Chris Webber, Josh Howard and Basketball Liberals

Basketball players, even outside of the sphere of political thought, exist as symbols for our belief. Without question, some fans see their players as icons of a philosophy to which they adhere. In that way, they can also be divisive figures. “Divisive” seems noteworthy in this election cycle because it has appeared in speeches since early February concerning how fractious our country may or may not be. Mayce Christopher Webber is one such polarizing figure. As one friend sympathetically told it, he will be forever maligned for an ill-fated time out call committed when he was a neophyte baller. The time out C-Webb called in his championship try against North Carolina. Better yet, he will be imagined as a product of unmet potential, unsubstantiated hype, a passive participant in an aggressive game. However monolithic these descriptions seem, the sporting press churns out one after another cliche to describe Chris Webber as a product of tragically docile judgment. To his detriment, he was mired in a recruitment scandal from which the University of Michigan Wolverines have only recently recovered. To his credit, he was an effusive player who could endear his teammates with swift passes, heady play and thunderous moments. His intellect, it seemed, lived in the “soft hands” that basketball scouts and commenters would gush over. Erotic undertones aside, Chris Webber played with grace even at his worst. As the embodiment of the “pivot,” he was apt to make decisions on a stop that others at his size rarely dared to make. The problem of these perceptions is that they are viewed as isolated schisms of opinion, varying from one writer to another, one armchair critic to another. Really, they are the result of a political influence that often permeates the sporting world. Basketball conservatives eschew flash, flair and personal style. Basketball liberals tend to detest workmanship, functionaries and exactitude. Of course, the best players employ style with their substance, and in so doing, approach serene levels of balance for casual fans, god-like control for students of The Game. Moderate political beliefs are common. Most of the country has lukewarm views on many issues, extreme views on only a handful. In order to fully explain the gap between Basketball Liberal and Conservatives, let us call attention to the latest dust-ups in the NBA sociology sphere.

1. Lebron (as King Kong) with Gisele Bundchen

The Black Body, as Mark Anthony Neal, talks about here is rife with meaning. For athletes, double those potential meanings as it relates to their role and their status. They are hyper-focused in their motions so we are excused when we analyze that motion obsessively, without regard to the implications of its power. The obvious parallel to draw with this image is to the one of King Kong absconding with Fay Wray in the epic of the giant gorilla in the metropolis. Jason Whitlock, Fox Sports writer, claims that this is no cause for concern, that we can only read the images as parallel if we want to stir up nonexistent controversy.

Whitlock, and some other Basketball Conservatives, view race, social status and background as separate from the equation in their consideration of this image. However, when Whitlock approaches style of play as it relates to aesthetic (i.e. whether an allegiance to hip-hop affects a player’s view of the game) he often conflates the ideas of class and social choice as inextricable matters of grave importance. It is Whitlock’s job to play to conservative black commenter on issues like tattoos on a player’s body, or to be the grievously predictable “he brought it on himself” voice to oppose the chorus of more liberal black sportswriters. SlamOnline and DimeMag.com serve as the liberal voices of basketball, along with FreeDarko.com and others because they are willing to view character and style as essential elements of a player’s intrigue. Although those publications speak lightly of a player like Josh Howard for smoking weed, a story worth considering as much as it affects his performance, it is not because they will always side with players, it’s because they can stand to watch (and even enjoy) humanized athletes. The writers from the Basketball Left know that the flaws of a basketball player inform his story. Which brings me to my next story of ideological interest…

2. Josh Howard and the Herb

Josh Howard of the Dallas Mavericks admitted (several times over) to using marijuana, the prohibited substance, in the off season. He has had no run-ins during his NBA career for smoking during the season, and given his reputation, one might assume he’d feel the heat of “random testing” before say, Bruce Bowen. Regardless, Howard and his Maverircks have been eliminated from the playoffs and, now, I expect a contingent of NBA beat reporters to not so subtly mention that Howard smokes weed. The problem with asking that question in relation to performance is that you would have to ask it of Rasheed Wallace (who has been known to toke and win a ring) and of any other NBA player with those same tendencies. Again, instead of sorting out the history of weed-smoking players and their successes or failures through an anonymous double-blind study, we’ll leave this to unscientific speculation bandied by the subjective sources we often rely on like Jason Whitlock or Charley Rosen or Chuck Klosterman. In advocating for a middle ground, I run the risk of losing the diehards who would skew to one side of the legalization debate or another. Personally, I think there are plenty of weed-smoking players in the NBA who have little interest in sharing their personal lives with the press. Baron Davis once claimed, by his unofficial polling, that 98% of NBA players smoke marijuana. As inflated as his numbers might seem to an outsider, and his interest in making it seem commonplace aside, Davis has certainly sparked a few with some unlikely starting-five caliber pros. Ricky Davis (no relation to B. Diddy) is a notorious toker and has been known to travel with a suitcase full of fine, rare strains of the stuff. Without ruffling any feathers, there are players who engage in this activity privately but who were undoubtedly shaken by Josh Howard’s openness. They rightly suspect that persecution, and a closer look at this particular recreation will soon follow. When Reefer Madness descends on to the NBA, and it surely will after this episode, the repercussions will frazzle Josh Howard into a spell of regret despite his stalwart stance in the interview sessions.

3. Isiah Thomas and Climate Change in New York
Anyone who knows me can say, without equivocation, that I despise Isiah Thomas’s mishandling of the New York Knicks franchise. Dave Checketts was abysmal before him. Ernie Grunfeld oversaw the decline of the nineties teams into what we see today. But by all accounts, they were making conservative moves in an environment that did not allow for much success. Patrick Ewing cursed the Knicks by burdening them with his later years and owed dollars. Not to mention that his helpers like Allan Houston earned $100 million-dollar contracts in the hopes that they could carry on the legacy of Ewing. In the wake of all this bungling, Isiah Thomas arrived as a Basketball Liberal, believing that if he could take a few character-lacking players with loads of talent and reform them, that the Knicks would be saved. In Indiana, he had played the role of coach and talent scout. In Toronto, he had played the progressive general manager, drafting Damon Stoudamire (eventual Rookie of the Year). But his Liberal spending habits had also bitten back as he drove the CBA, the only other respectable basketball league, to bankruptcy. Since New Yorkers are notoriously impatient, we accepted his flaws thinking that his successes would not be so labored by his risky behavior. Sadly, Isiah Thomas showed his ass like no other general manager in Knicks history. After hiring and firing several coaches, including Larry Brown (whom the Knicks still pay after his unreal contract negotiation), acquiring several useless, overpaid old players and causing the biggest sexual harassment scandal in sports, Isiah’s reign is over. But my willingness to buy into his reality stemmed from being an apologetic Basketball Liberal myself. I believed, like many others, that Stephon Marbury was infinitely talented as a member of both the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns. I had forgiven him his sin of leaving Kevin Garnett for reasons of financial jealousy. I also believed the Quentin Richardson, Zach Randolph, Jared Jeffries and other unproven louts were high on talent, not just high on life. Isiah Thomas believed in them too, but his beliefs are colored by a strange world view, in which he is the infallible hero in a world of sworn enemies. Isiah’s history includes attempting to freeze out Jordan during an All-Star game over a rivalry, a chilly relationship with Larry Bird when he was coach of the Indiana Pacers (also based on a rivalry), and passing off his sleazy smirk to the press in order to cover his growing problems with the team. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about Isiah Thomas could have seen this comprehensive destruction of the New York Knicks coming from a mile away. Instead, the faithful Liberals were willing to excuse the personal and social histories of Zach Randolph, petulant babyish arrogant player that he is, to dream of an amazing frontcourt combination with Eddy Curry (another petulant baby).

In other words, I’m giving up on my liberal tendencies for moderation. Lamar Odom will never be a star player, despite his various talents. He has smoked weed and that says something about his commitment to the game. Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs will not lose until some teams shows itself to have more staid character than they do. Young players with soaring potential are just that. They do not hold within them the secret to victory, or else J.R. Smith would be in the playoff still and the Philadelphia 76ers would be the underdog victors over the Detroit Pistons. It shames me to admit how blind I’ve been but coming of age is a process, not a jump.

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