November 18th, 2012

I’ve always wanted to understand athletes as humans. Even if only superficially, or symbolically, they’ve been at their most compelling to me when they reflected something basic about being human.

Playing sports isn’t life, it’s bits and pieces of life reassembled in heightened form. Your league is not exempt from the human condition. And yes, it’s possible to have a fiction, or a smokescreen, that still speaks to what athletes really mean to us—why they have resonance, why we stop and pay attention no matter what the score. Why we watch press conferences, for Christ’s sake.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. It’s a view of things that dabbles in hagiography, delusion, and self-serving invention, while at the same time pouncing on shards of candor as if they were the key to an entire forbidden city. Above all else, though, there’s no time for heroes. Heroics, sure, and the strain of exceptional circumstances. A priori heroism is both a burden and object of fascination, but never cause for a parade. Acts and actions, gestures on and off the court. These are the bits and pieces I’ve always relied on in understanding sports. Aura is either terrifyingly earned or gleefully shallow.

All of which is a long way of saying that Great Athlete Narratives have never meant shit to me. Redemption is personal, never political, and sports should be no exception. Look no further than KG, who saved his legacy only to morph into a psychotic jerk for all the world to see. Recovery from injury, or the split-second Willis Reed references, are less about easy templates and more the lasting power they have for us down the line. Twitter’s instant judgment, while endlessly amusing, could not be further from fixing memories in place. You did it! Now what happens? That’s how stories should start, not end.

However, Royce White’s tumultuous pro career, young as it is, has already made me realize one major rupture in all I’ve laid out above. While sports are always somewhat alien to me and thus endlessly easy to twist to my own needs, there are certain subjects—mental illness among them—that I don’t have that luxury with. You can guess my diagnosis if you want, but suffice it to say that I take a ton of meds and have problems conducting myself in an orderly fashion, especially in any remotely professional setting. I sulk a lot and also am given to extremely irrational outbursts. Case closed.

When it comes to mental illness and possibly drugs, I turn into the worst kind of Sports Shouting (or drab Romantic) fan. White has only ever been so interesting to me. I’ve been eager to see him to succeed, one damaged brain to another, but compared to Delonte West or Ricky Williams, White, his situation, and his diagnosis are—at the risk of sounding like the worst person on Earth—a little too familiar, too relatable. If we want athletes to provide us with something to look up to or scoff at from above, then White, whose workplace drama and solid skill-set are a far cry from Williams walking away from football because he felt like it; West, a versatile and charismatic guard, riding around on a Rascal with a submachine gun like he saw on Storage Wars; or even the chronic outbursts of Sheed or DeMarcus Cousins.

White is no anthem or metaphor. Nor does readily lend himself to mythology, however dark. He’s a dude trying to do his job with a condition that makes it hard for him. Courageously, he has decided to push back instead of knuckling under and causing himself untold amounts of psychic hassle. It’s activism for the mentally ill in sports, a template for persons more ordinary, a throwback to liberation movements of the days when such things really worked, and perhaps a preview of what the inevitable First Gay Athlete will look like.

What Royce White isn’t, though, is a caricature, an exception, or the kind of singularly self-destructive being whose rise and fall we talk about for years. He succeeds or fails on remarkably practical terms. It’s unlikely White will ever achieve on-court immortality. And for now, his struggle is being pitched very much like a stand against the system, not someone already driven to extremes by its proscriptions.

But still, I can’t help but fixate on those other athletes, the ones who make my life seem bigger and more unpredictable as opposed to White, one whose life serves as some reflection of my own. That’s the problem with nearly all sports-watching, and the escapist/happy tribalism excuse only ever answers so much. At bottom, we should watch because we find ourselves, or the world as we know it. If sports belongs only to knights and robots, we are that much closer to a video game universe and entertainment (or community ritual) becomes that much more dehumanizing—for audience and participant alike.

The problem is, there’s a gulf between what it feels like to watch sports, unencumbered, and all the baggage we bring to it. It should be ourselves. Instead, it’s the pregame and the nonsense cant of jock wisdom. In those terms, White is a nuisance, not a character. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with characters. Only that, when there’s something very real on the line, we would do well to remember that sports belong to the world, not the other way around. I would do well to remind myself of that. That’s what I meant to say.

August 16th, 2012

Worked on two Foot Locker spots that dropped today. Here’s one of them. 

October 25th, 2011

astates:

NBA Lockout trading cards

Flamboyant!

Reblogged from The A States
October 25th, 2011

What I Learned

Bryant Gumbel uses a plantation analogy—sorry, he doesn’t really think the NBA is a plantation—and sensation ensues. Bill Simmons employs a insider-y business term, a week after harping on how little college the players attended, and “Twitter” seizes on its nastier connotations. So basically, any language connected to slavery freaks out white people, and writers who use millionaire jargon can’t expect their audience to know exactly what they mean. Wait a minute, that’s not right. Case #1: The language of slavery makes some people uncomfortable because it shows the speaker still has those dark days as a point of reference. Case #2: Corporate-speak tells you all you need to know about the aspirations, and sympathies, of a writer. 

Trust me, I know how hard it is. Do you know hard it’s been for me to adjust to the popular usage of “deconstruction”? One of the pitfalls of communicating with a wider audience, I guess. 

October 21st, 2011

You Don’t Matter.

I’m not really concerned with who first started humoring the voice of the fan, or why. We all started as fans; presumably, most of us working somewhere in the business still are. However, it has absolutely no place in this lockout. The knee-jerk reaction to cancelations, of which there will be more today, is “I want my NBA!” or “Come on, let’s save the NBA!”

The problem is that this kind of selfishness plays right into the hands of owners, providing leverage and creating an imbalance in talks that really, have nothing to do with basketball, or how much we love it. Everybody involved in the talks is very rich, and in regular person terms, there’s little difference between millions and billions. But the owners, whose businesses make up the National Basketball Association, are employers, and the players work for them. We fall into this equivocation all the time; we say we’re NBA fans, when what we really means is that we like watching these players compete with the necessary infrastructure in place. We selfishly talk about improving our product as “solving the league’s problems”, and in these grave days, beg for our league back—which, in labor terms, translates into wanting owners to have the opportunity to do business. Fixing the NBA? That means helping the owners, who depend on revenue to stay above water.

What’s lost here is that, no matter how much we may want the NBA back, the players who work for it have a right to negotiate as they see fit. That there are fans whose opinion can be swayed is an unfortunate distraction; we have no say in this, or at least we shouldn’t. People who work for other people are in a vulnerable position, and all that protects them from abuses of power is collective bargaining. Sure, LeBron James doesn’t need our pity. In a way, that’s just as condescending as calling him a spoiled brat. At the same time, the other part of the NBA—besides the owners running businesses that we support—is its workers not being pushed around. It sucks that arena employees (not to mention writers) are losing out on pay. But if millionaires don’t have labor rights, then really, who the fuck does? 

October 13th, 2011

I will always be partial to Stern, at least superficially, because of his unmistakably Jewish persona. Let’s get that out of the way. I will also never cease to trumpet his staunch Democratic credentials, when it comes to everything except for—well, doing his job. He started out a union-buster, was the NBA’s choice for its last stand against free agency, and has always made a point of going at labor ruthlessly, almost competitively, as if it were his form of bloodsport. These days, it’s hard to reconcile anti-labor bravura with any kind of left-ish leanings. 

Here’s where we would do well to remember something about sports commissioners: They are not installed to rule over players and owners alike. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a prehistoric being, not a precedent; even the most transformative figures, like Roger Goodell or Stern during the Jordan Era, served at the pleasure of the league’s owners. Larry O’Brien, Tommy Craggs’s great champion (our first in-person meeting was a three-hour long argument about Stern), was very nearly an activist, lecturing the owners about what was fair and right in this world. He was as structurally unlikely as Landis. The rest of these guys are just doing a job. David Stern is a character, at once endearing and a total prick. But just as the league’s best days allow him to assume the guise (and stereotype) of big-hearted showbiz tycoon, so the lean, or bitter, ones demand he scorch the earth. We know something of Stern’s personality, and his politics. The internal contradictions that cling so readily to him are a function of his ironbound sense of duty. The man isn’t a chameleon. Above all else, David Stern is the most ruthless kind of professional. 

Earlier today, Ray Ratto pointed out to me that Stern, as much as he may secretly resent it, has no choice but to protect the interests of mediocre owners. The smart ones are in the minority and they’re probably balanced out by the utter morons, anyway. This is not meant as a defense of David Stern, but an explanation for his seemingly revolting behavior here: He’s an employee. As usual, it’s the guys at the top who ruin everything. Granted, he’s closer, and more culpable, than the players ever could be. But at the end of the day, even David Stern works for someone.

I don’t doubt that David Stern has real feelings. Despair, or at least the hyperbolic idea of it, might be among them, somewhere. However, the exact structure of them, and the way they resolve way down in his gut and up high behind those glasses, is probably a mystery to everyone, save his analyst. Whoever that great and lucky man is. 

October 12th, 2011

Eddy Curry is the root of all evil. The NBA’s guaranteed deals have no way of holding Eddy Curry accountable, and this will always be a sore spot with fans—one owners have always done a good job of exploiting. Owners and fans, they’re in the same boat, gettng jobbed by unionized slobs like Eddy Curry. It’s pretty much the American right in miniature.

The obvious retort is well, tough. The Knicks signed him, they have to deal with it. Because of the way NBA contracts work, there’s a certain amount of risk built into deals. But Curry was an honest mistake on their part; he wasn’t another Jerome James. Curry is robbing the Knicks blind. However, if we’re going to apply this standard to players, what about the people making the decisions? Curry is one player. His superiors: then-GM Isiah Thomas, or arch-fiend owner James Dolan, are both splendidly incompetent at their jobs. And yet throughout this lockout, we’ve been told that NBA teams are losing money, and players must acknowledge this tough fact and make sacrifices.

Dolan is only one such case; there’s no shortage of owners whose competence, even their sanity, can be questioned on a regular basis. On the most basic level, though, dealing with the ups and downs of the economy, and generally running a business well, are the ownership version of accountability. What’s more, their actions effect dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people. Eddy Curry really only impacts his roster’s cap figure. Dolan, and his cronies, could sign an entire roster’s worth of Curry’s. And there are far more financial decisions that go into running a sports team than picking players.

Yet the entire discussion has addressed owners’ supposed financial woes as if they were owed special treatment. This isn’t the American economy at stake; there’s no such thing as an NBA team too big to fail. The league will continue to exist.

Player accountability of some form is probably a good thing. The NFL’s model, whereby big name players who have aged too fast or paid too much are cut to cover up the front office’s mistakes, is probably not the best one. This does nothing, though, to address the owners, who—like the financial sector during the bailout—have set their own incompetence as part of the ground rules in this labor dispute. As long as that’s the case, there’s no reason to expect the players to suddenly stand up and be the adults in the room. Eddy Curry-like cases make easy scapegoats, but they represent a very small percentage of the league’s players. It just doesn’t make sense to compare his impact to that of Dolan’s. And where there’s Dolan, there’s also Sterling, Sarver, and other nitwits tasked with making sure teams as wholes, in all senses, amount to something.

Maybe the rift shouldn’t be between large and small markets, but owners who deserve to keep their jobs, and maybe get a little bit of a bump with revenue streams suffering, and those who are, in essence, expecting the players to bail their dumb asses out.