Amare who?

I had something certifiably important to say about the Odom/Payton friction, and wanted to call everyone’s attention to Shawn Marion’s very gratifying complaints about the pace of life up in Phoenix these days. But then I happened over to Deadspin, discovered the lantern at the end of God's street and, on the honest, there is really nothing left to believe in at the moment but

I’ve avoided writing about Portis’s press conferences (not NBA, but probably should be), if only because they’re deserving of their very own academic discipline. Plus they’ve been a mixed bag, ranging from sophomoric to unspeakably brilliant, and, although you’d think I’d be overjoyed that they existed in any form, that inconsistency made me hesitant to wheel out the superlatives. Say goodbye to that restraint, and get lost to FreeDarko’s golden rule of never simply linking up “hot items” elsewhere on the internet—if this ends up being the last FreeDarko post of 2005, I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to close out the year that saw this blog come into the world.

Actually, would this ever happen in the Association? I'm beginning to believe that, paradoxically, there is a limit placed on style and personality in the league at the same time as these factors define it. I'm not talking dress code or marketing—more that, among players, style is encouraged, but it's supposed to be of a certain manner and to a certain degree. Portis can flourish because the NFL itself is too busy fighting Chad Johnson and other game day auteurs to even imagine this level of self-expression. They think they know the enemy, and in doing so let the real (yet seemingly trivial) firepower slip through the cracks, like when Earl Boykins drops thirty, or terrorists figure out the real usefulness of a hijacked airplane. And I don't think the football culture of players and coaches can even begin to judge Portis because, well, he's so deviant that he's off the map.

The culture of the Association. . . make no mistake, it's watching, and is probably also self-regulating. As much as we've come to see it as a war between corporate interests and African-American aesthetics, don't forget that the latter has its own kind of status quo to enforce.


Heart of a pet

Today I write with a heavy heart. In less than twenty-four hours, your very own Bethlehem Shoals will be grappling with either his first brush with a family Christmas or the possible loss of his favorite cat this side of Tarantula. Yet FreeDarko exists not to bare to you what goes on inside my soul but to, as much as possible, show that feelings about the NBA are people, too.

Robbed of my priceless Chinese and a movie (cliché, maybe, but it’s my own so I call it ritual), and, as any Jew over twelve without children should, placing no stock in the Festival of Lights, to me Christmas is all about basketball. Two years ago, I sat alone in my apartment exulting as LeBron and T-Mac shot the fucking lights out on a national stage. And last season, like everyone else on the planet, I eagerly anticipated Shaq/Kobe more for the pre- and post-game interactions than the game itself. Now, despite finding myself a few ringer prayers away from a fantasy football title, I find myself again fixated on Kobe/Shaq, wondering if I’m not about to witness short-form history in the making.

Like the last go-round, the final score should be an afterthought. The kid with the Troubled Smile can drop a hundred, and still there’s no way that Shaq, Wade, and the reform school of former All-Star’s that the Heat copped over the summer can not walk away with a decisive victory. I also know full well that nothing that happens at mid-court can warm over the shattered romance that is Big Daddy and his first, and still finest, Robin (the miscast, Chris O’Donnell-ish one); despite Kobe having professed last week that he’d like things to be better, he fully admits, and I think we all know, that for them it’s a done deal. They’ll be civil at some Lakers ceremonies when Shaq retires, even cordial at the Hall of Fame banquets. For now, though, they’re more concerned with their respective teams seasons—the rare case where the “I’m just trying to get us into the playoffs” isn’t just a tossed-off reflex—than the cosmic dilemma that is Shaq and Kobe, Kobe and Shaq.

Their relationship, though, has never really been about them as individuals, or even the fate of the Lakers. It’s been a media circus that gained enough traction to survive as folk legend. I’m tempted to say that it’s here, and not in any culture wars showdown involving Iverson, the dress code, or Big Ron, that fans have staked out truly original territory of this-and-that dichotomy in today’s Association. Because while these other conflicts are for the most part pantomimes of American society’s daily toils, Kobe/Shaq really, truly originates in sport as we know it.

The battle lines are all too familiar at this point. Shaq: beloved by all, consummate gentleman, media darling, Bunyan-like folk hero, history being written from the minute he entered the league, laughing with us through his troubles; Kobe: mysterious, awkward, uncomfortably deliberate, stalking greatness with a predatory zeal, so frightening in his perfection that it makes us feel safe when he stumbles. Shaq, unambiguous, candid, making his own way through the game; Kobe, murky, derivative, so hopelessly referential that you worry it’s a crutch. That the world should relate more readily to Goliath than a middle-class kid who worked his ass off to earn his place among the sport’s fine tyrants is a testament to just how off-putting his whole steez can be.

I’m on record, more times over than the sky can hold, as being a Kobe guy. He’s the tragic figure, anti-hero, and mighty parable that, as someone who spent most of high school fighting my way through Russian novels, I’m pretty much predisposed to root for. And while I like Shaq as much as the next guy, he seems like someone I’m far more interested in telling my grandseed about than I am pulling for in the here and now. Never mind the night and day differences in what they do on the court; to me, Kobe is a far more compelling, and thus sympathetic, figure than the Big Bob Hope.

The problem is, siding with Kobe wears a person out. It’s not just that it can get uncomfortable, like when Bryant’s endless politicizing rings hollow, his play borders on flippant, and, of course, when he gets away with sexual assault. More that I get the feeling that I’ve taken an indefensible position and have the whole world not just against me, but either embarrassed by or smugly dismissive of me. See, Kobe’s not like Iverson—there’s no glory in his struggles, no real rebellious cause. He’s an asshole, plain and simple, one whose numerous shortcomings as a person shouldn’t have to come with his unshakable basketball genius. Sometimes I worry that I’m not actually supporting Kobe, but harping on the parts of him that, were he to ever grow up, he’d leave behind faster than you can say “Sheed on the Blazers.”

But that might be exactly why I’m so stuck on Kobe—for better or worse, I know that there’s no separating the greatness from the pettiness, the sublime from the groan-inducing, the rat from the falcon. I like a good anthem as much as the next man, and I’d put lo-fi, gutter-level intensity in that same category. With Kobe, though, it’s exactly the mundane and seemingly superfluous parts of him that work to make him mighty, threaten even to swallow the good stuff alive. Shaq doesn’t have this problem, since from day one he’s been a legend in the making, and a totally one-sided one at that. Ask me to choose between the voluminously sacred and the naggingly profane, though, and I’ll have an answer for you before you even tell me why you’re asking.


Traveling at the speed of quickness

Before I lead you into some more important matters, I have a dramatic move to make: if the Cavs aren't in the Conference Finals this season, I am now officially ready to start blaming LeBron. He's quite possibly the perfect basketball player, a combination of MJ, Magic and, I don't know, Elgin Baylor, with almost no weaknesses. And while last year I went on and on about how he wasn't quite yet unstoppable in the way Wade and Amare seemed to be, at this point he's gotten so efficient, so deadly from the outside and so victorious using jets and muscles to find his way inside, that he makes Kobe and T-Mac seem like errant gamblers.

When it was just him, the Cavs still nearly made the playoffs. Now they've got a roster that practically screams "veteran order" and "complementary pieces," meaning LeBron should be prepared to leave the heavy footprint of a powerhouse. Maybe we'd expect an average superstar to merely get his and let the others do the rest. But if LeBron is indeed the player he's told us he is, the vessel of unimaginable greatness who finds his meaning in the team game, it's on him to make this team fulfill its destiny. If a top coach gets talent, he's supposed to make moves. LeBron, bless his soul, is that much of a giant—if he can't harness these new friends and send the Cavs galloping into the meadows, he's just not doing his job.

Okay, now let me go out on a perilous and confess the unthinkable: everything wrong with this blog can be traced to a single, persistant neurosis of mine. At some point in life, I got tangled up over the announcer-isms "fast," "quick," and "explosive," sometimes used interchangably, sometimes in tandem. On an intuitive level, I know what's what, who's what, and who's who. But when I try to break it down, things crumble, my mind goes gray, and Francisco Garcia must lead the way into light.

In the abstract, it's unbreakably simple. "Fast" is straight-line, baseline-to-baseline speed; "quick" is agility, nimble, darting-move brilliance; "explosive," power and burst that clears out the air around it. All involve vast acceleration, but "quick" evokes it most often, since it has that element of unpredictability that turns a first step into an event, not just the beginning of a drive.

(Emergency: I don't think I will ever be able to watch the Mavs again. At least six months before they rise to the Hawks' level of credibility)

The problem comes when you try to observe these traits in the wild. "Fast" yields most freely; I'd say that Nash and Parker both have nothing going for them but that sprint-like whirr, not a lateral bone in their respective bodies. When they take off, mostly the defender just has to worry about keeping up with them. Iverson epitomizes "quick," stopping on a dime all crafty and keeping opponents not only one step behind but not even knowing what step they'd take. Thing is, rarely is a "quick" player not also "fast"—Melo is the only one that immediately comes to mind—and "fast, not quick" seems like a decidedly European designation. And AI, murderer that he is off the dribble, beats them with both on that first step, i.e. no one can follow it and it's blinding even if they could.

"Explosive" correlates with "strong," but isn't a "burst"—as in "burst of speed"—itself a kind of explosion? There are players who are "explosive" but not particularly "fast," most of them athletic big men, but when you get talking about strapping guards, it gets too complicated to matter. Arenas is sometimes one, sometimes all three, sometimes none, and rarely in any differentiated way; it's here that you most often hear commentators interchange them, probably at the expense of their intelligibility in other situations. Watching LeBron earlier, I heard all of them thrown around, in ways that managed to tell me nothing about him other than that he was athletic beyond anyone's wildest dreams. If we really want to figure out ways to describe a singular talent like James, or properly etch the legacies of Wade or Arenas, we need to get the language for it.

If this doesn't require this many words to figure out, or I've grossly misread things, tell me so my heart can rest. Like I said, it's the announcers that have cast this fear into my body.

Swaddled in particpatory goodness

Pardon me if this seems like a more relevant second take on yesterday’s effort for the good of mankind, but there are things in this game that simply must be discussed. Last week, the NBA released its list of the league’s best-selling jerseys. I got the scoop from Inside Hoops, and also received the slight revelation that the figures are based solely on business at the Association store on Fifth Avenue (“the world’s only”), from pre-season on. While this added information may explain some of the more eye-raising names on here, I certainly feel that time spent untangling the message is time well spent. This is, after all, the best data we have to gauge the all-important question of who in the league gets the most love, and why.

1. Wade: No-brainer. Player you have to jock, inspiration incarnate, statesman galore, had momentum from last season’s playoffs.

2. AI: The people’s champ, now and forever.

3. LeBron: Sometimes I think that people’s strong feelings for him are all professional, never personal enough to require a jersey purchase

4. Starbury: Remember, these figures are NYC only.

5. Kobe: Not bad for someone who’s been a walking PR disaster and on non-stop career suicide watch. Or maybe there’s just no denying the sickness.

6. Shaq: Everybody loves him, but surprised to see him this high. Professing your devotion to Shaq is like writing Abraham a birthday card.

7. T-Mac: Would be top five if not for those Maoist Rockets unis. Which, actually, were kind of a weird way to suck up to Yao's fanbase; must have just been for the benefit of the Party

8. Melo: He’s all niche appeal; many still doubt him or don’t feel the game. But they show out strong for him.

9. Duncan: People like rings and power; they’ve made an icon out of Trump.

10. Vince: Face it, the legend will never die.

11. Big Ben: A shocker. But figure that the deep, dark Wallace mystique can speak to the corner-hugging bad-ass and the “right way” pundit. . . that’s certainly the makings of a jersey dynasty.

12. Nash: The American Apparel of NBA players

13. Jermaine O’Neal: I respect the hell out of the dude, and I wonder if these sales aren’t all to Howard students in town for the weekend.

14. Paul Pierce: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: he should either be much higher or much lower on this list. He’s almost like the imaginary number of high-scoring swingmen.

15. Dirk Nowitzki: My opinion of the Recluse changed forever when I discovered what a pivotal role Top Model played in his week, but I now find myself attached to Project Runway. That said, folks who want Dirk’s jersey are the same kind who find Heidi Klum sexy, and I’m not talking about the German thing.

16. Amare: I would buy an Amare suit of armor, as would the rest of this country if dude were where he should be. Why Jesus, why?

17. Manu: NYC is 35% Puerto Rican.

18. KG: I have come to the conclusion that Garnett is ahead of his time, plain and simple. Is there any other explanation for why he’s not the undisputed king of the Association, when he’s basically Iverson, Duncan, and Jermaine O’Neal wrapped up in one?

19. Ray Allen: Neighborhood favorite.

20. J-Kidd: Proof that a good portion of New York just can’t leave Jersey behind

21. Stevie Franchise: It’s been three seasons since he was relevant. Maybe he’s still big in streets, or on video games.

22. Artest: QB’s finest AND the second coming of the pre-Spree Knicks

23. Hinrich: When the Bulls had Jordan, they were the Cowboys of the NBA. There are still Cowboys fans in Philadelphia, many of them African-American.

24. Ben Gordon: Mt. Vernon kid, commuters, shares a backcourt with the resplendent Hinrich.

25. Yao Ming: Number one worldwide.


FreeDarko Upon the Healing Chair

In a far-off country, there is a saying: peer into a man’s vomit, and you will know the life he lives. Call it hubris, call it charity, but some of us decided it was about time we turn our madrigal powers onto ourselves. In the process, we’d hoped to hand our audience that proverbial grain of salt, such that there would never ever again be the slightest misunderstanding over what we said, why we said it, and ultimately, when we said it. By telling the world of our FreeDarko colleagues, this site would enter a new age of prowess and honesty.

But then it dawned on us: what does one really know of his fellow man, especially when they may or may not have ever met in person and have communicated almost exclusively in terms of the National Basketball Association? The only logical answer was to each select the five players we most relate to, and then submit this list to the three other participants for their expert assessment.

NOTE: Only Dr. Lawyer IndianChief and ForEvers Burns have any actual training in the psychological arts. The Recluse and myself just happen to hang around here more than anyone else.

NOTE: These readings were based purely on the lists of players, not whatever details we might know about the individual in question. I know that anyone familiar with me will find this impossible to believe, but strangers and friends alike came to the same conclusions.

NOTE; Obviously, this experiment was perfectly devised, flawlessly executed, and should be employed in a variety of institutional settings.

Bethlehem Shoals: Kobe Bryant, Gilbert Arenas, Chris Webber, Eddie Griffin, J.R. Smith

Brown Recluse, Esq.: Incredibly bright, but deeply troubled, this subject never fails to both amaze and disturb me and my staff. Although possessed of prodigious talent, Mr. Shoals has thus far been profoundly unable to get his life fully on track. A classic loner, he is incapable of trusting other people and often feels that he must do everything himself. Such a burden would weigh heavy on any man, and it is therefore unsurprising that the subject often finds himself fighting through periods of depression and anxiety. However, I am optimistic that once placed in the right environment, he will thrive emotionally and professionally.

Dr. Lawyer IndianChief: The patient obsesses with the past, simultaneously trying to both evade it and embrace it. He reports a frequently reoccurring dream of purchasing suits and other fine clothing with a father figure, possibly representing social goals of appearing more dignified to others and ultimately to be loved. Prior criminal tendencies cloud the patient’s attempts at achieving these goals, and a longstanding inferiority complex looms largely over the patient’s current pscyhe. The patient’s difficulties in relationships with women also contribute to his emotional insecurities and daily existential anxieties over his place and purpose within the world.

ForEvers Burns: Clearly, Shoals considers himself outside of the world of mainstream acceptance. Like all of the players with whom he identifies, he shelters himself in a coccoon spun with threads torn from the tattered fabric of his consciousness. His players isolate themselves from society and see the world at large as their enemies. Kobe convinces himself that everyone wants nothing more than to witness his specatcular downfall; fatalism has completely devoured Webber as he accepts that the very forces that hold the universe together conspire daily to keep him from success; Arenas retreats to dozens of neurotic habits and ticks (showering in his jersey? forcing his dogs to run on treadmills?); Griffin self-medicated with alcohol. I don't know J. R. Smith at all, but judging from his peers on this list, tragedy lurks around the corner. Don’t worry Shoals, if America’s Funniest Home Videos can become a national treasure, then surely the world can open its arms to you.

Brown Recluse, Esq.: Pau Gasol, Tracy McGrady, Robert Horry, Andre Iguodala, Antawn Jamison

BS: Patient’s ego appears to be in a sort of low-level turmoil: an unassuming professional, he also seems driven by a muted spark of individuality. We can also observe this paradox in his name, which seeks to both legitimize mystery with the honorific “esquire” and hint at the secretive, possibly mystical, nature of his inner life. It remains to be seen whether this manifests itself as a healthy measure of smugness or fear of underachievement. My main concern is that, thrown into indecision by these competing identities, he may one day find himself unable to take on greater responsibility or a heightened social role without sacrificing some vital part of his self-image.

DLIC: Ah yes, this reminds me of a case study of 1986. Mr. Whittaker. Mr. Whittaker suffered from a rare condition called hyperlacksadosia, in which he became extremely stagnant and engaged in bored, monotonous behavior, but would spontaneously and unknowingly become aggressive and active. The patient desires a companion of equal or, if possible greater status. He does not seek attention, and highly values privacy. Prone to staring at mirrors for hours, under the illusion that he has some facial protrusion or peculiarity, such as ingrown facial hair, a lazy eye, or an extended lower lip.

FB: The Recluse must layer well to compensate for the ice water coursing through his veins. His utter lack of visible emotion indicates either a ruthless and calculating efficiency or the fragile psyche of a ticking time bomb. With T-Mac and the others, you see men who could calmly slit your throat and then drop 40 on Jumaine Jones without their pulse ever rising above 70. As a young boy in school, the Recluse no doubt excelled academically, and while the bullies might have been inclined to torment him, they kept their distance unsure of how a child with such empty and soulless eyes might react. It’s likely one day that the Recluse will eventually learn to feel “love”, “hate”, and “happiness” but it’s equally likely that someone will find the postman in his refrigerator.

Dr. Lawyer IndianChief: Andrei Kirilenko, Tayshaun Prince, Lamar Odom, Mike Sweetney, Antonio Davis

BR: While he initially appeared to be accomplished and well adjusted, further sessions revealed that the subject has a malformed sense of self-worth, often subjugating his own needs and wants to those of others. Despite statements to the contrary, he feels that his hard work and talents are underappreciated by those around him, causing him to feel anger and resentment. In the extreme, these emotions can lead to self-imposed isolation and sustained withdrawal from loved ones. Dr. IndianChief also has serious body image issues, which is to be expected considering his grotesquely long arms and large backside.

BS: In my thousands of years spent diagnosing the wayward and in-between, on occasion I have witnessed patients so preoccupied with their physical form that it dictates the very contours of their mind. Here, we have a yet more curious case: a man seeking to define his mental make-up according to the general concept of physical abnormality, verging on deformity. It is my expert opinion that this brave soul aspires to a kind of de facto justification for some wild, possibly deviant, actions and tendencies, and is under the impression that the first principle of the flesh could provide him with a existential license unsupported by reason or morality.

FB: Tayshaun Prince looks like a hypoglycemic twelve-year old; Antonio Davis’s ears are large enough to interfere with radio signals; Mike Sweetney appears to have the same illness that afflicted Robin Williams’s character in Jack; Kirielenko’s head could easily be mistaken for those creepy potatoes wrapped in stockings that grow grass that looks like hair. To be blunt, the good doctor does not find himself very physically attractive. Of course, Dr. L-I-C doesn’t want anyone to know about his preoccupation with his appearance, hence the inclusion of Odom on the list to obscure his true feelings about himself.

ForEvers Burns: Gilbert Arenas, Juan Dixon, Cuttino Mobley, Anderson Varejao, Brent Barry

BR: This subject exhibits some of the classic signs of a psychopath: a constant need for excitement, impulsive decision-making, and a lack of responsibility. Also fitting the profile is the manifest intelligence and superficial charm masking a striking lack of compassion for his fellow man. While he can be magnanimous, he is not what I would consider to be generous. Mr. Burns also demonstrates a youthful zeal that is inconsistent with his age and profession. The subject does not pose a risk of violent behavior, but I have trouble envisioning him ever making the sort of deep connections with other people that characterize a truly mentally healthy individual.

BS: Some of my less distinguished colleagues in this field often conflate immaturity and recklessness, such that growing up would as a matter of course resolve one’s more chaotic impulses. This patient stands in sharp opposition to this folly-filled shibboleth, as he complements adult usefulness and utility with characteristics that, in the eyes of a lesser analyst, might be mistaken for rashness or frivolity. Here, whether sublimating these tendencies into the accomplishment of the task at hand (be it social, cognitive, or conceptual) or retaining them as a kind of motivational “flair,” there can be no question that this individual thrives on imperfection and energy.

DLIC: Patient suffers from a full-fledged identity crisis. Struggles with his own personal racial ambiguity, often engages in racial code-switching, displaying behavior associated with various cultural stereotypes. Due to this tendency, as well as an unfortunate trend of being turned away by various social collectives, the patient has difficulty staying in one place and is constantly navigating between new and different social circles. Can revert to very immature behavior at times. Highly responsive to juvenile insults; said insults can actually be used as a motivational tool for the patient.


Need for Closure

On the heels of perhaps The Association's best game of the season so far (Grizzlies-Pistons 2OT thrilla), I will echo Brickowski's "The NBA is bleak" sentiment, and pepper you all with a few half-baked ideas, screwball notions, and not-fully-formed sentences. Last year, the lig spoiled us, giving us neatly formed storylines, like pretty maids all in a row: Artest goes crazy, Fast Break is back, Nash vs. Shaq MVP debate, demise of the Lakers...whereas this year, my teeth chatter, sounding ever-more like the arthritic knees of Kevin McHale knocking together, as I wonder, "WAIT, IS IT 03-04 ALL OVER AGAIN?" I'll take what they give me, and I'll give you what they take...

NBA Racial Semiotics ALERT!

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

"After clanking shot after shot during the second quarter Thursday night at Target Center, the Timberwolves will make a change. But it has nothing to do with their roster or on-court strategy.

Instead, workers will replace the basket at Target Center's south end after some Wolves players remarked Friday that the rim looked a little tilted. The basket in question is near the visitor's bench and where the Wolves shot 3 of 17 (17.6 percent) during the second quarter of a 90-88 loss to the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. They were outscored 25-8 in the quarter.

On Friday, sharpshooters Fred Hoiberg and Wally Szczerbiak noticed that the basket appeared off kilter. But other teammates, including Anthony Carter and Troy Hudson, couldn't tell anything was wrong. "I'm from the ghetto," Hudson said. "I've seen so many tilted rims, they look normal to me."

So, let me get this straight. Fred and Wally see a crooked rim. They see imperfection. They see dissent from the American steel of Pa's old hoop out in the Nebraskan cornfields. They see opposition to the cold sturdy metal that adorns Long Island gymnasiums, where virgin cheerleaders look on in amazement. They see their would-be perfect circle, one degree askew. Perhaps two. An affront to their carefully sculpted and practiced jumpshooting technique. Perfected from years of attending basketball clinics and playing on summer league teams.

Carter and Hudson, on the other hand, what do they see? Home? Tradition? Subversion?


Moving on. You know what totally rules? Sam Mitchell's job security. In an age where Orlando management decides that Johnny Davis (NOT Cuttino Mobley's being replaced by Doug Christie's plantar fascia) is the reason for the Magic's decline, Terry Porter is thrown under a monster truck, and even Stan Van Gundy is Fredo Corleone'd out the game as HIS BEST PLAYER IS OUT WITH AN INJURY, it is refreshing to know that leader of the NBA's worst record is safe.

No condescension here at all; I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Sam. In his first stint with the T-Wolves, the guy was traded with Pooh Richardson for Michael Williams and Chuck "Rifleman" Person. Williams went on to miss like 140 of the next 142 games with various injuries, and Sam mysteriously rejoined Minnesota a year later, making the Timberwolves' first blockbuster trade in franchise history: SAM MITCHELL + POOH RICHARDSON IN EXCHANGE FOR SAM MITCHELL. An ominous beginning to say the least...

Sam went on to become Mr. Timberwolf in the pre-KG era, setting all franchise marks before Da Kid came along. And KG would not be close to the player/person he is today were it not for Mitchell (...and Terry Porter...and Malik Sealy...and, well, no Flip Saunders didn't really do as much as he gets credit for...). Sam doesn't strike me as possessing one ounce of basketball strategy knowledge or X-and-O ability, but cot damn can the man motivate! He is, and I say this in the nicest way possible, a glorified version of an assistant high school basketball coach. You know how it works...While some dipshit gym teacher is telling you how good you can be, and how much he cares about you, and how he played against Xavier McDaniel back when he was in high school, the assistant coach plays the lunatic bad cop screaming on you and threatening to make you run killers until your armpits bleed. Sam is the bad cop.

And in an age where--putting my Chris Berman mask on--attitudes and egos rule the Association (this is a league of PLAYERS), Sam's complete naivete is refreshing. He has no idea that you are NOT supposed to call your rookies soft (Villanueva), challenge your franchise players to lockerroom fights (Vinsanity), or publicly embarrass hotheads for yelling at the refs and then make them cry (Rafer Alston). Especially when you coach the only team in Canada, and your city has all but stopped giving a shit about attending steps towards the (ugh) Rudy Gay sweepstakes cleverly disguised as basketball games. Sam's old school mentality has no business in The Association, yet he stubbornly presses on with it. And Rob Babcock's glorious ineptitude is going to do nothing to stop him.

Speaking of bad GMs, it is commonly thought that the only current executive worse than Babcock (No Weisbrod) is Isiah Thomas. While I prepared a mini-dissertation a few weeks ago, in defense of Isiah, Bill Simmons (whose columns get infinitely better during the basketball season, don't front) swooped in and stated what was to be one of the cornerstones of my argument, which is that he is actually really good in the draft. Another main point, which I will make briefly is that Zeke recognizes that the allure of New York gives him essentially an extra free agent/blockbuster trade opportunity every year. Which is why, as ridiculous as it sounds, The Knicks are consistently legitimately in the hunt for guys like Kobe, Artest, Lebron et al. Anyways, I scrapped the article, but could not scrap what I have deemed to be the greatest hoops/music comparison of all time.


Once the king of Motown, had an impressive supporting cast and led his team to unprecedented heights. Hated by all his contemporaries. Continues to flash that conniving asshole-on-the-inside smile. Extremely rocky post-glory years career.


Oh, and just to say it before anyone else does. "Who got Pietrus, he got GRAAAAPES."



Recently some FreeDarko readers have pointed out that we haven’t devoted many words lately to actually covering this NBA season. While it may be true that our last 37 posts have focused on profiling individual players (“profiles in courage” according to Shoals), I hardly think we can be blamed for this. Have you watched the league this year? It’s pretty bleak my friends, as the Association seems to have reneged on nearly every promise it made during the off-season. Obviously the Artest saga has broken the hearts of young and old Darko-ites alike, but not even Ron can shoulder the blame for this season. Indeed, last year’s FreeD faves—Phoenix, Washington, and Seattle—have all suffered from the effects of injuries and free agency. Meanwhile, teams that were supposed to step up and fill the void—Denver, Sacramento, Golden State—have all floundered around the .500 mark. The Miami circus has yet to get off the ground and even Phil and Kobe have failed to provide any cheap laughs. Yet, no team has disappointed me as much as the Rockets.

In the wake of the Stro’/Rafer acquisitions and the Suns’ demise, the Rockets were the only team that appeared capable of threatening the Spurs. But the truth is that my hope for the Rockets had more to do with their city than their actual talent. Houston was having a breakthrough year, and it only seemed natural that the Rockets would participate. The city’s long-simmering rap scene finally exploded beyond the Texas and Louisiana borders, the Astros made their first World Series, and even Hurricane Rita knew enough not to fuck with Clutch City. Surely, this would be the year that T-Mac and Yao put it all together.

It has been said that the law is in the region and the region is in the law, but I like it best when this principle applies to sports. To some degree we all identify teams with the cities they represent, and it’s always more interesting when the makeup of a team says something about the city. Whether it’s the blue-collar play of the team from the Motor City, the glamour of the Hollywood Lakers, or the way the state of Utah seems to insist on the Jazz roster matching the complexion of the Alta snow. Houston 2005 offered such a tidy package of regionalism that it was impossible not to ponder things like, “What came first, the slow humid culture or the drank?” Or, “Is the success of TV Jewelry somehow related to a skyline of mirrored buildings?” I’m not sure about these questions, but I do know that Mike Jones is the rap equivalent of Enron, relentlessly hawking a product that never really existed in the first place. The Houston Hustle. An H-Town thang.

In this day and age the NBA and hip-hop are inextricably intertwined, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for heavy-handedly lumping together the city’s roundball team and rap scene. In all likelihood the city’s music and economics bear no real resemblance to the style of the Rockets (although Van Gundy slows more shit down than Michael Watts, and if Rafer, Stro, and T-Mac ain’t a screwed-up click I don’t know what is), but what’s important here is that the city has a strong identity. People at least have something they can attach to the Rockets. The same cannot be said for Houston’s I-10 rival, the San Antonio Spurs, and I’d like to submit that San Antonio’s lack of civic identity contributes at least as much to the Spurs=Boring perception as Tim Duncan’s game. What you know about the Alamo? What you know about the Riverwalk?

All of this leads me to a confession: even I’m bored with the Spurs. Sure, I still watch most of their games, but at this point it has more to do with duty and a desire to watch basketball than unbridled enthusiasm. Oberto is a bust and Finley can only contribute if he’s given 30 minutes a night. Ginobili has yet to get going, and it’s beginning to appear that his style is too reckless to ever keep him off the IR for long periods of time. What’s worse, they’ve become everything I said they weren’t when Shoals brought up the notion of “inevitability.” They open up 11 point leads only to squander them and hang on for the most uninspiring of wins. Sure, they’re 19-5, but if you’re going to be an elite team at least have the decency to dominate. They are now the oldest team in the league, and are capable of losing to anyone on the second game of a back-to-back, as evidenced by losses to the Hawks and Hornets. And while I’ll never be able to root against them, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me hoping for something new.

I wanted so badly for the Rockets to play that role. After watching them score consecutive road wins against the Warriors and Sonics I was even prepared to herald their resurgence in this post. But now Yao is out for the foreseeable future, joining Rafer, Bob Sura, Derrick Anderson, Jon Barry and everyone else on the Rockets’ injured list, leaving T-Mac and his bad back to keep the team afloat. Oh, well, I guess the West is going to suck this year. There is an upside to this, however. Doesn’t an awful West set the stage for a certain someone to rise from the microfracture ashes?

Whatever gets you through the winter.



Hello to all. I have returned. Upon hearing that my boy Gary Trent was released from Lottomatica Virtus Roma (Italy), I immediately had to take a trip Eastward to go through some one-on-one workouts with him and see what the deal was. As luck would have it, I also got to stay in Tarcento/Udine, a mere 30KM from the Slovenian border. So for fun during the day, Gary and I would take trips over the border to watch Erazem Lorbek's younger brother, Bjanko, play in the under-13 league. Ah, the work of an Eastern Bloc scout is never done...

I am here to formally introduce the new banner that emblazons our sacred home. Just speaking personally, pre-WarAtHome Michael Rapaport (here as Thomas Dunwitty) embodies many of the ideals I strive for within my Freedarko ramblings: proclamation of white guilt, hip-hop credibility devoid of any Danny Hochian "LOOK HOW FUCKING DOWN I AM, PA!" exploits, acceptance from both Woody Allen and Spike Lee (the Marc Stein and Stephen A. Smith of their respective craft), and a true appreciation of hoops.

As a 13-year-old, while working for the hometown Timberwolves, I got to meet Rapaport, who attended a Sonics/Wolves game while in town filming Beautiful Girls. I was asked to relay messages back and forth between Rapaport and Shawn Kemp (the two of them having evidently forged some post-Rock-n-Jock friendship). Although I remember none of the content of those exchanges, I walked away with a deep respect for both Rapaport and Kemp as human beings. This story is rather pointless, and now that I am re-reading this, this post in full quite self-indulgent, but I hope in future weeks to recall better and juicier stories from my 6-year employment with the NBA.

Also, in the meantime, I will be acting agent for Gary Trent. My man's got an array of post moves and can still give a hard six with the best of em.

Call us.


Ron-Ron and Contemporary Fan-dom: This Ain't No Damn Game Here!

To say the least, Mr. Ron-Ron Artest is a complicated man.

He’s simultaneously one of the most beloved players in this league, and, one of the most hated. He embodies so much of what some of us love about the game of NBA basketball, and also, what many hate about it. He’s generally regarded as one of the most passionate players in the league (as illustrated by his emotional outbursts that rival those of a 5 year old who wants his cookies before dinner) and yet proclaims repeatedly that once he wins a championship, he’s done with basketball. He’s also regarded as one of the most hard-working players in the league who plays hard-nosed, physical, un-selfish basketball, yet he’s hated by a lot of old white folks who long for the days of hard-nose, physical, un-selfish basketball. He's a complicated enigma that embodies the entire spectrum of what's great and not-so-great about the Association.

Oh, and, of course, we can’t forget that he’s responsible for the NBA’s only Shot-Heard-Round-the-World/"Where were you when it happened?" moment.

For those completely in the dark, Ron Artest recently declared he wanted to be traded from the Indiana Pacers. His reasoning? In his own words, he says it’s because "I still think my past haunts me here," and "I think they will be a better team without me" and because of differences with Rick Carlisle’s coaching style.

What needs to be clarified immediately is that his reasons for why he wants a trade are patently ridiculous. Nobody wants to be traded because they think the team will be better off without them. That's bullshit. Likewise, he claims that he’s not getting enough shots and that he’s too selfish and, yet, in the same breath declares that ideally he’d be playing with the Knicks. That's bullshit. The idea that Coach Brown would somehow grant Artest free reign to shoot whenever he wants is ridiculous and I can’t imagine Artest really thinks that that’s a legitimate possibility. Suffice it to say that, while I’m sure Artest isn’t lying about the fact that he doesn’t like playing for Rick Carlisle and he'd rather be playing in his hometown, there’s something a bit deeper at play here that we aren’t being told. Likely, Artest just doesn’t like his teammates and/or living in Indiana or something, but this piece isn't gonna be too concerned with the reasons why Artest wants to leave the Pacers. But, whatever the reasons are for the trade, it’s still worth looking at the unstated implications of this demand.

Why? Well, of course, if it was any other player requesting the trade, I wouldn’t be writing about this right now. It’d certainly be "a story" in the sports-journalism sense of the word, but this is a story because of Artest’s recent history. Thus, Artest is right about the fact that his past haunts him. His past makes this demand for a trade worth examining more closely. And, his past makes this demand for a trade to be a very interesting and, yes, complicated one.

Let's back track a bit, though.

After last year’s brawl, I remember many players-turned-commentators loosely sticking-up for the actions of Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, saying that NBA players were a fraternal bunch that had a unique bond. They claimed there was a certain unstated loyalty between all the players that created itself through the "shared experience" of playing in the NBA. You know how at the end of every season of the Real World the characters are all crying and wind-up proclaiming in the confessional how much they love each other and how much they’ve been through together and you’re all just like "Motherfucker, you did nothing but get drunk and hook-up with people for 6 months! What the hell are you talking about ‘all we’ve been through together’?"

Well, as fabricated as it all is, there’s obviously a certain truth behind the sentiment that sharing a unique set of experiences with a group of people (no matter what those experiences may be) will inevitably bring you closer. So, it’s not hard to buy the argument that the NBA is indeed just a huge fraternity where most of the players (ESPECIALLY players on the same team)—no matter how much they like and/or dislike each other on the court—have a certain loyalty and respect for each other. Therefore, when Ron Artest went out into the crowd to start throwing some punches at Detroit's unsuspecting beer drinkers who had just a twinge of "Yeah, I just threw a beer at you" guilt in their eyes, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal said "Eff it, I’m riding for my teammate." Folks like my dad just accused them of being " bunch of thugs,"but anybody that’s played in a team sport seriously can you tell that it’s deeper than that. There IS a certain team unity and loyalty where you are willing to back-up your teammate in any situation. So, when Artest, Jackson, and O’Neal started smacking around the Detroit fans, it was an act of team loyalty and solidarity. They were defending their dude. It wasn’t even something they thought about. It was just the right thing to do.

What’s more, this loyalty and solidarity was contagious. The Pacers fans at home immediately followed suit, rallying around Artest. They supported him through his suspension and raised their fist in solidarity with the hard-working, hard-nosed player that they respected and grew to love. If anything, the adversity hardened their love and respect for him. Sure, he would sometimes get upset and do dumb stuff like destroy TVs in locker rooms and get silly technical fouls, but, hey, you’ve got to take the good with the bad, right? Sure, it was the biggest catastrophe in recent sports history (ever?), but Artest was "their guy" because he was a Pacer and the Pacers were/are "their team." So, the Pacers fans supported "their guy" and "their team" and were happy to do so.

All of this strikes me as pretty obvious up to this point.

But, what must be said about this huge show of support for Ron Artest after this debacle is that this huge show of support would’ve arisen literally wherever Artest was playing at the time (except for maybe Utah or something).

That's worth repeating.

The very genuine sense of loyalty and support that the city of Indianapolis showed to Ron Artest would've been mimicked in absolutely any other city in the United States.

This isn’t solely because of who or what Ron Artest is (though it helped that he played hard and was, despite his anger problems, fairly likable on the court). This is just the nature of American fan-dom. Just as O’Neal and Jackson defended their guy out of loyalty, the Pacers fans did the same. Rest assured, if Artest was in New York, there would have been thousands of New Yorkers rocking "Free Ron-Ron" shirts. Or, if he was playing in Seattle, you know Danny Fortson would’ve been in the crowd banging on fools just like Stephen Jacskon, and the Sonic fan Seattlites would’ve started drinking Ron-Ron lattes or something. The point is, the support for Artest after the brawl wasn’t a support that would’ve been unique to Indiana. It was only unique to Indiana because of the somewhat coincidental fact that Mr. Ron Artest happened to be playing for Indiana when he smacked a couple fans around. Pacers fans sided with the man because they felt somehow connected to him, like they too were an integral part of the team and that it’d be an act of cowardice and disloyalty to NOT support the man. Just as Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal threw punches on Artest’s behalf, Pacers fans did what they could to throw their own “punches,” buying the man’s jersey, continuing to support the under-manned Pacer team, and anxiously awaiting Ron-Ron’s return. Again, there is nothing uniquely Indianapolis-ian about this show of support. This is the response that American sports asks of their fans, and this is the response that most fans are happy to give (I do realize that not everyone in Indianapolis supported Artest, but the overwhelming majority did).

But Ron-Ron wants to be traded, and that totally flips this dynamic on its head, doesn't it?

When Ron-Ron demanded a trade on Sunday, a whole legion of fans that sided with the man strictly out of faithful and fan-atical devotion felt betrayed. After hearing about the trade, a Pacer fan buddy of mine said in a public forum, "after supporting dude for a long while, this ‘asking to be traded’ shit without speaking with pacers management is seriously weak…. Anybody want to buy a couple of Artest jerseys?" In a private message to me he shared further thoughts saying, "Artest broke my heart, and I took it very personally after spending my dollars on tickets and jerseys and such." As fans, I think this is a state of heart-broken rejection that we can all empathize with. Sure it’s silly, but I don’t think it’s altogether unfair to say that, in sports, we give ourselves over to certain teams and certain players the same way we give ourselves over to lovers and/or friends in our interpersonal relationships. We make sacrifices for them, make investments in them, and expect certain things in return. When they don’t come through, it hurts. We feel betrayed.

But, it’s a much different situation for the players. The relationship that the fans have to the players is not even close to the same relationship that the players have to the fans. Artest demanding a trade did not and does not betray any unspoken rules of loyalty in contemporary sportsmanship in today’s NBA. Instead, Artest demanding a trade articulates clearly that the relationship between fans and players—and even between teammates—is not what we’ve thought it is. It's simply not what we've been taught it is.

Artest’s trade demand is a demand that is uniquely aware of the huge rift between fans and the players they depend on. I think Artest is aware of the fact that this overwhelming show of support from the Indiana fans could've and would've happened anywhere. In fact, I'm not altogether convinced it hasn't. I know people from all over the US who supported Mr. Artest after the brawl. The Indiana fans feel betrayed because they feel like they have a certain entitlement—like Artest owes them some give-back for the fact that they supported him through thick and thin. But, it seems to me that Artest is keenly aware of what this support actually is: just the Indiana fans going through the motions of being Indiana fans.

This isn't meant to be criticism of the Indiana fans. Just as I think Artest would've been supported equally if he was playing in almost any other city, I think every other city would respond the exact same way that Indianapolis has when Artest demanded this trade: with a resounding "Fuck that." But, this trade demand calls attention to the mythical "give-take" relationship between players and fans. This trade demand (coupled with last year's brawl and all of the support and criticism that came along with it) clearly articulates the rift between players and fans.

NBA players today are not like the fans. They're obscenely large and athletic men that are simply not like you and me. The fact is, they can do things that we can't and that's why we watch them. Of course, this is the case in every single professional sport, but in the NBA the gap is larger. In the NFL, you still have work-horse athletes that you and I and middle-class, blue-collar white folk can relate to. The very nature of the NFL is blue-collar. Likewise, in baseball, you've still got fat old guys who can still perform. In the NBA, the players are a markedly different breed of human. They're either extremely quick and crafty, or huge, over-powering, and incredibly athletic. It also doesn't help that, in a very literal sense, there's little-to-no separation between the fans in the stands and the players on the court: court-side tickets are literally on the court and, given a lapse in security, any old Joe can run out on the floor and catch a sliding right hook to the grill from Jermaine O'Neal.

So, I suppose this is all just a rather long-winded way of saying that, yes, it appears that Mr. Ron-Ron Artest has no loyalty to his fans that have showed him so much loyalty. And, yes, it appears that he has no loyalty to his teammates who have stuck up for him, too. But, I don't want to really comment on whether or not I think this is a good or a bad thing. The only thing we can really take away from this is that, while players and fans are obviously hugely dependent on each other in very obvious ways, this dependence manifests itself as resentment just as often as it manifests itself as fandom. Giving one's self over to a player and/or a team is what we've been taught to do by the sports nation, and we expect certain things from players without ever really thinking about these expectations and how fair they are to the players. Hell. They're rich, right? They can make a few sacrifices for me and my city, right? Hell. All they do is play basketball all do while I bust my ass at my shitty job, right? They can stick it out, right?

I don't mean to criticize these questions or expectations, but I wonder how valid they are in today's sports environment.

Is it really reasonable to have "loyalty" to certain players in contemporary, business-first sports world? Let's be clear about this, after all. David Stern has gone to great lengths to market the National Basketball Association as a professional business like any other, and it seems that, while the NBA has technically always been a business, that the dynamics are changing. As the NBA becomes more "business-first" and as it evolves, is it possible that we as fans are operating under an out-moded sense of what being a "fan" is all about? Perhaps that's why there's so much resentment for the players and the game these days. Perhaps the resentment is there, not because the actual way the game is being played has changed so much, but because the way the sport has operated has changed so much, while the way we as fans engage the game and the way we as fans relate to the players hasn't changed at a parallel place.

Or maybe not.

One thing's for sure. Artest won't be in Indiana long. I can't blame the Pacers fans for being happy about that. I'd respond the same way if he pulled this shenaningan's in Philly.

But, that being said, he didn't... and I hope he comes to the Sixers.



Lone Wolf Without the Cub

I have said some preposterous things in the past about Julius Hodge, so let me fire off one more before lowering the veil of reason: Odom, as many flowery shrines as I have constructed in the place where his name once was, belongs to L.A. or South Beach. Much like KG only makes sense stalking the tundra, he’s got an easygoing guile that agrees with the limelight. But imagine Odom transfigured and hunched by the harsh glare of NYC, stuck on the train with his stomach growling, and bounding onto the courts to hustle cats for days. Multi-skilled and spectral as ever, but with a hunger, fire and cockiness that practically screams Harlem World.

(If someone wants to try and argue that Odom is indeed the heart of Queens, or that Queens is much more like Miami than I think, go ahead. Just please don't tell me you read that entire paragraph thinking that I didn't know where Lamar Odom hails from)

As much as I support Julius Hodge in all things he does—especially in his ongoing, nearly epic planetary rivalry with McCants—I’m not blind to the facts. He’s got a wiry frame minus the outlandish spring and tension that makes Odom, KG, and Miles into their own brand of human engineering. This does add a touch of Iverson to his player profile, but AI’s small, not fragile. And at the moment, he’s got no shot to speak of, a luxury afforded only to defensive specialists. Despite his impractical rise from second-rounder to near-lottery (without the scouting report on him ever changing all that much; it’s like the world just decided they were pulling for him), the twenty-two year-old Hodge ends up without a role on a team already overstocked with middling guards and swingmen. Way too late along in his life to stash him away as a project—that’s both an insult to a man who, if nothing else, deserves none from the NBA, and would tempt some team to try and start signing prison ballers.

Earlier this season, I half-guessed that the Nuggets might have brought Hodge on in as an “act like you know” consultant, to keep Melo focused and bring K-Mart down from the molten clouds of toughness that seem to have enveloped his brain and his game somewhere between New Jeruz and Kiki’s Town. Little could I have anticipated that this joke would have buried deep within it a kernel of prescience. For while he may have failed to become Denver’s Moochie, Hodge’s recent request for an NBDL assignment is about the most grown-ass thing anyone’s done for years in the Association.

When the DL was handed down from up on high, I refused to give in to the throngs who demanded I have an opinion. It was second-class citizenry in a league that’s one big walking piece of the pie, fucking with the glacial divide between the guaranteed and the guaranteed-not’s, and just generally insufficient for developing high-priced investments in a controlled environment. No more recently than yesterday, second-rounder Monta Ellis confidently to reporters why he sure as hell wasn’t headed there:

"I'd rather this, not playing and working in practice, instead of being in the D-League and playing," Ellis said. "I just feel like the D-League is just not my level of play. I feel like this here is going to be better. I like to be pushed. I like for people to go at me and make me better and I make them better."

Now witness Hodge, New York legend, blacktop terror, college stallion, flat-out authority, on his decision:

“I think it was pretty easy," said Hodge, who would not take a cut in pay to drop to the D-League. "I'm a basketball player. I work hard on my game and continue to get better every day. It doesn't matter where I'm at, just what I'm on the team doing."

Prior to Hodge’s revolutionary act of civil obedience, there had been exactly one and a half stories in the new look NBDL: Marcus Fizer, he of the endless downgrade, counted as half since he should probably just be in the Association, and Dennis Johnson, from interim Clip Show skipper to his usual role as the Wandering Black Jew of the Celtics Greats Tribe. Lo and beholdeth, DJ will be coaching none others than my(?) Austin Toros. But Hodge’s move (also to the Toros, incidentally) is more than mere human interest. With it, he’s doing what no team had the guts to do, and certainly what no flimsy Euro or stuttering high schooler could do: in deciding to accept a demotion and live the farmed out life, he’s actually admitted that he needs to get better. If Hodge were just a humble guy, he would’ve been content to—and quite possibly needed—to stay within the sightlines of the father figure. But striking out on your own to hone your craft, undertaking adversity in the name of self-improvement, that presents the challenge of the NBDL as an exercise in fierce maturity, not infantilization.


Islamic Man of Mystery

I used to work with this kid Alan who rocked those Bike gym teacher shorts and Rec Specs when he hooped, but despite his (intentional?) style deficiencies, he could actually play a little. If El Huracan forced me to assign him an NBA play-alike, I would have to go with John Stockton. He was a laid back cat off the court, but when he stepped between the lines, he was so focused and wouldn't hesitate to get a little dirty when the situation called for it. Alan eventually left to go to law school in Vancouver (from North Carolina!), where he would periodically report back on the progress of the upstart Griz. He sang the praises of the unlucky and enigmatic Michael Dickerson, whom he called one of the most underrated players in the league, but he hated him some Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Said he wasn't a team player, he was a black hole on offense, wouldn't play defense.

Those reports were so interesting in part because I never got to see Abdur-Rahim play. Being on the East Coast, the games during his one year at Cal were rarely broadcast, and he's spent most of his pro career stuck on terrible teams that never get on TV. And I mean terrible. The most games a Reef team ever won was 35 games in Atlanta in 02-03. What's really telling is that he seems to make teams worse. The Griz somehow managed one less victory during his rookie year than the year before, their first year in the league. How is that even possible? And Portland went from a solid playoff team to one of the worst teams in the league shortly after his arrival. This season, his first with the Kings, they have gone from one of the premier franchises of the past half-decade to last place in the Pacific Division. Granted, there were injuries, bad personnel moves, and bad coaching involved in all three places, but surely some of this has to rest on Abdur-Rahim's shoulders?

On paper (and that's all I have to go on), it appears to be another case of a selfish player going for dolo on the court, and fuck the team. There may be no "I" in "team," but there is an "m" and an "e." But, what keeps me from painting Reef with that brush (aside from the fact that, you know, I haven't actually seen him play) is that such an attitude seems so inconsistent with his off-court persona. Again, I don't know much about the guy--he's got to be the most anonymous 20 point scorer in my lifetime--but all reports indicate he's a humble, generous person. He does a lot of charity work, and the Sporting News named him one of the "Good Guys" in sports.

In scanning a few articles about Reef, I found that his humility and generosity are mostly attributed to his Islamic upbringing. Reef's pops is an Imam, who took a similar path to Malcolm, joining the Nation as a young man and eventually finding his way to true Islam. That makes Reef unique among black, Muslim (as opposed to Black Muslim) professional athletes, since unlike Muhammed Ali or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Reef didn't convert, he was raised that way. Perhaps that explains his quiet, reserved nature and also the surprising lack of political statements coming from his camp. I found articles about Reef fasting during Ramadan, but nothing about his views on the clusterfuck going on in Iraq. He just wants to play ball and praise Allah.

But, none of this does much to explain why his teams always seem to suck so much. I guess you could make the argument that he's so humble he lacks the heart and killer instinct of truly great players. Or you could say that a player's deeds off the court have little to do with what he does in a game. Just because a guy passes out toys doesn't mean he passes the ball. Or maybe I need to actually watch him play some time.


Come Back Strong, People of Toil and Bloodshed!!!

First off, there have lately been some cacklings on and off shore about the way FreeDarko’s decided to handle its business as of late. Let me draw out the obvious: we’re an irreverent, hip-hop-reared blog that constantly hollers “FreeDarko is a movement,” has made style itself into our odalisk, and is getting more multitudinous by the hour. If you bought into the More than Music business model, than stand back and take notes as we move from holy trinity of intimates to hydra of great doom that feeds its own telescoping ire. It might not work, but we’re in this to try and unseat Page 2—something that will make far more sense when we leave the ghetto of Blogger once and for all.

Now, to make it at least halfway out of the prism of self-love: FreeDarko and the Euro as we know it. Although, as the Recluse proclaimed so groutishly the other day, we have no particular love for Darko, the Euro itself is a rich and astounding sword of meaning. And while whether or not Serbia’s own Whitey Bulger indeed deserves to see the light of day, his pre-draft rep as a hardened lout with a “nasty streak” gets at why I from the beginning have felt that the Euro is not, as many might believe, the polar opposite of the sort of the raw as fuck players that we’re prone to light our lanterns around.

You see, it has always been of incredible surprise to me that all the Euro’s making the Association tended towards soft, that from the lands that brought us pogroms, death squads, famines, and endless, cloudless gray came slews of slithering giants best known for three-point range and shrinking in the light. Western Europe is one thing; B-Jax calling out Dirk as “the softest guy in the league” barely registers, since Germans have gone out of their way to feign harmlessness and inner depth since the Holocaust got revealed. If sports are often a correlative of national identity, it figures that Dirk would express exactly the benign view that Germany sees in the mirror and wishes to reflect back to the world as history marches forward the second most war-thirsty nation in modern history. In all actual fact, it’s their post-war ethos that’s to blame for EuroTrash, that self-fulfilling prophecy of a thousand trampled "other" Western nations.

But Latvia, Lithuania, the Balkans, all these other places that both in my imagination (think shtetl 1926) and recent history are all about some hardcore. I want, no, I need, Euros to show me the tough, proud souls of their haunted peoples and besieged cultural past. It is with thought in mind that I turn to Sarunas Jasikevicius, Pacers rookie, potential savior (respect due to DLIC’s ode to Mario Kasun, penned in a time of leaner circumstance).

Watching Jasikevicius last Thursday, the first thing I noticed was how much commitment he plays with. SJ exists within the flow of the game, and not just as an accessory. He digs in, makes things happen, puts his confidence, poise, and rep on the line to push a possession into fruitful being. To be sure, SJ’s a marksman, but he drains three’s with an Arenas-like portent. He only makes big shots and if they’re insignificant, he wills them unto bigness. We’re used to creators who need the ball a lot, so let’s call Jasikevicius a facilitator—he sets things into motion with an economy of action, the perfect point guard on a team full of scorers who need to ball in their hands. Key pass, key cut, finding his way to where someone needs to be to make a play. . . commentators often describe Nash or Kidd as “orchestrating” an offense, so try imagining that without the deliberate, heroic, quarterbacking aspect. SJ doesn’t just “play the right way,” he finds a way to mysteriously force the entire offense into that rhythm without touching the ball, directing the operation without actually getting everyone’s attention. He’s steeped in emotion, pumping his fist and grunting brilliantly, and looks more like some kind of squat, broken-nosed mercenary than a former folk dancer.

I am fully expecting that a reader clothed in Pacer will insist that I’m wrong, that Jasikevicius is not even a slivered fingernail of what I’m claiming. But what’s important is that Jasikevicius represents everything a Euro should be, according to all the theories of thoughtful provocation I hold most dear. As much as Euros are supposed to have brought back the great game of Bird and McHale, the promise of SJ is that international players, who came into this world of NBA in ways we pampered, ivoried Americans could only begin to imagine, could make flesh what they alone see when they close their wild, vaguely Asiatic eyes. Style not as narrowly defined dribbling and dunking, but as acting like you know, true to your roots, throwing up your geo-political set every time the smoke clears at mid-court.

And naturally, if you have followed me this far, you have no choice but to admit that the ultimate model for these dream Euros of my future thought is—in both structure and content—none other than the one man who knows the meaning of rugged and makes us feel it every time he surveys the game and makes it his own.

Except no Slav would ever demand a trade. I am not nearly influential enough to map out the relationship between a nearly feudal sense of honor and duty and submission to Communism’s heavy-lidded reign, but I know that it’s got nothing to do with trying to mastermind that eternal Queensbridge come-up.

Permit me to kill a few things on my way out: the new LeBron commercials may have put him on Melo’s level, and rendered Wade useless as a cultural icon.


News Flash - Brand is Still Bland


Recent chatter says that Elton Brand is putting together an MVP like season as he leads the Clippers to the top of the Western Conference. Now, I'm sure by now that any discerning sports fan knows that this is simply fill to an otherwise boring start to the NBA season. That Elton Bland is being touted as an MVP at this early juncture is both an insult to our collective intelligence and a recipe for marketing disaster. This isn't about his MVP candidacy or not, simply the need to talk about something. People are getting paid to write about the Association every day and why not stop by the supermarket aisle that sells jarred Marshmallow Puff once in a while. For shits and giggles.

Don't get me wrong - I've always enjoyed his silent production. I felt slighted along with him when the Bulls traded him for the waste that is Tyson Chandler - and not just because Elton and I share the same birth date, which we do. He reflects the passive, successful side of the Pisces. I am the evil, maniacal and successful size. My home videos are better than his highlight reels, I promise. (Can we recall now that Brian Skinner was also sent in that trade along with Tyson Chandler? Is that the first we heard of this mythological sum-zero that is Brian Skinner? Should he have not been promised more for his career when packaged in such a botched, bum deal?)

I half-like Brand in the same way that I half-like Tim Duncan. Their style serves to let all the nostalgic and nauseating commentators point to examples of how the game used to be played - and thats interesting because of the cantankerous factor. He does the little things. Gets some blocks without being a specialist. Doesn't stir up shit. Fills up a fantasy line and a stat line. (For the record, when given the chance I drafted Bosh over Brand and I'm still ecstatic about it.)

He's been tolerable to date because in the realm of winning and losing there is a tidy balance between the two. Duncan has reaped fame and glory while Elton has been confined to an epoch of losing with the Clippers. To date there has been one Ambassador to the bland land of Duncan and Brand.

But now that the Clippers are winning and Brand is getting the praise it just reaks of rotten. Dead cat rotten.

I watched Brand torch the Heat this past week. He's dropped some weight and is clearly more athletic. His jump shots make the net sound good - a crisp swish - and that is a helpful distraction while he's pushing Udonis Haslem and Antoine Walker around for 37.

But the problem is that Brand isn't pushing anyone around. Even by scoring 37, he's rarely - if ever - spectacular. But that comes as a surprise to few, and even less to those who frequent this site and know what FreeDarko is all about.

My most defining impression of Brand starts and finishes with a pre-draft interview with either Chris Myers or Roy Firestone (can't recall) on ESPN's Up Close. Brand was getting routinely criticized for his lack of height - and rumor was that the Bulls were looking to draft Lamar Odom instead of him. David Falk, his agent, was alongside as I remember.

To settle the debate Myers or Firestone (again, I'd prefer it to be the latter but think it was Myers) got out an measuring tape and measured Brand from head to toe. Again memory is a bit waning here, but Brand stood at something like 6'4. Not close to his playing height.

The real tragedy is that instead of questioning the inexact science with which the host measured him, Brand just stood there dumbfounded. His usual half-cocked grin.

Now the fact that the reigning player of the year would be a sucker for such punishment; imagine the embarassment... a fucking tape measure! Who would stand for it on national television? I still can't believe that Uber-Agent David "Wish He Was Related to Peter" Falk would allow this circus to occur makes a mockery of every fine, self-centered athlete and their smart, prick agent that ever came before.

And we thought Ricky Williams and Master P were stupid. Nevermind that it also was the lowest moment ever for Up Close - leading to its eventual downfall alongside the infamous Rod Tidwell interview when Jerry Maguire (the Tom Cruise that I used to like) gets off-stage props and cries. But that was scripted.

Flash forward 6 years and we still know what we always sort-of did. We're not gonna buy a ticket to watch this guy. We watched the Baby Clippers for Odom and Miles, not Brand. After all, he is basically Clarence Weatherspoon with a bit more athleticism, better coaching and now - drumrolls please - a new diet. I rather he'd have gone Tom Hanks in Cast Away Freak Thin than this.

Admittedly, with his body type and size the only Power Forward that could possibly keep us interested is named Barkley. That dude crashed the boards. This dude shoots baseline jumpers.

Maybe there is some strange psycho-jumble about our tastes as reflective of body length aesthetics, but FreeDarko has talked incessantly about mind & world interactions this week and some of our readership has indicated that they're tired of it. How's this for a matinee?

Regardless, if the eye must be on the Clippers I rather have the talk be about Maggette (should be), Chris Kaman (unreasonably) or anyone (give me a healthy Shaun Livingston!) but please not about Brand. It's too easy and too boring.

A few things we know. The Clips are playing well-coached suffocating defense at the beginning of the season. They won't be at the end. Cassell and Cat Mobley will unravel. Whatever skills may make Brand a MVP candidate during the regular season are going to be proven useless when he has to match up against Duncan, Nowitzki (or day I say Amare) in the playoffs. And, of course, this so-far success will be revealed as a fraud - just as another Western Conference team led by a MVP touted PF year after year is.

It's the to date drudgery of the 05-06 NBA regular season that has given the media the need to fill it up with Brand4MVP headlines. As FreeDarko tries to go daily, we too are trying to fill it up - and I'll admit that we're finding it a bit difficult. Give this whole post in the first place. Who really gives a shit? About Brand or my anecdote about a tape-measure incident in 1999... it all reeks of trying too hard. Now I know what was rotten.

But there is someone we do care about. Remember that regardless of height, weight, demeanor, or lack of back bone - Brand was taken first overall. In hind sight, it still stands as a smart move by the Bulls. Brand is arguably the second best player taken in that draft - especially given the numbers he's putting up this year.

Still, all the others that would make the top five list - AK-47, Manu Ginobili, Shawn Marion - are more interesting. Even the other good pieces from a disastrous 1999 draft (basically Lamar Odom and Baron Davis) incite more opinion, and neither has had near the career that Brand has. League of style to be sure.

The best player from that year? Chi-Town's other pick. None other than Truwarier, Ron Artest.

One of my favorite discoveries is researching this walk to the nearest Wawa is the following excerpt from an AP article following Draft Night 1999.

"Brand is used to traveling and living away from home, and his mother, Daisy, will probably come to Chicago with him for at least the first year. He also got a pleasant surprise when the Bulls drafted one of his old AAU buddies, Ron Artest, with the 16th pick.

Artest, a forward at St. John's, and Brand played on the Riverside Church AAU team for three years, including one spectacular season when it went 64-1. They once talked about going to the same college. And when neither could sleep on Tuesday night, they sat up in the hallway of their hotel, talking about how far they'd come and how their lives were about to change.

When Artest heard the Bulls call his name, he started crying. And no, it wasn't because his hometown New York Knicks didn't pick him.

"All I could think was, 'I'm back with Elton again!"' Artest said. "That's crazy. I'm going to feel right at home.""

Who knew trubonds existed between Bland and Ron-Ron? I hope that salvaged this piece of puff. If not, here's something you're likely to never see in live flesh.

Motherfucker done gone horizontal! Where's the parachute?

And if not, find comfort in the Curse of the Dukies. I am. Right now.