7.28.2009

It Rode Out in Denim



I never get the sense that anyone likes Antoine Walker. Somewhere around his thousandth three-point attempt in the NBA, perception appeared to have turned against him. After that, it never changed back. He was branded as a counterproductive chucker, someone not especially preoccupied with winning, and a lazy disappointment. Boston almost made the Finals once, and that helped him a little, but ultimately it didn't take. It might be the idea behind disappointment--seems like people expected more, didn't get it, and became eternally frustrated, if not angry. None of this is meant to sound derisive because I shared in the pain. We're not headed down a Rasheed path here; I've not come to rattle about with the notion of Antoine succeeding in his own way. Nor is this a post about his redemption. Toine usually left me upset, just as he might have left the rest of you.



This is a post about demise, actually. Antoine's recent arrest highlighted just how quietly he left us. Had you thought about him this summer? This year? His final seasons in the NBA were spent as some itinerant sideshow with an overeating disorder and historically comical shot selection. He was on teams like Minnesota and Memphis, Siberian outposts that matter on FD and few other places. (At least, given recent history. No offense, DLIC.) He sort of vanished, first exciting, then relevant, later curious, and ultimately just gone. That he bounced bad checks in casinos didn't even strike me as especially odd, as though there were a logical progression from what he had become on the court to what he is now off of it. Shoot some threes, work up a sweat walking across halfcourt, retire to the bench with those calf-highs the only things reminiscent of former pride, and then hit the Alaskan king crab buffet at Harrah's in between hands. For a few moments, I was puzzled by whether any team would care, and I was sad to realize that none would. The Walker arrest had the feeling of a Mickey Rourke movie, Wrestler or not.

Oddly, this particular melancholy resonated with me, almost literally. I felt it in my chest, through my body. Involuntarily, my shoulders went up, my brow wrinkled up, and my mouth turned down, the posture you adopt as you mull over something perplexingly sad, or nearly unspeakable because it's just that unpleasant. I don't know Antoine Walker, of course, and he always seemed decent but nothing more. His color, to the extent that he had any, was washed out and unremarkable. I think that's what makes me so uncomfortable.

Before Antoine, there were forwards who could pass, and forwards who could shoot. There were tall men who could drift outside. And since Toine, there have been men who do those things better than he ever did them. Standards have changed, though. Big men who played like Walker before there was Walker were not so common, and I don't only mean that the three-point line irrevocably altered basketball. I mean that James Worthy was swooping to the hoop if not occasionally popping out for a mid-range jumper, and that Karl Malone was throwing his elbows into you. (Or hooking with his off arm before spinning away from a defender and the ref.) I mean that every year, now, we look at drafts filled with tall guys who must improve their post games because so many have dedicate their respective youths to developing a guard's skill set. We celebrate Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki for being the standards of non-standard, and every team seeks to find some non-standard of its own. The perception of what forwards can do, and how they should play, has changed in many ways.



Walker may not have been a true originator, but for me, in the stream of my own basketball consciousness, he was emblematic of the evolving style that a forward could effect. Antoine was a symbol, no light distinction given the company among which he stands for a 27-year-old. He was a true hybrid--he had guard skills and guard range (plus that crazy-person shot selection), but he also was naturally gifted around the rim and a wonderful rebounder. Not a lanky giant and not a small man trying to play a big man's game, he had the true hybrid body, too: the ass of a guy who could post up, complete with a sturdy base (which those socks may have reinforced, ever so slightly), yet he was nimble enough to run a little (when he still ran), and his upper body was not muscle bound or an impediment to his shooting.

And, of course, he was propelled toward stardom by excelling in a college system that encouraged someone like him to bomb from three and press all game. His combination of varied skills, multipurpose body, and atypical doctrine was truly different, and it came at a time when a critical mass of forwards who play a different kind of way was only beginning to build. Now, we take for granted that there will be tall men who can play inside and out, but Walker was a key figure in helping the orthodoxy arrive at such an assumption. I do Toine a disservice when I write this, but there is no Skita-as-bust without Walker, because no one's looking for some soft-ass Euro named Nikoloz in the first place.



Certain players serve as cultural touchstones, and Antoine was one of them, both good and bad. He embodied an archetype of innovation that enjoyed out-sized notoriety because of its intrinsic qualities and extrinsic influences. The intrinsic has been touched upon--Walker was among a new class of forwards who were neither "The Next" anything nor wholly divorced from the past. Toine and his set were, and are, an amalgamation of parts meant to conjure progress. The extrinsic was a function of time: Antoine et al. arrived (as in, emerged, not just "were drafted") as the first players charged with governing the NBA after Michael Jordan. Almost too perfectly, he debuted as Allen and Kobe reached these altered shores. Toine's game was laid as part of the foundation for this new era.

So, consider all of that. Really take some time to appreciate who Antoine Walker was. First, the star pupil of a masterful coach, and not just a mere beneficiary of Rick Pitino radicalism. Rather, Walker enabled it. He was a paradigm, and no small reason why 1996 Kentucky stands as one of college basketball's most talented and all-time greatest. Next, a member of a new oligarchy which came to the NBA with a mandate for change. He appeared with a game that expanded the boundaries of our thinking, and a body perfectly tailored for the way he was supposed to move.

Antoine Walker was a revolutionary figure, and that was lost along the way.



Also: Recent events compel me to make mention of a few other things:

First, I find the NFL's treatment of Michael Vick odious and racist. You can read about it here. The post quasi involves eschatology, if that's any incentive. That said, as Shoals has pointed out, there is irony in the fact that despite everything, Vick is more likely to find employment than Allen Iverson.

Second, when it was reported that Iverson might be signed by the Clippers in a desperate attempt to sell tickets, my heart sank. Not because I am such a huge fan of AI's game, but because I do tremendously value AI's meaning in the sociocultural continuum. Reducing Allen to the NBA equivalent of a carnival attraction immediately summoned sad notions of minstrel things. For several years, now, I have been unable to stop thinking about Iverson and his unforgivable blackness, to borrow the the Jack Johnson term. Whatever else he was or is, and however sincere it might have been, Iverson's identity has always counted his blackness as a primary component. Seeing a symbol of the black experience he has been held out to represent reduced to a sorry gimmick would feel horribly gross. Though maybe Allen crossing that threshold would necessarily entail leaving behind whatever we claim he represents and emerging as just the latest broken-down mercenary.

Third, the Stephon Marbury saga. This is not a desperate athlete's contrivance meant to court attention in the wake of an unwelcomed retirement. (At least, no solely, or even mostly.) This is, rather, a legitimately deranged person who has always used basketball to forge an identity. Bereft of basketball, and no longer pigeonholed into the rote selfish-malcontent narrative that may have obscured his eccentricity, Steph is being Steph. Really, the only thing that has changed is that he now has much more free time and much less sense of purpose. I've always maintained that there might be something Mike Tyson-ish about him. I hope not.

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26 Comments:

At 7/28/2009 1:24 AM, Blogger Choklit said...

A fantastically well-thought out piece on Toine. A player that would otherwise be forgotten - I'd love to lump him in with the AI, Starbury, Stevie Franchise mold, but not with the negative connotation necessarily. Shot selection, the be-all end-all to determining "cancer" status, is a problem - but, wow, they must have been the most spectacular players to watch in high school or in a pick-up game. Even college. Also, Toine didn't even win Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois when he was a senior. That year's winner: Jerry (Jarrod) Gee.

 
At 7/28/2009 2:24 AM, Blogger Boz said...

I was in Tahoe last weekend for MJ's celeb golf tourney and ran into Employee number 8 at the bar, ordering Grey Goose rounds. Talked to him for a minute, cool as hell.

Meanwhile, J.Shuttlesworth was on DJ duty while Barkley poured Patron into everyone's glasses and passed out Coronas from the stage. I enjoyed that Chuck and Toine were both in the casino at the same time. At least they weren't at the high stakes tables.

 
At 7/28/2009 3:00 AM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Nice one, Joey. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff to mine with Toine and others from that transitional period who are now reaching the ends of their careers.

Personally, I've had a weird relationship with Employee No. 8, to the extent that being a distant observer can be called having a relationship.

There was a certain kind of indifference to his game that bothered me, like he was never really committed to any particular moment on the court. Maybe it just struck me as a level of nonchalance only appropriate to a much more talented player. I haven't quite figured it out. Plus, he played in Boston and didn't seem to hate himself for it.

But whenever he shimmied, and I heard some large-bellied man with scaly white elbows express dismay about the state of the world as a result, I found myself defending Toine and pointing out that, if the gentleman could not enjoy an exuberant and slightly taunting shoulder shake, perhaps he could fill the void in his soul with a little charity work. Plus, each reckless 3 seemed like another needle in the heart of a voodoo doll of the old guard. I could hear the announcers pulling their own hair out, despairing for the future of an idea that never should have been.
Also, there was the physical awkwardness of the way he and PP played, both together an individually, that was nevertheless effective in its own way. That was kind of enjoyable. But never enough to make me care about the guy.

I have always really liked the Employee No. 8 commercials, though. The notion of NBA star as assemblyline blue collar everyman was brilliant. But hard to sell, and perhaps inappropriate for this particular player.

 
At 7/28/2009 8:35 AM, Blogger Alexander J said...

It is telling of the dude's entire career that he would play for anyone who would have him; he always seemed like a good teammate, despite the shot selection from planet x. He's one of the few former Celtics from the early aughts teams that I didn't mind Bill Simmons related commentary; the way he described Toine's footwork in the post was revelatory.

I got compared to Antoine Walker in a pickup game once, and my ego hasn't recovered since.

 
At 7/28/2009 12:15 PM, OpenID kwisinf said...

Your aside on Iverson might have been better than the Walker piece, which was fantastic. Having always hated everything Boston related with a deep passion, I'm not feeling you and still count him as a homeless man's Barkley who simply never should have been allowed to take all those shots that made him such a pariah, you do make me want to agree with you.

 
At 7/28/2009 1:06 PM, Blogger Joey said...

@Six--agree on a number of fronts. This is an interesting time because the first post-Jordan set is coming to its end, and there is ample room for reflection. I am actually working on something for that online magazine the Norman Einsteins about this. Will be interested in your take.


Also agree about the Employee No. 8 commercials. They really suited Walker, for good and for bad. He was unassuming when he was very effective, and he was unassuming as this figure of transition. In that respect, he was just doing the job, and that's admirable. He was also just doing he job as he'd loaf around or indulge himself. You can get away with that sort of stuff at work. You know?

@Boz--what was Ray spinning? I think I first knew of him as a big music fan, but I could be making that up.

@Alex J--I don't remember the Simmons footwork stuff. What made it so good?

Appreciate the dap, in general. Probably should have said that Toine would have been better had be played for the Knicks. That might have caused some computers to blow up.

 
At 7/28/2009 1:27 PM, Blogger dunces said...

Antione's got a special place in my heart because he's the first and most important counterexample in that odious Gladwell piece on the full-court press.

And the common thread here, between this piece, your piece on Vick, Iverson's continued struggle, and the brain-numbing tabloid orgy going on around HL Gates really, really depresses me. Did I really vote for Obama out of guilt? More worrying, did half the country?

 
At 7/28/2009 2:02 PM, Blogger Boz said...

I was actually disappointed with Ray Ray. He was on his phone the whole time, sitting at the tables, while the house DJ worked around him.

I'm usually not starstruck, but it was pretty cool shaking Lawrence Taylor and Jerome Bettis' hands, while partying next to Penny, Marshall Faulk and Jerry Rice.

And Barkley was FUCKED up on stage.

 
At 7/28/2009 5:31 PM, Blogger goathair said...

Reporter: "Why do you shoot so many threes?"
Antoine Walker: "Because there are no fours."

---

Toine is only revolutionary in the same way that Anthony Mason is: retroactively. They didn't really change anything, but they weren't 'normal' players.

 
At 7/28/2009 6:48 PM, Blogger Kaifa said...

The Sports Guy points to a documentary about AI that's in the works and might also touch upon what you have mentioned. Scroll down to the bonus quote after #50 right at the bottom of the article:

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/090728

It contains the link to this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYmObmEY6cY

...which has the link to this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWpZmh5geWQ&feature=related

And now I can't figure out how I want AI to go out (free agent/salary concerns not taken into consideration here).

A last stand as the main cog on a mediocre team, coming full circle with his 76er days? Getting a last shot at a ring in a reduced role on a contender, maybe compromising himself in the process for a picture-perfect ending?

I agree that being a sideshow on the Clippers would be terrible, but having him sink into depression in Memphis? I could see Brandon Jennings being a willing understudy to a like-minded AI, but Milwaukee doesn't do it by far. Another shot with the 76ers in the spot vacated by Andre Miller? Another great play-off shootout with the Warriors? Europe (where he'd probably be adored)?

It's confusing, but ultimately I hope that such a significant career won't just trickle out. I'll even settle for a farewell scoring 40 in his last All Star Game.

 
At 7/28/2009 7:32 PM, Blogger W2 said...

Watching Toine cross over a big man, stop on a dime, and lob an entry pass into PP who was posting up a guard on the box is a deeply emotional, intellectual, and spiritual event that is embedded deep into the pleasure center of my brain. Right next to Denise Huxtabull.

Interstingly, given Toine recent struggles, a pal of mine insists that somewhere there is an NBA
Cares video that shows Toine throwing dice with some kids. Can't be, right?

Killer post Joey.

 
At 7/28/2009 10:27 PM, Blogger Tucker said...

Really great post on 'Toine. Nicely done.

 
At 7/28/2009 11:56 PM, Blogger Raoul Duke said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7/29/2009 12:00 AM, Blogger Raoul Duke said...

re: Iverson

The last act of Jack Johnson's life was minstrelsy. I don't know if the reference was intentional, but it certainly works.

That said, Johnson's story is representative of AI further in the sense that both men were not only unforgivably black, but also were difficult for the mainstream to commodify to the point that the mainstream grudgingly accepted them until they found a way to tear them down. Obviously Johnson got the rawer deal, but your post raised questions about black popular culture symbols and their relationship to whiteness, whether or not blackness or representations of blackness can ever truly be commodified or, for that matter, radically (in the sense that it deviates from sociopolitical norms dictated by whiteness) politicized (or does capitalism simply win in the end and what racial connotations does that statement contain, etc.).

Oh, and does anybody else think that Goodell is becoming such a caricature of himself that he is almost reminiscent of the protagonist of Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man?" Maybe a bit extreme, but just a thought.

This post plus the Skip Gates piece have restored my faith in FD once more (though, it was unfortunate that the Skip Gates angle was absent in the last post's comments section). Great posting, regardless, guys.

 
At 7/29/2009 12:57 AM, Blogger Rebar said...

fuck coach k, but i quote: "I don’t think the NBA gets credit with the amount of teaching they do. With Derrick [Rose] you can see the maturity."

HA! Implicit argument for abolishing the age limit? I wanna see a 16 yr old sit on memphis' bench.

I miss Antoine already. I feel like Zach Randolph in the last Isaiah year almost approached 'Toine's lack of a conscience: crossover, near turnover, airballed three ftw baby.

 
At 7/29/2009 3:34 AM, Blogger Brendan K said...

Tops, Joey. I enjoyed this a lot. Thanks for putting thought where I never (and few others ever) could.

 
At 7/29/2009 9:24 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

@Joey--I think the point about the NBA being a job and how we all behave at work is an important one that's too often overlooked. There are probably other reasons, but I think the players of the MJ era were so heavily mythologized in real time that, when the players of the AI era arrived and treated the job like a job, they seemed by comparison unworthy of opportunity given to them. (Never mind that in fact they had worked and were working extremely hard for, even if they were doing so in the same way that everyone else works hard at their job.)

This also gave me an idea: Kobe Doing Work should be re-done as a combination of The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm that started with "Kobe" (i.e. an actor playing Kobe as he was and is) as a young hotshot just out of college and starting a new corporate gig, following him through his career.

@goathair--I don't know if Toine and Mase are in the same category. Toine wasn't revolutionary or even evolutionary. He and a number of others were transgressive. And the league needed that.

 
At 7/29/2009 11:54 PM, Blogger Alexander J said...

Essentially the argument was put forth by Simmons that there was an opportunity for Toine to use his frame and develop a kind of new-jack swing post game that belied the traditional grind it out moves of the lumbering giants; an opportunity for a Power Forward with handle to swiftly outmaneuver some of the lumbering mid-nineties centers as we transitioned in to an anti-Ostertag age, taking Hakeem Olaujuwon's skill-set to the same conclusion with a guy who could stretch it out to three point line if he had ever learned shot selection in a manner that he could find himself 5 to 6 3 point shots within a given game, within the flow; Eddy is most definitely a period piece.

Bringing Anthony Mason in to this just further foments the Ninja Turtle Corollary here between Toine, Al Harrington, Mike James and Mason; mainly Bonzi Wells though.

 
At 7/30/2009 2:51 AM, Blogger BigSaxmo said...

I don't think it's a coincidence that guys like Francis, Marbury, and Toine are out of the league at this point (I know Franchise had some injury issues) and AI can't get a job- in the era in which they came up, the league was so weak that turning some early 20's kid loose to barely shoot over 40% and surrounding him with dregs was actually a viable way to get 45-50 wins, and if your stud was really fucking good and you assembled a halfway decent group of veterans around him (like AI and the Sixers) or got him a running mate (like Pierce on the Celtics), you could actually make a run, even if you were gonna get crushed eventually. I think if these guys came up now, the franchises that drafted them wouldn't be so enabling, and they would have gotten their shit together or faced Felton-level irrelevancy.

The thing about Toine was that despite the fact that he was really quick for his size, he could never jump, and he hated getting his shot blocked. A guy who pulled down 10 boards a game in his second year in the league basically refused to go down low by the end of his career. Still, the dude threw up a 23/9/5 while putting in 220 threes in 00-01. He's gotta be the only guy to have that many rebounds and made 3's in the same year. Sad to see him descend into irrelevancy like this.

 
At 7/30/2009 8:02 AM, Blogger Joe said...

i always loved that toine had the minerals to hoist threes despite an embarassingly low shooting percentage and think nothing of it.

@bigsaxmo
that era of the early 2000s really seemed to be defined by embarassingly low shooting percentages, even scoring. compared to today, you know it was bad when peja won the scoring title by dropping around 26 a game and garnett actually scored the most points overall just by playing all 82 and averaging 22 a game. was it the more aggressive defensive rules, talent watered down by too many euro/high school busts, or a combination of both?

 
At 7/31/2009 5:33 AM, Blogger Three's Company said...

Joey,

Sandy, here--as always, I love your stuff, and this being on Employee No. 8 (shoutout to the "Feet You Wear" adidas crew) has made this instant classic in your catalogue. A couple of things, sir (and hopefully I'm not kissing too much butt here on my agreeances of your points)...

I always felt that Antoine was legitimately the NEXT player of the league. He was well-coached, highly-skilled and possessed an ability to affect a game in a very tangible way, not the same way that Magic or Pippen did, but somewhere in that realm, especially at Kentucky and in his first two Celtics years. The problem with Antoine is generally the same problem that plagued Derrick Coleman and Rasheed (and one of the commenters pointed this out)--he just didn't care enough. He didn't care that he could've been the greatest power forward to play, and neither did stupid Derrick Coleman or Rasheed. Where as DC wanted to collect his money, and Rasheed was hiding behind a boisterous personality that really just wanted to fit in on the court, Antoine was extravagant in many ways. I always adored his shimmy shake and I loved that he was virtually unguardable when he actually was really trying to win; but those times as a professional really seemed rare, and sadly enough, I'd say that the acquisition of Paul Pierce as a co-alpha dog contributed to his nonsensical play, almost as if he acted out to gain attention--and if you consider wild three-point shots early in the shot clock and unnecessary but entertaining crossovers "acting out", then he certainly would've merited a coach's version of a parental spanking. Nevertheless, he really made me want to play ball (and buy his adidas Top Ten 2010--CLASSIC).

Additionally, I want to say that Antoine "The Obtuse" was created from rewarding a guy too early, being too self-conscious, and too irresponsible for his own good. He got paid too early (with a max-like extension within two years, I believe) and he wasn't responsible enough to himself or to his team to maintain good play. As I mentioned, I believe Antoine fought a bit for attention, knowing that PP (he he he) was "The Truth", literally; but really, Antoine was the truth all along, but I feel like he probably didn't believe enough in his game as a post-playing do-it-all to win the attention he felt was merited, since he wasn't a sexy shooting swingman (sort of hard to believe considering the appearance of Paul Pierce AND his game--no homo). In truth, Walker didn't need to be anything but himself. Had he just been himself, he would've known that he would get the attention that I'm fully aware that he wanted--that's how he got an adidas commercial and several signature (and very fresh) shoes in the first place--nobody could be Antoine but Antoine. Not a kid from Inglewood via Kansas, not a city slicker coach in the commonwealth of Kentucky, not a dried-up Dino Radja or future Mr. Vanessa Williams--NOBODY was as uniquely cool of a player as Antoine Walker, and it's pathetic that many people won't remember this about him. He was a novelty in many ways.

 
At 7/31/2009 5:34 AM, Blogger Three's Company said...

That he failed to realize his legacy-to-be as a TRUE power forward who literally and actually did play all 5 positions and well is a disservice not only to me and his admirers, it should be a monumental disappointment to him and his family. Yes, Derrick Coleman was a 4 who could shoot and defend all three frontcourt positions (for a little while) and Rasheed was both explosive and patient as a postmaster/scorer/defender, but Antoine was somebody who could literally do everything, and seemed to be noble in his do-it-all play...just not noble enough to know when to play to his strengths (which is ALL THE TIME).

Most people won't remember Antoine, I'd bet. As aforementioned, many will talk about Rasheed, Cliff Robinson and then move over to KG and Dirk as the premier versatile forwards (all being around 7'), but Antoine was a failed Pippen in the truest sense. Antoine at his best could've played with any superstar and been a superstar for being there if he wanted; and he could've been a superstar on his own, being the best that he could've been. Sadly, Employee No. 8 stopped being that dreams light years ago, and he became a mere mirage, a false prophetic image. I will mourn not only that, but that he didn't see it for himself when it was most vital to his career. Or maybe he does. Or maybe really just doesn't care.

(Enter sad face here.)

 
At 7/31/2009 12:19 PM, Blogger Andrew Weatherhead said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7/31/2009 4:19 PM, Blogger tray said...

"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYmObmEY6cY"

Maybe it's just because I haven't heard Iverson talk much since he left my town, but there's something so, I don't know, ten years ago about hearing the guy speak, a throwback to a distant era when concerns about "realness" were huge and not just some shitty Swizz Beats and Jada song. He's so Rip Van Winkle-esque in his black bucket hat and black tee. You have to feel for the guy with his career in collapse, but you can't deny that he brought this on himself. I'm sorry, but the league is about winning and losing; it's not theatre, or the world's best reality show, or this style bazaar put on for your aesthetic pleasures. And Allen Iverson, by his own choosing, ceased to be a winning basketball player sometime ago.

 
At 7/31/2009 8:10 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

@Tray--Prove it.

 
At 8/05/2009 5:51 PM, Blogger No said...

Antoine did what he was told. He listened to his coach and he was harrassed for it.

He deserves more credit then anyone here has given him and it's too bad that you people remember what you want to remember.

Antoine was born to be a Celtic and I fully believe if Ainge was never brought to town Antoine would still he here putting up the numbers he did during the Jim O'brien time.

 

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