Ever since I was a child, one thing about relationships has always amazed me: that you can meet someone who's going to be incredibly important to you and not know it until years later. It's amazing, really. I can remember the first moment I met my wife, the first moment I met most of my close friends, and some of those relationships date back 20 years and didn't become at all significant for months or even years after.
So it was with Kwame Brown--a monstrous obstruction of a man who came to the Sixers with my scorn and left yesterday, some 16 months later, with my undying admiration.
I made a mixtape.
To put Kwame into context with other favorite former Sixers of mine--Allen Iverson, Andre Iguodala, Nick Young, Theo Ratliff--really doesn't do him justice. Those players left behind evidence, both quantitative and observational. We remember Iverson's blinding 2001 playoffs, a litany of Ratliff blocks and Iguodala shutdown defensive performances. We remember Nick Young as an image. Well, not so much an image as an animated GIF, so kinetic was Young. I can go online and remind myself of their statistical contributions or consult my own memories to relive how watching them play made me feel.
I can't do that with Kwame. Remembering Kwame is difficult, because the record shows he existed--in a little over a season in Philadelphia, Kwame Brown played 22 games and started 11 of them. He pitched in 269 minutes, 51 rebounds and 41 points. I even saw some of them in person. But while I remember having seen Kwame play, I can't recall anything he did in a Sixers uniform. Nor did he represent anything significant, as Andrew Bynum did. Nor was he particularly charming or quotable in the media, like Young or Lavoy Allen. Kwame just existed. He sat there, often as not in street clothes, mute and unsmiling, unflinching. Kwame Brown wasn't a basketball player--he was intransitive, a state of being.
And it's not just the string of 41 (FORTY-ONE!!!) consecutive box score lines of DNP-CD that ended the former No. 1 overall draft pick's career that contributed to this aura. When he did get into the game, he wore a headband like a restraining bolt and concrete sneakers. I don't remember him moving. I mean, I assume he did, otherwise how would he have scored even those 41 points in his Sixers career? But Kwame had a strange, almost hypnotic effect, like he was a piece of performance art dedicated to bringing to life the famous line from the works of Douglas Adams: "If you can't see it, it can't eat you."
Kwame Brown is an obelisk--a massive, pointed, aspirational phallic symbol that's rooted into the ground like an oak tree. Kwame Brown is red tape. He is partisan gridlock, the immovable object, the persistent vegetative state. Kwame Brown is the repetitive boredom that moved Sartre to write and the foggy drugged-out state from which we are trying to escape. He is a human monument to sinecure.
And really, what player better represents the Sixers of late? Signed for too many years by a front office of thoughtless reactionaries, and left to rust on the bench like a decommissioned Soviet cruiser by a front office unconcerned with winning in the near to intermediate future. Kwame Brown is of a constant volume and density, but he takes the shape of his container.
Kwame being a black box--I assume he can speak, though I can't remember him ever being quoted anywhere--makes him extraordinarily easy to write about. As the silent observer on the end of the bench, he can be a secret genius, or a ship, or an instrument of tanking, or a salary makeweight, or a train that carries nothing but the righteous and the holy.
Kwame Brown is fascinating to me for that reason, and as he exists, so I found his existence comforting. Though no respectable NBA team would be caught dead with such a terrible player on its roster, he was appropriate for the Sixers, a team run by a man who, when he was told: "You can't just simulate ahead a season like you're in a video game!" said, "You wanna bet?"
We watch sports to feel alive, to experience camaraderie, to witness the unexpected. And there sat Kwame Brown on the periphery, the athletic lumpenproletariat, a looming reminder that in all things, the modal outcome is failure. Like too many of us, he was lost. Like too many of us, he represented the dream unfulfilled, the gradual and inexorable descent into relative unimportance. Kwame Brown was one of us. After recoiling initially, I came to love him like he was the Tom Hanks to my Meg Ryan. And as that's why I came to love him while he was here, it's why I'll miss him now that he's gone.