Saturday, November 6, 2010

Intentional Fallacies

There has been a lot of brouhaha in the NBA media and online world about KG’s “cancer” trash-talking to Charlie Villanueva, some of it insightful and interesting and some of it not. Jay Kaspian King posted a take at FreeDarko of the event as illustrative of what’s wrong with KG that has gotten under my skin, and I’ve been trying to figure out just what about it I react to so violently.

He starts the piece out musing about the Giants recent World Series victory as affirmation of the social transcendence sports occasionally offers, but then contrasts that to his Red Sox fandom. He moves from watching the 2004 World Series to his disaffection with the 2007 Sox and discovery of liberated fandom, of viewing sports as existing in an “aesthetic realm, where players exist as performers”.1
1: I love me some FreeDarko, but I’ve never been able to get on board fully with liberated fandom. I take some umbrage at the term, at the implication that my loyalty to my favorite teams is some kind of cage I need to escape to fully appreciate other players. I’ve never felt a conflict between the knot in my stomach as the clock ticks down on a Celtics overtime game and the elation I feel when Chris Paul solves the geometry of the halfcourt set in a way I never would have imagined. They are very different things, but both are essential to what I love in sport. Both are part of what Angell calls the “business of caring” that grounds my love of sport.2 I have no problem with the FD idea that you should care about players, not teams, but that decision has always seemed to me like a false dichotomy that would rob me of a lot of the pleasures of my fandom.] But I think his take on this realm is flawed. He’s right that there’s an unspoken line athletes get crucified when they cross, but it’s not when they “remind us that the scope of their lives is larger than ours.” If that were it, things like the DRose Fast Don’t Lie commercial would infuriate the public, not sell shoes. The line is that athletes can’t let us know that their investment in the game is different from ours. Fans, collectively, care about their teams with a nigh-religious sort of fervor. Athletes care about the game and winning, but that’s on a personal level. The team itself is their employer. Maybe one they love, maybe one they hate, but their relationship there can never be the same as the fan’s purely emotional one. LeBron James infuriated the sports media/public not because he called an unseemly amount of attention to a change in employers, but because he did so in a way that callously disregarded the emotions of Cavs fans. We don’t want LeBron to act like switching teams is like us switching employers, we want him to take our feelings into account, to gracefully account for the fans whose lives he is affecting. I don’t really care if a player is the “sort of guy…we can have a beer with”, and I don’t think most other fans really do either, we care if a player acts in a way that disrupts our fandom.
2: King partially dismisses that Angell quotation in his piece, which I find funny precisely because Angell’s point is that his love is sentimental, but that doesn’t make it ridiculous, exactly the linkage King casually makes. Here’s the whole thing:
“What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for. It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

But on to KG.
“With Garnett, there’s always a sense of insecure theater, of a man who hasn’t quite convinced himself of the virtues and authenticity of his passions.”
This is the polar opposite of how I read the man’s excesses. To me, it has always seemed like the fire that burns within Kevin Garnett, the intensity that fuels him to be the defensive force he is comes with this. His intensity and buy-in transformed Paul Pierce and Ray Allen into 40% of one of the best defensive NBA teams ever. I’ve never seen him play with anything but full effort, and to maintain that kind of drive all of the time would seem to me to necessitate walking the thin line between zealot and lunatic. If you find that distasteful, fine, but even his oddest moments, the barking like a dog, the clapping in a guard’s face, seem to be born of an inability to escape the outer reaches of a genuine drive, not some sort of performative enactment of a role he thinks he should be playing. I’ll gladly concede that other interpretations here are totally valid, but that specific and damning a reading of the man’s actions to me demands some sort of proof. King seems to think that the lack of “Isiah’s grim determination…Rodman’s ‘fuck it, we’re winning’ mentality” is some sort of fundamental flaw, that his lack of Jordan’s “impenetrability of the mask” or Kobe’s “visible intelligence” (what?) is what’s wrong with him. But those are all projections, rather than character traits. King reads KG as a bully, while Jordan, who is universally acknowledged as a huge bully gets off the hook because he was “impenetrable”? If we’re talking presentation, maybe, but King is trying to make a more sweeping claim than that.

Rewatch that John Thompson interview. That has always seemed to me to the at the core of Garnett's appeal. Sure he's crazy and does weird things sometimes. But look at that interview. Thompson wants to talk about the numbers KG is putting up, but KG won't let him. He's unwilling to talk about individual success in the face of team failure. Commenter Ben calls the interview a man "grappling with the deconstruction of his identity" as a winner. That rings far truer to me than King's dismissal of it as "Jimmy Swaggert style...wild theatrics". If he's putting on a show, wouldn't he want the cameras to stay on? It's a plausible explanation, I suppose, but requires a fundamental mistrust of Garnett above and beyond the grain of salt all such interviews need to be taken with.

“And while I’m not so naïve as to say that Garnett’s comments marked some unbreached depth of trash-talking, I don’t find it instructive or even interesting, really, to argue whether or not this is in or out of character for him, specifically, or for NBA players, at large.”

“The moment Garnett was traded to the Celtics, he ruined yet another one of my childhood teams.”

“Any rational fan, really, anyone who doesn’t salivate at the thought of jumping strangers, should feel their stomach turn whenever they watch one of these encounters.”

Listen, I’m as interested as anyone in plumbing the performative aspects of professional sports. The idea of persona is fascinating to me, the construction of identity in the press and through televised action, but the risk is mistaking your reading of someone’s persona as indicative of who they are as a person. King throws away any notions of contextualizing trash-talking in that first quote, and then gleefully blurs the line between persona and person in what reads as a very personal takedown trying to tell me how to think about Kevin Garnett. I have no idea what gets said on the court at NBA games, but it’s hard to evaluate the “cancer patient” line without context. If Villanueva is tweeting it it clearly got under his skin, but that doesn’t mean it’s head-and-shoulders worse than what other players are doing. Maybe it is, but the fact that other players aren’t jumping on KG seems to imply to me that it’s at least within the ballpark.

Nobody is obligated to like Kevin Garnett. There doesn’t even have to be a reason for the dislike. I certainly have players who I don’t like for no reason I can identify, and there are plenty whose demeanor puts me off. But that doesn’t mean I get to run around saying they’re bad people.
“Why can’t we call an asshole an asshole every time he acts like an asshole?”
Because being an asshole is context-dependent. If KG brought his act to a pick-up game near me, he’d be the biggest dick around. But he’s paid millions of dollars to win, not to make friends, and getting into opponents' heads is part of that. If Michael Jordan played in your rec league, you wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But he brought his pathological competitiveness to the NBA, where it was appropriate. Garnett had the misfortune of being a dick to someone with a twitter account, but don’t mistake that for making him qualitatively different from the other shit-talkers who came before and after him. If you can prove he is, cool, go for it, but that’s the thing, you have to prove it.
"What the fuck do we owe Kevin Garnett?"
You owe the man a fair assessment. You can think he's a dick, you can think his act is a show, but if you're going to call him out on it, you have to show me something to back it up. You have to show me some proof that he's different from those around him and that his earnestness is a put-on. Otherwise, I’m sorry you dislike him enough that he ended your fandom of the Celtics, but please don’t couch yourself in liberated fandom so you can throw stones at a picture of who he is that you painted. Attacking strawmen makes you the asshole.


  1. Late in the OT against the Bulls, Garnett raced after Noah and stripped the ball from behind. The play sealed the victory. Garnett pulled aside his jersey to expose his breast and said, "It's all heart." He repeated it half a dozen times.

    Can someone with a repertoire of gestures designed to display his passion be genuinely passionate? What are we supposed to do with premeditated acts of passion? (ANYYYTHIING IS POSSSSIBLLLLLLLLLLE)

    Garnett's problem is that he's a terrible actor (in the Erving Goffman, dramaturgical sense).
    Or maybe that all his assertions about heart and the warrior's will strike me phony because they're so trite. Maybe he really does think that way. In which case, he's just boring.

    "If he's putting on a show, wouldn't he want the cameras to stay on?"

    There are many ways to seek attention. One would be getting a little verklempt in an interview and gesturing to the camera crew to stop filming -- twice.

  2. "The real secret behind top atheletes' genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

    [....]How, at the critical moment, can [great athletes] invoke for themselves a cliché as trite as "One ball at a time" or "Gotta concentrate here," and mean it, and then do it? Maybe it's because, for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that's all there is to it."
    - David Foster Wallace, from "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart", published in "Consider the Lobster"

    I suppose this is the part where I say up front that my view on Garnett hews fairly close to RJ's. But I don't really buy the conflation of aesthetic validity with truth, given the effect environment and education have on taste. Like you say, it's totally possible that he really does think that way, and really is that boring. Of course he is, but let's not conflate the man and his game.

  3. I appreciate your rebuttal liberated fandom. Much as I can get engaged in the game with or without the presence of my team, to not allow for the extra emotional weight of the home team is to deny the fullness of the experience.

    Also, mercy? What's next is what worries me...:

  4. I think your second Fosterian (Wallacian?) footnote negates the point of that David Foster Wallace essay, much as I love it. Namely, the whole sports endeavor is, on its face pretty ridiculous. Yes, it's interesting to see someone agile navigate a tough defense, but surely that's not why people bring a seemingly laughable religious fervor to fandom. What redeems the whole enterprise and saves it from some sort of shabby gen-x aloofness is, like the man says, people "caring deeply and passionately" (where's that quote from, can you share a link?). The object of the things we truly care about (and our caring itself, for that matter) is hardly ever revelatory or that interesting to think about, or uncliched in any other way. But thinking of it in those terms really misses the point. Familial love rarely rises above the creative level of Disney Original Movies. Calling it hackneyed, however, is pretty silly, because the point of loving and being loved by your family is not to break creative ground. Nor is the point of rooting for, or winning a basketball game. I think it really is just a feeling, with very low cognitive content and you either feel it or don't.

    Anyway, I really liked your post. And wrote a similar, but slightly different one. I would reprise it, but I don't want to take up any more comment space. If you are interested:

  5. It is quite interesting KG comments, My friends at per head community has been following to see where he will take thing.


Google Analytics: