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.
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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.