If there’s one thing the NBA All-Star weekend taught me it’s that some people maybe kind of sort of still think voting for Donald Trump was a good idea.
Is Juliet Litman really suggesting that celebrity, showmanship, and marketability are higher up on the list than say purpose, dedication, and even humility?
In her post-All-Star Game piece for the Ringer, “Where Have all the Super-All-Stars Gone?” Litman suggests that the very vanilla-ness of Gordon Hayward was a major problem — not that DJ Khaled had no idea where he was — for the game and the NBA’s future alike. She writes, “If Hayward is representative of the next generation of NBA stars, then the entire concept is in trouble.” Hayward — not Boogie Cousins and his fits, not Kevin Durant’s jump-ship mentality, not J.R. Smith freezing to death while refusing to wear a shirt — is the problem.
Look, I love the NBA as much as the next guy. I love that players miss weeks or months after punching chairs or fire extinguishers. I love that everything Russell Westbrook says or wears is (or really isn’t) a shot at Durant. I love that the old dudes won’t let the young dudes enjoy their time in the spotlight peacefully. I love that Lamar Odom survived a weekend overdose at a whorehouse. I love the show and the pageantry (of the NBA and whorehouses). But man, I also love the guys who work their butts off their whole careers (back to just the NBA here), dudes fighting in China to try and make it back to the NBA, players who work on their games every year, every offseason to reach these stupid arbitrary levels of artificial success, like being called an All-Star or whether they were on the right team with the right cast at the right time to win an NBA title.
Litman writes that Hayward “made the cut due to the careful calculus that goes into programming NBA All-Star Weekend.” She probably used the word “calculus” as a jab at Hayward for being a nerd ass — guilty. But you know who WAS cal-cu-la-ting? That’s right Kobe Bean Bryant and just about every other top 50 player of all-time.
Hayward has taken measured steps to improve his game, as well as his brand, to climb another rung on his ascension toward NBA greatness. Litman quotes Hayward as saying, “My ability to finish in the lane has been better this year as well, and I think a lot of that is attributed to the work that I did this summer on footwork, on balance, and on core stuff in the weight room.” She clowns him for being earnest while he’s trying to explain what got him there (the place), suggesting how hard he’s worked to be there (the level). He’s increased his averages in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and free throw attempts to career highs* this season.
Is he a star in the sense of grabbing headlines for kicking people in the junk like Draymond Green? No. He was on the receiving end of perhaps the NBA’s only in-game wet willy. He also got a ball tossed at his head by Deron Williams his rookie season. Maybe he’s not humble by choice, but he’s humble. Are the stars actually what make the NBA great? According to Litman, yes. But how quickly we have forgotten Tim Duncan.
Does Litman’s boss agree with her? Would I bring it up if he did?
A quote from Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball: “(Bill) Russell cared only about being a superior teammate …, never considering himself an entertainer or an ambassador of the game. … He wanted to play basketball, to win, to be respected as a player and person.” Simmons spends a third of his 734-page tome not-so-subtly explaining how Bill Russell was a better player than Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson or any other showboat S.O.B. Laker. I did have to take out the “proud black man” part out of the quote, but you get it.
The dude has worked hard, from strength to shot to aggressiveness to receiving one of the top-10 makeovers in NBA history. He wants this. He really, really does.
Another quote on Russell from TBOB, this one from Bill Bradley: “I think he was overlooked because his greatest accomplishments were in the game’s subtleties and in seeking to guarantee victory in a society which tends to focus attention on the individual achiever.” None of this screams how well a player can brand himself, craft a pop culture reference in 140 characters, or survive a coma but not a Kardashian marriage.
Litman seems to suggest that in order to make the NBA All-Star weekend and the NBA itself great again, we need the circus. The circus starts out fun. You’re enjoying your peanuts and you gawk at all the wild and outrageous things going on. But the circus can be horrifying too — think the Malace at the Palace (or maybe I’m thinking of the White House too) — and then, inevitably, somebody is left to shovel large quantities of elephant shit when the circus leaves town.
*in seasons in which he’s started more than 17 games. Hayward shot .485 from the field his rookie season. He’s shooting .465 at the break.