Toothpicks Do Not Add up to Salvation
Religious converts are often the most zealous about being pious. I was going to write that they fervently "act as though they are the most pious," but that's not fair, really. It's not an act because there is no intended deception. Rather, their faith is merely new, and often, the ardor with which they embrace it suggests making up for lost time. They sort of have to live like this, though, if they want their newfound faith to stick. I hope that I am not casting aspersions on converts; for me, this is anecdotally true and fairly intuitive. If you haven't grown up with something like a religion--which is so often ritually subscribed to and followed without question due to childhood custom and some organic familiarity--you have to work to make it yours. Observing the sabbath, retelling the mythology, mastering the traditions requires concerted effort, not least of all because adopting the identity that comes with a new faith almost demands an outwardly perceptible comfort with the material. Oh, you're religious now? Really? Were you in jail?
Mike Breen is a basketball convert. At least, that's how it sounds. Listening to Breen call a basketball game is like hearing someone new to Judaism intersperse oddly pronounced Hebrew among his usual idiolect: you know what he's doing, but it doesn't sound right, and you question its authenticity, not least of all because it already seems borderline obnoxious when you hear it from rabbis. For example, normal Jewish people don't speak in vernacular riddled with appositional Hebrew asides; that stilted dialogue is for Talmudic scholars and the mid-life convert who needs to prove just how meticulously he internalized his lessons while preparing a D'var Torah. Really, it's like this: if you want to talk about Egypt, just do so, and stop always coupling that word with "mizraim." You know? Or else, show up as a 200-year-old with a long-ass beard and the kind of robe that would have been suitable for The Ten Commandments (one of the great movies). Then you can say whatever you want, because that's some biblical O.G. shit. Abraham died when he was 175.
Nothing about Mike Breen is biblical O.G. He'll die still reading about Isaac and rams, to say nothing of never having bound his own son in a demonstration of his devotion. Nothing about his style is intuitively felt, or handed down, or in any way connected to a source from which his purported interest in the game might have originated as something naturally occurring. Breen is, instead, the worst kind of convert, the one who wants to believe, but more so, wants you to see that he believes. So he recites rules and adages; he tells you things that you already know, only he can't place them in the nuanced context which you've naturally developed. A typical Breen broadcast is pedantic and formalistic, merely the latest opportunity to make sense of it all and refine the appearance of assimilation to which he apparently aspires.
Breen's uncomfortable exposition and awkward, bookish narration paint a portrait of a broadcaster preoccupied with foreign custom and a literalist's insistence that the actual game match the theoretical form which serves as the foundation for all of his (limited) framework. Players who summon the temerity to play in new ways, or who have the audacity to defy convention, are joylessly regarded with mild condescension as "unique" or "unorthodox." That he acknowledges a Mickael Pietrus as effective always sounds like a concession, particularly when those words are juxtaposed against one of his moralistic paeans to more traditional souls, like a Ray Allen. (And I am not knocking the Ray Rays.) Like a child, he seems to bristle at events which deviate from his expectations and mores. When he even recognizes what's going on to begin with, of course. Were I to lead a Catholic mass, it would be filled with ostentatious emphasis on Latin and old-world ritual so that I might impress upon my audience just how closely I could adhere to all that I had been taught. Forget about whether it made sense, accommodated reality, or accomplished the ultimate goal. It would be absurd, of course, a farce that betrayed my underlying lack of context and lived understanding. I would immediately emerge as an alien, a heathen. That's Breen.
How often does he roll along next to Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson as a third wheel? As the guy who opts for the safety of silence, or the cover of digression, rather than allowing the conversation to proceed along its rightful course and, in turn, expose just how little he gets it? A felled Kenyon Martin claws at someone's leg and Breen wants to quickly move away from Van Gundy's exploration of playoff emotions so that the audience isn't deprived of a meaningless "game reset" with the score and time? When that information is forever available on the screen? Jackson and Van Gundy want to impart lessons learned from their own battles, perhaps tacitly endorsing rougher play, and Breen wants to launch off in another direction concerned with rigid civility and naive consternation about losing control? He is so brazenly a company man as he slavishly insists that referees were dealt a rough hand? Maybe put down your books and go outside sometime, Michael; you're trying too hard, and it's ugly. Mike Breen sounds as though he'd prefer to file a book report about lacing sneakers and holding the ball high rather than to actually think about the fluid, emotional, athletic, personality-driven sport of basketball.
A "favorite" Breen moment for me came several years ago: Breen once looked on as Trevor Ariza, then a Knick, slammed home a put back that shifted the game's momentum and ultimately helped the Knicks win. It was a powerful, exciting moment, the sort which anyone who loves basketball feels viscerally and appreciates for its emotional resonance, to say nothing of its stylistic implications. A normal broadcaster may have experienced all of this and captured the moment with an exclamation and some admiring observation. Do you know what Breen said? He scolded that players aren't supposed to hang on the rim. It was classic, almost as though Breen suffers from a form of basketball Asperger syndrom which impedes his ethereal perceptions and leaves him grasping for a hold on the moment by relying upon textbook definitions, unrealistic ideas, and tangential tropes which he's memorized as an appropriate script.
Mike Breen's duality of not truly knowing but nonetheless seeking to impress with knowledge is an itch always just beyond my reach. More accurately, that this interloper--perhaps he's not truly a convert and more of a benign charlatan--has ascended to a position as basketball's lead broadcaster strikes me as a karmic crime of cosmic proportion. This is no terrestrial injustice; it is far greater. Breen's position in the basketball world feels like it inflicts injury upon my soul and the collective soul of the league and its constituency. In lieu of the stale, wooden, myopic nattering of a glorified mime allowed to speak, the NBA's game, people, and community all deserve narration and celebration that actually sees, let alone articulates, their full contours. The sad irony of Breen's ersatz authority truly arises when one reflects upon the bizarre fact that the NBA's confederacy of culture is wholly neglected by its own town crier.
Consider this: the Most Valuable Puppets ads have been striking because they have deftly given voice to certain truths without actually articulating them. We've enjoyed seeing the ebullient LeBron living with the removed Kobe--chalk all everywhere, rings in a display case--because the contrast efficiently, knowingly tells the story which has captivated NBA fans for a while: Kobe is the focused, relentless introvert whose professionalism extracts teammate adherence and whose refined style poses the only true challenge to Michael's legacy; LeBron is the effulgent, gregarious extrovert whose joy infects teammates and whose physical superiority challenges the conventional theories of possibility. Seeing the two as roommates acknowledges their friendship (to whatever extent it is genuine), while seeing the juvenile back-and-forth acknowledges the hefty tension which lies beneath the marketing veneer of collegial competition. The ads have animated our fascination by imagining these complicated relationship dynamics in the prosaic world of domestic partnership. Almost fan fiction, Nike has created a new chapter in the parallel narrative that helps to tell the true tale of the NBA. That the ads are so stylish only enhances their impact, because in no other league does style matter as much.
And then consider this: the most Mike Breen could ever say about Kobe and LeBron is that each is a "terrific player" who has "helped lift his team" and provided "so many of the things you want to see in a franchise player." Those aren't direct quotes, but they might as well be--conservative, judgmental, preachy, sufficient, and bland. That is Mike Breen, an unimaginative man who peers out at the basketball world through a colorless lens that precludes the sort of expansive, emotional, romantic vision that best and properly captures the NBA. The full puppet story, along with so many more of the league's attendant tales, cannot be accurately recorded in a manual and then taught to someone who seeks to "know" about them without possessing a latent affinity for his subjects. That just doesn't work, much as any old person can fly to Mecca, but that doesn't make him a Muslim. No matter how many times he recounts facts gleaned from a news story about the five pillars.