The truth was, I immediately saw myself cast in the role of the bespectacled, white, pseudo-intellectual trying to form a “heavy” thesis about a gift of grace and magical flair the black athlete possesses that can never be reduced to anything but poetry. I have always envied this gift and have often said that if I could live life over as someone else it would be wonderful to be Sugar Ray Robinson or Willie Mays. With my luck, however, I would undoubtedly wind up John Maynard Keynes.
— Woody Allen, “A Fan’s Notes on Earl Monroe”
There is a moment in the life of every sports fan when you must come to terms with the mathematically irrefutable, yet somehow still surreal fact that the athletes on the court or field or ice are younger than you.1 It’s a particularly brutal landmark — youth shifts out from under your feet and the future doesn’t seem as limitless as it once did. Some kid is doing something you’ll never do and making money you’ll never make. For me, that moment came in the spring of 2001, when the chatter around basketball was about a phenomenon named Kwame Brown.
I remember watching a video interview with him around the time of the McDonald’s All-American game. Brown, for whatever absurd reason, was seated on a sidewalk in his hometown of Brunswick, Ga. He spoke quietly and under his breath, and rarely looked into the camera. When he was asked how he felt about being possibly selected as the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Brown said, “I mean, it’s cool, I guess.”
There was something about his indifference in that interview — a calcified, defensive indifference — that instantly made me feel connected to him. At the time, I was 21 and trying to figure out whether or not it made sense to graduate from a college that had kicked me out twice in the span of 18 months. When reports started to surface that maybe Kwame didn’t really want to be in the NBA, I thought, stupidly, about myself. It doesn’t need to be said here that the vast majority of sentiments we feel toward athletes are probably false or, at least, imperfect. But we keep having those moments anyway, and I’ve never heard a particularly convincing reason why this is a bad thing. Admittedly, back then, my fascination with basketball was a lot like what Woody Allen describes in the quote above — there was some magical otherness in the game, some grace that promised of better possibilities than my own mediocre youth. (One promising development since Allen’s piece ran in Sport is that the “bespectacled, white, pseudo-intellectual” no longer has to be white. As the ad says, we are all witnesses, and, as college teaches us, we can all write our own heavy theses.)
It was a bad transference, sure, but I’ve never understood why the loudest sports fans identify so exclusively with excellence and achievement — why, in real life, Shooter McGavin has won out over Happy Gilmore. You can pound your abacus on the altar of winning games or drag your impressionable son into the discussion and wonder how you can raise him in a world where Kwame Brown averages fewer than five points a game — I’m certain, in some ways, you are right, but being right, whatever that might mean, doesn’t change the fact that most people do not experience sports as either a moral referendum or a logic puzzle in which the only deciding factor is whether a bunch of strangers hoist a trophy or do not hoist a trophy.
Kwame’s rookie season was, as Sally Jenkins described, a series of humiliations. But before anyone could possibly arrive at a fair assessment of a 19-year-old, the public opinion, perhaps goaded on by statements made by Doug Collins, had already turned against Kwame Brown. Jenkins’ profile, made famous for its French dressing anecdote, shed quite a bit of light on what had gone wrong during that rookie season in Washington — a demanding coach, a desperate Michael Jordan, and little to no institutional support for a giant, shy kid who in no way was ready to play at the NBA level. For the most part, the critics seemed most frustrated at Brown’s apparent lack of work ethic. He had shown up at training camp out of shape, he complained about fouls in practices, he did not have the drive to capitalize on his God-given gifts. During those early years, the prevailing opinion about Kwame Brown went something like, “If I had Kwame Brown’s talent and athleticism, I certainly wouldn’t be wasting it. He’s a fucking bum.”2
The politics of most people who write about such politics preclude anyone from saying something like, “In the seventh and again in the ninth grade, I received a report card on which every teacher had punched in the same computer-generated comment: ‘Not working up to potential.’ Ergo, I understand what Kwame Brown went through.” There’s too much clumsiness in that statement — too much racial math distances me from Kwame Brown. Recently, Gene Marks incited a maelstrom of indignation by imagining himself as a “poor black kid,” and I suppose, in most ways, comparing myself to Kwame Brown falls somewhere close to that objectionable space. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his stirring response, understanding race in this country means shedding easy, tweetable indignation and/or empathy in favor of a “muscular empathy rooted in curiosity.” I don’t mean to say that my thoughts on Kwame Brown embody some sort of new connection between the writer and the athlete. But I do wonder why so much potential discussion about sports has been washed out by the easy polarity of “sports talk” and the rabidity with which everyone hawks over their corner.
Two mantras have overwhelmed the way we talk about troubled or failed athletes. The first is the mantra of Kwame Brown: Anyone who has the “gifts” to play a game for millions of dollars has no right to do anything but play that game with all his effort and a smile on his face. The second mantra asks us to shut our eyes, plead the Liberal Education Fifth, and pledge that no one should ever try to understand any black professional athlete. And, if someone does, those musings must be thoroughly cleansed in either blind indignation or what Coates calls “a hand-holding empathy.”
When we leave athletes in the hands of the two mantras, they are quickly converted into symbols, and no league churns out symbols faster than the NBA. Before he could set foot into a bar, Kwame Brown became the flag under which an ugly entitlement marched. This, of course, came mostly from the fact that Kwame Brown, despite showing flashes of brilliance, never turned into much of a basketball player. But his career, to date, has not been significantly worse than, say, Pervis Ellison’s. And given his defensive skills, he has been better than Michael Olowokandi, who was taken before Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce in the loaded 1998 draft.3 But it’s Kwame Brown who mostly carries the weight for being a bust. Again, there are several reasons why this is true — Jordan’s fame, the scrutiny of being the first high school player picked no. 1 overall, Kwame’s affect on the court — but more than anything else, it’s because nobody can really figure out why Kwame Brown didn’t become a great basketball player. The only answers lie somewhere in Kwame’s “intangibles.” And no struggling athlete, at least in the modern sports era, has ever let the public interpret his intangibles and come out unharmed.
Kwame is now two public things. He is Kwame Brown, symbol of self-imposed failure, the punch line to every draft-day joke. But he is also Kwame Brown, employed professional basketball player, who plays with the knowledge that nothing he does on the court can really change his legacy. He could play another five years in the league, improve every season, win a championship, sign a multiyear contract, and retire at the age of 35 with a completely adequate, acceptable second career in the books, but his name will always be synonymous with youth, petulance, and waste.
It’s not entirely uncommon for a player to exist mostly as a symbol while still hacking out the last years of his playing career. Michael Jordan was in that position when he drafted Kwame. In his year in Baltimore, Sammy Sosa represented both the so-called revitalization of baseball and its worst scandal. But these sorts of conflations usually come with old age and a firm divorce from the past. (Part of the reason why Barry Bonds never really reached this point was because he never left San Francisco.) It’s rare that an athlete will play 10 years in a sport and already have cemented his legacy by the time he turned 20 years old. Ryan Leaf, football player, went away quickly. Unless things take a drastic turn for the better, it looks like Greg Oden, basketball player, will slip from the public’s consciousness in a couple of years.
By contrast, this will be the ninth straight season in which Kwame Brown, draft bust and pariah to every D.C. hoops fan, will suit up and play basketball in front of thousands of people who only know him as a disappointment.
The basketball player Kwame Brown signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Golden State Warriors in December. The Warriors, in the first fully dedicated year of their new regime under Joe Lacob, Larry Riley, and Mark Jackson, went after free agents Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan, only to lose out on both. For a fan base that had heard all offseason about a new focus on defense and a higher bottom line when it came to acquiring top-level talent, the indignity of ending up with Kwame was too much to bear. Twitter and the usual sports talk radio channels blew up with what people usually say when they talk about Kwame Brown. A team official told me, “It wasn’t a good scene on the blogs and on Twitter. But that’s one of the things that’s different between this new regime and the old — if we want to do something because it’ll help the team, even if it’s unpopular, we’ll do it. Before, there might have been more focus on how things look.”4
A week before the season started, I went to a Warriors practice. The team’s facility sits atop a large, mostly vacant parking structure in downtown Oakland. When I walked into the gym, the team was running a split-squad scrimmage. Kwame was standing off to the side, his hands caught up in the net of one of the auxiliary hoops. There are certain big men in the league whose value can’t be properly gauged until you see them up close. (Andrew Bynum, first and foremost, fits this category.) Kwame, who was listed at 6-foot-11 when he was drafted, stood a half-head taller than Andris Biedrins, who has always been listed at 7-0.
As his teammates ran up and down the court, Kwame stood by himself and watched. My years as a high school teacher have anesthetized me to almost every manner of disinterested stare, but I couldn’t help but notice Kwame’s indifference. When Mark Jackson ended the scrimmage and huddled up his new team, Kwame joined the circle but stood a bit off from the crowd. This was his first day of practice. I caught myself thinking, “Man, if this were my first day with a new team, I’d be right in the middle.” As the players broke into groups of three to shoot free throws, Kwame went to a far corner with two teammates. Again, his body language was impossible to ignore — he doesn’t so much walk as much as he slinks around like the Pink Panther, slouched with arms swinging.
When the team headed to the locker room, Kwame came over to talk for a few minutes. We shook hands and he took a seat in a high chair usually reserved for TV interviews. The muscle he had put on during his stints in Detroit and Los Angeles was mostly gone. Later, two different team officials would tell me that Kwame had once again reported to camp out of basketball shape. That night, in the preseason opener, Kwame would not get on the court. As we went over the usual pre-interview chatter, I found myself growing increasingly annoyed. Why was Kwame so out of shape? The Warriors had just given him $7 million. If he washed out here, he would never see that sort of payday again. Why didn’t he care enough to commit himself to the gym during the lockout? Why wasn’t he invested in reclaiming his career and proving all the haters wrong?
I was aware, somewhat at least, that I was throwing Kwame into the same old mantras — all my silly, megalomaniacal compassion had guttered out. Face to face and within the context of a basketball gym and other athletes who were fighting for roster spots, my personal Kwame Brown devolved back into a much more generic sort of self-aggrandizement. I think this happened because sports provide us with only a plumb line down into itself — perhaps, more than anything, this self-containment is what explains the power of the mantras, because people who are not invested in creating metaphors just want to see themselves in the context of athletes and the game. Despite all our projections and however many books are written about how certain sports help explain the succeeding world, in the end, what rises to the surface is the actuality of the game and its mind-bending economy.
I asked if he had any expectations for this season. Kwame said he didn’t think much about expectations. He just wanted to help the team win. I asked if he saw this season as a chance for redemption. He said he didn’t think in terms of redemption because he didn’t see what needed to be redeemed. I asked if he thought being the no. 1 pick in the draft had put an undue burden on him, if he ever thought back and wished he had been taken fourth or fifth. He looked off in the direction of the locker room and grimaced. I asked if he was excited about having a fresh start with the Warriors. He said he didn’t think of it as a fresh start because he had already been fairly successful in the league and played some great games. Finally, I asked if he felt like his critics were being unfair when they labeled him a disappointment. To which Kwame Brown, of course, replied, I just don’t pay attention to what anyone has to say about me. Then, as so often happens in these scripted moments when a writer meets an athlete only to find out that said athlete doesn’t match up at all with said writer’s projections, Kwame Brown got off the chair, extended one of his notoriously small hands, shook mine, and walked away.
Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.
Previously from Jay Caspian Kang:
The Chris Paul debacle: Parity at what Cost?
Marquez-Pacquiao III: Un Robo! Un Robo!
Fight of the Year?
The X Factor Preview: In Defense of TV Singing Competitions
Why We Will All Forget About the NBA Lockout
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