Until 2007, I saw an NBA player in the same way as commentator (except when he was coaching the Grizzlies) Hubie Brown: the sum of their stats. For Hubie, an NBA player was little more than what they gave the team on a nightly basis. There was little else to discuss besides that, except if you wanted to cruise over to ESPN and loiter around the water cooler for a bit. He’s getting traded to Milwaukee?!
I started reading FreeDarko in 2007, and it represented something akin to a linguistic turn. At the very least, it introduced a new way of analyzing players that, in my opinion, looked far beyond simple statistics, and instead quantified the human effect a player had on a game, a team, a season, and a fan base. I began thinking about players that I had never thought about before in a brand new light. Take Gerald Wallace, circa 2009. Whereas before, I would’ve just listed to Hubie rattle off some stats — “Now this kid here, he’s having a great season. He’s giving you 18 a night, 10 rebounds, which are a career high. But what you really like are the two steals per game” — and that would’ve been fine. But according to FD, Gerald Wallace represented “a simultaneous acknowledgment of mortality and embracing of life” (FD, 2009). A what, now? I’d have to read and reread it, but then it’d make sense.
If nothing else, FD’s way of analyzing players allowed me to appreciate new qualities within the individuals I was seeing performing impossible feats of strength on some of the world’s biggest stages. I began to like and watch different players, none of whom could be considered big stars. Though not all of the players that FD liked have remained as consistently good (or at the very least, interesting) over the years, the periods of their careers that FD analyzed provide examples — almost archetypes — of players that follow a similar mode.
In that vein, I used FreeDarko to provide historical examples of players that I like who are playing in the Games of the Week. These examples — the FreeDarko Spirit Animals — can be referenced to better understand, and perhaps even appreciate, the player that I like to watch. Perhaps FD would have enjoyed them now, too. Though I may be the only person who likes DeMarcus Cousins. Who knows.
Tuesday: Sacramento Kings at Dallas Mavericks (5:30 PM PST)
Player to Watch: DeMarcus Cousins
FreeDarko Spirit Animal: Rashad McCants ca. 2010
“It is no secret that the NBA has lost its personality. In this post-Gil-era, the mold of NBA superstar is more blank, unobtrusive and corporate-friendly than it’s ever been. Kids no longer run up and down the court with a specific player’s demeanor in mind, but rather, professional basketball has become a TV show in which every character aspires to be the bland, beautiful straight man. Of the top ten players in the league, only Kobe has a distinct personality, a set of easily codified traits that define who he is. What, really, do we know about Dwight Howard? When he came into the league, he was a shy, Christian kid who was so naive that he once said that there should be a crucifix on the NBA logo. Now, he is Dwight Howard, smiling, corporate superman, stripped, with Mao’s efficiency of any religions ornamentation. Howard’s quirks are so calculated, predictable, that he comes across as a gigantic Katy Perry. Kevin Durant is celebrated for his candor, but only in contrast with the clamminess or meanness of his fellow players. Dwayne Wade is not much more than a collection of commercials, post-hipster glasses and velveteen suits. As for the league’s self-appointed King, part of the shock and rage over Lebron’s Decision Summer came from a guy who has Jordan-monotoned the cameras since his freshman year in high school. Even his recent twitter vendetta seems staged — the virtual flailings of a desperate, and, ultimately, blank man.
“While it’s undeniable that a culture of sameness has arrived, one has to wonder if this is a product of the league’s relentless push into international markets (strip the game of the ‘Americanness’ that might offend people in Europe and Asia, and watch it grow!), or if it is truly a reflection of something much more ominous: a society that has build up an industry of mental health to tamp everyone down into a docile vessel. Is there much difference between McCants and Charles Oakley? Is he more polarizing than Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf? The NBA once was a place where volatile personalities were used as weaponry — players like Laimbeer, Oakley, Mahorn, Andrew Toney and Mourning played not so much individuals on the court, but as embodiments of their unchained egos.
“What I am trying to ask is this: are we really still willing to accept eccentricity?”
Wednesday: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets (5:30 PM PST)
Player to Watch: Kevin Love
FreeDarko Spirit Animal: Luke Harangody ca. August 2010
“If [Brian] Scalabrine was the face of a new post-Bird whiteness in Boston, where racial solidarity had to be reconciled with gross incompetence through stories fans told themselves to naturalize this incompetence, Harangody could be the new whiteness, complicating the myth of difficulty by actually being good at basketball. What happens if Luke Harangody is Big Baby Davis, a not-great but exceedingly serviceable NBA player who fills a role on the basketball court instead of simply in a deeply symbolic racial imaginary? What happens when he’s corralling offensive rebounds and feeding Ray Allen on the perimeter rather than sharing garbage-time with the likes of Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens? What happens if Brian Scalabrine and Luke Harangody share nothing more similar than a highly chant-able, four-syllable last name?”
Thursday: Miami Heat at Chicago Bulls (5:30 PM PST)
Player to Watch: The Suddenly Political LeBron James
FreeDarko Spirit Animal: Etan Thomas ca. October 2008
“Nov 25 Golden State @ Washington. Etan Thomas pumps up crowd with a slam poem about gentrification.”
Friday: Sacramento Kings at Oklahoma City Thunder (5:00 PM PST)
Player to Watch: Terrence Williams
FreeDarko Spirit Animal: Gerald Green ca. February 2008
“Right before the dunk contest, Kelly Dwyer called Gerald Green ‘an All-Star talent who is probably a year removed from being an NBDL benchwarmer, or hooking up with an overseas contract that doesn’t have a chance of being fulfilled.’ As Green staggered through the wastelands of pre-boom Boston, or shivered on the bench in Minny, this seemed like the most cruel, sad, and apt description within reach. Green’s entire career had been one long downward slide, with the occasional big night or highlight hammer only furthering the joke. But right now, I see a twenty-two year old who — stop me if you’ve heard this before — has all the potential in the world an no shortage of time on his side. Sounds like J.R. Smith all over again, and yet Green’s not even looking for renewal. Smith had that rookie season of note; Green, on the other hand, is still hoping for his career to start.”
Saturday: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs (6:00 PM PST)
Player to Watch: Stephen Jackson
FreeDarko Spirit Animal: Gerald Wallace ca. March 2009
“Wallace is now a little older, thicker, and yet at the same time broken down and flecked with scars on his arms and shoulders. Gone is the sleek, statuesque specimen who was equally at home walking on air or slamming into the earth. Now, Gerald Wallace looks like the sum of all his heights and collisions — lofty, worn, tough, and always in a quiet frenzy. His dreads creep down the side of his head, where they occasionally come into contact with the plastic mouth guard that’s always hanging out in the air.
“No shock that this new vibe has manifested itself in — or stems directly from — Wallace’s game these days. Gone are the eye-popping box scores of yore, the competition with [J.R.] Smith and Kirilenko to see who could most delight our mightily peripheral group of enthusiasts. Wallace scores less, attacks more sparingly, isn’t as frequently streaking ahead on the break or leaping up for the put-back — even as he’s continued to get more fluid and guard-like with each passing year. Part of this might be Larry Brown, which is fine, because it works. But it’s most certainly not a reluctance to put himself or others at risk (though, it should be noted, usually only doing damage to his own person). Wallace is a lurching, semi-breathing basketball death wish.”
Sunday: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets (5:00 PM PST)
Player to Watch: Goran Dragic
FreeDarko Spirit Animal: Russell Westbrook ca. April 2009
“You wonder, then, what’s the way to describe Westbrook? I’ve written previously about a redistribution of labor, either on the macro or micro level within a team. Are there not, though, players most suited not to responding to these signals from the realm of ideas, but to serving as catalysts in their own right, whose mismatched, or garbled skill-sets is proof not that they don’t fit in, or are to become lepers in the taxonomy of scouting (I love Jamal Crawford, but we’re not talking about his kind of limbo here). We still think of these players, and even superstars like Durant, in terms of how they might best be used to make sense of the usual slate of basketball responsibilities. Durant can, in a sense, become a position unto himself. But either through their relative insignificance, or sheer, explosive weirdness, there’s a whole class of smaller players who are best served as fields of probability, abilities that cohere more as a mess of intriguing tendencies than a CV-ready mission statement. This is nothing less than the difference between believing in skills and being cowed by the notion of responsibility.”