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.