(The Champ’s latest at EBONY on the bond he shared with his parents through basketball, and how his mom’s recent death changes everything.)
We’ll talk about the Steelers. He’ll reiterate they need to draft “one of those athletic Black quarterbacks” next year. I’ll say we have bigger holes to fill than at quarterback. We’ll both joke about how Mike Tomlin gets so angry at press conferences after losses that it looks like his eyes will pop out of his head.
We’ll also talk about the weather. News one of my aunts told him over the phone about one of my cousins. The deer family in his backyard. The raccoon family in his garbage cans. A new steak rub he saw on the Food Network. How my car is holding up. My job. Area crime. Obama. White people. A Roots CD I gave him. Terrelle Pryor. Cristo Redentor. If Ray Donovan is any good. My nephew. My knee.
We will then talk about the only thing worth talking about: basketball. And it will remind us why we need to talk about basketball now. Especially now. It will be a familiar conversation. We will both smile. And this will make us both sad.
To know why I love basketball is to know why I love my dad. He introduced me to the game when I was six. My birthday is Dec. 30th, the Harlem Globetrotters appear in Pittsburgh in late December of every year, and he took me to see them as a birthday present. Interest piqued, I’d watch the NBA playoffs with him, and listen as he explained where Earvin Johnson got his nickname from and why dunks weren’t worth any extra points. I’d implore him to buy basketball magazines for me—Hoops and Basketball Digest especially. He take me to basketball courts. We’d shoot around before anyone else got there; me working on my touch and him rebounding my misses while reminding me to be mindful of my follow through. Older guys would start to come. My dad would play with them, and I’d sit on the bleachers, watching and waiting for my opportunity to sweat the way they did.
As years passed, the basketball jones continued to grow. We’d shoot 500 jumpshots a day every summer. Me counting my makes, he reminding me to be mindful of my follow through. I’d grown big enough to finally play with the older guys, and he’d always pick me on his team, reminding me to shoot when I was open and hit the open man. He’d drive me to my AAU games and sit in the stands. After the games, he’d make sure to tell me I played well. During drives home, he’d let me know which rotations I missed and why it was my fault when I threw that no-look pass to that guy who dropped it out of bounds because he wasn’t ready for it. We’d watch college and NBA games together at home. He’d point out bad body language, and we’d both instinctively grunt “Eh!” when Tim Hardaway or Mark Price or Chris Jackson made someone look silly. During breaks in the action, he’d quiz me on NBA history.
“What college did Oscar Robertson go to?”
“Eh…wait…I got it. Cincinnati, right?”
High school and college were versions of the same process. We didn’t practice together anymore—he was approaching 50, and I’d just work on my game by myself—but he still came to every game and still gave me the same advice. The grunts still occurred while watching college and NBA games, but they were peppered between us pointing out where Robert Horry mistakenly “popped” instead of “rolled” after setting a pick and theoretical debates pitting a 2001 Allen Iverson against a 1989 Isiah Thomas.
He’d also make sure to let me know how much he enjoyed watching me play basketball.
We’re both adults now, living on two separate sides of the same city. I’m busy. Not as busy as I say I am. But still busy. And, for the past few years, we haven’t watched as many games together as we did before.
This year will be different though.
While the story of my dad and I can not be told without basketball, the story of my dad, my basketball, and I can not be told without my mom.
***The Champ’s latest at EBONY discusses why he prefers the pro game to the college game***
Like millions of other sports fans,Â I spent countless hours following and/or watching the first couple rounds of the NCAA tournament last weekend. And, like much of the tournament-following country, I found myself falling in love with Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that managed to pull off major upsets against both Georgetown University and San Diego State University, schools heavily favored to beat them.
If there was ever a story that encapsulated the true essence of March Madness, it would be their emergence, a tiny school in the middle of Florida thatÂ didn’t even exist two decades ago. This—the idea of every team, whether from Texas or Transylvania Tech, having a legitimate chance at their One Shining Moment—is what makes the tournament so compelling, so unpredictable, so variable, and so fun.
And it’s exactly why I’d choose the NBA over college basketball in a heartbeat
The first NBA game I remember watching was a Sixers game in the spring of 1986. I forgot exactly who they were playing, but I recall (well, I think I recall) Dr. J hitting a buzzer beater to win. I also recall getting a spanking (my last ever, btw) that day for peeing in the front yard. It was a memorable day, I guess.
In the 26 years since, I’ve watched thousands of NBA games. If you include the playoffs, that number is probably somewhere between 2000 and 2500. Basically, I’ve been a diehard NBA fan longer than many of you reading this have been alive.
I’m bringing this up to provide background and credibleness (I know I could have used “credibility” there, but credibleness just felt better) to make my (eventual) point.
We enter the 2012-2013 NBA season with each of the following things being true:
—More than any other recent season, 2012-2013 should serve as an example of why the competitive dynamics unique to basketball in general and the NBA in particular work.
Due to the length of the season, the amount of possession in each game, the series format of the playoffs, and (most importantly) the fact that it’s the only major sport where your best player can affect the entire game for the entire game — each things that increase the probability that the best team will eventually win — the NBA is a true meritocracy. It’s not that the best players are usually on the best teams. The best teams are the best teams because they just happen to have one (or more) of the best players. This means that you have a general idea in November of who will be the four or five best teams in May. Actually, “general idea” isn’t strong enough. You just f*cking know who is going to be good and who won’t.Â Because of this, it does not have the “any-given-Sunday-ness” of the NFL or the perceived anarchy of the NCAA tournament.
As you’ve probably guessed, I love the fact that it’s split into clearly defined tiers of “legitimate shot,” “competitive, but no legitimate shot this year,” and “no f*cking chance.” Thing is…you love it too. Yes, you do. Stop trying to deny it.
As much as (some) people gripe about the NBA having no parity, more people are interested in it when there are “super” teams with narratives and superstars with story arcs. Aside from diehard fans (read: people like me) no one is interested in the NBA when it has an NFL-esque competitive balance.
How do I know this? Well, in the few seasons when you did have legitimate parity (ie; 2005 when the Spurs beat the Pistons in the Finals or the entire 70′s — 10 years, 9 different champions), nobody f*cking watched or cared! Nobody! But, when you have teams like Jordan’s Bulls or Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics or even Shaq’s Lakers, you motherf*ckers watch. And, in a year where you have four “super” teams with a legitimate shot at a title (Heat, Lakers, Thunder, and Celtics), you’re going to see another interest/ratings boon.
—There’s a fifth team (Spurs) that was the best team in the league last season until the last three weeks of the playoffs. They’re returning their entire team, btw.
—Aside from the six teams already mentioned, there are at least 15 others that could either be considered “legitimately good” or “legitimately interesting.” The Knicks are neither, and that’s a legitimately interesting fact in itself.
—There is a NBA basketball team in Brooklyn. A basketball team that might actually not be not good. I think this matters too.
—Between Lebron, Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, Kobe, Nash, Dwight Howard, Metta, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Garnett, Rondo, Paul Pierce, Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Derrick Rose, Dirk, Melo, Jason Kidd, Duncan, Tony Parker, and Jeremy Lin, the season begins with more “name” players (in this sense, a “name” player is someone who can appear in a commercial without the commercial’s script needing to say “Hey, professional basketball player Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, what are you doing in my car?“) than every other major sports league combined.
***This list doesn’t even include fringe name people (Amare, Gasol, etc), perennial all-stars who lack the status/charisma to ever be a name person (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Al Horford, etc), average NBA players who are fringe name people in pop culture circles because of women they’ve f*cked (Matt Barnes, Kris Humphries, Daniel Gibson, etc), soon-to-be name people (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Davis, etc), and people who everyone assumed would be a name person by now (John Wall, John Wall, John Wall, etc)***
—Speaking of “soon-to-be name” people, this season will give me the chance to continue to gloat about the fact that I purchased, assembled, and manned the wheel of the “Kyrie Irving will be a superstar” bandwagon two years ago.(No, I will never tire of reminding everyone that I called that shit was he was still in high school. Thanks for asking, though.)
—One top 10 all-time player (Kobe) has a chance — if everything goes the way it could potentially go for him — to move into the “Best career of all-time” conversation, while another top 15 all-time player (Lebron) has a chance — if everything goes the way it could potentially go for him — to continue his path towards being included in the “Best player of all-time” conversation.
(The difference between the “Best career” and “Best player” conversations? If you look at his total career — rings, records, longevity, etc — Kobe is already one of the four or five most accomplished NBA players of all-time, and will continue to climb up that chart. But, I’ve seen Magic, Bird, Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, Duncan, and Lebron at their absolute apexes. And, a peak/prime Kobe just wasn’t better than any of those guys. This is not an insult, btw. There are worst things in the world than being the 7th or 8th best basketball player the Earth has seen in the last 30 years. If you disagree, fine. But, just know that you’re wrong. )
—Lastly, this season will allow me to continue to develop my theory about the main difference between a peak Lebron James and a peak Michael Jordan. (Not interested in making a career comparison between these two. Jordan is unquestionably the greatest player of all-time, and in order for Lebron to be in that conversation, he needs to accomplish much, much more. Just interested in comparing these two at their absolute best and figuring out whose best was/is better and why. For Jordan, this was around 1992/1993. For Lebron, this is now.)
Anyway, Michael Jordan was as close to a perfect basketball player as we’ll ever see. He had the perfect body, build, and temperament. Was extremely fundamentally sound while also being a perfect basketball athlete. He even had close to perfect form and follow through on his jumpshot. From a basketball standpoint, he was basically flawless.
Yet, despite the fact that he was a “perfect” basketball player, he did not play perfect basketball. There were times when you’d watch Jordan play and you’d think to yourself “Hmmm. I know he just dunked on like seven guys, but he probably should have passed it there.” Obviously, the result would still be favorable, but just because a decision turned out well doesn’t mean that it was the right one.
Lebron, on the other hand, is not a perfect basketball player. He is extremely skilled, but he has some conspicuous flaws. His jumpshot — although improved — remains erratic, and his footwork — although also improved — will never be as fluid as someone like Jordan or even Kobe. Also, from an aesthetic standpoint, there are parts of his game that will always leave some fans dry. He doesn’t trick or shake people as much as he overpowers or “outdecisions” them.
But, like Magic and Bird before him, he’s capable of playing perfect basketball. There were entire games in last year’s playoffs where he made the right decision every single time he had the ball. And, while Magic and Bird each had athletic limitations, Lebron has none, allowing him to control the entire game in a way that, really, no one has ever done.
Michael Jordan is still the best basketball player I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never seen anyone play better basketball than what Lebron did last summer. Basically, choosing between who you think is better at their best depends on whether you prefer a perfect basketball player or someone who plays consistently perfect basketball. All things considered, I’d choose Lebron, and I’m looking forward to this season helping to show why.
When you take all of this into account, I have to say that this has the potential to be the single best NBA season I’ve ever seen. And, if you’re my age or younger, it may be the best season you’ve ever seen, too. It’s ok to disagree with me, btw. I won’t hold it against you. Some people seem to enjoy being wrong.
There are several interesting findings in “Republicans Like Golf, Democrats Prefer Cartoons, TV Research Suggests” — a recent blog in the New York Times that studied “(TV) programs by how they performed with registered voters of either party (as well as independents) compared to a base of all registered voters” and basically proved that we’re just as polarized with pop culture as we are with politics.
1. Democrats skewed heavily towards the NBC sitcoms (“30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” etc) and “adult” cartoons — basically, the types of satirical/metafictional comedies that require the viewer to “work” a little more. You could also say that multi-layered dramatic series such as “Mad Men” and “The Wire” — both of which are also favored by Democrats — do the same thing.
2. Republicans, on the other hand, overwhelmingly preferred competitive reality shows such as â€œThe Biggest Loser,â€ â€œSurvivor,â€ â€œAmerican Idol,â€ and â€œThe Amazing Race” — programs that provide a cathartic release (you invest in a character, and someone wins at the in) but don’t require as much effort from the viewers.
3. There were no surprises when it came to how we view sports, as the Republicans (predictably) skewed heavily towards college sports (football and basketball), golf, and NASCAR, while liberal sports fans seem to be smitten with the NBA, which “… accounted for no fewer than five of the top 20 cable shows on the Democratic list.”
(There was no mention of the NFL, which leads me to believe it’s one of the only things that liberals and conservatives adore equally. Well, that and Beyonce.)
At first glance, some of these findings seem like they could be attributed to geographical differences more than anything else. Take the NBA, for instance. Basketball is a city game with deep roots in highly populated urban areas. Since liberals tend to migrate to and populate cities with large populations, it makes sense that they’d (generally) enjoy NBA basketball more than Republicans, who tend to be more rural. (You can also make the racial argument here — basically, out of all the major sports/professional sports leagues, the NBA is the one where Black players are the most prominent and wield the most power, so it makes sense that conservatives wouldn’t be big fans — but I’ll save that for my upcoming NBA preview.)
Also, most of the satirical/metafictional comedies have protagonists who are obviously liberal — with shows that either take place in large cities or deal with the protagonist being a fish out of water — and it’s easy to see how liberals/people living in large cities would relate to them.
Yet, even after controlling for geography, it’s hard to ignore that in this study, the “liberal-loved” shows tend to be much “smarter” than the programs conservatives enjoy, a fact that reinforces the stereotype that (generally speaking) liberals are typically smarter than conservatives.
Now, before I continue, I have to admit that I’m not particularly objective. While I wouldn’t call myself a liberal — on the Santorum (0) to Steinem (100) scale, I probably rate around 65 — I do believe that liberals are (generally) smarter people than conservatives. Better people? Maybe not. But, definitely smarter.
With that being said, I don’t think the breakdown in preferred viewership is due to intelligence as much as its due to the fact that liberals seem to “value” intelligence more than conservatives. And, in this sense, “value” means “are more likely to do things that “prove” how smart they are.”
Along with gravitating towards shows that you have actually watch to follow and have to be “smart” to truly get, this also includes frequent incorporation of snark and sarcasm in your daily lexicon — devices that imply you’re smarter than the person it’s directed towards — and being more attracted to the types of occupations (law, academia, publishing, etc) where you get daily opportunities to show off your brain. Perhaps the emphasis placed on “smartness” — it’s really a liberal’s most valuable currency — causes many to overcompensate; self-consciously choosing to partake in “smarter” activities to make themselves seem smarter.
You know, the best way to describe my feelings about how liberals and conservatives view intelligence differently would be that if given the choice between being the most successful (success in this sense = financial success) person in the room or the smartest person in the room, while it seems like most conservatives would choose the former, I’m just as certain that the majority of liberals would probably choose the latter. Yet, as smart as we (and yes, I’m including myself) claim to be, when you think about it, that seems like a very stupid decision.
Like many young boys coming of age in the ’40s and ’50s, my dad had an almost unhealthy affinity for Westerns and cowboy culture. Actually, “had” is the wrong word. “Shane” is still one of his favorite movies, and it’s not uncommon to drive up to my parent’s house and catch my dad in the middle of a “Gunsmoke” marathon.
And, also like many young boys infatuated with Westerns, my dad wanted to be a cowboy. Since there weren’t many 10 year old Black cowboys in the 1950s, he pretended as best as he could; rockingÂ tasselsÂ and holsters with plastic guns in them whenever and wherever he could. (I think he even wore them to school)
Yet, if you hear my dad tell it, these memories produce an uneasyÂ ambivalence. While he treasures the memories of walking up and down his block, pretending to be a cowboy, he feels a certain way about the fact that, by playing “Cowboys and Indians” — a game where the the kids in the neighborhood pretended to be cowboys chasing down and killing Indians — and by rooting against the Indians in many of the shows he watched, he was playing for the wrong team.
As a kid he didn’t realize this, but as he grew older and learned about some of the things that really happened in the Wild Wild West and to the American Indians, he grew horrified at the fact that American culture had villfied the Indians and that he happily took part in thatÂ vilification.
I imagine the people still reading are probably wondering how exactly I’m going to tie Lebron James into this story about my dad. A few may even already be upset at the thought that I’d dare compare Lebron’s plight to that of the American Indian. If you are one of these people, relax. I know it’s not that serious.
What is (slightly) serious though is the fact that, like my dad rooting against the Indians, I believe that those vehemently rooting for Lebron to fail will be on the wrong side of history. 20 years from now, I have no doubt that even the most fervent members of the anti-Lebron fan club will be thinking to themselves “Wait…why was I rooting so hard against him again?”
“Being on the wrong side” of history doesn’tÂ necessarilyÂ mean that these people are rooting against a person who will eventually become a champion. Whether the Heat beat the Thunder in the Finals or not has no bearing on my argument. My point is that in time, history will show that today’s prevailingÂ narrative — Lebron represents everything wrong with sports/celebrity culture — was false, and we were fools to believe it.
His situation has created a paradox where people are rooting against what they feel he “represents,” whileÂ simultaneouslyÂ rooting for others who exhibit the exact same qualities.Â For instance, I watched game seven of the Eastern Conference finals at a sports bar in New York City. Maybe 80% of the people in attendance wereÂ noticeablyÂ rooting for the Celtics. The Boston Celtics. A team that won a championship a year after three of the 20 best players in the league decided to play together there.
Let me repeat myself: These were the Boston Celtics.Â I was in New York F*cking City. If you’re familiar with sports at all, you know that New York and Boston have fierceÂ rivalriesÂ in every sport. They’re about as close to a contemporary version of the Hatfields and the McCoys as you’re going to get.
Yet, despite the decades of animus between these cities, the majority of the patrons in this bar were rooting for the Celtics just so that Lebron would lose. They could have given two shits about K.G. and Rondo and Ray and Doc. One of the bartenders was so anti-Lebron that if Paul Pierce sent him a text saying “Man, your daughter got some good p*ssy.”Â he probably would have replied back “Beat Lebron and you can f*ck my wife too!”
Now, saying that it’s wrong to root against Lebron doesn’t mean that you have to root for him. You do not have to be a fan of him or his game. And, if you are a fan of Kevin Durant (more on him a minute) and the Oklahoma Thunder, you (obviously) want Lebron and the Heat to lose because you want your team to win.Â The wrongness comes when a narrative makes you want a person to fail, regardless of who would benefit from that failure.
Also, fans of the “OKC represents everything right with sports” narrative, listen up. The funny thing about sports narratives is that they tend to be completely arbitrary and usually false. 10 years ago, Kobe Bryant was touted as the “Anti-Iverson,” the representation of what’s right with sports and how to play the right way….and you see what happened to him. After Kobe’s star fell, Lebron became the Anti-Kobe, the one who played the right way and respected the game the way it should be respected…and you see what happened to him. Today, Kevin Durant is the new golden boy, the Anti-Lebron, the one who does and says all the right things and doesn’t even have any visible tattoos.
I’m not suggesting (or hoping) that Durant will be found to be the antithesis of what the narrative currently says. But, like with the Cowboys and the Indians, maybe the distinction between who’s “good” and “bad” isn’t as clear as we want to believe.