical after every dunk, roaring with each blocked shot, or nearly coming to blows with teammates over loose balls, Ronny has thankfully discovered the basketball equivalent of this:



Which, considering the traditional interpretations of his role in the team hierarchy, is a revolutionary accomplishment. Perhaps unfairly based on the überwhiteness of dudes like David Lee, the prototypical energy guy has always been tied to Protestant work ethic, hustling on rebounding and defense, and above all else, selflessness. In essence, playing basketball "the way it was meant to be played" and giving the 11-foot-rim crowd boners. While Ronny undeniably incorporates all those features in his game, he has also injected equal parts swag and absurdity, escaping the banality of those that came before him.

The fact that his heart was literally too big to play basketball only enhances his myth. He both watches and plays the game with an enthusiasm so contagious that even Kobe can't help but shift from smirk to smile in his presence. Ronny transcends to a higher order of being than hustle players by bringing a spirituality typically reserved for our stars to a role typically reserved for minutes-grubbing materialists like Brian Cardinal. He does the dirty work that traditionalists ooze over with a style that demands attention and respect, making him the olive branch extended across the aisle, capable of bringing joy to all sides.

11.07.2007

FD Guest Lecture: Love, Basketball and Imperialism



When it rains, it pours. Today, some far-reaching thoughts from Matthew Yglesias, whose eponym now calls The Atlantic home. And if you haven't already, take a look at Matt Ufford's ode to Adrian Peterson.

When I was approached about writing a guest post for FreeDarko my first thought was, naturally, "of course I'll do it, what an excellent opportunity to help promote my forthcoming book." Unfortunately, the book in question won't be released until late April and it's about American foreign policy. The good news is that all things in this world are connected — particularly sports and American empire.

In particular, the country is, at the moments, under the grips of a dubious false choice between baseball and football, between imperialism and isolationism. The term rankles many in the American context, but there can be little doubt that it fits. As John Judis argues in The American Prospect's current issue:
There were two kinds of imperial rule: direct, where the colonial power assigned an administrator -- a viceroy or proconsul -- who ran the country directly; and indirect, where the colonial power used its financial and military power to prop up a native administration that did its bidding and to prevent the rise of governments that did not. The latter kind of imperial rule was developed by the United States in Cuba in 1901 after Roosevelt's Secretary of War Elihu Root realized that direct rule could bring war and rebellion, as it had done, to the McKinley administration's surprise, in the Philippines.
Not coincidentally, they play a lot of baseball in Cuba. Similarly, many of our Major League Baseball players hail from the Dominican Republic, a country also subject to indirect imperial rule through the US-Dominican Treaty for Assistance in Governing during the early twentieth century. On the pacific rim, too, one finds baseball in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan -- all states bound to the United States by military garrisons and close defense ties. Everywhere around the globe baseball follows the American flag or, more precisely, the American military as its tentacles reach out.



Eventually, the United States largely moved beyond imperialism as an instrument of national strategy, but baseball itself lagged on as a legacy of that period. Meanwhile, in January of 2001, George W. Bush found himself inaugurated as President of the United States. Most observers assumed at the time that his foreign policy judgment would track the sort of prudent statesmanship associated with his father, with Bush family retainer James Baker, and with incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell. A more insightful observer would have noted that Bush was the first former owner of a baseball franchise to occupy the White House and known accordingly that his election, in fact, heralded a return to the imperialism of the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations.

Thus, not only the invasion of Iraq, but also a broader project to impose upon the world a series of unequal bargains in which the United States and key proxies like Israel thumb our noses at the Non-Proliferation Treaty while threatening
World War III
unless Iran is prevented not only from building a nuclear weapon, but even from gaining "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

Meanwhile, the powers that be would like us to believe that there is only one alternative. As hawkish senator Joe Lieberman told my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg when he was reporting for The New Yorker, "A lot of Democrats are essentially pacifists and somewhat isolationist," with his particular beef in this instance being a Ted Kennedy proposal to deny Bush funding for the troop "surge" that took place earlier this year.

They want us to think, in short, that the only alternative to baseball's dreams of conquest is the splendid isolation of football -- America alone, padded and helmeted, marching to the beat of our own drummer while the rest of the world tries to figure out what a "yard" is.



The truth, however, is that an alternative does exist: liberal internationalism or, as they say in the sports world, basketball (hockey, of course, represents a dystopian vision of Canadian global hegemony, I don't know anything about soccer, and cricket is the rotting corpse of British imperialism) . Basketball, like baseball, is
a global sport but it rejects baseball's domineering imperial mien. Instead of spreading through conquest and invasion, basketball spreads through Joseph Nye's soft power, gaining adherents through the inherent appeal of this American cultural product, marking out of sphere of influence wider than the American military into the heart of rival great powers like the Soviet Union and Communist China.

Some would see mere coincidence here, but internationalism is in the game's very bones -- invented as it was by a Canadian living and working in the United States, basketball has always been a sport capable of looking across national boundaries and doing so in a spirit of cooperation.



And, indeed, basketball, like a foreign policy grounded in restraint, international law, and global cooperation through stable multi-national institutions has often been castigated as un-American, too dependent on funny-looking foreigners, counter-culture types (or both), and non-whites to succeed. The truth, however, is that these concerns reveal an untoward lack of confidence in American values and power. In the international arena, when the country has sought to rally the world around good causes -- the containment of Soviet Communism, rolling back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, closing the "ozone hole," saving the whales, eradicating polio, toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul -- it has not proven unduly difficult to do so through legitimate methods and with partners around the world. So, too, our finest sport acquires adherents without recourse to force of arms; adherents who flock to our shores and enhance our game.

What's more, when American and foreign join hands through pursuit of the hoop, they truly cooperate, working hand-in-hand on the court to pass, cut, drive, dish, pick, roll, and rotate. In baseball, players from around the world are brought together on a single team, but they remain an aggregate of individual performers, each pursuing his own interests and vision. On the court, by contrast, true cooperation is necessary. Nash and Amare, Duncan and Parker, Yao and T-Mac, aren't merely teammates but partners on the floor,creating an international coalition whose whole is the greater than the sum of its parts.



Since 1998 or so -- the year of NATO's multilateral use of limited force to advance global human rights norms, the year of Michael Jordan's sixth championship and second retirement -- internationalism, basketball, have fallen a bit into obscurity. But in today's perilous environment, we need them both more than ever.

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11.06.2007

FD Guest Lecture: WWPJD?



Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Ufford. You know him from Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather, and the absolutely indispensable The Prelude

Somewhere in the archives of this website rests a discussion, or possibly discussions, of how FreeDarko’s soi-disant ideal of style can be applied to the NFL, wherein the authors and commenters -- if memory serves, which it often doesn’t -- came to a general consensus resembling this: The NFL has Stars, yes, but football’s dependence on highly specialized roles working together to accomplish success reduces the ability of a single individual to take over a game. But running backs, it was argued and largely agreed upon, displayed the FD tenets of style, substance, and imagination on the canvas of athleticism with the most regularity (It’s true: I could watch silhouettes of NFL running backs at work and identify them with ease, but I can’t tell the difference between Tom Brady’s and Peyton Manning’s mechanics in the pocket).

When Shoals asked if I’d be interested in writing about a certain pro running back in Minnesota, I was inexplicably struck with dread. Superficially, a FreeDarko post about Adrian Peterson shouldn’t be too hard – announce that the rookie is Truth with a capital T, find a way to call Kierkegaard an asshole, and congratulate myself on the shiny execution of a hollow argument. Problem is, what AP does on the gridiron doesn’t translate to the confines of language.

Peterson’s style defies metaphor, a unique quality among running backs. When I think of Marion Barber, I picture a wrecking ball and pistons. Reggie Bush is a stillborn Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson is a river of electric current, and Shaun Alexander in his prime was the hippopotamus ballerina from Fantasia. Cedric Benson is Cold War-era Soviet architecture.



Peterson can’t be caged by such comparisons; you may as well try to tackle him in the open field. He possesses every tool a running back could possibly need: a field vision that can only be called prescient, an extra gear that he effortlessly slides in and out of to render established defensive geometry obsolete, the moves to make people miss in tight spaces, and speed and power that seem almost understated—the result is not the jaw-dropping flashiness of LDT or Barry Sanders, but a chameleonic, graceful efficiency dedicated solely to moving the ball forward.

Over at the opposite end of the blogorhood’s intellectual spectrum, we’ve taken to calling him Purple Jesus, and I want to believe there’s some accidental meaning in that despite our methodology. Simply because the nickname was borne of a victory-mad, beer-fueled Big Daddy Drew in between bouts of half-hearted onanism to particularly provocative beer commercials doesn’t mean it can’t shed light on what makes Peterson so special. Penicillin’s discovery was an accident, and the Rosetta Stone was found at a construction site.

I don’t want to push a sacrilegious agenda: Purple Jesus won’t give sight to the blind, raise the dead, or turn water into wine (I would, however, be unsurprised if he ran on water). But there’s something of the supernatural in the way he runs, something beyond the quicksilver and thunderclaps and burning magnesium of his effortless style. The sprawled bodies of missed tackles in his wake are the product of something more than fast-twitch muscles, a rigorous off-season weight program, and the bioelectric current running from his ocular nerves to his brain. God’s handiwork isn’t necessarily limited to the perfection of a Mojave sunset or the Technicolor life of a coral reef. Watch these videos, and find me a better adjective than “Biblical.”

11.05.2007

Gigabyte Don't


"I just realized that Ricky Davis got traded for Toine. That's like an international arms deal gone horribly wrong" --Bethlehem Shoals


Last night the Knicks played the Timberwolves, pitting the team constructed by Isiah Thomas against the team that Kevin McHale built with his own two hands. In my continuous defense of Thomas and McHale as perennial executives of the year, I wish to point to a brilliant interview on KFAN with the Twin Cities’ Britt Robson, my favorite local sportswriter. The interview discusses a psychoanalyzed character study of McHale, casting him as a stoic figure, an iron range folk hero, who has never showed one bit of concern about his plummeting status in Minnesota as the GM who stole XMas. The interview is really juicy especially with regard to McHale's views on Flip and KG. The bottom line is that McHale is a rugged individual. McHale has always wanted to play smashmouth basketball. He has said this time and time again. Smashmouth--going hard to the hole, boxing out, getting physical, playing with your back to the basket--this is not KG's game, and this is not Flip's game. KG and Flip are finesse guys. Always have been.

This is has been the fundamental rift between management and performance, and this has been at the root of so many of the Wolves' problems over the past few years (I also like McHale's general distaste for softbatch behavior...e.g. the allusion to him HATING Flip's continual reliance on the "underdog" excuse for losing playoff series--McHale was essentially saying that if your team wins 47 games and the other team wins 52 games, then shut the f*ck up about being an underdog. The difference is minimal.)



In this sense, can't we again lessen the blame on McHale for the Wolves' struggles? McHale is old school, tough, and he played to punch people in the mouth. That was his vision for the team that never emerged. Similarly, Isiah is trying to build an organization in correspondence with his status as a player: Zeke is doing anything he can to get ahead, continuously adjusting on the fly, snatching up malcontents who just want to score, anything to get a few more points on the board. Bottom line is: Just because RC Buford got creative and started sending scouts to Tajikistan, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with McHale and Isiah being trapped in Reaganomics basketball.



...One other thought crossed my mind while watching the Wolves last night. For the second game in a row, they kept it competitive for 42 minutes and eventually wilted. To broaden up the discussion, this is PRECISELY what I have seen during the first few Sonics games, and it is endlessly frustrating. Self-fulfilling prophecies run rampant in the NBA each year, with the anomaly being some team like last year's Warriors grabbing the league by the balls and yelling, "FREEDOM."

I'm sick of this "give the young team time to gel" b.s.. The Sonics are extremely extremely good, but aren't winning merely because they aren't expected to. Say nobody in the NBA knew anyone else's age, number of years in the league, or collegiate history, the Sonics would be destroying people. All of the talent is right there right now. One of my many lig-wide theories is that in the NBA every team is extremely good, we have hit a ceiling of talent--the only thing that separates teams whether you think you're supPOSED to win."



I guess my main beef with the NBA is that this year everyone seems terribly unimaginative, even mores than in years past. Nobody learned sh#t from last year's playoffs and they seem perfectly willing to let the Spurs just walk back in the door and reclaim the title. My favorite example is the Nuggets. They're a pretty hot pick to be contenders this year. But what makes them any closer to a title or even a first round playoff win than before? What makes George Karl think, "Yep, this is the year that the run-and-gun-play-no-defense style FINALLY beats the Spurs." Can someone please do something?

I have more rants on LeBron and on ESPN's incredibly amateurish coverage of the Kobe-to-Bulls story, but I'll save those for another day. Shall close with Nas' new video for "Surviving the Time" produced by Chris Webber. I continue to be amused by the Nas/Webber dyad in that is so depressing and fitting and has produced really brooding songs with really tinny drums. Nothing embodies Webber more than really tinny drums:




11.03.2007

Who Is Henry Winkler?



I need some help from those assembled. Since that Gilbert Arenas SI article hit yesterday, I've been dismayed in all walks of my life. Last night I nodded off several times in a movie theater, just because it felt better that way. I would stop myself and wonder if I care too much about the NBA, but then I recollect Philly after an Eagles loss. I'm the same as everyone else, but different, so that means denial isn't an option.

I'll take it objectively first: If you didn't know, in the piece Gilbert pulls no punches about Kobe, LeBron, Wade, and Isiah Thomas, the player. I can deal with the Kobe stuff, since from a logical standpoint it is stupid for Bryant to think he'll end up in a better situation. I'll take Arenas at his word that he wouldn't ask out of Washington, and acknowledge that Iverson toughed out the Sixers for a hell of a long time (albeit partly to prove that he would and could do so). Not so sure, though, if his "I have 20ppg scorers" boast fares so well. That team lives to put up points, and the offense is perilously low on method.

The Caron Butler comparison is a valid one, and it might be worth inserting Lamar Odom into that discussion, too. But the bottom line is that Arenas is in a system that allows for firepower, a fact that he can't exactly take credit for himself. What's more, he's a point guard, while those other three are not. If their role players aren't getting points, you also have to examine their team's distributors.



I can't find as much support for his contention that the Cavs system makes LeBron look better than he is. That team is stagnant and cursed; LeBron might get to shoot a lot, and operate like he's the only Cavalier on the floor. But with zero relief from the opposing team's full defensive focus, isn't it also forcing him to work harder? I guess the added drama helps LeBron's cause, as it probably should Kobe's. Still, this presumes that success in those cases is a given, that a star living in isolation (yes, grasp that double meaning) might not be in a deeply ambivalent featured role.

And then, there's the "I'm stronger and a better shooter than Isiah" quip. As The Recluse put it, Arenas is right, but that doesn't mean he's better than Zeke, which is the definite implication. That's part of what bugs me so much about his criticism of his fellow All-Stars: While I'm as high on Arenas as anyone wandering these waters, I keep his game in perspective. He can take over games, lead his team, and impact the action like few players can. But LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade aren't just elites in their day, they're 50 Greatest material. Sure, none of them are perfect, but point out flaws or shortcomings there is a little myopic or forest/trees-y. We could start that with Arenas and it would go on for days; he's still a serious force on the court, just a tier below those other three.



What stings most about this article, though, is what it says to me about today's Gilbert Arenas. I've always prized the way his idiosyncrasy lead to interesting basketball. Some could call him sloppy, rash, or sans conscience, but they'd be missing the positives that come with this "imperfect" approach. I'd take it a step further, and claim that almost every moving player is in some way imperfect; that's the price of honing a recognizable, focused style. If you want basketball perfection, look to Tim Duncan, or the implausible horizon that is LeBron's eternal potential. You'd think that Arenas, of all people, would refrain from holding up some absolute standard of evaulation--like it or not, here he's crafting his own, on-the-fly version of The Right Way.

Furthermore, this is all too indicative of Arenas's descent into. . . I don't know, disagreeableness? I liked him more when I realized that he wasn't some lovable, cuddly savant—this was a cocky, cold-blooded motherfucker whose ego had to compensate for neglect. Who played not just to prove himself, but to exact revenge on all those who'd doubted. Even once he'd blown up, I was fine with his boasting and bragging; Arenas's self-confidence bordered on parody, and very rarely seemed malicious, or even aware of the fact that there was someone else in the room. It was more silly than anything else, as seen in his ability to shrug off false predictions.



I don't like what I hear in this interview, though. It's like Arenas has decided that if he's underrated, the way to stake his claim is to prove others are overrated. Not to toss out a gratuitous pop reference, but it's a lot like what's happened to Kanye, one of the few music/ball parallels I can get behind. That, in my opinion, he's wrong is secondary to the fact that he's gone this route. Maybe a couple of seasons ago, when he'd been this relatively unknown upstart, this would've been plucky and admirable. But getting more bitter and resentful the more he blows up, that's hard to love. While Gilbert Arenas isn't yet a household name, he's close enough to royalty that this griping comes off as paranoid and petty. The last thing Arenas, or his fans, should want is to see him transformed into an indie Kobe Bryant.