THE PASSION OF KEVIN GARNETT
Jay Caspian Kang has a tumblr where he mostly posts videos of bad rap acts from the late nineties. Follow him on twitter at maxpower51.
Two nights ago, I walked around the Mission and watched as thousands of elated Giants fans flooded out of the bars and into the streets to celebrate. As I walked deeper down 24th Street towards the frontlines of gentrification, where handcrafted coffee houses with vaguely German names have staked out their own turf in the never-ending battle between the Nortenos and the Surenos, the scene didn’t change much. Everyone was elated, yelling. Even the nerdy brand of San Francisco hipster, the ones who can’t figure out how to dress interestingly, were out cheering on their stoops. The honking of horns, the unabashed revelry, the energy of the city was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. And although I have no allegiance to the Giants or even to the Bay Area, I found myself thinking of all the Roger Angell and Philip Roth quotes I had long since cast off as being sentimental, ridiculous. Baseball was stitching together a civic consciousness, a shared ecstasy. What that was worth was open for debate, but it certainly had an undeniable power to bring people together into something approximating a joyful moment.
A lifelong Red Sox fan, I watched Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS in a piano bar in midtown Manhattan. The bar itself had no mounted screens, but someone had wedged a small TV in one of the bar’s shelves. Me and the bartender were the only people who were watching. My new art school friends were watching the performance artist Soy Bomb sing the National Anthem of a fake country, in some language he had made up. When Johnny Damon’s grand slam cleared the short porch, I yelped, took out my phone and started furiously texting my friends back in Boston. My art school friends gave me a look usually reserved for cute Special Olympians and dogs who try to walk on their hind legs. I remember feeling a tingle at the back of my skull, a charge flood into my fingertips—the usual bodied indications that something was changing. Just three months prior, I had graduated from a college where the major social activity was crowding into the campus pub to watch the Red Sox. Now, I was sitting in a piano bar with friends-of-friends of a performance artist best known for jumping up on stage with Bob Dylan during some Grammy performance. I wondered how long it would be before I would stop seeking out the small TV in the corner of the bar. When would being friends-of-friends of Soy Bomb become my life? A year? Three months?
As it turned out, the tingly feeling was just the effects of the awful garlic-infused vodka I had been drinking. I kept watching sports, but as my priorities changed, I found myself caring less and less about whether or not my team won or lost.
By the time the Sox won again in 2007, I had started reading FreeDarko, which provided me with a name for my particular sports affliction. Liberated Fandom made sense, not only because my beloved childhood losers had been usurped by a bunch of rowdy Cowboy Up dickbags, but also because it allowed for a different engagement with sports, one that seemed to fit better with my particular circuitry. I’m sure that most of the people reading this are doing so because they, at some point, felt a similar detachment from caring whether a team won or lost, but could not quite pry themselves away from the intricacies, and, at times, the beauty of the spectacle on the court.
Within this aesthetic realm, where players exist as performers, who, while never completely excerpted from the calculus of winning and losing, share a relationship to the game similar to that of an opera diva and the libretto, the prima donnas are the Pedro Martinezes, the Allen Iversons, the Griffey Juniors. Those athletes, through their individual brilliance and magnetic personality, transcend the manufactured drama of millionaires pretending to collectively care about beating other millionaires in a fully corporatized game. The anti-heroes are always those millionaires who would have you believe that there is nothing more vital to humanity than whether or not they win or lose a playoff series.
Yes, as fans, we demand the players care about winning, losing and loyalty, but there also exists an unspoken line where the athlete should not cross. Namely, they should never, ever, never-ever-ever remind us that the scope of their lives is larger than our own. The history of fans violently turning against an athlete is just a list of athletes who felt entitled to publically disregard a communal rule. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire cheated and we got mad because most of us don’t (or can’t) cheat at our jobs. The answer to LeBron’s Nike question is this: we wanted you to swap employers with quiet dignity, because when we switch jobs, nobody really cares. And since we like to think of ourselves as people who work hard at our jobs, we also demand the athlete care, but when he steps off the field of play, we expect him to be the sort of guy, who, to quote some disastrous election logic from a few years back, we can have a beer with.
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In the dungeon of tunnel-visioned stars, only Barry Bonds has carried the excesses of caring-too-much as poorly and awkwardly as Kevin Garnett. Jordan was protected by doting reporters and the persistence and impenetrability of the mask he wore whenever he was in front of a camera. Kobe is saved by his visible intelligence, his occasional moments of thoughtfulness. Garnett has never possessed any of these graces, or, at the very least, the institutional guidance to occasionally edit out his excesses. What’s worse, there’s always been something a bit off about Garnett’s famed intensity—he doesn’t quite burn in the same way that Chris Paul burns, he doesn’t have Isaiah’s grim determination, he doesn’t have Rodman’s “fuck it, we’re winning” mentality.
With Garnett, there’s always a sense of insecure theater, of a man who hasn’t quite convinced himself of the virtues and authenticity of his passions. We all know people like this in our daily lives—the sneering indie snob, the violently overprotective mother, the religious blowhard. When Garnett started crying in front of John Thompson in that famed TNT interview, I remember feeling bad for him, not because he was sick of losing, but rather, because he, in true Jimmy Swaggart style, felt the need to imbue such wild theatrics into his caring. When he made the comment about going to war and bringing teks and grenades, I remember thinking, “He just doesn’t get it.” Nothing that’s happened in the interim, from the weirdness of his championship ranting to last night’s confrontation with Charlie Villanueva and today’s bizarre attempt at an explanation, has budged that perception.
Anyone who has played pickup basketball has come across the guy who compulsively and needlessly bullies other players. These guys always force you into that ugly headspace, wherein you must calculate what is more debasing: to endure their abuse or to fight back. On Tuesday night, Charlie Villaneuva made a bad compromise by tattling via twitter, when the more appropriate response might have been to punch Garnett in the mouth and let the public decide whether or not it was justified. Strangely, it was Villanueva’s twitter activity, and not Garnett’s trash-talking, that violated an unspoken code: the one that dictates athletes take care of their own business without turning to the public opinion. And while I’m not so naïve as to say that Garnett’s comments marked some unbreached depth of trash-talking, I don’t find it instructive or even interesting, really, to argue whether or not this is in or out of character for him, specifically, or for NBA players, at large.
I’m certain there are tons of assholes who say asshole-ish things on the court. But a history of boorish behavior shouldn’t excuse what Garnett said and it certainly should not change the prevailing opinion on the sort of guy he has become. We all know he is the irrational, manic bully on the court, the one who you just wish would get a girlfriend or find a job he enjoys, the same guy who ruins it for everyone else. And we know that sometimes the bully’s intensity, even if its fraudulent at its core, can rub off on his teammates. What sometimes results is five guys who cry at every foul call, who puff out their chests and talk shit, who throw elbows and who say things that turn an otherwise friendly, enjoyable game into a slap-battle of dicks. There is no question that Garnett’s “edge” has helped the Celtics win games, but it’s also created a litany of ugly moments in which Garnett physically attacks and threatens much smaller men. Any rational fan, really, anyone who doesn’t salivate at the thought of jumping strangers, should feel their stomach turn whenever they watch one of these encounters. And, I’d argue, if what Charlie Villanueva said is true, and there’s no reason to doubt his word, especially when compared to Garnett’s preposterous explanation, anyone with any decency or compassion should cringe when they hear about a grown man evoking the words “cancer patient” while ridiculing another grown man about a rare genetic condition that causes him to have no body hair.
Let’s remember: the bully ruins every pick-up game. The moment Garnett was traded to the Celtics, he ruined yet another one of my childhood teams. I haven’t rooted for the Celtics since and I’ve enjoyed the NBA more.
It was a strange swing—from witnessing the elation of a city over the Giants to the ugly reminder that there is a way to care too much about sports and championships. Garnett has always been my benchmark for twisted intensity, for what happens when an athlete takes the dogma of winning-at-all-costs and turns it into something ugly and indefensible. Sports, after all, are not war, and although we burden the stage with military props and metaphors, I don’t think the model we envision for our athletes is wrong. The best should play with passionate intensity, but there is a sportsmanlike way to perform any task, especially one as fundamentally meaningless as trying to put a ball through a hoop more times than your opponent. Yes, Garnett has done this before and he will do it again and the next Garnett will do the same, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to confuse cruelty with competitiveness and a genuinely pathetic lack of perspective with intensity. Why can’t we just call an asshole an asshole every time he acts like an asshole? What the fuck do we owe Kevin Garnett?