Basketball Culture 101: Remember Ron Artest

[Editor's Note: Benjamin Polk is a writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog A Wolf Among Wolves. Here, Polk explores the idea of the NBA's fall from grace, articulated in Harvey Araton's Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home, in light of the fantastic state of the sport today.--Beckley]

Has anybody else noticed how awesome the NBA playoffs are? Most obviously: the players. Chris Paul’s shuddering crossovers; Kevin Durant’s willowy grace; the giddy terror of watching Derrick Rose scythe through the Pacers’ defense over and over again–these are just the beginning. We’re seeing offenses that score in florid bunches, that move the ball and run the floor, that flow and hum; we’re seeing unprecedented defensive creativity and commitment. And of course there are the feverish, bracingly competitive games themselves: the ridiculous upsets and comebacks, the monochromatic, totally geeked-out crowds.

Thinking about all this, watching these games, it’s a little funny to consider the fact that just six years ago many observers of the NBA were talking doom. Remember this apocalyptic scene? Remember the young, desperately unstable Ron Artest of 2004? This is not the smiley guy with the champagne who thanked his therapist on TV. I’m talking about the Ron Artest who, for a long moment, embodied one of the deepest, darkest terrors of the white, comfortably seated American sports spectator: the fear that angry, hypertrophicallly muscled young black manhood could burst through the fourth wall and have its vengeance.

This moment, commonly known as “The Malice at the Palace,” in which Artest and the city of Detroit walk hand in hand into insanity, is easily the low point of the NBA’s public image in the past three decades. For many people–and, perhaps most crucially, in the league’s own nightmares–the brawl represented a culmination of more than ten years worth of machismo and thuggishness. The Malice was a literal depiction of the NBA’s bad conscience.

As such, it’s the jumping off place for Harvey Araton’s 2005 book, Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home. Araton’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, has two main strands. First: beginning with the fading of the NBA’s last golden age–call it the Dream Team Era–American professional basketball slowly degraded into a supremely athletic, but selfish and fundamentally unsound spectacle, especially when compared with the international game. Second: partially for the aforementioned reasons but also because of socio-economic factors, NBA players and fans have grown into a state of mutual antagonism. Both of these strands, Araton believes, reached their zenith that scary night in Auburn Hills.

I call it a thesis, but “Crashing the Borders” is really more of a combination basketball travelogue and strident op-ed than anything resembling a rigorous argument. Which is mostly fine. Araton covers a lot of interesting ground, marshals an impressive collection of anecdotes and vignettes, and brings a reporter’s natural, voracious curiosity to bear on a subject that should be of interest to all of us connoisseurs of basketball culture: just what exactly happened to the game between 1997 and 2004?

We get dispatches from the Dream Team Olympics–that moment of great triumphalist optimism at the dawn of the ’90′sand from the increasingly desultory international competitions that followed. We get conversations with everyone from social theorists to season-ticket holders to European coaches, all offering their perspective on the American game’s slow decline. We find Araton in Treviso, Italy, Sydney, Australia and Tbilisi, Georgia charting the game’s rapid internationalization and the influx of highly skilled, highly motivated Europeans and South Americans into the Association.

All of this legwork yields some valuable observations on the contradictions, injustices and absurdities inherent to the NBA’s presence in mass culture. Among them: the exclusion of actual basketball fans from NBA arenas as a result of astonishingly high ticket prices; and the resultant alienation and mutual mistrust between players and fans; the ill-conceived promotion of Vince Carter as Michael Jordan’s heir; the grossly exploitive, haphazardly coached system of elite youth basketball in the U.S. and the NCAA’s role in perpetuating said exploitation.  (Araton calls out college coaches for their “delusional belief in themselves as educators.” Always good to remember at tournament time.)

But the kinds of connections that Araton wants to make–between the culture and the style and the economics of NBA basketball, and all of these things to one rotten night in suburban Detroit–would require some seriously heavy conceptual lifting. And unfortunately, as you can maybe already tell, Araton’s  peripatetic approach, his broad collection of anecdotes and opinions, while intermittently entertaining, don’t quite do the job. How again does the Palace brawl relate to Team U.S.A.’s fading fortunes in international competition? How is an argument on the post-Jordan generation’s supposed moral decline bolstered by reportage from the front lines of Nikoloz Tskitishvili’s quixotic NBA voyage? And is the story of a middle school boy who died while attempting to hang on a rim and “was buried with the jersey of his favorite player, Shaquille O’Neal,”–while certainly a nasty little irony–apropos of anything at all?

So the book’s scattershot structure is one problem. The other, more serious problem is Araton’s quip-y, stylized language itself.  We are told that Jordan’s heirs were “impaled by the double-edged sword of his legacy.” The Barcelona Olympics were an “orgasmic marketing orgy.” The Phoenix Suns’ offense under Mike D’Antoni “flowed through the league like a cool desert breeze.”

These purply emanations would be harmless enough I guess. But his style becomes much more problematic–more aggrieved and more easily offended–when applied to the deeply complex tensions at work within the NBA’s culture. Allen Iverson is described as “an urban persona” in search of “street cred.” The post-Jordan stars are the NBA’s “hip-hop generation.” Shaq’s mid-’90′s backboard assaults are “socially repugnant.” We are told that “basketball on all levels became more about receiving one’s props than learning the precepts.” Throughout “Crashing the Borders,” players are taken to task for their “selfishness,” for their flight away from the “fundamentals” and toward “individualism.”

Within the discourse of pro basketball, this is pretty loaded, well-worn terminology, historically fraught with sub-textual paternalism and racial resentment (thinking now about the venerable stereotypes of African American players: thuggish, selfish, athletic but fundamentally unsound). To deploy it as casually and un-rigorously as Araton does veers, I think, into the realm of irresponsible cliche. What, after all, is meant by “individualism” (used, evidently, as a pejorative, as a synonym for selfishness) in a basketball context? And which basketball skills, exactly, constitute “fundamentals?” (It seems clear, for instance, that post-Isiah/Magic/Jordan, the general level of ballhandling skill, plus the intricacy and techniques of NBA defense have skyrocketed.)  Araton never really defines his terms, never gives us satisfying answers to these hard questions.

My claim here is not that Araton has any malicious intent; indeed, throughout much of the book he earnestly takes the pro basketball culture to task for its hypocrisies and lingering racism. Nevertheless, un-interrogated quips like those above actually contribute to the one-dimensional conventional wisdom that we swim in every day, the kind that we can’t stop reading on newspaper op-ed pages and in online comment sections. These nuggets help perpetuate the cynical commodification of the game and its players that Araton so rightly critiques.

Waxing nostalgic for the golden age (when players were unselfish and noble and could really throw a chest pass), opining on the game’s perpetual decline, complaining of the younger generation’s decadence: these are favorites among old-timers, coaches and “purists” of all stripes. Araton quotes the Big O himself, Oscar Robertson, complaining in 2004 that “many [players] can’t dribble, can’t shoot from outside, can’t create off the dribble.” Magic Johnson, who Araton calls “arguably the most flamboyant fundamentalist in history” (a good thing?) adds that “individual play was back in the NBA, and that made it come back in the college game and that made it come back in high school. Dunks and threes, dunks and threes, and kids weren’t working on anything in between.” (No mention is made, by the way, of the fact that dunks and threes are the most efficient shots in the game.)

I certainly don’t question the assertion that the late ’90′s, with all of the clearouts and isolations, with the sludgy, stagnant play and painfully low-scoring games were a low point in the history of basketball style.  And no one would contest the point that Jordan’s rise precipitated a sea change in the style and culture of the game. Jordan was, as we all know, a real visionary. With his ability to use his skills and transcendent athleticism to singlehandedly disintegrate a defense, he radically redefined the geometries and dynamics of the game and opened up entirely new modes of individual expression. This had the oft-discussed effect of creating a generation of players who defined themselves within these new modes, who aspired to these new possibilities of skill and style.

But the response Jordan created in NBA defenses was probably just as influential. Defenses were faced with the task of containing this new generation of players within the constraints of the league’s illegal defense rules. Which rules, by the way, actively encouraged isos and the ever-appealing sight of eight dudes standing around watching two others play a nice, plodding game of one-on-one. This, in combination with the players’ ever-increasing size, strength and athleticism, plus the leeway given hand-checking yielded a defensive approach of physicality on the perimeter and intimidation on the inside. We got the Bad Boys; we got Jeff van Gundy hanging on Alonzo Mournings leg; we got Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. The aftermath of Jordan’s revolutionary career was a period of uncomfortable transition; the players had literally outgrown the game, had made its previous structures outmoded.

So I suppose its easy to understand why longtime basketball lovers like Magic and Araton (and many others) would look at the game during this era, with its brute physicality and slow pace, with its new breed of charismatic-yet-saturnine stars (your Iversons, your Marburies, Carters and McGradies), with its preponderance of one-on-one play, with the league’s macho, dunk-obsessed marketing, and wonder just what had happened to the smiling, pass-happy players of eras gone by. How could it not seem that something was wrong, not just with the league, but with the players themselves?

Fascinating, then, that when the rules changed, when the league cracked down on hand-checking and greatly loosened its prohibitions of zone defenses, the game and even the players changed with them. The game opened itself up for the hugely creative guards that are melting faces in these very playoffs, fellas like Paul, Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. Think, now, about these guys and their immediate forefathers–like Kevin Garnett and Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, Tim Duncan and Lamar Odom–and wonder if U.S. basketball players were really ever becoming less skilled, or less team-oriented.  Consider our current, relentlessly up-tempo, happily ball-sharing Denver Nuggets. Consider the Nash/Amare Suns and the Parker/Ginobili/Duncan Spurs, two distinct iterations of the same essential formula: dynamic guards; constant, fluid ball movement; and plenty of shooters surrounding an elite big man.

All of this strongly suggests to me that the NBA’s post-Jordan malaise was less a matter of moral decline (although its clearly impossible to deny that the NBA has had more than its share of ignorant, self-absorbed, bullying doofuses), less a matter of selfishness and decadence, and more a simple case of people doing what the always do: adapting to the structures and contexts in which they find themselves.

So the Malice at the Palace does not seem to me to be the culmination that many believed it to be (although it was clearly a decisive moment in the psychological life of Ron Artest). Indeed, as Araton himself allows, by 2004 the game had already begun to transform itself, had already become more dynamic and graceful. In the history of the NBA’s self-perception, though, the brawl was indeed a watershed moment. For, as Araton points out, it was both a violent burlesque of the league’s ’90′s promotional machine and the failure of that machine to control its projected image, to maintain its spectatorial illusions of safety and distance.

It’s disappointing, then, that Araton would so clearly see the poison in the league’s exploitation of its players, but then would fail to fully understand that this exploitation–and the structure of the game itself–was not independent of, but actually produced the culture of “individualism” that so many have critiqued. It’s disappointing, also, that he would then traffic in the same easily consumable narratives that were a by-product of that culture, narratives that draw energy from old-skool racial ideologies and grumpy nostalgia.

The NBA is too weird and lifelike, the product of too many layers and tensions, to ever be reduced to a simplistic moralism. After all: Magic Johnson was once an uppity young turk who upstaged an entire league and got his coach fired. Ron-Ron, the walking nightmare himself, has become a lovable eccentric. The brash kids of the late ’90′s have become the league’s venerable elder statesman. The easy story almost never fits.

Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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