Basketball Culture 101: Eddie In Real Life

[Editor's Note: Zach Harper is eloquently guest lecturing for Graydon Gordian today because the mail system stole Graydon's copy of The Essence of the Game is Deception. Harper is the host of ESPN's Daily Dime Live and writes often and incisively for Hardwood Paroxysm, Cowbell Kingdom, A Wolf Among Wolves and Talkhoops.net. Here, Harper untangles the mystique of NBA life through the unlikely vehicle of the Whoopi Goldberg classic, Eddie.--Beckley]

Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum.

That’s a saying I like to drop on people when they’re trying to tell me you can’t take this player’s scoring away from their team or adding a high-scoring NBAer to another team will make that franchise the best scoring squad in the league.

What it would look like if basketball were played in a vacuum

For every action, move or injury in the NBA, there is an equal reaction, adjustment or fill-in. Nothing happens independent of other occurrences. Take Monta Ellis off of the Golden State Warriors and someone like Reggie Williams will step up his scoring while David Lee and Stephen Curry get more shots. Switch Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, and the Bulls probably run a less guard-heavy scoring attack.

Life adjusts in the NBA.

But rarely does the NBA adjust to life. The NBA keeps chugging along at a full head of steam while those affected by the normal ups, downs and gyrations of life continue to try to keep up.

Nothing taught me this more than the movie Eddie starring Whoopi Goldberg. Eddie is probably considered a joke amongst you and your peers if you’ve ever seen it or heard of it. The premise is sort of absurdly brilliant or maybe it’s brilliantly absurd.

The protagonist, Edwina Franklin (played by Goldberg), is a super fan the likes you have never seen seen pretty much everywhere you go in terms of sports bars, online chats and professional sporting venues. By happen chance happenstance, she drives the new owner of the New York Knicks to his team, impresses him with some words of advice, and then is given the chance to coach the team after he notices her screaming in the nosebleed seats during a game at Madison Square Garden. She’s a novelty act that he uses to galvanize the interest in his new purchase, the attendance at MSG and the actual team itself.

On the surface, it’s no less gimmicky than Air Bud or Like Mike in its fantasy-driven “how cool would it be if” type of tale. However, when you dive into the movie, it shows you a glimpse into the life of the professional athlete that we never really think about.

There are two primary reasons fans hate athletes: jealousy and money. Jealousy can be sparked because you want their lifestyle, fame, ability, or whatever. But ultimately, whether there is jealousy for the money pro athletes make or not, resentment is almost always there.

“If I made $12 million a year, I’d shut my mouth and just be happy.”

Unfortunately, that’s a crock of feces. Eddie is a movie that shows us professional athletes are actually people too.

Regardless of how much money you do or don’t make in life, there are always going to be personal issues, familial issues and other extenuating circumstances that affect your happiness. In Eddie, the New York Knicks were a microcosm of everything that could go wrong with an NBA team.

The ownership was changing hands, which meant the future of the franchise was sort of up in the air. The head coach was a stubborn jerk who viewed himself as more important than the players could ever be. There was a malcontent, self-absorbed star who wouldn’t pass the ball. They had players battling injuries that were limiting careers. They had players more interested in photo shoots and rap albums than playing defense. They had a player going through a messy divorce. And my god they had Greg Ostertag as the moment of levity and Dwayne Schintzius pretending to be Russian as their enforcers in the middle.

While the problems are not the exact same as the everyday people Sly and the Family Stone would croon about, they’re relative to the problems anybody can face on any given day.

When NBA players like Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson were making “normal wages” for their craft and battling racial and societal upheaval during the Civil Rights movement, the plight of the professional athlete wasn’t really discussed. They were just like everybody else. They were trying to live out their dreams, do what made them happy for a career and find a way to make life better.

Nobody cared that Elgin was in the military during the days of the week he wasn’t on the hardwood. Nobody cared that Bill and Oscar were fighting through archaic racial boundaries like they’d fight through screens. If they had bad games, they were letting you down, no matter where their minds were because of tough and important aspects of their life outside of basketball.

In looking at today’s NBA landscape, nothing has really changed. The fact that Carmelo Anthony wants to live closer to what he calls home while dealing with public scrutiny for wanting to improve his quality of life as he mourns the death of his sister doesn’t seem to matter to fans of the NBA. It allegedly shouldn’t affect him because he makes $17 million this season and has an offer of three years and $65 million begging him to scribble his name on it.

Carmelo’s play and performance are down this year, but that’s not the fans’ problem. Because he was fortunate enough to have immense basketball skill and a work ethic strong enough to allow him to achieve his goals, he’s been blessed with taking advantage of the free market for his services. Apparently his money should negate any emotions or feelings he has throughout his personal life.

Eddie shows us this is an unfair way to feel. NBA players appear to have super human abilities, but they’re still human nonetheless. They’ve been humans whether they’re battling racism, family illness and death, a crappy boss to work for, a city they don’t want to live in or whatever the personal reason is. They’re affected by their lives and jobs the same ways we are, even if they live in a world we can’t all relate to.

In the movie, Whoopi Goldberg’s ability to relate to the players and find a way to reach out to them as a common person is instrumental in bridging the gap between the two existences. Indeed it is only once Eddie connects with her players off the court that her team begins to win on it. You don’t have to feel sorry for the NBA players. Just try to remember what affects your job performance can affect theirs as well.

Is Eddie full of kitschy fluff and inaccuracies that cheapen the reality of the story being told? Absolutely. That’s part of what makes it so fun to watch as a self-aware NBA fan. You can make fun of the failed execution of the NBA rules and intricacies in many ways.

But you can’t deny the reality of the human element this movie deals with, in reminding us that pro athletes are actual people.

After all, none of us live in a vacuum.

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