In part, a continuation of "Taking Out the Trash [Talking.]"
It was interesting to listen to Bill Walton's blog on Tuesday...I mean...listen to the Walton interview on Bill Simmons' blog. Many disdain Walton's ramblings for going nowhere. I used to be among the Walon-haters. I choose to never allow myself to think about the Tolbert-Walton years. But like so many, at a certain point, I decided to take the red pill and just enjoy the Waltonride. [Here's a typical Walton Conversion Tale from DetroitBadBoys.com.]
Walton helps me dissolve into the myth and moral romance of the game. He espouses a Lig-vision where moral logic reigns; where hard-work, basketball IQ, fair play, and "God-given talent" fully determine wins and losses. And he doesn't differentiate between this idealized vision and the "facts on the ground." But, as I will discuss, for all the hippie-talk of Jerry Garcia, pacifism, and Studs Terkel, he's also quite the conservative. And his type of conservatism has become the consensus view in the Lig.
Walton began the Simmons interview with a(n at least) ten minute diatribe on the current corruption of the game. He reviewed well-worn territory: how "the world has changed" [Walton's words.] How the ideals of the past have been polluted by the selfishness of players today. For Walton,
When you talk about the characteristics of all those great teams of the past, you talk about the communication, you talk about getting the message across, the leadership of having the great players, you think about the commitment of the team, you think about who can deliver peak performance on command, but what you really think, the guys on the top...John Wooden and Red Auerbach...they realized it was based on people...the silly little pyramid of success: industriousness and enthusiasm, skill development..." [at this point I have to give up on transcribing, let's just say he made a long list.]
But, Walton says, "Sadly our world is now one of mercernaries. A world where money trumps all...Specatular highlights instead of the core fundamentals of the game...The players don't go to college. There's no emphasis on the mental game...where hype is more important than substance."
Yet in the long format the Sports Guy provided him, the "facts on the ground" caught up with Walton's Lig-view. Eventually Simmons called Walton on his vision. Walton couldn't contain his Nash-love. And Simmons pointed out the health of the game, Lebron's greatness, Baron Davis' versitility, the Lakers and Celtics revivals, San Antonio "representing all the positive ideals, no hype, no self-promotion..." [Those are Walton's words, not mine and his list goes on.] As cordial host, Simmons playfully nudged Walton but never truly confronted him.
Do those players represent the corruption of the game? [Emphatic Pause.] Looking at this list would you believe that they represent "spectacular highlights instead of the core fundamentals of the game?" [More Samwaterstonian Pausing.]
These MVP awards are not necessarily given to the best player in the Lig or even the most talented. The experts give MVPs to those they believe are most valuable. This is an important distinction. The MVP tells us who experts value most and, by extension, what skills they most value. The last 6 MVPs were not rewarded for the take-over/win-on-my-shoulders abilities of Michael or Hakeem. They were rewarded for how much they "made their teammates better." This has become the most valued trait. Sorry Charles, but the voters chose role models.
The consensus has become that teams win, that talent should be measured by team success and one's contributions to one's teammates. The most controversial of these choices was Dirk. Why did he win the award? Most agree that it was because his team won 67 games. That team had prevailed and its best player should be rewarded for it.
Walton! You should be loving this! You should be eating this shit up! Why doth though protest so much? The easy answer (that Walton is a chucklehead) should not be accepted. He is not simply out-of-touch and out-dated, a hopeless romantic whose time has passed. The inconsistency between his criticism of the Lig and the reality of the Lig does not come because he's out-of-touch. In fact, it comes because his view has become accepted, even consensus. And that view has prevailed in the game itself. Walton just doesn't seem to notice. And this is important. His views have become consensus. The type of values he espouses are those that experts reward MVPs to.
Even the Mamba has bought in! The most underreported (and most surprising) part of the "Kobe saga" is that his trade demands are an avowal of his own limitations and of the team game. He's saying, "I can't do this on my own. My talent is not enough." While the end result may come off as selfish (his desire to win over his team's needs,) his logic derives from the idea that individual success is hollow if it doesn't accompany team success.
You can also see this in how we now understand the Jordan legend. An important, accepted facet of the Jordan legend is that Jordan--the best player ever--could not win on his own. That basketball is a team game, has always been a team game, and always will be a team game. That's Walton's World and that's also become gospel.
Walton's World, its specific moral-valuing of the game, has not always been so pervasive. In fact, Stern has been attempting to transform these into Lig values for years. [I don't mean to suggest that Stern or Walton have the power to have created this consensus, but that they are key figures in fighting for these values.] Many point to Stern's dress code changes and age minimum rules as the beginning of his campaign. But he's actually been working on this image shift for years.
Let's review a little fashion history. As Martin Nolan reported in the Boston Globe, the Lig banned the long, baggy shorts in 1997. Nolan wrote that November,
"It has gotten out of control," said Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice president of operations. "This is a professional league, and you should wear your uniform in a professional manner. We can't have players wearing shorts that hang down to the middle of their calf."
The rule is that shorts must be one inch above the knee. Otherwise, every high-spirited, low-slung point guard will pay a $2500 fine for his statement of individuality.
Now, sometimes a short is just a short. But not this time. The long-baggy shorts had come to symbolize the corruption of the game, the selfishness of "individuality" that would not stand in Walton's World.
The battle began (at least as a media fixation) with the Fab Five. For the Fab Five, their shorts became symbols of arrogance, immaturity, and corruption of the game. The conflation was made explicitly. It also became pervasive and accepted. In Fab Five, the professional FabFiveologist and Heaven-prognosticator Mitch Albom wrote,
If you taunted [Jalen Rose] he'd slam on you, then yell, "I just buried you. How'd it feel?" He would swoop from behind and holler, "BLOCK PARTY!" as he slapped away your shot. He would race to the 3-point line, launch a bomb - in those flapping yellow shorts - and yell, "FLURRIES!" as if his shots would fall like snow. He was the best trash-talker on the team. He was in control.
You see, Albom doesn't even have to explictly make the connection between the "flapping yellow shorts" and Jalen's arrogance, taunting, and trash. It's implicit. He describes Jalen's personality as cocky and trigger-happy which he symbolizes in the image of his shorts.
Another example: Albom later continues,
And Jalen? He has to grow up. He has to lead. Michigan is still one of the best teams in the nation, but the Wolverines can no longer just show up in other people's gyms with their black socks, bald heads and long shorts and expect to blow the opponent away.
Again, Albom connects Jalen's immaturity and arrogance with the image of his "black socks, bald heads" and, of course "long shorts." [Racial issue? I'm not sure.] For all involved, long shorts represented (for good or ill) rebellion, youth, and style.
They were values that Walton would not condone and that Stern legislated against. By banning the shorts, Stern sent a message. He did not want a Lig filled with those that looked like hooligans. And by extension, he did not want hooligans in the NBA.
Interestingly, the question becomes whether the game was ever really under threat. It's an interesting question and deserves a column of its own. The fortunes of the Fab Five suggest the Lig wasn't truly threatened. That the undisciplined flash, the "street game" that so many feared would corrupt the Lig, never really translated to professional ball. For evidence, let's review the fortunes of the Fab Five.
- Webber's career piqued under the tutelage of Rick Adelman. Webber's Kings played in a team-oriented system that regularly led the Lig in assists. Despite much criticism of him personally, Webber has regularly been labeled the greatest big-man-passer of all-time. He did not become the selfish irritant, but the epitome of the selfless big man.
- Jalen's game never flourished in the Lig the way it excelled in the college game. He bounced around and bounced around until he found his seat at the Espin.
- Jimmy King and Ray Jackson never made NBA careers for themselves.
- And Juwan Howard, whose stoic good-guy image never cohered with the Fab Five image and thus was relatively underplayed, has had a solid if unspectacular career.
Nonetheless, Walton's histrionics continue. Even as his views have become consensus, the battle rages on. We can see this nowhere more clearly than in the Marbury coverage. Through all of the endless, endless coverage --and I must confess that I have artfully ignored most of it--there has been relatively little talk about Marbury's tragic life, of his hardship growing up.
There was an upsurge in that type of reporting just after the Fab Five with the publication of Darcy Frey's The Last Shot (1994) and the release of Steve James and Frederick Marx's Hoop Dreams (1994.) Both book and film fell under the genre of empathic psycho-social investigation. The emphasis of Last Shot and Hoop Dreams was not on Walton's hard-work as panacea, but on the social problems that hamper talent. They focused on how the world can be unjust and how the game is not a pure meritocracy. How poverty can rob the individual no matter how "valuable" he is as a person. This "Hoop Dream" is the silenced alternative to the moral individualism of Walton's World.
You see, Walton's vision holds quite a conservative message. It looks back to an imagined Edenic past and holds the individual responsible for his fortunes. The "Hoop Dream" was essentially liberal, the film argued for societal responsibility for the fate of the individual. It constructured the tale of Arthur Agee and William Gates as a tragedy, as a story of the cruelty of social injustice.
It was, by nature, a political film. Implicitly, James and Marx implicated their audiences as (in part) to blame for the tragedy. The film elicited guilt, even shame from its audiences. That shame and guilt were meant to urge the audience into action.
Is the castigation of Marbury, the protagonist of The Last Shot, a coincidence? One cannot deny its coincidental nature, but this coincidence has also provided an opportunity for Waltonites. It allows one of the seminal texts of the "Hoop Dreams" era to be rewritten. It allows for the erasure of the politics of The Last Shot by castigating its protagonist. The coverage has centered on Marbury as villain not Marbury as tragic figure.
I do not mean to argue for one view over the other, for a "Hoop Dream" or for Walton's World. And I do not mean to end this post with equivocation. But it's important. I was hesitant to include the labels conservative and politcal for the fear that such identifications would close down rather than open up conversation. But it's important to understand the discursive battle. And to try to engage with these labels of liberal and conservative in alternative arenas in order to try to jar them from partisan politics. Here, we can see how such a self-avowed "liberal" as Bill Walton can adopt "conservative" views. And we can analyze for ourselves what values we place on the game.