Taking Care of Elephants

Jay Caspian Kang's wardrobe is provided by the Sam Cassell Assistant Coach collection at Macy's. He made his FD debut writing about Jeremy Lin. You can reach him via twitter: @maxpower51.

(skip forward to 31:52)

In the above interview with Steven A. Smith, when asked to identify other players with heart, Allen Iverson, the league’s vanguard of heart, comes up with the following names: Shaq, Lebron, T-Mac, Larry Hughes and Vince Carter.

It’s a puzzling list, to say the least. Have there been four players in the past decade who have been more questioned for their lack of heart? Who has more playoff failures than T-Mac? How many times have you watched some red-faced talking head eviscerate Larry Hughes for his lack of effort? What about all the Shaq fat jokes and the slow swing of public opinion that has cast him as a gregarious, lazy, destructive opportunist?

This weekend, Shoals asked why we feel the need to monetize the performance of certain athletes into moral lurcre—why are we unable to see ourselves in Vince Carter’s inconsistency, in T-Mac’s flashes of apathy, in how Larry Hughes and Lamar Odom deal with crippling family tragedies? Why cannot we see the ups and downs of an athlete as the appropriate metaphor? Why, for God’s sake, when we discuss “heart,” do we equate it with an inhuman desire to win at all costs? Does Galactus, indomitable eater of worlds, lead the universe in heart?

Iverson, unlike his fans and detractors, must view his fellow player as someone very much like himself and not as a phantasmal projection of his own insecurity and pride. In his mind, then, the word heart must mean something very different from what it means to a public who can only view him through the lens of his play on the court and what the media decides to do with him. Throughout the interview with Steven A. Smith, Iverson discusses coming from nothing and making it to where he is today. He repeatedly defines heart, not in terms of performance on the basketball court, but rather as a man’s ability to fight and scrap against a world that longs for his downfall. Scoring thirty in a playoff game and scowling for the cameras might fool the fans into thinking you have heart, but in Iverson’s estimation, players are people and performance on the court is not the only way to measure a man.

Perhaps, instead of focusing only on what happens in a game, he sees the man, himself, with all his baggage and failings, as the metaphor. Within that equation, heart means something entirely different than the ratio of shots he hits in the waning seconds of a playoff game.

Is it any wonder, then, that he chooses Vince, who, in a seven game playoff series against Iverson’s Sixers in 2001, scored 35, 30 and 50 points in Toronto’s three wins, but still carries the label of being a mercurial and uncommitted loser? Nobody in the league is more reviled than Vince, not even Artest, who has his stable of devotees. And yet, Vince plays on, despite the persistent and nearly universal scorn. Maybe Iverson sees a bit of himself in Vince's choice to keep playing amidst a growing consensus that has cast him as a selfish, lazy waster of gifts.

While there is certainly an argument to be made that Vince is getting paid to play, the discussion is not about Vince, at all, really, but more about how Iverson, a maligned millionaire, finds inspiration in another maligned millionaire who fell from a similar state of grace. And what about Larry Hughes, a former teammate who was excoriated by certain media folk for the sin of allowing his grief over his little brother’s death affect his play on the court? How could Iverson, who defines his life in a fighter's terms, not marvel at the heart of someone who suffered a tragic loss and still kept scrapping, even when the world had sent in its indifferent, and oftentimes cruel verdict?

Shortly after naming those names, Iverson goes on to tell Steven A. Smith, in so many words, that when you ascend into the throne of NBA superstar, the public, fueled by the media, salivates at any chance to cut you down into something that can fit their moral and economic agenda. He says, “If you don’t want to go through what I went through, being the bad guy in the NBA and all that, be fake, then.”

His calculus is as clear and as contradictory as a koan: In Iverson's mind, the metaphor is catastrophically wrong. Those who are said to have heart, in fact, do not. To have heart, the judging public, at some point, must disparage your heart. (Practice?) Only from that compromised and conditional position, can you earn real heart.

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At 5/10/2010 10:54 AM, Blogger C said...

It's so refreshing to see someone expressing this thought. Yes, I love the guys who play with abandon and recklessness every game. But I certainly don't give 100% at work every day. How can I expect someone else to?

I don't love basketball for ruthlessness and grim determination, and I don't feel that winning is the most important thing. Have I wasted my time watching my team, sharing their joy and sadness, laughing at their antics, and commiserating with other fans if they don't win the championship? Sure I love to win, but I would rather love than win.

At 5/10/2010 12:47 PM, Blogger Ben said...

this really gets at the heart of what (it seems to me) has been one of the major challenges of this site in the last few years--the struggle to reconcile media invented player narratives with the real person underneath. obviously ai takes what the media says very personally, but i wonder how much other players are affected by what the media projects onto them, and also how much the players internalize their own narratives. in the case of tmac, where he broke down at that press conference after game 7 of the utah series a few years ago, was that emotion real because he actually can't stand losing, or because the media had derided him as essentially a loser for years and years? if reporters hadn't framed the discussion of his career in terms of his failure to leave the first round, would he care? i would argue that at some point, for some players, the narrative becomes something real for them, as it did for tmac at that press conference. cool piece.

At 5/10/2010 2:02 PM, Blogger Jay Caspian Kang said...


I remember watching an interview John Thompson did with KG some time during his last season in Minnesota. He asked KG if he was tired of all the losing and KG's face screwed up into a look of almost comic distress. Clenching his jaw, he held up his index finger and began shaking his head. It was weird theater and I just kind of took it as that.

But then he won the championship and we all heard what he to say then...

I'm with you though, it's difficult to parse out what's genuine and what's just a reaction to the media's reaction, especially when it comes to guys who have $ or reputation at stake. Not everyone is S-Jax, I guess. Some guys must feel the need to ham it up from time to time. But it's not like boxing, where you can just tell they're selling themselves.

At 5/10/2010 2:26 PM, Blogger chris said...

Does Vince continue to carry the "Loser" label if the Magic grab the title this year? I just think labeling someone based on their team's poor performance is ridiculous. If he gets that ring this season, this is all moot.

At 5/10/2010 2:36 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Jay and I talked about this some. It "redeems" him, but in a totally artificial way. No one's making peace with, or accepting, Vince's past. It's not reconciled with the present. He's just earned the right to have it ignored.

At 5/10/2010 2:56 PM, Blogger Chris said...

best article about Iverson I've *ever* read. Tx again, Shoals...

At 5/10/2010 3:54 PM, Blogger DW said...

If Vince gets a ring this season, it's because he walked into a good situation. You cannot make the argument he led this team to a championship (barring a legendary performance in the next 2 rounds). If anything, I'm sure Vince detractors will just label him a front runner.

At 5/10/2010 5:06 PM, Blogger Cramzy said...

This is a great article. That particular interview has always stuck with me but I never paid much attention to the guys he mentioned as having heart. On the surface, it seems like a peculiar list, but personally those are guys (Mac, Vince,AI, and Larry to a lesser extent) that I've hoped would get a chance to have that KG "ANYTHING IS POSSSSIBBBLLEEEE" moment. After this season I'd like to see Dirk get there to. It really is ridiculous that despite how much work these guys put in, revisionist history boils their team failure down solely to them. Go back, look at numbers or just watch the games. When it was on the line, these guys rarely laid down. They were just over matched. Since 1980 only the Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Lakers,Pistons, Heat, Celtics, and 76ers have been champs. None of those squads were extremely dependent on one man. Some of The teams they beat (AI'S sixers, Lebron's Cavs, for example) were. There's something to be said for that.That constant ridicule can take a toll and I can't really blame guys for checking out from time to time, although some of the things they say and do add fuel to the media fire.But even their most herculean efforts aren't good enough & completely stricken from the record after awhile.You can say "well, Vince walked into a great situation" but can't that argument be made for KG. He was rotting away in Minnesota,hooked up with Ray & Paul, and now all three of them are considered leaders & winners.

At 5/10/2010 5:36 PM, Blogger Jay Caspian Kang said...

think about what would have happened if Karl Malone had won with the Lakers. Nobody would forget the "Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays" missed free throw or him getting the ball stripped away by Jordan. He would still be defined by those moments. Sure, Vince is at a different point in his career, but it's not like Karl was a patsy on that Lakers team. He had reinvented himself into an intimidating, defensive force. But even before the Finals, I remember watching people debate whether or not a Malone and Glove championship would "count." All winning the championship means is that they can't say the words, "he never won a championship," but it doesn't excuse you from the rest of it.

Also, this video is pretty sweet. Watch Vince scowl, beat the basket support, yell and drop 50 in the biggest game of his career up to that point.


At 5/10/2010 6:53 PM, Blogger Josh said...

If Vince gets a ring this season, it's because he walked into a good situation.

There is not a single player in basketball history that statement does not apply to.

Anyway, excellent article. Thanks for writing/posting it.

At 5/13/2010 12:17 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

There are very few players who "have it in them" to lead a team to the championship. Right now, there's Bryant, James, Howard, Wade. Durant shows signs. Maybe Nash and Dirk should be on the list. Duncan, no longer.

But fans in each city want to believe that their team has hope, that their team's best player might ascend to levels he heretofore hasn't seemed capable of. Hence the pressure on Raptor Carter. Hence fans who ask oddly banal questions on espn.com like, "Chad, what kind of stud could my Bobcats pick up with the 16th pick?" Did any neutral observer ever think Carter was among the league's top 5 players? Even at Carter's peak, Shaq, Duncan, Bryant, McGrady, Kidd, Webber, Garnett were clearly better.

Carter invited a lot of the scorn when, upon joining New Jersey in late 2004, his scoring suddenly doubled and he openly admitted to loafing in Toronto. Perhaps in Toronto he was tired of trying to reach for something he could never attain.

At 5/13/2010 12:17 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

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