Remember the halcyon days of trash-talking. Remember the days of Larry Legend (white boy can't jump but his jumper will make you shut up and then he'll tell you all about it.) Remember Reggie's vintage backpedal-jawing. Laimbeer-Cartwright didn't even have to say a word, their elbows carried out extended metaphysical debates. Now, technicals are doled out to players barking at refs. There's rarely a need to police player-to-player jawing. Now the best we have (and it is to be appreciated) is Sheed laughing at opponents' missed freethrows with a sprinkling of "Ball Don't Lie." We can't get enough of Agent Zero "serving up the chips and dip" cause he seems the only one not afraid of the dreaded blackboard material. And of course we have the lovable antics of Mikki Moore.
But remember when the gift of gab was a media fixation. As Jackie MacMullen wrote in 1994 of the Jack-of-All-Trash:
[Reggie] can't help swaggering. Or pointing. Raising his arms to celebrate his good fortune. Been doing it for years. He can't help speaking his mind, before the game, during the game, after the game, during timeouts, in the shower, on the team bus, in his sleep, in your sleep.
Reggie and his coach, Larry Brown, call it chitchat. The rest of the NBA calls it some of the most blatant, obnoxious and irritating trash-talking in the league, a trait that branded the Indiana Pacers guard so negatively it nearly cost him his spot on Dream Team II. -- Boston Globe, June 3 1994
In the old days, when the Celtics would go two games up in a series, a young Kevin McHale would say, "They've got one foot in the grave. Now we just have to put the dirt on 'em."
Cedric Maxwell would look at Bernard King's scoring average and say, "No way the [so-and-so] is gonna get 40 off me." Max then would imitate King's unusual stride, and say, "No way some guy who walks like this is gonna get 40 off me." Larry Bird would challenge the city of Cleveland to boo him every time he touched the ball. "They want me, they've got me -- with both barrels," Bird would say.
And, of course, there was M.L. Carr, the godfather of trash. He'd yell "torture chamber" when Maxwell took Marc Iavaroni into the low post. On or off the court, M.L. always was in the middle of things. He was the one who called the Lakers "the Fakers." -- Boston Globe, April 27, 1992
But now times have changed and the '90s look like the glory days of Trash. You gotta love PPierce's take from the Boston Globe, Nov 10, 2006: "Then, Pierce pleaded innocent when asked about his own trash talking, claiming he did no such thing. 'I'm talking to myself,' said Pierce. 'I'm my own psychologist.' The gab is gone. The trash is taken OUT.
This is why guys like Zo look so angry and out-of-place these days. Zo's from a different era, when scary-as-shit was the norm in the East. Now he's like a silent actor in the days of the talkies: miscast and on a different emotional plane than the rest of the guys on the floor. Oak, Starks, the Davis brothers, Parish, they are now stock characters of a bygone era. These days even Charles Smith would be a bad-motha-shut-yo-mouth.
Ron-Ron and Stephen Jackson, you were born a decade too late.
Many have ascribed this shift to rule changes and/or players' growing interest in "good guy" ad contracts. But I wonder if we can read this shift as indicative not only of changes in the Lig but of changes in American cultural values. A shift away from the "me"-80s and the opulent 90s bubble. A shift from "Be like Mike" to "Brotherhood on 3."
One could point to the shift in popular enthusiasm from "star" sports like basketball to the "team" sport of the NFL. From the superstar dynasties of Larry, Magic, Michael, and Hakeem to "playing the right way" champions like the Spurs and the Pistons. But one could easily find exceptions to this formulation. More interestingly, we can see a shift in the ideal of the Lig superstar through three incarnations of the "next Jordan": the Harold Miner, the Mamba, and the Lebrand.
Who can forget Harold Miner? The man who became a morality tale. So much potential, and where is Harold now? Good question. His reincarnation can be found at the end of the Twolves bench with the name Green sewn onto the back of his jersey. As exciting as Gerald has been, his Mineresque minuoettes have garned none of the frothering that they would have in the 90s. We've been burned before. We remember Harold Miner. Never again. Even so, the fortunes of the "next Harold Miner" are extreme. Not only did the TWolves (the TWolves!) not extend his contract, they're not even giving him playing time. A backlash seems in order. A backlash against the adulation of jumping skills. A backlash against pure athleticism as the ultimate virtue.
Then we have the "next next Jordan": the Mamba. Kobe has become a lesson in superstar gone bad. He has the talent. He has the skills. He has the dedication. But that no longer seems enough. The media frenzy is there. But the media frenzy centers on ridicule. Jordan's indiscretions amounted to mumblings of infidelity and gambling at best. Kobe's indiscretions are front page. Kobe's are headline. The media displays a level of moralizing that did not exist in Jordan's NBA. Maybe if he wins another championship, Kobe will be redeemed. But how much can we bet that his winning would be transformed into a tale of redemption where selfish Kobe became selfless Kobe, a tale of putting one's ego aside and learning to be a team player. For now the "next next Jordan" is the Mamba, a self-proclaimed snake. A model for bad superstardom.
Finally, there's the "next next next Jordan": Lebron. When he entered the Association, the excitement over Lebron immediately coalesced around his passing skills. Who could get enough of this superstar-dimer? Above all else he wanted to get his teammates involved. Lebron was the new model of superstar, a new model for a new generation that submerged ego for the good of the team. Even as he seems to have become increasingly self-important and, at times, insufferable, his image has not. [Check out a nice article re:Lebrand at Freedarko.]
In fact, Lebrand's handlers and he have crafted an image far different than Jordan's. In the "I Wanna Be Like Mike" campaign, Jordan was the absent, unobtainable ideal. Highlights flashed, but Jordan-the-man never appeared. He remained clouded in mystery, a super-human force that could only be dreamed of, whose underwear Cuba only wishes he could wear. Conversely, Lebron narrates his newest shoe ad, depicting himself as the humble superstar, the new kind of superstar, the new ideal. He tells the keedz that they can be better than him, that he's far from perfect, that even Lebrand needs to keep working on his skeels. Even as Lebron has become Lebrand, his image has not mimicked Michael's. His image has portrayed a different idea of American virtue: selfless and hard-working.
These virtues have been proudly displayed by KG et al in their new Adidas commercials. As the Adidas website explains:
The sole objective is to win through honoring the core values of the game: we lead by example; we trust each other; we make the extra pass, we fight for our fellow brother every night; we don't check box scores. And the only name on the jersey we care about is the one across the front. In the “Brotherhood,” dynasties don't happen alone. In the “Brotherhood,” it’s “We not Me.” The “Brotherhood” only happens when forces combine and egos die.
The KG campaign is an interesting inversion of the Peter Pan myth. Instead of a colony of "lost boys" removed from the stability of house and home, we see a "brotherhood' that instills young men wi th self-less/hard-working virtues that are presumeably lost or unavailable at home. Never-never-land provided a carnival world where right was wrong, where ultimate freedom abounded, and no one grew up. KG's "brotherhood" camp also provides an escape. But an escape to discipline and virtue. A world where boys can grow up and mature into men.
What is odd about this new Adidas campaign is that for all the celebration of team, the ad focuses almost exclusively on one individual: KG. We only get momentary glances at The Big Fundamental, Nachos, Mr. Big Shot and company. Here we see the complexity of contemporary American virtues: a mixture of selflessness and individuality. The focus, the goal, remains the success of the individual. The means, however, have shifted. No longer must one rejoice in ego, one must submerge one's ego.