FD Guest Lecture: The Death of Superman

The year begins with a post by a guest. Here's PhDribble, lighting the way:

Superman has fought the Dream, the Hoya Destroya, Mr. Robinson, (Daugherty), Zo, Ostertag!, Chairman Yao, the Big Ticket, and the Big Fundamental. For more than a generation, he has outmuscled and outwitted his center(al) competition. But we’ve reached a truly sad chapter in our superhero’s saga. Shaq is suffering. There's no surprise "rise from the ashes" waiting for us in next week's edition. He will never fight Dr. Dwight, Gode, or The Riek (whoever that is.) For this time, it's the real death of Superman.

Shaq suffers from the late stages of the disease known as Progeria (just like the guy from Bladerunner.) Sadly, there is no known cure for Progeria. The symptoms have been clearly mapped out in scholarly and popular journals before: absurd athleticism at an adolescent age; high levels of type-g pheromones most attractive to college coaches, scouts, and entourages; expert discussion of high draft "potential" and "upside"; the occasional episode of “makin it rain” (with propensity for relapse); and a rookie-contract-extension pay raise. In his mid-twenties, a player living with Progeria attracts all-star appearances, PER propaganda, scoring titles, finals mvps, etc... Finally, in his mid-to-late thirties the patient suffers a gross degradation of skills, bad knees, an overpaid contract (often resulting in a buyout,) and hometown calls for retirement.

Now, in full disclosure, I have had mixed and greatly varying feelings toward Shaq over the years. In Orlando he obsessed me with his atomic potential. In LA he astounded me with his era-defining dominance. In Miami he annoyed me with his relentless swatting at Kobe and cocky self-contentment. Now, on his last legs he saddens me. Lay-ups where there used to be dunks. Fouls where there used to be blocks. Fat where there used to be muscle. (We can all rip him for being lazy at the gym, but is that really what's going on?) Shots blocked by guards. Three second calls on both ends of the floor. Always the last man down the court. Not even a gesture toward covering the pick and roll on defense. Even the new "3 for 2 rule" in which the refs call a lane violation and award him another shot at the free throw line. It's deeply humiliating. And when Shaq recently called for more touches, we just shook our heads. “There he goes again...another washed-up old man who doesn't see what is so obvious to the rest of us.” It's just humiliating. It's the kind of physical degeneration one associates not with a 35 but with an 85 year-old-man. It bares all the classic symptoms of late-stage Progeria.

Pat Riley has seen this before:
“I did a lot of reading and research about this,” Riley said Thursday. “You look at what happened to the teams after the five greatest centers in basketball retired. In Minneapolis, after George Mikan retired, they went down the tubes, and it took them five years to recover. After Russell retired, it took (the Celtics) six years to get back to the championship form. When Wilt retired, it basically took this franchise seven years. When Willis Reed retired, same thing. When Bill Walton left Portland, even though he was very young, it took them a long time. And when Kareem left Milwaukee, they had to rebuild. Anytime a significantly great center left a team, that team struggled. But what we have a chance to do here is change that. I think the players realize that.”
But there's a significant catch in the Riles rhetoric. Riles wasn't talking about Shaq. Riles said it to the Los Angeles Times on October 6th...of 1989. He was talking about the retirement of Jabbar and the Lakers' recent acquisition of Vlade Divac.

And that's how NBA: The Life is. You live, you learn. You learn, you win. You win, you star. You star, you decline. All we can ask for is that those diagnosed with Progeria will not suffer too much.

The earlier stages of Progeria can be equally as unsettling. As upstarts grow into mature veterans, we treat them as if they were middle-aged, responsible adults. But as Holly MacKenzie so aptly wrote on SlamOnline,
One of the biggest things I wonder about when I am in the locker room waiting to talk to players (Amare, Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, to name a few), is just how young they are and how quickly their lives have changed, with little to no counseling on how to handle it. And, truth be told, when you are 18, 19 years old, you don't want to listen to people telling you how to handle this newfound fame and fortune, you just want to live it up. It is a tough state of reality facing the society that our athletes live in and sadly, it isn’t going to get any easier.
As much as we'd like to believe that unimaginably obese contracts can make men of boys, as much as we can be fooled by the symptoms of Progeria, we should not lose sight of just how young these guys truly are. “Boobie" Gibson missed Cavs game this season because he got his wisdom teeth out!

Right about now, Gode should be obsessing over his major. Durant should be disappointing his professors in his hastily-written and under-researched 1200-word essays. Roy should be celebrating his high score on the LSATs. Lebron should be surrounded by idiots and crazies in his first cubicle shitjob. Carmelo should be learning that he can't eat as much junk food as he did when he was a growing boy. IggyPop should be enjoying his promotion. Rip Hamilton should be defending his dissertation. Damon Jones should be head-hunted. Kobe should be thinking about buying his first house. Of course, in any situation Jason Maxiell should and would be eating babies.

Gode may have best captured the sad realities on his blog, “My family is also here for the holidays so that’s good. In all it was a great Christmas. And one last thing I didn't get anything. Darius Miles told me that its the first year of me being Santa Claus I’m not getting anything anymore I’m gonna be the one giving out stuff, so here to being a grown man.”

It has long been thought that a player contracted Progeria simply from the wear-and-tear of years of Lig play. But this hypothesis has not accounted for why most players never suffer the worst phases of the disease. It is clear that players who sign NBA contracts are the most at-risk population group. But among these hundreds, data has shown only a small portion to display signs of Full-Blown Progeria Disorder (F-BPD.) Athletes who signed an NBA contract were shown to be 41 times more likely to fall into the category of Progeria Spectrum Disorder (PSD) than F-BPD. Thus, they never reached the highest highs in their twenties nor sank to the lowest lows in their mid-to-late thirties.

But in recent cutting-edge research, specialists have identified the cause. The evidence has pointed to a surprising conclusion. Progeria doesn’t come from anything a player did or did not do. Progeria comes from us fans. For as fans, we narrate a player's career as we would a man's entire life. We imagine that he matures in what amounts to dog years. We transmit the virus by transforming him into an NBA legend. He begins a diaper dandy and retires a washed-up old man.

The group most vulnerable to Progeria are Hall-of-Famers. In fact, the sad statistics show that 92.5% of HOFers suffered from severe Progeria in their last years in the Lig. Unfortunately, HOF status is awarded retrospectively, so that it provides no ability for contemporary fansicians to diagnose an athlete with F-BPD until it is too late.

Leading scientists have offered the following algorithm as the closest approximation to an accurate diagnosis:

    1/ [√([Ynba + (2/3)Yncaa] x H)[ASS + (4/7)ASR]/6.5 ]

    Ynba = Years in the Lig
    ncaa = Years in College
    H = Height - 72 (in inches, adjusted for NBA levels)
    ASS = All-Star Starter
    ASR = All-Star Reserve

Scientists have observed that as the output of this algorithm approaches closer and closer to zero, the likelihood of F-BPD becomes all but certain. Those players whose output hovers at the 0.8-0.7 will be fine and no doubt will survive under the prolonged effects of PSD. But those whose numbers dip below the 0.5 range are severely at risk. And there has been no known player whose output has reached a 0.3 who has not succumbed to severe F-BPD.

These numbers remain dodgy among specialists. [Reggie Miller is thought of as one of the out-lying cases that disrupts the rule. Yet a strong minority of fansicians believes that Miller suffered from F-BPD and hid the gravest symptoms on the privacy of his own court.] A leading member of this specialist community wishes that his little brother were more interested in basketball because his little brother is a math major and really could help on the algorithm. But no doubt as statheads across the internet become more and more interested in the Race for the Cure for Progeria, there will arise a more accurate algorithm that can detect symptoms earlier and earlier.

And so, for now, we're left with the last stages of the Diesel. How can we handle his collapsing career, his physical degeneration, and his still hefty salary cap number? How can we cope with F-BPD? I wish I could say I will enjoy Shaq’s last days, but it's just not that emotionally simple. In a perfect world, he would waive the final years of his contract, have a run of last games in the Lig, blow kisses to his adoring fans from the "Marketsquare Arena" to the "Garden Floor," from the Palace to “Seattle”, and walk off into a green-screen sunset.

But that perfect world is unfair. It's asking Shaq to walk away from tens of millions of dollars. It's asking Shaq to forgo what he has earned. To pay a price for our romanticized narratives of the game. To act differently than any of us would act. It’s asking him to be superhuman. It's wishing he were Superman.


At 1/02/2008 12:13 AM, Blogger maxooo said...

Don't sleep on Rik Smits!

At 1/02/2008 12:42 AM, Blogger wreakjavik said...

Don't sleep on Arvydas Sabonis!

At 1/02/2008 12:37 PM, Blogger Nate Jones said...

The last two paragraph's are so spot on.

At 1/02/2008 12:39 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

When Superman dies, does the concept of the orthodox 5 die with him?

At 1/02/2008 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darkofan: With the numbers now being in the tens of millions, at least there can not be any of those unseemily --- Appreciation nights ,as would aoccur in the old NBA , when beloved retiring "old " stars would sometimes make the circuit, collecting gifts and home appliances from local sposnors and merchants.

The ever efficient, John " Hondo" Havilchek made an interminable round of last appearances, collecting a smal boat at some point.

At 1/02/2008 1:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The thing I always wondered about Progeria (the real disease, not the metaphor) was this: If there are rare cases of exeggerated aging out there, why aren't there cases of the opposite (exeggerated youth)?

Anyway, on this post: I loved the formula. Very well done.

But Brett Favre would like to send you an F-U in the form of this NFL season, and sadly... we are all the worst for it. Because now every "washed up HoF" will keep going for it one (or three) seasons too long.

Still, shouldn't we enjoy them for it? Didn't Kareem get a nice going away tour? If only more athletes just left on their own terms, announced their retirement at the end of the season, and stuck to it, maybe they would go out not with the whimper of a Gary Payton or a Karl Malone, but with a proper, respectable sendoff.

Too bad guys like Roger Clemens and Michael Jordan have made such things a thing of the past....

At 1/02/2008 2:11 PM, Blogger Jack Brown said...

Nicely done. I also like the era that arises after this "washed up HOFer" period. After a few years of retirement, when the player is re-romanticized and appreciated all over again, and the fans sort of forget how harsh they were during those final years of the big contract. Must be a confusing experience.

At 1/02/2008 3:36 PM, Blogger pedro said...

that was good especially because it coincided with me just waiving shaq from my fantasy team...oh well.

At 1/02/2008 4:41 PM, Blogger Trey said...

I find Shaq's deterioration far more depressing than Jordan's Wizards stint, which surprises me.

At 1/02/2008 5:04 PM, Blogger AO said...

You find Shaq's most depressing because Jordan had coordination and moxy to fall back on (he could still hit a mid range jumper with the best of them). Shaqs dominance depended 100% on superior physicality. Now that the physical nature of his game is reduced to next to pathetic, well you do the math...

At 1/02/2008 9:18 PM, Blogger Tom Deal said...

i can't help but think that a certain teammate of shaq's will go a similar path once his speed and strength start to go downhill, especially since dwade doesn't have a consistent outside shot.

although, he'll still be able to hit free-throws.

At 1/03/2008 1:50 AM, Blogger ghostlightning said...

Wow. What a brilliant post. I'm an unabashed Shaq fan and I'm awfully scandalized and embarrassed with what I've seen from him the past 2 years.

I started seriously following the NBA in the 1995-1996 season when Orlando got swept by Houston in the finals. It was the year we got cable tv and I was able to follow the games over at ESPN.

Basketball has been big here in thee Philippines but for a long time only Jordan was the recognized player from the NBA. Like most, I was a Jordan fan but by the time of his first retirement I was looking for a player to call my own.

I started hearing other kids talk about Shaq and after I saw a few games I knew I had my guy. He was so good and so entertaining. And this was the year when Penny made Orlando very good and I really enjoyed how they beat Jordan and the Bulls on the way to the Magic's only finals appearance.

I followed him to LA and even though they were good to watch, especially with Kobe's ascendancy, they didn't win until Phil Jackson came to coach them.

I remember getting so annoyed when writers questioned his ability and performance, and in 2000, it seemed that he put all the doubts to rest.

HOWEVER, I really believe that his decline BEGAN DURING THE LAKERS' 1ST TITLE DEFENSE. He got waaay too big and looked nothing like Orlando Shaq. I remember some of his comments about how Miami Shaq would beat his previous incarnations due to veteran wisdom. I think he made these comments ALREADY WHEN HE WAS A LAKER. When they lost to Detroit in the 2003-2004 finals I remember Phil Jackson saying how the Lakers squandered one of Shaq's throwback performances. Even then his decline was obvious.

During their 2nd championship run, I noticed I was becoming more of a Lakers fan than a Shaq fan. And although I wouldn't admit it yet, I was becoming more of a Kobe fan.

When Shaq left for Miami, I was glad it was Kobe who stayed.

Perhaps it would be an indictment of the NBA's star-centeredness that my loyalty never was with the Bulls, or Orlando, and that my loyalty to LA is due to Kobe's remaining on the team, but then again I was never from these cities and I'm not even an American.

Still, when Shaq won his 4th title I was happy. But I noticed that I was more happy as an apologist for Shaq rather than for Miami. I actually begrudged (in hindsight) Wade's emergence because I was ashamed to admit that Shaq didn't carry the team at all. He was a role player already even then.

So I agree that Shaq should, if indeed he cares for his legacy as much as his ego allows himself to behave, to waive his contract and be content in delivering on his promise to Miami. Then he can say goodbye like Kareem and let me remember him as he was in 2000.

At 1/04/2008 12:20 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Nice article. What i'd find interesting to know is whether it is about their ego or the dollars. Obviously it can't be as black and white as that, but is the shade of gray lighter or darker?

At 1/08/2008 4:11 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

When I see Shaq asking for more touches, I am simply reminded of geriatric drivers who insist on prolonging their automotive command despite their immediate danger to others.

At 4/13/2009 3:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




Post a Comment

<< Home