What's Safe, Sound, and Vulgar
We all have those key moments, images or sentences that, however accidentally, anchor the way we view basketball. I don't think the same is true for bigger issues like life and love—or at least it shouldn't be for those over the age of 20—but if you're reading this site, chances are your understanding of hoops may have a little bit of whimsy to it. I've never particularly cared about sports as an elemental force that overwhelms all agency and takes you to a special place; I prefer some distance and creative agency on the part of the audience, which depending on how you see it, is either "liberating" or totally contrived.
One of those touchstones for me has always been that time, during the 2007 playoffs I think, when Kobe sat in with the TNT crew. No, not because I have any interest in playing he said/she said about Bryant this morning, but for one brief exchange, yet to materialize on YouTube, about the difficulty of playing against Manu and Barbosa. I don't have an exact quote, but the general idea was that the rhythm of their games were different than those of Americans; not only did this make guarding them a challenge, it also represented a breath of fresh of air that you could still the (FAKE ASS NEVER EVEN BEEN TO ITALY!!!!!) Mamba got off on. Doubtlessly, Kobe's conclusions here have something to do with his love of soccer, his hyper-analytical understanding of the game, and a cosmopolitan bent. But the basic idea: That international players bring a different perspective to the game, both on and off the court, and that while the Euro craze may have subsided, its ripples may be felt in these more subtle ways for some time.
It's not a radical notion to introduce race, culture, ethnicity into descriptions of a player or his style. How many times have we heard it debated how "black" somene's game was, or to what degree a player's "whiteness" might influence fan sentiment? But desite the Right Way's attempt to co-opt all pale prospects to their cause—they can bounce-pass, they don't wear chains, ergo they must be the second coming of Larry Bird—they all came from distinct backgrounds, where attitudes and mores surrounding the sport were unfamiliar, even strange, on these shores. Some of this has been subtle; these players have been prone to stiff-lipped professionalism, while at the same time have also had their share of exposure to the "black" game that the NBA exported while shunning it on American shores. Yet even if the European players could be uncomfortably squeeezed into pre-existing black/white categories, there was just no way to do that once Latin America, Yao, and Africa became major forces in the NBA. To return to Kobe's quote, when I watch Barbosa, Manu, the Spaniards, or the newly-spry and funky Nene, I realize just how damn diverse the Association has become without even realizing it. And how pointless it is to resist this fact.
Ironically, I'm bringing all this up in reference to Dirk, who has does a damn good job of letting fans and media forget that he's from another country. Dirk is the good son, the impeccable mechanic, the technician who refuses to let his emotions unravel him at any given time. Cool, maybe too cool; his game, at times not rough enough. But it's no coincidence that, so far, the greatest international player to touch down on these shores for his whole career is also one who readily fit into the NBA's need for a Great White Hope (to counter Iverson), or after that, could still be talked about in terms of "white" ball even as accusations crept in of non-descript Euro "softness." Put simply, Dirk's been cast as a really, really good white dude who is just a little weird.
That's why the mini-scandal surrounding Nowitzki's "these three can check me" comments, predicated almost exclusively on an element of shock and disjuncture, should have sparked neither. So Webber, Kenny, and Barkley can't imagine an elite scorer admitting in public that opponents can slow him. Dirk, after making remarks that the TNT crew saw as evidence of a fatal flaw, proceeded to be positively untroubled by almost anything the Nuggets threw at him. Even if he wasn't quite so eager to take it inside, it's worth noting that Dirk's one of the few players out there who can be bad-assed with the jumper, and not of the J.R. Smith, miles-from-the-line three variety. He makes efficiency both deadly and something to be feared. If that doesn't sound like a German stereotype, then my readership is even younger than I thought. I find it striking that the attitudes Webber et al. were up in arms over may have been informed by "black" values honed on the playground, bravura and swagger and all that. But they don't seem that limited. In fact, they strike me as fairly, across the board, American in nature, whether you're talking NCAA slop or Kobe vs. Artest.
Does it come as any surprise, then, that Nowitzki lies beyond the pale on this one? I don't want this to degenerate into duelling stereotypes; nor do I know enough about German culture to make any observations about Dirk that really lead anywhere. Suffice it to say that these utterances, followed by the monster game, framed by the bemused honesty that's become so much a part of Nowitzki's public persona . . . is it such a stretch to admit that there are indeed foreigners among us? They may not shape the game, or reinforce its discourses. But to really understand Dirk (or Yao), we have to understand that often, we won't understand. Not as black people, white people, white people who think they understand black people, or black people who think they understand white people. Or any of the above holding forth on a non-descript non-American, un-American, "softness", a quality which certainly doesn't translate across cultures, and yet is the only attempt made to understand international players as not just black or white.
There's likely a middle ground between the TNT crew's tunnel vision and Kobe's multi-cultural bonanza. More importantly, though, if sports cliches are already tired, or polarizing, these individual international stars should at least temporarily explode them beyond recognition. So we can all be free.
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-Funny that we think of the Mavs as kind of boring, when they are disconcerting honesty central. I speak primarily of Dirk (above), and, of course, Josh Howard. Reader Johnny Lauderdale points out that, with regard to Howard, there's almost a collective denial surrounding him, like he's been blackballed:
I watch a lot of Mavs games with the local broadcast guys, and putting them side by side with guys on ESPN/TNT... it is just flat out bizarre how noticeable the difference in tone regarding Josh Howard is. They seem hesitant to even mention his name (outside of the "well maybe the Mavs would be better without him... you know, since he is hurt" discussion, which regardless of its validity... that just isn't the way professional athletes are usually talked about during a broadcast) on ESPN (outside of JVG who always mentions Josh crashing offensive glass against his Houston teams), but on local Fox Sports it is just like old times (look to Josh for early offense blah blah blah). Things only get stranger when you put it in context with how people talked about him at the beginning of 07-08, when it was hip to suggest that the Mavs were actually "his team", in part because of a perceived preference Avery held for him over Dirk.
I'd like to add that Howard tries to play hurt and no one breaks out a single trumpet? In the playoffs? If that's not amazing, I don't know what is. Even the Spurs get more dramatized love than that.
-New Shoals Unlimited coming soon, on the subject of the MVP and writing history.
-Widget has been updated with new picks.
-Film thing that might interest no one: Last night after the game, I watched A Woman's Face, which was totally awesome. As is the case with most old movies, though, it had a tacked-on happy ending that undermined, maybe even contradicted, the stronger ideas of the entire other 1.5 hours. Am I supposed to ignore these? Believe that once, everyone believed in redemption and dreams coming true? Seek the middle ground?