Every New Generation Needs a Generation
Note: This for some reason took me forever to write and the pictures suck. So view it accordingly.
Nothing is more American than FreeDarko, or at least the "freedom" part. Distracted by the latest spat over whether we are or are not awash in racist connotations? Revisit our first-ever post. Here, Shoefly laid out the profound connections between letting unusual, individualistic potential loose, a responsibility that falls on both said individual and the community he would inhabit. Note: I will never get why "community" is all-American, while "collective", as a purely technical term, signals Stalin.
Ordinarily, though, I don't think we've ever felt cause to explicitly connect this most raucous of national milestones with this site's mission. And yet today, it's not the distinct John Adams vibe I'm getting from people in the wake of the Sonics compromise, or the hyphenation quandry that explains my devotion to Stern, that has me typing now. No, it's a cause that could not be more near and dear to this site's unspoken premises: Making sure that Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace are free.
We all dig those Atlanta Hawks. That inadvertent experiment in god knows what, set, however haphazardly, against a city that's come to embody a certain kind of African-American prosperity. If only the team were actually a part of Atlanta, it would be all sorts of versions of the American Dream. Sadly, though, this franchise is hog-tied by litigation, and seems unaware of just how lucky it's gotten over the last few drafts—and still can't boast any intelligible road map for the future. Freedom isn't Janis Joplin's whiny hedonism, it's casting off old truths with a bold new vision. Thus, Josh Smith, the everywhere-at-once, gloriously inconsistent terror who defines the Hawks to those in the know, needs to move on.
That Philadelphia is the cradle of liberty really only figures superficially into this story, but I'm just as wary of (igniting a fire in the comments section by) saying that Smith's swagger and highlight-crazy game could help make the Sixers mean as a team what Iverson himself meant. The Hawks are anarchic, dangerous, the impossible dream that we secretly never want realized. They are a glorious, shambolic mess, full of spirit but explaining exactly why this country needed a Continental Congress.
While I have called Smith "a retarded LeBron," he lacks Bron's ability to plop down in the middle of anywhere and turn his whim into precept. Smith seems at times limited by both his strengths and his weaknesses; He doesn't quite know exactly when, or how, to take advantage of his abilities, many of which haven't quite come into focus yet. He's not Tyrus Thomas, in that you can discern the faint outlines of a multi-faceted player. But this isn't freedom, it's aimless ideas and glints of direction. We prize this player not for the confused mess he currently is, but for what he could become. Potential is the potential to be freed, which requires both the right assets and a sympathetic setting.
Here's where the Sixers enter the picture. Last season they were, in some senses, even more deranged than the Hawks. But, as with Smith, there was an understanding that this version of the team was still coming into focus. You have Andre Miller, gradually becoming the player his stats have always suggested he was. Mo Cheeks, a "players' coach" coming into his own as a leader and basketball thinker. Ed Stefanski, a GM who watches games. And, most importantly, a willingness to put the "Pippen-esque" Andre Iguodala in his place, maybe even let him walk, and instead put the future on the shoulders of the enigmatic Thaddeus Young—and, ideally, Smith.
That's what freedom really is. Not just a chance to run wild, and ignore the outside world except for when it gets in your face and needs a spanking. The Hawks this spring were a freakish feel-good story, not a cornerstone of something new; they were wacky outsiders, not crusaders for the other side. Not to mention that the team had been built accidentally, mismanaged horribly, had no institutional culture to speak of, and had a head coach who may or may not have had the slightest clue what was going on. They were a happy accident, not providence in action because it does occasionally take such sides. So yeah, I take back the Afghanistan comparisons. This was no prophecy, just maybe one of the monsters that shows up as a secondary character.
Maybe the Hawks will match—no matter what happens to everyone else on that roster, a Johnson/Smith tandem is at least now a source of some national interest. But something clicked in my head when I saw Smith in Philly: That team needs him to realize its ideals, and he needs it to become more than a fever dream in Nikes.
The Wallace situation is a hell of a lot more straightforward. Last season was a mixed bag for Multiplicity: It took some time for him and J-Rich to adjust to each other, but once they did, the team turned into a minor small-ball outpost. Wallace looked more guard-like all year, and Richardson, if you'd forgotten, is one of the league's best rebounding SG's (something often obscured in Golden State). Armed with a competent running mate, and now able to both do more and not feel compelled to do it all, Wallace was, if not a poor man's LeBron, than a lesser version of what the Sixers (or Hawks) are hoping Smith will become.
Then came the concussion, after which he never quite looked the same. When I watched him in person, Wallace looked tentative. Earlier in his career, he'd been spacey, but now he seemed averse to what he could do if he really sunk his fangs into the game—not simply unsure of his options. He came back too fast, and I was hoping he'd be back in full for this season.
And then, Larry Brown, who is largely to blame for my irrational attachment to David Stern, comes to town. Wallace represents the future; Brown, the past. You'd think he'd admire Wallace's fearless hustle, and yet before the draft, there the team was, shopping him for T.J. Ford. Certainly, this does not bode well for the next year in Charlotte. We should expect to see either a lesser version of Wallace, or perhaps one whose confidence is wounded. Simply because, while Brown could build his usual edifice up around Iverson, Wallace is a structural challenge to it, and one who encroaches on LB's most cherished ideological territory.
Were Wallace just a bundle of activity, Brown could convert, or surbordinate him. Unfortunately, the clarity of his mature game poses a threat. If Josh Smith can symbiotically engender freedom in Philly, then Wallace's experience is kryptonite to Brown's tyranny. Those who hate freedom hate it not in the abstract, or as an absolute, but as a process of community and context that will forever remain imperfect, fluid, and for this, a true participatory activity.