It seems kind of odd to say this, but I don't remember a time when the Sixers were entertaining. Certainly, they've had interesting characters, and electrifying players, including Allen Iverson, who is for my money the most exciting individual player I've ever seen play for any team in any sport at any time. But as a whole, they've always played kind of a bland, team-based brand of basketball.
And to be totally honest, this has led to a hot-and-cold relationship for me with the team in particular, and even with the sport in general. I wasn't tossed into basketball at a young age the way I was with baseball or hockey. With those sports, I needed to be up on the latest events, immersed in strategy and conversant in the folklore and history of the game, or else I'd have trouble communicating with my friends and family, even when I was as young as six or seven years old.
Basketball came later, the last step in my becoming a holistic sports fan, the kind of person I am now who not only checks the paper for the box scores and watches the Eagles on Sunday, but who knows the ins and outs of curling and follows cycling avidly. I remember my conversion to basketball fandom in one moment, having been amped up by news coverage of a rebranded Sixers team, built in the image of Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse, with new uniforms and new players. I, at age ten, tuned into WIP's radio coverage of the 1997 draft on my family's stereo and spent a summer night sitting on a piano bench, listening to the analysis of how Ron Mercer would fit in with the Celtics, and the blockbuster Sixers-Nets trade involving Tim Thomas and Keith Van Horn.
In that moment, I was in. I went from being vaguely aware of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Webber to purposely tuning in for games and devouring reading material on the sport. That night, and that draft, was supposed to be the topic of my first post on this site, but all 2,800 words of it were lost in a tragic internet accident, never to be heard from again. So trust me, it was a big deal.
But the consequence of this is that I grew up not having any memory of a Sixers team that played a real up-tempo, flashy brand of basketball. Under Larry Brown, the Sixers were a team of Iverson and 11 guys who rebounded and played defense. Iverson delivered all the panache and flair and, yes, even the offense, all on his own. The current iteration of the Sixers is much the same, a slow-it-down, defense-first outfit that is both as egalitarian in its ball distribution as an Israeli kibbutz and as conservative in its game-planning as the U.S. Supreme Court under Roger Taney.
I appreciate defense. The individual players I admire most on teams I follow, across all sports, are either defense-first guys or at best two-way players: Jimmy Rollins, Mike Richards, Brian Dawkins, Andre Iguodala and Patrick Vieira, to name a few. But on a team level, I demand one of two things: be good, or be entertaining. In Philadelphia in general, and with the Sixers in particular, we've done the first more than the second, including, potentially, the Sixers under Doug Collins. But both? Only a few times, and hardly ever in basketball.
"Utility" has a pretty flexible definition in philosophy, economics and political science, and while that flexibility is a source of great irritation to, say, constructivist international relations scholars, it's useful when you're trying to put together a coherent plan for your life. In this context, my utility is a kind of aggregated measure of personal well-being. It's not as facile a concept as happiness, but it's my own crude balance of enjoyment, physical and mental health, self-esteem--anything that, in the short or long term, affects my quality of life.
I try to live my life in such a way as to maximize my own utility, which might sound cold, but even that conscious decision is the result of careful consideration, an effort to protect myself from the capricious and dangerous influence of the emotional, of the subjective. I'd much rather consider (or not consider) a given course of action based on its total impact on my life rather than on some temporary state of mind brought on by instinctual reactions, good or bad, to external stimuli. Those of you who know my baseball writing from Crashburn Alley know that I'm prone to writing jeremiads and sermonizing in florid and emphatic tones, but to be totally honest, that's largely an affectation. I write that way because I think you'll think it's funny. In real life, I try to take emotion for what it is--a vital, but temporary input. So when the time comes to make a choice, the subjective and the emotional often informs the rational, but it never overrules it.
I'm probably not much fun at parties.
What happens when you get a team that is both good and entertaining? People notice it, for one, cheer for it, hope that it doesn't change. And they remember it for generations. We still talk about the Clockwork Orange Dutch soccer team of the 1970s, even if it never won a World Cup. For that matter, we're probably going to tell our kids about the last decade's Phoenix Suns for the same reason (and I'm not the first person to make this comparison) as if Mike D'Antoni were Rinus Michels and Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson were his Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens. And if I can become the first person to make a trans-national, trans-generational comparison between Rob Rensenbrink and Boris Diaw, I'd like to.
Are we going to remember Iverson's Sixers--which were, to be honest, always really Larry Brown's Sixers--with such fondness? Probably not, and if so, only because there's been precious little else to remember since the 1980s.
I find many faults with the current sportswriting establishment, but chief among them is the hegemony of what I like to call the Old White Male Sports Columnist. These folks view sports as a morality play, searching for easy conclusions to complicated questions, foisting imaginary and arbitrary norms on readers and searching for meaning that too often is not there. Sports, in the shorthand of the OWMSC, are revelatory, and the knife-edge distinction between champion and also-ran isn't determined by randmoness, or circumstance, or opportunity, but by moral fortitude. A story must be told, and in order to justify their exalted position as informational gatekeepers, they assign post hoc explanations to events that are often determined by a ball bouncing a certain way, or a referee's decision. They want to prove to the athletes they cover that they understand the struggle, and too often, we as fans parrot that obvious hokum back at them to prove that we "get it" too.
Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, they say, because he wanted to win more. He wouldn't let his team lose, they say. Never mind that Jordan was a fortuitous combination of physical skill and a maniacal work ethic, molded into the greatest player of all time by such coaches as Dean Smith, Phil Jackson and, yes, Doug Collins, and surrounded by teammates who complemented his game. So never mind Jordan's explosiveness, great handle, jump-shooting ability and intelligence. It makes for a better story if his success is the result of will, and clutchness, so they write that. Not all OWMSCs fit those demographic constraints (I always point to Jemele Hill as an example of the pervasiveness of smug, lazy anti-intellectualism across all genders and races), but like the cultural domination of old white men in general, the OWMSC is slowly going out of style.
I bring this up because when an individual athlete is both good and entertaining, the normative matches with the empirical. Virtuosity and charisma are rewarded with on-court success, and the legend is born. We get our Magic, our Griffey, our Gretzky, our Lionel Messi, and things seem to be as they should. The narrative fits the facts.
Falling in love with a basketball player is not unlike falling in love in real life (he says from his extensive experience as a paramour). Part of it is physical attraction--does the player's game, the way he shoots, dribbles, plays defense, make your innards go all fizzy? Another part of it is the potential for a fulfilling, long-term life together--does this player play for a team you support? Does he stand to ply his trade there for a long time, or will you, as I do now, look longingly at your now-obsolete Dan Carcillo shirsey and sob quietly to yourself, wishing that the days of rambunctious, reckless hockey would come back, knowing they never will and Zac Rinaldo would never really be the same?
Does he share your values? Does he play the game the way you'd like it to be played? Do you prefer offense to defense? And the distinctions only get finer from there. The lockdown wing defender or the guy who jumps the passing lane? The shooter or the passer? The jump stop or the up-and-under?
And even though this matters not one iota in player evaluation, sometimes off-the-court persona matters too. It helps to be a purportedly humble, dependable, good-hearted sort like Kevin Durant or a free-spirited, fun-loving goofball like JaVale McGee. I personally find Kevin Garnett's brand showy, affected intensity to be childish and off-putting, but maybe you read that as passion for the game and respect him a little more. Either way, all the compatibility of taste in the world can be undone by a particularly ugly arrest or a homophobic slur. Even as adults, we still look up to athletes in a way, and no one likes to find out his hero is a truly reprehensible character.
I've been in love with a basketball player twice, and once really doesn't count. The first was Iverson, not for any particular reason other than I was a child and it was impossible not to love Iverson.
The second was the first utility-based aesthetic decision I made as an NBA, and that was to hitch my hopes and dreams to Andre Iguodala. Sure, after Iverson was traded, Iggy became the face of the franchise, so it seemed like an obvious decision. But remember all that nonsense I just said about values? Iguodala fit my values system perfectly.
He was defense-first wing player, a tenacious on-ball defender possessed of otherworldly leaping ability. I value versatility, and while Iggy wasn't the best shooter, passer or dribbler in the game, he was competent in all facets of the sport. Most of all, he didn't need to be the star. While he often found the ball in his hands late in the game simply by virtue of being the best player on the team, he wasn't most at-home running an iso and ignoring open teammates, as is dictated by this bullshit idiotic clutch-based hero ball groupthink created by the greatness of and admiration for Jordan, and fostered later by Kobe Bryant. Iggy was a good player who affected the game in many ways, and didn't need to be an epic hero to prove it. He just showed up, put in his 40 minutes, collected his 15, 8 and 5, held LeBron or Pierce or Kobe to an off night from the floor, and went home, often as not with a smile on his face. I loved him for it, and to this day the only basketball jersey I've ever owned is adorned with Iguodala's No. 9.
So maybe I was vulnerable, in the wake of a trade that I knew, in my head, at the time, to be a good idea, but it still wounded me in my heart. See what I mean about not letting emotions overrule irrationality?
"If you can't be good, be entertaining." If my team wins, I don't care how. But if it doesn't, I don't want to have to watch conservative, unimaginative, meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss basketball (or baseball, hockey, football, soccer, auto racing, or whatever) along the way. If you're going to lose, lose because you're taking risks, trying new things, surprising people. Lose because you're playing four guards and running a full-court press. Lose because you're trying to push the tempo, or running complex screens. Lose because you're driving your Corvette on two wheels into a storefront. Backwards. And on fire.
That's why I can't stand Royal Ivey in the backup point guard role. It's why I couldn't stand Kevin Ollie, and, until he busted out his fantastic patriotic headband, I couldn't stand Spencer Hawes. Why go with boring veterans that you know to be, at best, end-of-the-rotation players? I'd rather watch Maalik Wayns, the local kid who pushes the ball aggressively. He'll play with some joie de vivre, make some exciting cuts and passes, and, yes, some exciting mistakes.
If I can't get Kansas, at least give me VMI.
It is in this very small portion of my sporting consciousness, a kind of amusement with the absurd, a whimsical affinity for anything brash or off-color, so long as doesn't hurt anyone, that I first noticed Nick Young.
I'll admit to not knowing much about Nick Young when he first appeared. To touch on an earlier theme, there's very little utility to be had nowadays in following the Wizards of Washington. I knew Young to be a competent second-unit scorer, a tall-ish two-guard with a streaky jumper and absolutely no compunctions about shooting the ball. A starter on a bad team, a rotation player on a good one.
I was satisfied with the acquisition, even if it was kind of a lateral move from Lou Williams, because guys like that can be useful. Jason Richardson figured to get the lion's share of the minutes at shooting guard anyway, and Evan Turner figured to see some time there as well, so if Young was feeling it, he could pop in, play 20 minutes, score 12 to 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and help fuel a mid-game run or two. If not, he could be straitjacketed and put back on the bench.
Then I started to watch him play. Too often the Sixers are stodgy. I harp on the slow pace of their game a lot, but that's not the whole story. As much as I like lockdown defense, the Sixers seem to have their collective heart set on playing a brand of basketball that wouldn't look out of place in Hoosiers, right down to having a roster of players who, by and large, are clean-cut, polite and well-spoken.
Nick Young is the other extreme. He plays with obvious emotion, as if he were all id. He gave himself a funny nickname. He flirts outrageously with the sideline reporter. His shoes don't match his uniform. He has an afro that, in concert with his love of shooting jumpers with little consideration for either his open teammates or the shot clock, recalls Timo Cruz from Coach Carter.
And about that love of shooting. The Sixers have had their share of chuckers in my time, not the least of which was Iverson, but Nick Young has absolutely no conscience--he catches and shoots, or attacks the rim, with all the judiciousness of the guy you make a point not to call for your pickup game. He is the prechorus crescendo to Nirvana's "You Know You're Right" of basketball players. He represents everything I wish basketball players, on the court at least, didn't do.
He is, well, everything I hated about Lou Williams.
The overeager shooting, the willful ignorance of open teammates (somewhat more excusable in Williams' case, because last year's Sixers weren't exactly brimming with shooters), the affinity for either taking long two-point jumpers or dashing into the lane against bigger defenders. The complete lack of self-awareness--both guys carry themselves like the second coming of George Gervin, as if averaging 12 points a game for a bad team entitles one to a chapter in the paperback edition of Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball.
And that's just Lou Williams, who never did anything nearly as harebrained as this:
Sometimes, I'm realizing more and more, not even rationality can save you. For all your carefully considered judgments, your clear conception of what you want and need from life, sometimes emotions can be as incisive as they are unpredictably destructive. Sometimes you do something so beyond the accepted bounds of what you consider to be good taste and good judgment that it leaves you questioning the strength of your own convictions and integrity. Sometimes you know what's right, or what's smart, or what's consistent with your beliefs and you do precisely the opposite.
Sometimes, without warning or reason, you wake up having fallen completely, desperately and irrevocably in love with Nick Young.
It's bad enough that he is the antithesis of my platonic ideal of the basketball player. Perhaps the worst part is that feeling this way is hypocritical. How can I say I love the versatile, judicious basketball player when my heart belongs so entirely to Nick Young?
If I were as rational as I try to be, I'd be filling the Iguodala-shaped hole in my heart with a player possessed of Jason Richardson's fatherly calm, or Evan Turner's unique ability to get one of every column on the stat sheet, or Jrue Holiday's newfound boldness and defensive tenacity.
But Nick Young may be the least rational player in the NBA. His game is a love song to the impulsive, the hedonistic, the do-what-feels-right-now-and-damn-the-consequences. There's a pond not far from where I live that's home to a goose there who runs out into the middle of the road when cars are coming, her offspring following dutifully in line behind her, trusting only in the unfailing ability and willingness of oncoming motorists to slam on the brakes in time to prevent a downy massacre. Nick Young is that goose.
And you know what? I love that about him. A friend of mine has a dog that, I warned him at the time, might be too big for his apartment. And sure enough, that dog would occasionally knock over a piece of furniture, or reach up to the kitchen counter and overturn some food container. In one month last year, this dog destroyed a sofa and a Christmas tree and knocked over her own food bag, creating a massive mess. And my friend's reaction was the same every time--take a picture with his cell phone and post it to Facebook, with some caption along the lines of "My dog is a menace, an inexorable force of destruction--HOW ADORABLE!"
This infuriated me, and I never understood how my friend could live with such a beast, much less love her the way he does, as if her every destructive act made the bond between them tighter.
I get it now, because that's how I feel about Nick Young. I love him more when he grabs the ball, misses a shot, and continues to chuck up contested jumpers possession after possession after possession. He is at his most endearing when he is at his most harmful to the team. He is the rejection of the orderly, personified. There is nothing managed, or cultivated, or even adult about him. He gives the impression of being endlessly fascinated by basketball, and in every sense, he plays with an intensity and a get-up-and-go that makes you wonder if he's discovering the game anew every time he steps on the floor.
Whereas that lack of self-awareness was off-putting in Lou Williams, reminiscent of the guy who tries too hard to get everyone to like him, it's endearing in Nick Young.
Nick Young is "Consider the lilies of the field." Nick Young is "Come on, guys, it'll be hilarious." Nick Young is "We'll worry about that later." Nick Young is "Borrow the money, take the trip." Nick Young is "Tonight we dance, for tomorrow they release the dogs." Nick Young is "What good is a reward if you're not around to use it?"
Nick Young is staying out until last call. Nick Young is the thrill of the chase. Nick Young is going commando. Nick Young is Red Bull instead of coffee. Nick Young is not the kind of basketball player you bring home to meet your parents. Nick Young is played by Jack Black in the movie version. Nick Young is too busy having fun to give a good goddamn about your stern disapproval.
Nick Young is the diametric opposite of how I try to live my life. But he's the perfect representation of how I want to live it. And today, I love him. We'll let tomorrow take care of itself.