Now that we’ve found love what are we gonna do?

HeavyD

Things I Googled during game one of the Spurs vs. Grizzlies:

Tim Duncan staring at wall right now
Betty Draper fat suit
Tony Parker divorce settlement
Tony Parker and Brent Barry’s wife
Zach Randolph pre-game meal
Tim Duncan announces shoe deal with Florsheim
Don Draper fingerbang threat level alert
Worst hairlines in the NBA
Heavy D

The Spurs gave the Grizzlies a good old-fashion Joe Jackson beat-down in game one of the Western Conference Finals Sunday, but if the first two rounds of the playoffs were any indication, the Grizzlies have them right where they want them. Don’t forget that Memphis went down 0-2 to the Clippers and 0-1 to the Thunder in each of those series before coming back and rattling off four consecutive wins to advance to the next round.

But against a maddeningly-efficient Spurs team, I’m not sure the rope-a-dope routine is the right move here. In fact, I find it troubling that Memphis seems so eager to concede the opening games just to get a feel for the other team and try to find their footing and figure out what adjustments they need to make moving forward, but if that’s how they want to play it, I have no doubt Sunday’s shellacking gave them plenty to think about before tipoff tonight.
The Spurs looked tighter, more organized, more disciplined than either of the previous teams Memphis has faced so far. In short, they looked like the San Antonio Spurs that we’ve come to know and loathe over the past decade (not to mention a far cry from the injury-plagued Spurs that Memphis ousted in the first round back in 2011).

The first thing the Grizzlies have to do is find a way to stop Tony Parker (20 points, nine assists) from absolutely running amok. The wily Frenchman spent more time in the lane yesterday than… …so they have to dream up some sort of strategy to clog the middle, stay in position on pick-and-rolls, and fight the urge to overreact on rotations. It was total chaos on defense Sunday, but it’s nothing a film session or two shouldn’t correct. Mike Prada over at SB Nation posted an excellent video breakdown yesterday of how the Spurs sent the Grizzlies’ defense into a frenzy with their devious pick-and-roll plays.

The joke about the Spurs is that you’re always playing five-on-six against them. You’re not just playing Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, et al. You’re playing against Coach Popovich as well, and though Hollins proved that he was up to the task against inferior coaches in Scott Brooks and recently-shit-canned Vinny Del Negro, he now has to match wits with a chess master, so this series could be a defining moment for the acerbic Hollins, and how his team responds in game two should tell us a lot about his aptitude and creativity with the clipboard.

There’s a reason why sports writers love to describe the Spurs as a “well-oiled machine,” and it all starts with Popovich. Everything about them is mechanical to the point of being borderline robotic. Every cog in the machine performs its function flawlessly. It’s partially why they can be so boring to watch.

If there was a silver lining to the game one loss, it was that the Grizzlies held Tim Duncan to just six points, but then again Zach Randolph, who’s averaging 19 points and 14 rebounds in the post-season so far, managed to cancel it out by making just one lousy bucket the entire game (a career low), which didn’t come until the fourth quarter. One of the few bright spots for the Grizzlies was Quincy Pondexter, who finished the game with 17 points on 5-for-9 from the 3-point line, but even that contribution was overshadowed by the way the Spurs torched the Grizzlies for 42 points from the 3-point line.

Part of the problem for Memphis was their sluggish start. The Spurs jumped out to a 31-14 lead by the end of the first quarter, and the Grizzlies never really recovered after that. Hollins has to figure out a way to get his team to show some urgency from the opening tip, and getting Randolph involved earlier should be at the top of the list. They played Duncan on Gasol for most of the first game, so Randolph has to take advantage of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, who might be the only person in the league with a bigger ass than Z-Bo.

We’ll know we’ve done our job if we can avoid any further garbage-time-corpse-of-Tracy-McGrady sightings or Dejuan Blair (aka Heady D) and-one circus shots.

Tim Duncan and whale

betty draper fat suit

Ton parker brent barry

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andrew_bynum-600

varejao

michael-beasley-hair

chris-andersen-tattoo-design-03

carlos-boozer-hair

b-rad

mike miller

Robin-Lopez-480x270

mettaworldpeace

dirksteveold

manchild

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NBA Playoffs First Round Wrap-up

Bryant and Gasol

Russell Westbrook got injured, Patrick Beverley got death threats, and then everybody sounded the death knell of the Oklahoma City Thunder. David Lee got injured, but that didn’t stop the Warriors from upsetting the Nuggets seemingly because I predicted the opposite outcome. Everybody jumped on the Steph Curry bandwagon (including yours truly). The Grizzles became the first team ever (as in, like, ev-ar) to crawl out of an 0-2 deficit to win the next four games in a row by 10+ points. The Heat swept the Bucks. The Celtics showed that there is pride even in defeat. The Knicks continued to jack up terrible shots. Dwight Howard got ejected. J.R .Smith got ejected. Z-Bo got ejected (after they had already won the game and closed out the series, no less). Chris Paul got ejected. Disappointment abounded. The Spurs mercifully put the Lakers out of their misery. The Hawks-Pacers series went to seven games, and nobody cared because it was just too unbearable to watch. Lebron James won his fourth MVP award, missing out on the league’s first unanimous decision by one lousy dissenting vote. Derek Fisher was miraculously the only player fined for flopping during the first round, while Chris Paul flopped around on-court like a dying fish unpunished.

P.J. Carlesimo got fired. Mike Dunlap got fired. Lawrence Frank got fired. Scott Skiles got fired. Byron Scott got fired. Doug Collins resigned. Vinny Del Negro will most likely get fired. It was basically a bloodbath at the head coaching position at the end of this season, paving the way for a whole slew of currently unemployed coaches, including Nate McMillan, the brothers Van Gundy, Phil Jackson, and whoever’s dumb enough to hire Avery Johnson.

The first round is always a dizzying ordeal, and this year was particularly exciting, with four potential closeout games happening at the same time on Saturday night. Teams tend to establish or reinforce their identities during the opening round, and those who don’t quite know who they are yet often get exploited for their deficiencies. Either way, they learn something about themselves. We saw this in the Knicks-Celtics series when borderline-MVP-candidate ‘Melo – who spent the regular season learning how to pass, rebound, and play defense – reverted back to the old isolation, hero-ball ‘Melo who jacks up 25-30 questionable shots per game and nearly let Boston back into the series in the process. So which ‘Melo are we going to see in the second round?

And which Thunder team are we going to see? Without Russell Westbrook’s energy and tenacity, the Thunder have struggled at both ends of the court, causing Kevin Durant to assume a tremendous amount of responsibility. The question is whether the increased workload is sustainable through the later rounds. They edged out the Grizzlies in game one but only because of Durant’s last-minute heroics.

There is an enormous amount of tension surrounding a team’s expectations and how they actually perform in games. The initial test for a team is to defend home-court advantage. They say that the playoffs don’t officially start until someone loses on their home floor. The teams who earned home-court advantage during the regular season play their first two playoff games at home, so it’s their job to defend home court advantage while the other team tries to steal at least one of those first two games.

With 40 games in 40 nights, there’s barely enough time for players to catch their breath before they have to pack up and head to an opposing team’s city and try to win a game in front of a hostile home crowd. Some teams cave under the pressure (the Nets). Some teams simply catch the plague in the process (most of the Bulls roster).

So what happens now?

The second round technically started yesterday with a double-header on ABC, and it continues tonight in earnest as the Heat host the Bulls and the Spurs host the Warriors.

Eye-popping Fact: the Warriors haven’t won in San Antonio in the last 29 games (13 years). That’s a pretty daunting prospect. They’re hoping to ride the momentum into the second round against a consistent and vastly-more-experienced Spurs team who’s had plenty of rest since ousting the Lakers a week ago.

The Grizzlies will have to find an answer for Kevin Martin in game two. They already have their hands full with Durant, but they left Martin open for far too many corner threes in game one. They also made some costly turnovers down the stretch, and there’s absolutely no good reason why Conley shouldn’t be destroying 172-year-old Derek Fisher, so look for him to bounce back on Tuesday.

The Heat claim that they’re not underestimating the Bulls, who ousted the Nets despite their increasingly depleted roster. Remember that it was the Bulls who halted the Heat’s historic 27-game win streak last month, so don’t be surprised to see a physical, chippy series with lots of flagrants and technicals between these two sworn enemies.

The Knicks are already down 0-1 to the Pacers, and the Pacers have them right where they want them: hoisting up lots of contested jump shots. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith were a combined 14-43 from the field. The Pacers were also more aggressive on the boards and just generally better all-around.

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Jason Collins and the New Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

Jason-Collins-is-gay.-Image-via-@SInow

Last week, Grantland’s Wesley Morris published a fantastic article about what he called “the quiet queering of professional sports.” In it, he talks about Brittney Griner, the 6’ 8” college phenom and WNBA number one pick who is openly gay, and how the new generation of athletes seems more comfortable with their sexuality, even when it veers into the historically-less-comfortable territory of ambiguity or androgyny. It’s simply not that big a deal to them anymore, and they feel perfectly fine expressing this ambiguity with their fashion choices.

So, too, have a number of NBA players embraced what can only be described as a flamboyant sense of style, whether it’s Russell Westbrook and his loud, retro color schemes; Lebron and his tiny man-purse; Dwayne Wade and his spray-on sweaters and skin-tight, gerbil-colored pants; Tyson Chandler and his fedora-blouse-Capris -and-laceless-combat-boots ensemble; or just about everybody with their lensless horn-rimmed glasses.

The point is that there is an ongoing trend of male athletes – who identify as straight – making the types of sartorial decisions that would have previously raised questions about their sexual orientation. Straight athletes are no longer afraid to rock a sassy outfit to a postgame press conference, and it’s hard not to see it as a direct result of the recent sea change in public opinion about the issue of homosexuality. A total of nine states now legally recognize gay marriage, and the ongoing efforts of gay rights advocates to de-stigmatize the LGBT community are finally starting to pay tremendous dividends. Even the POTUS has publicly expressed his support.

A few weeks ago, former Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo told the Baltimore Sun that he believes as many as four NFL players could come out soon in an effort to create solidarity among professional athletes around the issue of gay rights. That hasn’t happened yet, but yesterday, veteran NBA journeyman Jason Collins dropped an H-bomb on the sports world when he became the first openly gay athlete currently playing in one of the four major professional sports.

The reaction to his announcement among his NBA peers has been overwhelmingly positive. Even high-profile players like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, and others took to Twitter yesterday to offer their support, but there were plenty of mixed and negative reactions as well to remind us that there is still long road ahead.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace Tweeted: “I’m not bashing anybody don’t have anything against anyone I just don’t understand it” and “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH…”

The Tweets were quickly deleted, and Wallace later posted an apology, either because he soon realized they weren’t going over well or because someone in the Dolphins organization caught wind of it, or both. But, somewhat unwittingly, Wallace’s Tweets ignited a debate about what exactly constitutes “homophobia” these days. Is it relegated to overtly hateful speech or threatening comments, or does it include the type of ignorance and/or general disapproval reflected in Wallace’s Tweets? America has always struggled with where exactly to draw the line between free speech and hate speech.

For instance, how do we categorize comments like the ones we saw from Warriors coach Mark Jackson and ESPN analyst Chris Broussard, each of whom echoed the sentiment that homosexuality is considered a sin in the Christian community? (Note that ESPN later issued a public apology and required Broussard to do the same.) Is it hate-speech, or is it more accurate to simply call them condescending and hypocritical?

For starters, it bears mentioning that Collins, in his Sports Illustrated article, says that he was raised and instilled with Christian values, namely the ones about tolerance and understanding. Huffington Post blogger Matt Yoder, who is also Christian, had this to say in his response to his announcement:

“I’m a Christian. I stand with Jason Collins. I feel the need to state this plainly because we live in a world where Christians have by and large failed the LGBT community and failed to follow through on the words and ministry of Christ. As I read column after column today on Jason Collins coming out I felt more and more persuaded to say something so that the only Christian voice in this discussion isn’t one that condemns.”

If anything, the reactions to Collins’ coming out is a good barometer for just how far we’ve come in recent years. Most people today don’t think it’s a big deal, but there’s a reason why more gay athletes haven’t come out yet. In his 2007 memoir Man in the Middle, former NBA journeyman John Amaechi became the league’s first player to come out retroactively, and his revelation caused much more of a stir among players, coaches, critics, commentators, and fans as recently as five years ago.

Amaechi’s book subsequently spurred a succession of awkward interviews in which the sports media grilled high-profile players like Lebron James about how they might react to a gay teammate.

“With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that’s like the No. 1 thing as teammates — we all trust each other…. It’s a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor.” Lebron said.

Jamal Crawford said that it would probably be “awkward” in the locker room. Eddie Jones went a step further and said that the other teammates would likely ostracize a gay player. When asked if he (Amaechi) would have been accepted, Troy Hudson said “probably not.” Tracy McGrady conceded that he would be cool with it “as long as you don’t try it with me.” Shavlik Randolph said “As long as you don’t bring your gayness on me, I’m fine.” Steven Hunter said that he sees “a lot of sick, perverted stuff about married men running around with gay guys and all types of foolishness…”

There was an obvious undercurrent of homophobia to many of the responses, but the nastiest vitriol came from Tim Hardaway, who told a Miami radio station “I hate gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. I don’t think it should be in the world or in the United States.”

I always thought using the indefinite pronoun made “it” seem the smoke monster from Lost, but nevertheless, the unsettling part was that you got the sense Hardaway was just (tactlessly) saying what many other players were thinking or not so eloquently skirting around.

For Hardaway, a P.R. shit-storm came barreling in over the horizon, and after drawing the ire of several prominent LGBT groups, the NBA immediately distanced itself from him, his endorsement deals fell through, and he was soon forced to embark on a public apology/damage control tour. But it was precisely this backlash to the backlash that seemed to signal the turning tide of public sentiment, and Amaechi’s book was arguably the landmark moment that paved the way for Collins. The ensuing dialogue proved that it was no longer okay to spew the kind of vile hatred Hardaway’s response represented.

To his credit, Hardaway eventually became a spokesman for gay rights in 2011, although to some, including Amaechi, his 180-degree turn seemed a bit disingenuous, and it’s tempting for the more cynical among us to dismiss the positive reactions to Collins announcement as nothing more than a kowtowing to political correctness, or worse, a fear of incurring fines and P.R. nightmares and being forced to issue tepid apologies.

But at the time of the book’s release in 2007, there were already a number of current and former players who boldly supported the crazy notion that gay and straight men could coexist and thrive together on a professional sports team. Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, and numerous others all echoed this sentiment in their own way.

In 2011, the NBA sponsored a commercial called “Think B4 You Speak” featuring players like Jared Dudley and Grant Hill urging young people to quit using the word “gay” in a derogatory fashion among their peers. Earlier that season, Kobe Bryant had been heard calling a referee a “faggot” after he was given a technical foul and was subsequently fined $100,000 by the league and forced to issue a public apology. The league, in turn, also issued an apology to “our friends in the LGBT community.” It also bears mentioning that, shortly after the video premiered, then-Phoenix Suns president and CEO Rick Welts (now Warriors President) announced that he was gay. Welts also spoke out in support of Collins yesterday via Twitter.

It seems fitting that the NBA would be the first of the four major sports to boast an openly gay player. The history of the NBA paralleled the civil rights movement, and the world of professional sports is one of the few remaining battlefronts in the new civil rights struggle of our time. Bill Russell was a phenomenal player, but he was also an outspoken civil rights activist in the 1960s. When Russell entered the NBA, there was a cap on the number of black players allowed in the league (15), and up to this point, there has been an unspoken rule against gays in professional sports. Jason Collins just altered the course of history for future generations of athletes.

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NBA Playoffs Opening Weekend Roundup

andre miller game winner

Old Man Game

Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, Tim Duncan, Andre Miller, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, Ray Allen, and countless others are all in their late 30s and all playing pivotal roles on their respective playoff teams, but none came up bigger than Andre Miller in Game 1 against the upstart Warriors, scoring 28 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, and hitting the game-winning shot by doing what he always does – somehow maneuvering his aged body through the lane for a difficult layup against a much larger defender.

U.G.L.Y

Just how bad was the Lakers vs. Spurs game?

• San Antonio shot just 37% from the field and still blew out the Lakers, partially because they were able to capitalize on the Lakers’ ridiculous 18 turnovers.

• A team coached by Mike D’Antoni and helmed by Steve Nash scored only two (repeat two) fast break points the entire game.

• Pau Gasol, like his brother, is an excellent passer, but he had twice as many assists (a whopping total of six) as Steve Nash. That’s probably not a formula for success. Also not a formula for success? Shooting up Nash with epidurals just so he could play through the pain of his nagging injuries.

• The Spurs decided to employ the hack-a-Howard routine in the midst of, get this, a 10-point first-half lead, which reinforces my theory that Greg Popovich just likes to fuck with people’s heads.

Boston vs. New York was equally atrocious.

• After a solid first half, the Celtics committed 21 turnovers in the second half against the Knicks, partially because of Kidd’s defense and partially because they don’t have a point guard. It’s times like these that they sorely miss Rajon Rondo. Without a bonafide ball handler and playmaker, they struggle to find their shots in the half-court set and in transition.

• KG (4-for-12 for 8 points) and Jet Terry (a big fat goose egg on the night) shot abysmally, but the Knicks weren’t that much better. ‘Melo scored 36 points but took 29 shots to do it, Chris Copeland went 0-for-3, and Pudge Felton was his usual mediocre self.

Grinding it down to a nub rather than a point.

• I love the Grizzlies, but they were borderline unwatchable in Game 1 against the Clippers.

• According to the new flopping rules, Chris Paul should’ve racked up approximately $25,000 in fines.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Clippers - Game One

Chris Paul, Mike Conley

CP3FLOP1

• Lamar Odom, in just 18 minutes, single-handedly outrebounded Gasol and Randolph for the entire game. You remember Lamar Odom, right? The guy who doesn’t want to play basketball anymore? Maybe the Grizzlies should think about boxing someone out in Game 2.

• The Grizzlies looked lost at times on defense, but they also went through incredible scoring droughts. The Rudy Gay trade yielded some success during the regular season, but in the playoffs, when everything grinds to halt, the Grizz lack a perimeter scorer and playmaker (perhaps a solid sixth man) that can provide some instant offense. Gay wasn’t necessarily the right man for the job, but they’ll have to think seriously about filling that gaping hole during the offseason, which could come sooner than they thought.

• It was almost exactly a year ago that the Grizzlies blew a 27-point lead in Game 1 against the Clippers. After three consecutive playoff appearances, you’d think they’d have shaken the butterflies by now, but then again, the Clippers have had their number ever since, winning last year’s seven-game series and winning this year’s regular season series 3-1.

Surprise Party

• After guaranteeing (with a smirk) a 4-2 series win over the Miami Heat, Brandon Jennings played with a surprising sense of purpose in Game 1, scoring 26 points but dishing out just two measly assists.

• The Brooklyn Nets dominated the Chicago Bulls, with Brook Lopez absolutely abusing Joakim Noah, who is one of the league’s best defenders. Deron Williams looked like his old self, sparking the question: is he officially back?

• David Lee sustained the first major injury of the post-season, effectively murdering any hope the Warriors had of a first-round upset against the Nuggets, especially now that Kenneth Faried is back from his ankle injury.

• Birdman spread his wings (then shitted on everybody): 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting (three dunks) and 7 rebounds in just 16 minutes. Cacaw!

• Paul George messed around and got a triple double.

Following the Script

Few things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the Miami Heat steamrolling their way through the Eastern Conference. Here are a few other non-surprises from the weekend.

• The Thunder blew out the Rockets, despite a semi-dramatic subplot involving James Harden facing his former team.

• J.R. Smith won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, despite another banner year from Jamal Crawford.

• Paul George won Most Improved Player.

Random Silliness

• Kobe’s Vicodin tweets during Game 1 sparked this incensed response from Mr. Pringles:

mrpringles

…which, in turn, sparked this hysterical tirade from Steven A. Smith:

Lebron wore this to the post-game press conference:

lebron-sweater

Russell Westbrook saw his summer sweater and raised him a sleeveless black turtleneck:

westbrook sleeveless

(All stats per NBA.com)

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The Dark Side of Durant

Durant

Until Carmelo Anthony’s recent surge, Kevin Durant had led the league in scoring for most of the season, but early on he was also a close second in another statistical category, trailing only the hyper-volatile DeMarcus Cousins for the number of technical fouls received (even now, he remains in the top 10 in this category). Apparently not content with this dubious distinction, Durant earned his first-ever flagrant-one foul during a road loss to the Utah Jazz prior to the All-Star break.

Today, he received a $25,000 fine for what the league called a “menacing gesture” during a blowout win against the Warriors on Thursday. To many, the gesture – a throwback to the popular throat slash that David Stern cracked down on years ago – seemed out of character, unless, of course, you’ve actually been paying attention.

Chalk it up to his proximity to the increasingly hot-headed Russell Westbrook, whose growing impatience for post-game press conferences has reached hysterical new heights, but upon closer inspection this might just be the latest in a long line of warning signs that point to Durant’s inevitable turn to the NBA’s dark side.

During his first few years in the league, writers, commentators, and fans were all fawning over a fresh-faced kid with limitless potential, a tireless work ethic, and surprisingly-humble attitude. Fast forward a few years to the Thunder’s heartbreaking loss in the 2012 NBA Finals, and suddenly there were questions about whether the three-time scoring champion was indeed “too” nice for his own good.

This was exacerbated by the fact that, less than a month later, the press discovered that Durant was spending part of his off-season in Ohio training with his theoretical arch-nemesis, Lebron James. Much ado was made by the sports media, who scoffed at the idea that an elite competitor like Durant would prostrate himself before an adversary when he should be figuratively holed up in a cave somewhere plotting his vengeance.

Nevertheless, for all of the altar-boy talk, Durant’s career trajectory off-court has followed a similar path to that of many less-heralded (not to mention less-likable) players who preceded him, most notably the fact that he has recently embarked on the ever-dreaded rap career. Few things elicit as many well-deserved groans as the baller-turned-rapper phenomenon, a tradition that has been reserved primarily for NBA malcontents like Allen Iverson, Metta World Peace, Stephen Jackson, and so forth (with a few notable exceptions, i.e. Shaq). And let’s not even talk about his big-screen debut in the critically-unacclaimed box office dud Thunderstruck.

Durant is by all means free to explore his artistic side however he sees fit, but the type of audacity that deludes a person into believing that everything they shit out turns to gold should raise a few red flags. Not long ago, FreeDarko founder Bethlehem Shoals wrote a commentary on Durant’s highly-acclaimed humility and supposed lack of ego arguing, correctly, that the question of “can there be such a thing as an athlete without ego?” is clearly a rhetorical one. You don’t go out and score 66 points in a summer league game at Rucker Park unless you have something to prove.

It’s certainly far from inevitable that Durant will one day transform into a villain. His transgressions to this point have been relatively tame. But the media won’t hesitate to fan the fire if he keeps adding fuel to it.

Need evidence? Look no further than the narrative arcs of both Kobe and Lebron’s careers. Each entered the league as high school phenoms with the blank slate of youth and inexperience on their side, Lebron with an unselfish style of play that is often rare with someone his age and with his ability, and Kobe as the charming, if not precocious, multilingual teen who was so often celebrated as much for his “articulateness” as for his interminable work ethic.

Both, however, managed to draw ire upon themselves for a laundry list of high-profile faux pas, and if there’s any takeaway for Durant, it should be that he is ultimately the master of his own destiny in regard to how his fans perceive him. People hate Kobe. People hate Lebron. They’ve given us plenty of reasons to. Nobody hates Kevin Durant…yet. He hasn’t given us sufficient reason to. But you know what they say about the straw that broke the camel’s back: there were a million other straws underneath it.

Case in point: earlier this season, Durant needlessly confessed that he tries to avoid heaving half-court shots at the end of quarters in order to protect his famously-efficient shooting percentage, a habit that Thunder Coach Scott Brooks has already derided him for. When you can manage to draw criticism for something as positive as an efficient shooting percentage, you’re doing something wrong.

But maybe Durant needs more of an edge to take his game to the next level. That’s the paradox of the NBA. We get annoyed at Dwight Howard for being an attention whore, yet we mock guys like Tim Duncan for being boring. We criticized Lebron for not having that killer instinct, yet we resent Kobe for being such a ball-hog. We denounce Metta World Peace for being violent, then we disparage Pau Gasol for being too soft.

The NBA isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when it was filled with legitimate tough guys and bona-fide villains. In an era when you can get a technical foul and get tossed out of a game for even the smallest impropriety, even a nice guy like Durant can become a villain if he doesn’t watch his step.

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Review: Jeff Benedict’s ‘Out of Bounds’

out of bounds

Call it happenstance, call it morbid synchronicity, but I came across Jeff Benedict’s Out of Bounds – a book that bills itself as a “searing indictment” of the NBA and its alleged culture of misogyny and sexual misconduct run rampant – just as the Steubenville case was gaining national attention.

Benedict’s book was actually published back in 2003, so it’s not exactly timely in a journalistic sense, and the data compiled therein is subsequently taken from 2001-2002, so the figures have long-since been rendered obsolete. But the arguments and conclusions drawn from it simply cannot be ignored or otherwise dismissed by anyone who considers themselves a serious and responsible fan of the NBA and of professional sports in general.

According to his research, approximately 40% of NBA players had been charged with a serious crime between 2001-2002, and more specifically, there appeared to be an emerging trend toward sexual assault.

As expected, there was considerable backlash from those who criticized the book’s racial implications (91% of NBA players were black in 2001) as well as the author’s admittedly problematic research methodology, which appears in the preface and is summarized below:

1) Benedict and his research assistant decided, for unknown reasons, to undertake the truly Himalayan task of completing the research and writing of the book within a five-month period, which required them to collect, analyze and distill meaning from literally thousands of pages of legal documents.

2) Benedict inexplicably chose to omit “foreign” (why not international?) players from his study (the vast majority of whom are of European descent by almost any estimate).

3) Of the 475+ players in the NBA, Benedict was only able to obtain court or criminal records on approximately 177 of them (i.e. about 40%).

4) Of the 40% of the league researched for this book, 40% of the representative sample were found to have had what Benedict refers to as serious criminal charges (i.e. weapons, assault, drugs, etc.) brought against them. The keyword here is charges because many of the cases were subsequently dropped, acquitted, or settled out of court.

Benedict – himself a lawyer – has little reservation when speculating about cases that, for whatever reason, were never prosecuted. He claims that his experience as an attorney reinforces the widely-held perception that athletes who can afford good legal representation can generally circumvent the legal system for any number of improprieties.

The most troubling of these improprieties, and the whole crux of the book, is what Benedict argues is a tendency toward violence against women among NBA players. While it’s no secret that money, celebrity status, and continuous travel provide the ideal circumstances for athletes to enjoy unusually active sex lives, Benedict’s contention is that it also creates dangerous scenarios for the women involved.

But he comes off as a little provincial when he refers to athletes’ sexual escapades as a whole in disapproving terms such as “dark” and “sordid,” and it’s hard not to notice that little semantic slips like these might hint at an undercurrent of bias.

Nevertheless, one of the more poignant arguments of the book is that women who accuse professional athletes are in turn categorically discredited by publicists and defensive attorneys as lying, gold-digging, adulterous opportunists. He argues that female accusers are further subjected to threats, bullying, and intimidation on behalf of lawyers, agents, and other members of an athlete’s entourage, which creates an atmosphere that discourages most women from ever even pressing charges let alone proceeding with a criminal case or seeking restitution.

This is by far the most compelling argument of the book and one that would have merited further scholarly investigation, but Benedict unfortunately relies too heavily on anecdotal evidence to prove this point. In fact, despite what at first appears to be glaring statistical evidence (40%), the book as a whole is largely anecdotal, focusing narrowly on a handful of particularly appalling incidences.

It’s important to understand this from a rhetorical standpoint because it allows Benedict to lean heavily on the reader’s pathos to achieve his desired effect, which is to elicit unmitigated disgust at the type of behavior that is described – in great detail – throughout the book.

For several of the truly foul incidences documented within, such as the case of Ruben Patterson’s assault on his au pair, Benedict recreates the encounter in dramatic, narrative prose, sparing us none of the gory details, and my initial reaction was that there’s something perversely voyeuristic about it all, that perhaps the author has some underlying emotional investment in the subject matter that he needs to work through, but it also seemed to point to the fact that Benedict simply doesn’t have enough hard evidence to prove his original premise.

Instead, he opts for an overgeneralization based on a figure (40%) with an inestimable margin of error.

In the early 2000s, there was a dramatic shift in the public perception of the NBA. The Golden Age of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson was over, and there was a new, younger generation of players immersed in streetball and hip hop culture, and it was fashionable to bemoan the cornrows, the baggy clothes, and the lavish lifestyles that characterized the new era of basketball. But there was a media revolution going on as well, and the sports world was subject to a level of scrutiny it had never seen before, and Benedict’s suggestion that criminal behavior among NBA players was skyrocketing at the time (compared to years past) is never supported with actual data.

If Benedict is so passionate about this topic (which I believe that he is), why not take a few years and conduct more comprehensive research on all major professional sports, including more predominately white sports like baseball, golf, hockey, etc.? Surely, this sort of behavior isn’t unique to black athletes, as the findings seem to suggest?

The other major problem is that Benedict, while long on accusations, is short on solutions. He forgets that diagnosis isn’t the same as cure, so the question remains as to what should be done about this. For example, how can women better protect themselves? What types of scenarios should they avoid? What is the safest and most effective way for a woman to bring charges against an assailant? How can lawyers more effectively prosecute these types of cases on behalf of their clients and subsequently protect their clients against smear campaigns? Is there a need for new legislation regarding sex crimes? (This is where Benedict’s legal expertise might be of great use.) What types of penalties and/or suspensions should be imposed on behalf of the NBA and team owners pending the outcome of these allegations? What kinds of criminal and psychological background checks are conducted by the league or individual team owners, and how much do they factor in to the decision to draft or sign a certain player?

Out of Bounds is frustrating precisely because a closer inspection of this topic is so vital to the safety and well-being of women everywhere, and a rushed and haphazardly arranged book with racist undertones seems like somewhat of a disservice to this cause.

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Burning Questions: what to do about the culture of excess in professional sports

broke2

It’s a familiar story, but the numbers are no less mindboggling. Approximately 60% of NBA players are broke within five years after retirement, according to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, and that number is astonishingly higher among NFL players.

Just last week, multiple news outlets reported that former number one draft pick Rob Swift was facing foreclosure and forcible eviction from his multimillion-dollar Seattle-area home. Swift was drafted by Seattle in 2006 and played briefly for the zombie-Sonics/Thunder before seeing his career derailed by substance abuse and psychological problems, and reports included startling images of the type of squalor Swift had been living in: mountains of beer cans, piles of takeout boxes, a virtual minefield of dog feces, and perhaps most disturbing, hundreds of errant bullet holes and empty shell casings.

Swift’s story underscores a painful truth about professional sports, one that is echoed by many of the talking heads featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke: for myriad reasons, the average NBA career is only about three seasons. This might seem at odds with the list of active players currently pushing 40, players like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Derek Fisher, Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, and so on, all of whom have logged 15+ seasons in the NBA.

But this type of longevity is the exception rather than the rule. Kobe Bryant, who is in his 17th season in the NBA, is seemingly indestructible, but his type of physical resilience borders on the superhuman.

Basic math should also tell us that there are exponentially more players vying for roster spots than are available, which creates a great deal of turnover among mid-level players.

Even though the entrance to the league is a revolving door, it’s common for an average athlete to acquire a tremendous amount of wealth, however brief the tenure of their career, but it also bears mentioning that most players don’t earn as much as we might imagine. In fact, the NBA has its own version of the 99% consisting of just the types of players that are safeguarded under the new collective bargaining agreement. Players with something resembling a 5-year, $50 million salary are the 1 percenters, and the remainder of the league earns less than a fraction of what players like Kobe Bryant make.

But even marginal NBA players earn significantly more than the average middleclass American (which is less than $40,000 per year), so why is it that so many professional athletes manage to fritter away their considerable fortunes? As it turns out, it’s much more than a rhetorical question.

To the average person, it seems incomprehensible that someone could squander such an extraordinary blessing, and we like to imagine with no small sense of smug self-righteousness that, given the same opportunity, we would make all the right choices to ensure our long-term financial security. But we like to forget that relative to any number of third world countries, the American middle class is positively Romanesque in terms of lifestyle. The truth is that the vast majority of Americans (i.e. the 99 percent) spend what they make, i.e. live paycheck to paycheck, or perhaps more accurately, overspend and in the process accumulate a tremendous amount of personal debt.

Broke makes the argument that professional athletes are no different from the average American in this regard. As we learned from former NBA star and current analyst Jalen Rose, athletes receive regular bimonthly paychecks just like the rest of us, rather than one comically-oversized Publisher’s Clearing House check.

Broke is objectively more concerned with how athletes lose their money as opposed to why, and there is a catalog of behaviors commonly exhibited among athletes that contribute to their economic downfalls. Not surprisingly, what it basically boils down to is a Caligula-like orgy of excess. Many athletes spend their money like they’re Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, and Broke offers an illuminating breakdown of all the mitigating factors involved:

1. Culture of Competitiveness – whether it’s gambling, nightclubs, cars, houses, or jewelry, athletes tend to be just as competitive in their spending habits, and the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” gets tossed around a lot in Broke.

2. Lack of or nonexistent knowledge of finances and economics – often a result of socioeconomic background, many young players are ill-equipped to manage personal finances, and tax evasion, or rather an unawareness of how the income and property tax system works, is another major pitfall.

3. Vulturistic/Predatory Sports Agents – this tends to overlap with a lack of financial education. Sports agents are every bit as sleazy as they are portrayed in popular media and regularly engage in the types of fraudulent and unethical practices that are designed for personal economic benefit, often at the expense of the players who they represent.

4. The Entourage – made up of family and friends and general hangers-on, a player’s entourage is one of the biggest drains on their finances, and players often make poor investment choices at the behest of those around them who would take advantage of their generosity for personal gain.

5. Women – it’s not uncommon for an athlete to have fathered numerous children by a variety of women, and mammoth divorce settlements and ensuing child support payments are the bane of many athletes’ existence.

What is hereby designated as reason #6 – substance abuse and mental illness – is an aspect regrettably glossed over in this particular documentary, but to their credit, is one that ESPN has documented in other 30 for 30 films. Butowsky made brief reference to his painkiller addiction that he claims happened as a consequence of multiple injuries, and if professional sports are a microcosm for society, one has to assume that substance abuse and mental illness are just as pervasive among athletes as the general population. Rob Swift is just the most recent example.

A few years ago, Bleacher Report published a list of the top 10 NBA players whose careers were ruined by drugs and alcohol (including performance enhancing drugs). Perhaps the most tragic story is that of Len Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose just weeks after being selected with second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft.

Then there’s Chris Herren, who played briefly in the NBA before his career was ruined by an addiction to both prescription drugs and illicit narcotics. Both Herren and Bias are the subjects of their own ESPN 30 for 30 films, so their stories are well-documented. There are also more obscure players like Eddie Griffin, whose struggles with alcoholism predated his NBA career, and who committed suicide in 2007 by crashing his SUV into a moving train.

But for every pitiable story, there is a less sympathetic one. Isiah Rider, a member of the notorious Jail-Blazers squad, engaged in ongoing behavior that eventually led to his personal and financial ruin, whether it was on-court altercations, quarrels with coaches and teammates, or multiple arrests for drug possession and spousal abuse, which helped perpetuate the perception of athletes as reckless, arrogant, shameless, immature, etc.

But it also begs the question of just how many NBA players suffer from undiagnosed substance abuse and/or mental illness. Houston Rockets rookie Royce White has a pretty good idea (i.e. the majority of them), and he wants to leverage his career as a platform to spread awareness about an issue he believes is at the heart of many of the aforementioned self-destructive tendencies. Ironically, Royce’s circumstances in Houston have highlighted just the types of frustration involved in dealing with an athlete who requires special or individualized attention, and the prevailing attitude among players, organizations, and even fans seems to be that they are more trouble than they‘re worth. White has embarked on a high-profile crusade against the Rockets organization over the type of care he believes is necessary to maintain his mental stability over the course of a grueling 82-game season, and regardless of the outcome, he’s managed to at least draw some attention to an issue that has up to this point been widely overlooked. It remains to be seen whether this will result in any new league-wide policies or initiatives designed to support/identify players who struggle with these issues.

To his credit, and to the ongoing aggravation of the Houston Rockets, White has rather shrewdly framed this debate in terms of its “accessibility” issues. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, aren’t employers required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees in order for them to perform their job duties to the best of their ability? But this is where it all gets sticky. What, exactly, constitutes a reasonable accommodation? For example, how reasonable is it for White, who suffers from a paralyzing fear of flying, to, as an alternative, take a chartered bus to games in which it would reasonable for him to do so?

Once you start getting into the nitty gritty of this controversy, most people’s eyes start to glaze over.

Furthermore, Royce wants his generalized anxiety disorder treated as you would any other medical condition, and he loves to invoke the analogy that you wouldn’t expect him to travel with the team or play games if he had a broken leg. But many fans, and the American public in general, are reluctant to acknowledge many mental illnesses, let alone substance abuse, as medical conditions that require specialized treatment. A certain cynicism toward the issue has stemmed from the conflict of interests between pharmaceutical companies and medical providers (i.e that doctors are too eager to diagnose mental illness in order to increase sales of certain medications). There is also a widely-held perception that it has become somewhat trendy to suffer from a mental illness, in the way that gluten or lactose intolerance has become vaguely fashionable among health-conscious individuals.

The issue gets even more complicated when we start talking about professional athletes, who we expect to be both physically and mentally tough, which is more or less a prerequisite for competitive sports. There is a great deal of ego and machismo involved, and mental problems and substance abuse issues both carry an undeniable stigma, despite what we now understand about the psychology of addiction. Just look at how the sports world has responded to White’s situation, which is essentially that he needs to get over it (or “walk it off,” as your middle school coach might say).

Gambling addiction in particular is pervasive in the NBA. Players bet on card games during team flights and spend unfathomable amounts of money at casinos. But, as with other issues, it’s difficult to quantify just how endemic the problem really is. In 2006, Charles Barkley estimated that he has lost more than $10 million because of gambling, but qualifies this by arguing that he can personally afford to do so because of his considerable wealth.

This is just the type of careless attitude that the average fan finds infuriating, but doesn’t blowing millions of dollars and having nothing to show for it seem, for lack of a better word, insane? Or is it all just part of the culture of professional sports, something that we’re aware of but would rather ignore for the sake of entertainment? Does the league have a moral or ethical responsibility to address the problem in order to help players be the responsible, healthy citizens that in many other areas they are already expected, nay required, to be?

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