The Hands of Melancholy

“The greatest madness a man can be guilty of in this life, is to let himself die outright, without being slain by any person whatever, or destroyed by any other weapon than the hands of melancholy.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

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Full discretion: while I’m not a Lakers fan, like all NBA fans, my relationship with the Lakers is semi-complicated. I hate them as a rival, but am somewhat envious of their success; secretly wishing my team could be so consistently competitive.   I’m old enough to admit this.  Sustained success was never the reason I supported a team, but it was always something to aspire to.  As a fan, all you really want is your team to be in contention, and the Lakers have delivered that to their fans more than any franchise over the last 30 years.

Whether you love or hate them, it’s always better when the Lakers are competitive. Like the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Real Madrid, we need that ‘evil empire’  not only to root against, but to draw interest to the sport in general.  Like it or not, the Lakers have the largest fan base globally.  It’s in the best interest of basketball if that fan base is engaged.  Even if you acknowledge many of those fans as fair-weather, they bring interest to basketball and thus indirect interest to your team.  The same way Superman needs Lex Luthor, Batman needs the Joker, we fans of the other 29 teams need the Lakers.  And we need them to be competitive.

The Lakers are currently dealing with an identity crisis.  Their iconic star is near his end, with no replacement in sight. Past history implies that even if the Lakers are struggling in Kobe’s final act, they’ll eventually re-tool.  Eras always end, and legends always eventually decline.  Transition periods happen.  The Lakers have seen down periods before, but always maintained a certain prestige, and that prestige guaranteed that sooner or later, they’d acquire the necessary talent to compete for titles again.

It feels different this time though.  Now that mystique seems to be slipping.  Starting with the passing of Dr. Buss, the catalyst for the entire Laker image, and then the departure of prized free agent, Dwight Howard, the Lakers have appeared vulnerable as the preeminent franchise of the NBA.  And that vulnerability seems to have led the Lakers to desperation; a willingness to do anything they can to recapture the magic of the past.

The Los Angeles Lakers don’t do well with failure.  A franchise, which has only had 3 losing seasons in 38 years, is predictably unclear how to proceed.  And while taking fliers on young players with potential or making a nostalgic coaching hire is one thing, waging an all-out war on specific shot locations is entirely different and somewhat puzzling. But that is precisely what the Lakers have done: they went and hired a coach synonymous with a glory period in an attempt to restore order.  But that wasn’t all.  The Lakers continue with what can only be described as a misplaced romantic pursuit of past glory through stylistic battles.

“If the Lakers never shoot another 3, I’ll be happy,” said Magic Johnson on August 3rd. Magic isn’t a Lakers employee or front office executive.  But Magic’s words do carry weight with many Laker fans.  He is perhaps their greatest player of all time, the catalyst of what is considered the most aesthetically pleasing Lakers’ team of all time.  Magic embodies the Lakers image that has been sold to fans for 3+ decades, not just a commitment to winning, but also a commitment to doing it with a certain style and showmanship.  Something Dr. Buss firmly believed in, and something his son, is desperately trying to recreate.  So when Magic, speaks employed or not, it does resonate among the Laker fans and organization.

Magic’s campaign against 3 pointers, is of course a direct shot at Mike D’Antoni and what he perceives as non-Laker basketball.  D’Antoni is the poster boy of modern basketball, with his emphasis on pick and rolls, 3 pointers, and small-ball attack.  All these things spit in the face of characteristics of classic Laker teams who were large, played inside out, and didn’t rely heavily on outside shooting.  Instead of acknowledging the Lakers heavily depleted roster, so depleted Swaggy P was their best player, the focus switched to blaming D’Antoni for ruining a tried and trued formula for success.  And with every loss, words from respected Laker greats like Magic resonated louder.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that when the Lakers struggled, the blame was shifted to the outsider: ousted head coach Mike D’Antoni.  D’Antoni isn’t from the Pat Riley or Phil Jackson school of winning.  He was never a Laker.  His seemingly prickly personality didn’t help either. He’s a stark contrast from the magnetism and charm Riley and Jackson displayed.  Maybe it’s the large southern California media market or the brand the Lakers have built, but their coach needs a certain image to resonate with the fans.  Phil Jackson and Pat Riley had an unwavering confidence, which manifested in every press conference.  They had a way of instilling self-assuredness, no matter what kind of locker room turmoil or on-court mess was going on.  They had that ability to smile at reporters, act calm in the face of adversity like it was just another day in the office. D’Antoni on the other hand, has never been one to care for the media.  He would often appear irritated with their questions or curt in response.  The only time he focused seemed to focus on defense was in postgame pressers, when the effectiveness of his coaching principles were often called into question.  He was the easiest person to blame for a poor season.

Enter Magic’s former teammate, friend and Laker old timer, Byron Scott.  Scott first spoke of returning to Lakers to their heyday.  But as camp rolled around, he gives us this gem,  “If we shoot between 10 and 15, I think that’s a good mixture of getting to that basket and shooting threes.”  Through 3 preseason games the Lakers have attempted only 8 threes.  That pace would have them attempt significantly fewer 3s than any team in the NBA over the last 10+ years.

In response to a disappointing season, the Lakers have instead decided to pursue past glories, by trying to play a brand of basketball that is semi-antiquated, and certainly doesn’t maximize it’s talent against modern defensive schemes.  And this begs the question: what exactly are the Lakers trying to do?  Their blind romanticization of the past is reaching Don Quixote levels.  Waving an imaginary sword at windmills, to restore order to the way things were.  Waging a war on the modern game, instead of trying to fit into it.  Of course, that’s not to say D’antoni’s approach was correct.  It had its flaws.  But the biggest flaw D’antoni’s Lakers had was a simple lack of talent.  And no hiring of ex-Laker legends or a pursuit of 1980s basketball is going to change that.

As the Lakers enter this season, to some it’s a tragedy, a once proud franchise, setting itself up for failure pursuing a plan doomed for failure.  To others it’s a comedy, for the exact same reasons, a misguided attempt to re-store an era of greatness.  As the Lakers go down their quixotic path, perhaps it’s best to remind them of the words of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: “It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

But until they realize this, please just continue tilting at windmills.  For the rest of NBA fans, whose teams haven’t been as fortunate as the Lakers the last 30 years, this opportunity to lean back and laugh heartily is welcomed.

Sam Esfandiari has written for Warriorsworld and LetsGoWarriors. This is his first submission to The Diss. 

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Hey baby, let’s talk about money

Pro sports have always been tied up in financials, but lately it seems like we’re all being knocked unconscious by the Million Dollar Dream, exhausted from money-talk, and eventually passed out in our living rooms while the pro sports monolith crams a wadded up hundred-dollar bill in our collective mouths, Ted DiBiase style. Just one more bit of proof that money moves all and we are but crispy leaves defenseless against its all mighty gusts.

But what the shit am I talking about? Stories about the NBA have become as much about the inner and outer financial dealings of the league as the on-court stories. Yeah, we still prefer to argue about where Kobe Bryant ranks in the league, but we’d just as quickly talk about how much money Kobe’s making at age 36, how that impacts the Lakers, and what Kobe’s true value is to the franchise. The on-court game is inextricably linked with the business side of the game like those fields of humans stretched out as far as the eye can see in The Matrix, the electricity of their brains and hearts propping up an entire robotic existence desperate for survival. We can’t have one without the other, but a sampling of recent NBA stories is fueled by dollar signs to the point that one almost wonders if we’re here for the basketball or the fiscal soap opera in which all is enveloped.

Earlier this week, the league’s intellectual do-gooder commissioner Adam Silver told the world that the league is still exploring potential European expansion. Of course, this is all dependent on whether or not it makes financial sense for the league. As Silver told Bloomberg News: “The NBA would have to weigh the benefits of increasing the size of the 30-team league against possible costs, such as spreading television revenue among more partners.”

Wrapped up in the same piece was a reference to what seems like the inevitability of a person from China owning a team: “I got plenty of calls over the years from wealthy Chinese people who said ’I’d be interested under certain circumstances.’” Further, just days ago, the league snuggled up a little closer to China when it announced a partnership with China’s Ministry of Education to deliver a stated goal to “provide enhanced basketball training to at least three million students by 2017.” Of course, this a win-win for everyone. The league can indoctrinate young Chinese with the best in basketball tutelage while at the same time planting its basketball-consumerist notions in what appears to be bountiful economic soil. Sure as shit, Yao Ming kicked the door off the hinges of NBA globalization and now the league can’t get enough.

This all follows the league’s recent $24-billion, nine-year TV deal with Turner Sports and ESPN which has created a cavalcade of handwringing and Nostradamus-ing about what happens next which is reflective of the sports/NBA finance analysis industry that’s sprung up in recent years, particularly flourishing in basketball since the 2011 lockout. (For further reading, see Larry Coon, the existence of “capology,” Darren Rovell, Forbes’ creation of SportsMoney, etc.) As part of that gigantic TV deal, the NBA will soon cross the threshold into the previously sanctified world of ads-on-jerseys at which time all of our eyes and faces will likely melt and drip down our skulls like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark because we can’t fathom perverting the sanctity of the jersey.

Then there’s 44-minute vs. 48-minute game, the 66-game vs. 82-game season discussions which has gotten all sorts of NBA characters lathered up and offering practical and prideful responses. All-time great and sneaker mogul Michael Jordan predictably challenged the players on the 82-game question saying he would play 82 games regardless – because he’s Michael Jordan of course – but more importantly cut through the nonsense and pointed out what everyone from Beijing to Brooklyn already knows:

But if that’s what they want to do, we as owners and players can evaluate it and talk about it. But we’d make less money as partners. Are they ready to give up money to play fewer games? That’s the question, because you can’t make the same amount of money playing fewer games.

All of the above has happened within the past few weeks. These are radical changes occurring in succession that will likely alter the on-court product that drew so many of us to the game in the first place, so what’s up? Why is this all happening now? The reasons are myriad and far from absolute, but there are a handful of moments that stand out as impossible-to-miss signposts on the NBA’s road paved in gold.

If the 2011 lockout revealed anything to observers, it was that the NBA Players Association was an un-unified clusterfuck. Its then-executive director, Billy Hunter was booted out of the organization soon after and had his activities as director closely reviewed for possible abuses. Hunter even went as far as suing the NBPA and its president, Derek Fisher. Not exactly the most harmonious bunch. The outcome of that 2011 CBA was like seeing early Mike Tyson destroy his overmatched, overpowered, and ineffective opponents. If you’re considering buying an NBA team, the prospect of eventually sitting across the bargaining table from a historically weak union beats the hell out of getting in the ring with an opponent that’s in lockstep agreement on their demands. New NBPA director Michele Williams could change things, but she has plenty of challenges ahead.

A few years ago when the Sacramento Kings were on the selling block, former Seattleite and prospective owner Chris Hansen was willing to throw a-then unheard of $600+ million at the Maloof brothers to buy the franchise and move it up I-5 to Seattle where a privately-funded arena was being conceptualized. Sacramento stepped up to the plate with an ownership group offering significantly less money, but presenting a public-private partnership to finance the arena. When me and you pay for arenas, that’s more money for the NBA and its owners which makes buying a franchise that much more appealing to the handful of billionaires around the world weighing the pros and cons of whether or not to invest in the NBA.

As Sacramento agreed to front some of the dough for a new arena and NBA owners patted themselves on the back for whomping the Players Union in the CBA, long-time Milwaukee Bucks owner and Senator Herb Kohl decided to sell a team that’s had about as much success these past five years as the Seattle Supersonics. When he finally found a couple of New York-based buyers, his Bucks, with the worst record in the league, went for an apparent $550-million – an unheard of amount for a team based in one of the league’s weakest markets with lukewarm future prospects. That Milwaukee went for half-a-billion dollars was revelatory for anyone with a financial stake in the league. That there was already a loosy-goosy public-private partnership on financing a new arena and an option for the league to purchase the team for $575-million if no progress on a new arena has been made by 2017 makes for a low-risk investment. All of a sudden it became clear that the NBA was one hell of a unique and likely profitable place to dump your hundreds of millions.

But the high water mark (to date) happened when billionaire and known honey guzzler Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2-billion this past summer during the Donald Sterling scandal. Earlier in 2014 the franchise had been valued at $575-million by Forbes, but after that sale and over-valuation, Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban chimed in that he thought his team’s $765-million valuation by Forbes was too low, that, “I think we’re worth well over a billion.”

Christ this stuff is muddy, but if the Clippers were sold for more than three times their assumed value and the Bucks went for over 30% of their Forbes valuation, then we’re learning a couple things:

  1. Prospective NBA owners and Forbes are in disagreement about the real value of NBA teams.
  2. In the small world of prospective NBA team buyers, there’s a lot of upside to owning a team.

I don’t think this is the piece I set out to write, but rather given the inexhaustible information floating around these interwebs, I tumbled into the rabbit hole of NBA business with dollar signs and arena deals spinning like mini-tornadoes inside my mathematically-challenged mind. What is this business both shaping and being shaped by ten men on a basketball court? How is it that everything that ever brought us to the game is, at the game’s highest level, boiled down to the hardest of the hard core, the mighty dollar? My sentimentality about this entire notion feels like a grave, naïve weakness, but that’s not fair to myself nor do I think it’s true, it’s just something I feel. It’s more complex than that, that players and men and women stumble into this game with genuine intentions and the higher they rise, the more they’re sucked into the conveyor belt of the business of sports. It’s an assembly line that starts out targeting athletes at a young age when they’re still supposedly amateurs. It grabs these kids and their families, they’re used and hustled by runners and college coaches while learning to do the same using and hustling – of course, it’s against the rules for the kids to use the system the way it uses them. And fans are there at the star factory, evolving along with the machine, confusedly feeling their genuine fandoms pulverized by a manipulative force designed to exploit their allegiances for all that sweet money. No matter which view you choose to take, the business is still churning away in an insatiable appetite of greed revealed to us all in the stories and analyses and legalese of contractual language and labor constructs that exist in an alien stratosphere.

This isn’t sour grapes, or lamenting the loss of something, it’s an evolving inevitability. Or as Joe Garcia wrote (H/T to Men in Blazers podcast) after Gibraltar lost 0-7 to the Republic of Ireland, “Let us not feel dejected, let us be realistic.”

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 20-26

It’s still preseason. I have been toying around with that word, preseason. For instance, I was ordering a whole pizza at my local ‘ria the other day, and I told the young woman where was taking my  money, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get this guy home so I can watch that preson (pre-son) basketball game!” She thought it was pretty cool,  think.

MONDAY: CHICAGO AT CLEVELAND 7 PM East/4 PM West, NBATV

Rose vs. Lebron is what America craves. These teams are going to be fighting it out in the East. Kevin Love, where IS the love? Joakim Noah is the real loving player in the Central Division. Coach Thibs is just out there trying to win, he does what it takes to win, why don’t you want teams to be winning teams? Jimmy Butler is the Lebron stopper, he held King Jamie to 15/8/5 tonight and the Bulls won 98-95. Derrick Rose doesn’t dance, but LeBron does, capitalism prevents me from living a life of joy so I want everyone to be as repressed as I am. The. Eastern. Conference. Finals. On. T. N. T. Or we hope, because Toronto doesn’t capture anyone’s imagination. Who takes the last shot before the Earth burns to a crisp?

TUESDAY: LA CLIPPERS AT GOLDEN STATE 10:30 East/7:30 West, TNT

Do you think it just eats away at Larry Ellison that wasn’t able to buy the Clippers? That guy is rich as hell and he LOVES boats, and the Clippers are, in a way, the most expensive non-military boat you can possibly buy. He would have attended every game in a captain’s uniform. He will watch this game on a boat, all dejected and shit, lounging on a chair recliner, tumbler of finest goat piss, the official drink of the megarich, while Steve Ballmer stands up and yells and shit in a knit polo shirt.

WEDNESDAY: CLEVELAND AT MEMPHIS, 8 PM East/5 PM West, ESPN

Can I be real for a second? I will probably watch the World Series on Wednesday. Here is a chart that tracks the likeliness of my watching something:

I would probably watch regular season basketball, a consistent basketball product, ABOUT as often as I would watch a playoff baseball game, that’s how much more I like watching basketball. But the weird hodgepodge of a preseason game vs. a masterclass in high leverage baseball tension? I am going with that sports-rush every time, even if I prefer the aesthetic experience of. But baseball if just viscerally offensive to you Memphis vs. Cleveland is the prefered finals matchup of the International Council of Recreational Dirtbags (Memphis wins in six and Kyrie gets his arm chopped off).

THURSDAY: DALLAS AT NEW ORLEANS, 8 PM EAST/5 PM WEST

I wish Anthony Davis had been drafted by one of the Texas teams, because I think he would have cut a striking figure in cowboy clothes. Cowboy hat, jeans, spurs, boots. Let the image invade your mind and take happiness and joy from it.

“A mysterious, thin, long limbed stranger, with an unibrow that crossed the desert.” Classic cowboy fiction stuff, straight out of Charles Portis. Watch AD’s eyes during this match up; he will take longing sideways glances at the Dallas bench, knowing it is where his cowboy’s spirit truly belongs.

FRIDAY: BLAZERS at CLIPPERS, 10:30 PM EAST/7:30 PM WEST, NBATV

I am hesitant to recommend any Portland Trail Blazers game. When you watch and write about nearly every game a team plays you begin to resent their very existence and assume that other people would be grated by everything that happens in the same way you are. How can people who don’t have emotional obligations to the Blazers say things like “wow they really move the ball,” when LILLARD KEEPS RUNNING INTO PICKS, CHRIST. But if I try to extract myself from the situation, I can see that this is an enjoyab… OH OLD LONG TWO LAMCRUS, BACK AGAIN TO PUT A DRAG ON THE BLAZERS’ OFFENSE. THRILLING STUFF, A LOST ART, ONLY WORTH TWO POINTS, CHRIST ALMIGHTY WHEN WILL THEY JUST SHUT THE TEAM DOWN.

SATURDAY:

Go play Laser Tag at your local TagHaus instead. Break a good sweat while dominating local youths, teach them who really runs this world.

SUNDAY:

Attend church instead and see if you connect with it at all. It’s good to check every five or so years.

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 13-19

Hello! My name is Corbin. I am new Jacob. I write Biscutball and some of Portland Roundball Society and now this column.

MONDAY: PHOENIX AT HOUSTON 8:00 PM East/5:00 PM West, NBATV

Last year the Phoenix Suns were akin to the city they live and the mythical bird that city was named for. Rising from the desert of lottery expectations and playing with a beautiful, fiery and powerful spread out style, a spread pick and roll plumage that lit up the Arizona night sky, but burned out when it’s head got eaten by a bear. Did that all hang together? On the other side was Houston, who were contenders-by-talent who got their throats cut by adventurous Trail Blazers in the temple of the first round. This preseason matchup will give us an idea of where the teams are headed this year: is the Suns’ legendary spacing intact? Do reports of Dwight’s return to form seem true? Has James Harden added any cool new flails?

TUESDAY: MEMPHIS AT OKLAHOMA CITY 8:00 PM East/5:00 PM West, An Arena in Oklahoma

The NBA’s second finest rivalry returns*! Watch Kendrick Perkins run into ZBo and glare! See Marc Gasol set a hard screen and raise his hands and give the league’s finest “I would NEVER!” See Kevin Durant sitting on the bench, a the seeds of his growing frustration planted, taking root in his face so they can blossom into a gigantic sighflower over the next ten weeks. WATCH Tony Allen! Just doing whatever! That guy’s the best!

*Clippers/Grizzlies, even if it did take a year off.

WEDNESDAY: FLAMENGO AT ORLANDO 7:00 PM East/4:00 PM West, Fox Sports Florida

This is a yearly preseason exhibition between the Orlando Magic and local high school basketball players dressed up in ornate Flamingo costumes designed and manufactured by the nearby Walt Disney World Workshop. The high school players usually get crushed and need to deal with pictures of themselves dressed as pink, clumsy bird for the rest of their lives, but it’s all in good fun. It’s like my Grandma Judith always said: “If your sons aren’t complaining about you aggressively challenging their heteronormativity, you ain’t raising them right.”

THURSDAY: BOSTON AT PHILADELPHIA 7:00 PM East/4:00 PM West, NBATV

The first of many confrontations between Boston and Philly, who should both be terrible. A season of questions will be answered! “What did Noel do?” “HOW many shots did Avery Bradley take!?” “Did Rondo decide, on arbitrary whim, that he thought the game should go in as a win, and take over by himself?” “Carter-Williams: what’s that guy’s deal?” “Which of these young people has good body language, and how far out can you project that? Can you turn him into a hall of famer because of his head tilt?”

FRIDAY: MILWAUKEE AT MINNESOTA: 8:00 PM East/5:00 PM West, a Theatre in your Mind

I have been calling this matchup “Training Dogfight,” because you have a lot of young, hotshot wings all flying at each other for supremacy. NNNNEEEAAAOOOWWWWIGGINS ROOOOARLEVINE JAFLACI JAFLACI JAFLACI (That’s a Jabari Parker Helicopter) GIAAAAAAAAAHNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIS (A Giannis plane buzzing someone’s house.)

LEAVE THE EARTH AND TAKE TO THE AIR, WITH THIS MIDWESTERN SKYBATTLE!

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING: FLAMENGO AT MEMPHIS

Look, playing against the Magic is one thing. But sending those poor pink suited high schoolers to get mauled by ZBo? That seems like it could be trauma inducing. Someone should put a stop to this.

SATURDAY: MAIMI AT SAN ANTONIO: 8:30 PM East/5:30 PM West

San Antonio’s home opener is the Finals rematch we’ve all been waiting for. All you favorite matchups are back: Wade Vs. Ginobli. Duncan Vs. Bosh. Mario Vs. Parker. And some hot new action, too: What will Budding Superstar Kawahi Leonard do to keep Luol Deng and Danny Granger down on Earth? The low key special matchup here is Boris vs. Mcroberts: a pair of flex forwards, going at it. Who will do the most intangible things that just don’t show up in the box score!?THE NBA IS BACK!

MINNESOTA AT OKLAHOMA CITY, 7:00 PM East, 4:00 PM West, Not Available Anywhere

This game isn’t on TV, anywhere. You can’t watch it. It might not even really exist. What proof do you have? If something happens and no one filmed it, there is a pretty good chance it didn’t happen. Wilt’s 100 Pt. Game? Suspicious. Battle of Agincourt? More like the Battle of Agincouldn’t Have Happened because this is honestly the best visual confirmation? Jesus went to America healed the sick, taught them His gospel, blessed the children, and called twelve disciples to organize His Church in the Americas? Then where are the tapes, huh? We have tape of Brian Wilson getting stuck in a piano, but we don’t have any tape of Jesus Christ, one of the two or three most important people in history, going to America? Fishy fishy, man.

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A Sinister Selfie: the San Antonio Spurs and their Character Issues.

Thanks to Spurs guard Danny Green, a new word entered our lexicon this week: the holocaust selfie. Green, who was visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Information Center in Berlin, where the Spurs played a preseason game, decided to snap a selfie of himself at the monument. While the picture was questionable, the caption — “You know I had to do it one time lol #holocaust” — was really what caused a stir. To his credit, Green acted swiftly and sincerely to his transgression. The picture was deleted (and then later reposted with a far more appropriate caption) and Green, himself, issued a lengthy apology on Twitter. Combining the four tweets yields us with this message: “Yes, mistakes do happen. I want to sincerely apologize for the insensitivity of my post! I have great respect [and] understanding for this country’s history [and] wanted to continue chronicling my experience in Berlin. But showed poor judgement. [Sorry] once again.”

The point here is not to lay it all on Danny Green, who has apologized, and who is guilty of a crime of ignorance rather than a crime of maliciousness. Rather, I highlight the “holocaust selfie” to illustrate that the San Antonio Spurs haven’t been as squeaky clean over the last few years as their sterling reputation might suggest. Of course, Tony Parker found himself facing accusations of antisemitism after a dated picture of he and French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala both engaged in the quenelle emerged, a gesture that has been compared to a “Nazi salute in reverse.” At around the same time, pictures of Parker’s countryman and teammate Boris Diaw engaged in the quenelle resurfaced, adding to the (admittedly small) firestorm which wondered whether there were larger issues of antisemitism in the Spurs organization. But that’s really not the half of it. Right before the season started, Mike Budenholzer, the team’s former lead assistant, and newly-hired coach of the Atlanta Hawks, was arrested for a DUI before ever coaching a game for his new teamEven the team’s general manager has had his trouble with driving under the influence, getting arrested for a DUI in 2011. Prior to that, Gary Neal, who served as an important player in the Spurs rotation from 2011 to 2014, faced rape charges while attending LaSalle University, but was acquitted in 2005. And finally, one cannot forget the fact that Gregg Popovich, the team’s head coach whose grumpy-Gus act with the media has become his calling card, was apparently mean enough to Doris Burke to nearly make her cry. Yet, to the average NBA fan, most of these incidents are hardly incidents at all. Like other NBA teams, or professional sports teams, the Spurs struggle with character issues from their employees. At the same time, it still seems puzzling: why aren’t these transgressions more widely discussed?

Part of the reason has to do with the Spurs purposeful orientation towards their community. With apologies to the Toros and the Rampage, the Spurs are the only “Big Four” professional sports team in San Antonio, and by far the city’s most successful. In fact, of all of the NBA champions from the past 20 years, only the San Antonio Spurs (#36) hail from an area that’s not in the top 20 for media market size. As such, and like most single-team cities, they carry themselves with a “mom and pop” feel that contributes to their overall mystique. Though they maintain active sponsorships with national brands such as Kia, Coca Cola and State Farm, their primary sponsor is H-E-B, a local supermarket chain based in the San Antonio area. They also prefer to align themselves with sponsors who have a longstanding presence in the San Antonio area, including Express Lube and Southwest Business Corporation (SWBC). While this prevents the Spurs from having the visibility that a team like the Los Angeles Clippers enjoys, or even another strong one-team-town like the Oklahoma City Thunder (whose primary sponsor, Chesapeake Energy, is already problematically owned by team owner Aubrey McClendon), it also shields them from criticism that other prominent teams deals with. And, most importantly, it is difficult to criticize a team that contributes their images and likenesses to silly television spots and billboards around the area. The Spurs are sponsored by businesses that know them, and reap the benefits from a longstanding partnership with the ninth most valuable team in the NBA.

Additionally, the family-style atmosphere that surrounds the Spurs extends to formal coverage of the team and this, in turn, seems to shield the Spurs from negative headlines. The San Antonio Express-News is the only major newspaper in publication in the area, and as such, the only outlet that assigns beat writers to the Spurs. The writers themselves — Jabari Young, Dan McCarney, Mike Monroe, Jeff McDonald and columnist Buck Harvey — are among the best in the business, providing excellent analysis and commentary on one of the league’s crown jewels. Through their words, we have learned much about the Spurs’ iconic characters, from Popovich’s fatherly ways, to Tim Duncan’s love for Marvel comics. However, upon further observation, we are confronted with the fact that these writers are either unable or unwilling to dig a bit deeper, and present more nuanced character profiles about members of the beloved hometown team. The quenelle incident was only mentioned in passing by one writer, Dan McCarney, in a piece highlighting how “proud” head coach Gregg Popovich was in Tony Parker for his apology. The other writers chose (or were told by an editor) to let the story drift out of the headlines. Granted, this is understandable, considering Popovich’s exhaustively-chronicled grumpiness towards the media, the Spurs’ stinginess with national media requests, and the politics that must come with being the single major newspaper in a single sport town. While this engenders a positive relationship between the high-performing local team and the local press, it perpetuates the notion of the Spurs as infallible; of being incapable of truly making a mistake. This feeling seemingly extends to the blogosphere, where sites like 48 Minutes of Hell, Air Alamo and Pounding the Rock, offer tight but biased analysis for the favorite team of the writers, and in most cases, the only team where the writers themselves live. All of these individuals write for an audience that likely doesn’t want to hear about negative character traits or questionable actions. Instead, they write pieces that highlight the Spurs sense of selflessnesssacrifice, and longevity. It contributes to long-existing ideas of Spurs as airtight, and in many ways, beyond rebuke.

But the biggest reason that the Spurs don’t get the heat is because they are the Spurs, a statement that has become strangely self-evident. Kris Fenrich wrote about this elegantly a few months ago, as he watched the Spurs wrap up their fifth championship, listened to what people said about them, read the words people wrote about them, and took note of the spin:

All these attributes we associate with San Antonio: a group of humble pass-first players willing to take less money in pursuit of something bigger than themselves don’t necessarily align with everything they do and who they are. There’s the trite “Built vs. Bought” tweaking, the anecdote about Duncan never speaking to Parker that is frequently spun into a quaint story about earning respect, Popovich’s unnecessary treatment of journalists (which took countless awkward interviews before any mass condemnation occurred – perhaps because the same people in a position to criticize are those dependent on him for quotes and insight), stoic Duncan’s eye popping complaints aimed at officials, former Spur Bruce Bowen’s dirty play, and of course Parker’s questionable relationship with former teammate Brent Barry’s wife. If you want reasons, both on and off the court, to dislike the Spurs, there are plenty.

Indeed, Kris is correct: the Spurs contradictions make them difficult to analyze. The Spurs’ last championship cemented the legacy of the team, and thus, the primary figures who define the organization. Led by Pop, anchored by the Big Three, and supported by a lovable cast of global citizens who do not mind being cogs in a well-oiled machine, the Spurs were — and are — a team that defy much further explanation. For most, an opinion about the team has been made, and that opinion is not changing any time soon. They are both boring and not-boring at once, both old and not-old, both slow and definitely-not-slow. It is their contradictions that seemingly make them who they are; a small town team that can unseat the major markets, who can throw monkey wrenches in the best-laid plans of the league, who can prevent a LeBron vs Durant finals series from ever happening again in our lifetimes. It is they who can drive the NBA crazy despite being the strongest example of how smart team management can supersede any constrictions caused by market size, television exposure and name-brand recognition. Yet, it is important to remember that this is who they are because this is who we have made them out to be: a cult of personalities team who draw their strength from their seminal figures, and who only need to answer to those figures, and those figures alone, on a daily basis. And as long as the team keeps winning 55 or more games a year, and consistently participates in the NBA’s final four, there will be little by way of dissent from anyone who deigns to explain what makes the Spurs the Spurs, from either a local or a national perspective.

At this point, the Spurs are so heavy, they are almost totally beyond unpacking. They are a team that have made themselves by living almost completely on the margins, perched right on the border between two countries, playing by rules that only they can play by. It seems almost impossible that they can have shortcomings; that they can be linked to antisemitism, infidelity, drunken driving, sexual violence and outright bullying. But we are confronted by evidence that they do, and that they are; indeed, they are human, in a league populated with them. It is a shame that we won’t really get a picture of them that extends much beyond the Spurs system, which uses the media to skillfully gloss over negative character traits in an effort to keep the black-and-silver machine churning. As long as wins come, this will not be questioned.

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Diss Guy Miss Guy, Vol. 81

Diss Guy: A Rivalry in Texas starring Mark Cuban vs. Daryl Morey

What better place than Texas for a rivalry and who better to star in the center of this Lone Star State sparring session than rogue Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban and Houston Rockets wunderkind General Manager Daryl Morey? We’re only in October and already long-standing feuds are being renewed with references to old slights, cultural misperceptions, and front office faux pas. And this, this is the type of bad blood we need, the type of “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, let’s fight” rivalry that makes mundane Thursday nights on TNT turn into must-see TV for all in the ever-loving basketball universe.

The latest Morey vs. Cuban salvos were a counter attack from Morey in response to cultural and chemistry criticisms from the Dallas billionaire. In a melodramatic piece on Yahoo! Sports, writer and Coach K rival Adrian Wojnarowski wrote,

For months, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has unleashed a barrage of slights and snipes onto the Houston Rockets, framing the regime of general manager Daryl Morey in the most unflattering of ways. It has been an undermining, calculated campaign. Just understand this, though: No longer does it go unanswered.

Reading that opening paragraph from Woj, one almost wonders if it’s not the skilled hand of the dramatist penning the prologue of a Shakespearean spectacle about to unfold. Morey’s comments certainly can’t live up to the scene set by Woj, but the Houston GM at least left the florid language to the poets and spoke in contemporary terms:

I think [Cuban’s] pissed that we went after Dirk in free agency, however unsuccessful it was … I think he’s doing a smart thing to take on a rival … But let’s be clear: If the money’s equal between the Rockets and Mavericks, I think players are picking Houston. Every time. Dwight [Howard], I just don’t think it was a hard choice between us and Dallas. If you want to win, you’re going to want to join our organization … The choice was pretty obvious between the two teams. Dwight is the smart guy in this.

In taking an explicit, unveiled shot at Cuban’s franchise, Morey’s extending the rivalry in his pointed, but mostly harmless comments, but to be clear, this beef extends beyond the media and words. If you think Cuban’s dislike of Morey and the Rockets had anything to do with the big fat contract he gave former-Rockets forward Chandler Parsons this summer, then the conflict has extended into the realm of player personnel decisions and potentially altered previous paths. That being said, this is a rivalry with teeth, not fangs, more Nas/Jay Z (without “Ether”) than Biggie/Tupac and that’s a good thing for all involved. But let’s trace the issues back to the source.

Last summer, Morey, with all his probability-based notions and willingness to play the front office game well-within its bounds, but well beyond the bounds much of the league informally agrees to, made a play for Dallas’s heart and soul, Dirk Nowitzki. Cuban wasn’t just miffed about this, it seems he was livid (“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” – can’t you just picture Cuban saying this? Chin tucked low, square face incredulous, so pissed off he has to get on the stair master and burn away the anger.), but had a chance for revenge with Howard’s free agency. When Morey won that round, Cuban couldn’t resist the urge and said, “Obviously, he (Howard) made a mistake in judgment.”  Obviously that didn’t sit well with the Rockets. This past summer Cuban overpaid to get Chandler Parsons and somewhere in the middle of all that Dallas hired a front office guy by the name of Gersson Rosas from Houston. Rosas spent a couple months with the Mavs then returned to Houston. Suddenly it’s like we’re in the middle of an NBA soap opera with backstabbing, broken hearts, and a bunch of men with full heads of hair.

But let’s embrace this hate with all the bad blood and bile flowing through our systems. We’ve come a long way from the days of the Bad Boys and Robert Parrish clubbing Bill Laimbeer in the face without serious repercussion. We’ve all heard former players-turned-analysts lovingly reminiscing about the days when players were getting whacked in the head driving to the lane, but the notion that Karl Malone crushing Isiah Thomas’s face with a flying Louisianan elbow is part of any glorious golden age is misplaced. Trying to hurt an opponent is never a good thing, but a healthy front office dislike that trickles onto the court in the form of a rivalry between polite young men like James Harden and Chandler Parsons (but watch out for that Patrick Beverly!) is wholly appropriate. For a league that was rightly criticized for “Super Friends” a few years ago, we all need all the rivalries we can get and if Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey want to catalyze one, I’m all for it.

And you can bet your sweet ass that when Dallas takes that flight a few hundred miles southeast to Houston and matches up with the Rockets on Saturday, November 22nd, I’ll be parked on my couch, beer in hand, ready to drink up the bitter-tasting basketball  poetry that only deep dislike and hatred can pull out of men.

Miss Guy: Annual Melo Misstep

Speaking of drama, will the headlines ever end with Carmelo Anthony? A few days ago, ESPN saw fit to splatter its sidebar headline with words Melo spoke to the ever-reputable king of “sources,” Chris Broussard: “I’m the most underrated superstar in the league,” which any athlete of Melo’s stature knows is a not-so-secret code for the me first athlete.  Maybe Melo’s onto something, but unfortunately none of us can even agree on the definition of a superstar, let alone come to a consensus on who the properly-rated superstars might be. But as quick as ESPN and rest of the basketball media picked up the pull quote, Melo was back peddling quicker than that time he sucker punched Mardy Collins in the face during the ugly little Nuggets-Knicks fracas from 2006 (which strangely has its own Wikipedia page). On Thursday this week he sought to clarify those comments and told the New York Post that ESPN “took it and ran with it,” going as far as referring to the question as “a setup.”

Not-so-surprisingly, part of Melo’s explanation to the Post’s Marc Berman was that “I don’t even think about [being underrated]. If I start thinking about that, I’m losing focus on the task at hand.”

It’s impossible to know what the real Melo thinks or feels. It was a year ago around this time, just before the season began, that he told the New York Observer that he wanted to test free agency. A couple weeks later he was once again explaining to the Post that, “I want to retire in New York, I mean, let’s just be quite frank. I think a lot of people jumped the gun when I said I wanted to be a free agent.”

There’s a trend over this past year of Melo offering clarifications or revising statements, but it seems to happen more notably when criticism follows his comments. What of the comments that don’t grab the headlines?

In the same yet-to-be-shown interview with Broussard, the “setup” interview, Melo sets his sights on “These (analysts)” who he claims are “all people that maybe never accomplish anything. That just sit back and write articles all day long about what they see. They’re kind of living through us out there on the basketball court.” Aside from coming across as a petulant brat, Melo’s critiques are reminiscent of LeBron James’s comments after the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas when he infamously said: “All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today.”

After being heavily critiqued for those comments, LeBron went out of his way to clarify what he actually meant (“Everyone has to move on with their lives, good or bad. I do too.”) – just like Melo did above. But in all of Melo’s comments and clarifications and the “setup” from old wily Chris Broussard, he didn’t back away from his criticism about “people that maybe never accomplish anything. That just sit back and write articles all day … kind of living through us.” Whether this is aimed at the basketball media, bloggers, or fans who support the league and players like Melo, we likely won’t find out because critique-worthy statements from Melo are typically accompanied with edited revisions.

Yep, Melo’s become infinitely reliable. We know he’ll get his 25-or-so points per night. We know he’ll be great on the offensive side of the ball and not-so-bad defensively. We know he’s one of the best pure talents of his generation. And he’ll even remind us of as much, “I know night in and night out I’m gonna go out there and put my work in regardless of win, loss, or draw.” And along with all that talent, we can now expect the annual honest-statement-taken-out-of-context from an underrated star who keeps finding ways to make the same mistakes.

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Show Me Your Flair.

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Media day has become known as the unofficial start of the NBA season, despite the fact that in most cases, the players haven’t even begun practicing with their teammates yet, and meaningless preseason games still are more than a week away. On this day, the team is paraded into a large room, where they all participate in strange photo shoots. In these cases, the players are more like models than they are professional athletes; standing tall and proud in their uniforms, perfecting hardened looks and blank stares as flashbulbs pop and hiss around them. As they stand there, perfectly still, almost arboreal in quality, one can’t help but note that, should their coach blow a whistle and yell “hustle up!”, the players would excuse themselves and trot away from the fracas of media day, have a hasty huddle, and take the court against another NBA team. They would be ready, after all, for as the players remain motionless, they are dressed as if they are ready for motion, action, excitement. Here is LeBron in tights, $200 shoes adorning his feet. Here is Melo with his headband already in February form, his trademark orange sleeve compressing a magnificently cold shooting arm. Yes, these players are armed and accessorized, ready for action. They are crisp, clean, full of flare. However, at this moment, the neoprene remains dry, the headbands remain perfectly settled on highly-scrutinized hairlines.

While the event marks the beginning of a new NBA season, media day also seems to signify the end of the first round of Accessory Season; the extended period of time where new lines of flair are produced, and later presented by their most famous endorsers. By this point in the proceedings, in between the end of NBA finals, and the start of training camp, NBA players — as well as the myriad of businesses that pay them to push shoes, shirts, large plates of nachos, deodorant, cell phones and breakfast cereal — have released most of their major products. Media day serves as the rollout for these items, a chance to model the tchotchkes. An obvious example exists in LeBron James’ new shoe, the LeBron 12, which was revealed late last week to the purchasing public at Nike’s headquarters outside of Portland, Oregon. The shoe itself resembles the crystalline entity; a messy compound of uneven hexagons and synthetic material resembling futuristic snakeskin. Yet, at the same time, it’s presented as the zenith of progress; the end of a magnificent journey of feet-sheathing, and all for a “it could be worse!” price of $200. “It’s a shoe defined by extreme precision, as well as explosive performance,” says Trevor Edwards, President of Nike’s Brand (with “Brand” capitalized as a terrifying proper noun). “[It] has everything that LeBron needs in a basketball shoe — and nothing more. In a word, it’s the best.” In the lead-up to media day, the reveal of the shoes wove interestingly with other additions to the ever-expanding iconography of the NBA, like a myriad of sleeved alternate jerseys being adopted by various teams, to logos for D-league teams which are compared (favorably?) to a “non-alcoholic gay disco.” All of these disjointed releases come together at media day, revealed in a carefully crafted event meant to tie all the disparate slogans, icons and individuals together in a unified message: “invest in us.”

I will argue that, among all the sports that exist on our very-nice-but-ultimately-doomed planet, basketball provides the most forgiving environment for accessories — the tangible and often purchasable assets that accentuate a player on the court — to flourish, thrive, and be innovated. Additionally, basketball allows its participants the greatest opportunity to accessorize; to experiment with various tools and products in an effort to enhance performance and even establish a brand. Perhaps basketball’s primacy in the realm of accessorization isn’t a surprise. Among the five major North American sports — and I will graciously, progressively include soccer in this list — basketball features the most scantily-clad players; galloping gracefully in roomy, baggy garments, unencumbered by long pants and brimmed hats, and unladen by vaguely-effective helmets and suits of armor. Their intensely built bodies are often laid nearly bare before us, seemingly begging to be covered in images, garments, labels and logos. In many cases, accessorizing is the choice of the player; a staunch display of agency and self-promotion. In most other cases, that accessorizing is done for them, either by the teams that employ them, or the sponsors that pad their accounts. Regardless of the case, accessorizing occurs, and then the accessories themselves trickle down, to your weekend run with your friends, to the catwalk, or even to the club. Indeed, basketball accessories serve as a strange conduit between a freakishly elite group of athletes and the vast midsection of the world, and accessorization becomes a common language of understanding between these two disparate groups.

If we were to take it a step further, it could be argued that the mere existence of the NBA, as well as the general accessibility and utility of NBA-inspired accessories, has been enough to generate innovation that has influenced popular culture more-so than nearly any other sport in the world. Again, this isn’t a surprise, or at the very least, it can be fairly easily explained given the insistent visibility of the players. Perhaps it is their perceived superhumanity that has led to the creation and consumption of a myriad of products based upon excelling at physical activity and chewing up the competition. The idea that at a basketball-shaped pump on the tongue of a Reebok, or cartoonish-looking springs on the heel of a shoe, could provide choice amounts of artificial athleticism – I used to be bound by gravity until I got my Nike Shox! – is informed totally by the extraordinary feats NBA players are able to accomplish on a nightly basis. The notion that an arm band, or a calf sleeve, could provide something more than just extra weight on a non-essential appendage, or that a head band could provide you with extra street cred off the basketball court is a direct result of the unique style of marketing the NBA participates in: a showcase of accessories, arrayed upon exceptional individuals, where correlation and causation are often blurred, and it is unclear whether the accessories make the man, or vice versa. This is how the NBA has distinguished itself over the years; by making the products the players wear on the court meaningful and obtainable available to those who truly want them.

In this way, media day — which rubs many the wrong way — is generally regarded with disdain because of it’s association with Accessory Season, and the NBA’s annual rite of unrolling their various brands, messages and marketing schemes for the upcoming year. Media day as an institution stands in stark contrast to Ron Artest, the slapstick former NBA forward who has rebranded himself as “the Panda’s friend.” Artest, who is bound for the Chinese Basketball Association after wearing his skills thin in the states, offered something completely different for his new purchasing audience: the first shoe, meant to be played in, with a stuffed animal attached to the top. The $75 shoe itself looks rather plain; it’s all about the panda on top. “The bear is not detachable,” Artest assures potential buyers, “the Teddy bear is a permanent and is the pandas friend! The ears on the side are also not detachable. Enjoy!” Given the importance placed in shoes — and headbands, and arm sleeves, and knee straps, and any other item that makes a player what they are, and enables them to do what they do — Artest’s tomfoolery seems almost sacrilegious; discordant with the times we live in. But at the same time, and like his former colleagues in the National Basketball Association, these items are meant to represent the individual, and everything the individual stands for when they’re on the court. In the same way Reebok Pumps made you springy like Horace Grant, and Nike Shox made you fly like Half-Man-Half-Amazing, the Panda’s Friend will make you a tough defender, a strange twitter follow, and a whimsical presence wherever you take your skills and your shoes. Of course none of these things are actually happening. However, as long as you believe in what you’re wearing, and the person who told you to wear them, it’s honestly as real as can be. And since belief is usually expressed in terms of dollars and cents, it’s hard to know what’s real, and what’s fantastical, in this strangely blurred world.

The NBA season is still 27 days away. Training camps have just gotten underway, and teams are now beginning to offer small glimpses of what could be in store on a nightly basis. LeBron is receiving under-the-legs passes from Kyrie Irving, slamming the ball into the hoop with a facial expression that seems savagely comfortable, ready for just about anything. On the other end of the spectrum, a rebuilding team like the Minnesota Timberwolves are still finding ways to show off their new pieces; delighting drunken college students at a late-night open practice, filled with all sorts of witching hour alley oops and tomahawk jams. Yet in all of these scrimmages, the players look destitute, sashaying around in Adidas-brand jorts and sweaty long sleeved shirts steaming under over-sized pennies. No, it is not yet time for the players to really show us what they have in store. That will require games that count; an opportunity for them to show us their flair, in the hopes that we will eat it up, our eyes wide with amazement, our mouths ajar and tantalizingly moist with saliva, and our pockets aflame from dollars and cents just waiting to be spent.

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