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.