FD Guest Lecture: The Death of Superman
The year begins with a post by a guest. Here's PhDribble, lighting the way:
Superman has fought the Dream, the Hoya Destroya, Mr. Robinson, (Daugherty), Zo, Ostertag!, Chairman Yao, the Big Ticket, and the Big Fundamental. For more than a generation, he has outmuscled and outwitted his center(al) competition. But we’ve reached a truly sad chapter in our superhero’s saga. Shaq is suffering. There's no surprise "rise from the ashes" waiting for us in next week's edition. He will never fight Dr. Dwight, Gode, or The Riek (whoever that is.) For this time, it's the real death of Superman.
Shaq suffers from the late stages of the disease known as Progeria (just like the guy from Bladerunner.) Sadly, there is no known cure for Progeria. The symptoms have been clearly mapped out in scholarly and popular journals before: absurd athleticism at an adolescent age; high levels of type-g pheromones most attractive to college coaches, scouts, and entourages; expert discussion of high draft "potential" and "upside"; the occasional episode of “makin it rain” (with propensity for relapse); and a rookie-contract-extension pay raise. In his mid-twenties, a player living with Progeria attracts all-star appearances, PER propaganda, scoring titles, finals mvps, etc... Finally, in his mid-to-late thirties the patient suffers a gross degradation of skills, bad knees, an overpaid contract (often resulting in a buyout,) and hometown calls for retirement.
Now, in full disclosure, I have had mixed and greatly varying feelings toward Shaq over the years. In Orlando he obsessed me with his atomic potential. In LA he astounded me with his era-defining dominance. In Miami he annoyed me with his relentless swatting at Kobe and cocky self-contentment. Now, on his last legs he saddens me. Lay-ups where there used to be dunks. Fouls where there used to be blocks. Fat where there used to be muscle. (We can all rip him for being lazy at the gym, but is that really what's going on?) Shots blocked by guards. Three second calls on both ends of the floor. Always the last man down the court. Not even a gesture toward covering the pick and roll on defense. Even the new "3 for 2 rule" in which the refs call a lane violation and award him another shot at the free throw line. It's deeply humiliating. And when Shaq recently called for more touches, we just shook our heads. “There he goes again...another washed-up old man who doesn't see what is so obvious to the rest of us.” It's just humiliating. It's the kind of physical degeneration one associates not with a 35 but with an 85 year-old-man. It bares all the classic symptoms of late-stage Progeria.
Pat Riley has seen this before:
“I did a lot of reading and research about this,” Riley said Thursday. “You look at what happened to the teams after the five greatest centers in basketball retired. In Minneapolis, after George Mikan retired, they went down the tubes, and it took them five years to recover. After Russell retired, it took (the Celtics) six years to get back to the championship form. When Wilt retired, it basically took this franchise seven years. When Willis Reed retired, same thing. When Bill Walton left Portland, even though he was very young, it took them a long time. And when Kareem left Milwaukee, they had to rebuild. Anytime a significantly great center left a team, that team struggled. But what we have a chance to do here is change that. I think the players realize that.”But there's a significant catch in the Riles rhetoric. Riles wasn't talking about Shaq. Riles said it to the Los Angeles Times on October 6th...of 1989. He was talking about the retirement of Jabbar and the Lakers' recent acquisition of Vlade Divac.
And that's how NBA: The Life is. You live, you learn. You learn, you win. You win, you star. You star, you decline. All we can ask for is that those diagnosed with Progeria will not suffer too much.
The earlier stages of Progeria can be equally as unsettling. As upstarts grow into mature veterans, we treat them as if they were middle-aged, responsible adults. But as Holly MacKenzie so aptly wrote on SlamOnline,
One of the biggest things I wonder about when I am in the locker room waiting to talk to players (Amare, Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, to name a few), is just how young they are and how quickly their lives have changed, with little to no counseling on how to handle it. And, truth be told, when you are 18, 19 years old, you don't want to listen to people telling you how to handle this newfound fame and fortune, you just want to live it up. It is a tough state of reality facing the society that our athletes live in and sadly, it isn’t going to get any easier.As much as we'd like to believe that unimaginably obese contracts can make men of boys, as much as we can be fooled by the symptoms of Progeria, we should not lose sight of just how young these guys truly are. “Boobie" Gibson missed Cavs game this season because he got his wisdom teeth out!
Right about now, Gode should be obsessing over his major. Durant should be disappointing his professors in his hastily-written and under-researched 1200-word essays. Roy should be celebrating his high score on the LSATs. Lebron should be surrounded by idiots and crazies in his first cubicle shitjob. Carmelo should be learning that he can't eat as much junk food as he did when he was a growing boy. IggyPop should be enjoying his promotion. Rip Hamilton should be defending his dissertation. Damon Jones should be head-hunted. Kobe should be thinking about buying his first house. Of course, in any situation Jason Maxiell should and would be eating babies.
Gode may have best captured the sad realities on his blog, “My family is also here for the holidays so that’s good. In all it was a great Christmas. And one last thing I didn't get anything. Darius Miles told me that its the first year of me being Santa Claus I’m not getting anything anymore I’m gonna be the one giving out stuff, so here to being a grown man.”
It has long been thought that a player contracted Progeria simply from the wear-and-tear of years of Lig play. But this hypothesis has not accounted for why most players never suffer the worst phases of the disease. It is clear that players who sign NBA contracts are the most at-risk population group. But among these hundreds, data has shown only a small portion to display signs of Full-Blown Progeria Disorder (F-BPD.) Athletes who signed an NBA contract were shown to be 41 times more likely to fall into the category of Progeria Spectrum Disorder (PSD) than F-BPD. Thus, they never reached the highest highs in their twenties nor sank to the lowest lows in their mid-to-late thirties.
But in recent cutting-edge research, specialists have identified the cause. The evidence has pointed to a surprising conclusion. Progeria doesn’t come from anything a player did or did not do. Progeria comes from us fans. For as fans, we narrate a player's career as we would a man's entire life. We imagine that he matures in what amounts to dog years. We transmit the virus by transforming him into an NBA legend. He begins a diaper dandy and retires a washed-up old man.
The group most vulnerable to Progeria are Hall-of-Famers. In fact, the sad statistics show that 92.5% of HOFers suffered from severe Progeria in their last years in the Lig. Unfortunately, HOF status is awarded retrospectively, so that it provides no ability for contemporary fansicians to diagnose an athlete with F-BPD until it is too late.
Leading scientists have offered the following algorithm as the closest approximation to an accurate diagnosis:
1/ [√([Ynba + (2/3)Yncaa] x H)[ASS + (4/7)ASR]/6.5 ]
Ynba = Years in the Lig
Yncaa = Years in College
H = Height - 72 (in inches, adjusted for NBA levels)
ASS = All-Star Starter
ASR = All-Star Reserve
These numbers remain dodgy among specialists. [Reggie Miller is thought of as one of the out-lying cases that disrupts the rule. Yet a strong minority of fansicians believes that Miller suffered from F-BPD and hid the gravest symptoms on the privacy of his own court.] A leading member of this specialist community wishes that his little brother were more interested in basketball because his little brother is a math major and really could help on the algorithm. But no doubt as statheads across the internet become more and more interested in the Race for the Cure for Progeria, there will arise a more accurate algorithm that can detect symptoms earlier and earlier.
And so, for now, we're left with the last stages of the Diesel. How can we handle his collapsing career, his physical degeneration, and his still hefty salary cap number? How can we cope with F-BPD? I wish I could say I will enjoy Shaq’s last days, but it's just not that emotionally simple. In a perfect world, he would waive the final years of his contract, have a run of last games in the Lig, blow kisses to his adoring fans from the "Marketsquare Arena" to the "Garden Floor," from the Palace to “Seattle”, and walk off into a green-screen sunset.
But that perfect world is unfair. It's asking Shaq to walk away from tens of millions of dollars. It's asking Shaq to forgo what he has earned. To pay a price for our romanticized narratives of the game. To act differently than any of us would act. It’s asking him to be superhuman. It's wishing he were Superman.