Wednesday, February 17, 2016

When Hoop Dreams Shift Into Political Nightmares

This blogger walked into the Collegium Excellens' Carter Gymnasium in 1981 when the Collegium's basketball team was playing Midland College. The buzz in the crowd was about a Midland freshman guard, Anthony "Spud" Webb. Watching the 5'7" Webb in the layup line during the pregame warmups, Webb looked like a middle school kid who had gained a place in line on some pretext, as a prank. Then, the ball was thrown to Webb and he dribbled up to the basket and... he performed a 360° dunk. At the end of that season, Webb had led Midland College to the national junior college championship. He was recruited to play at recent-NCAA champion North Carolina State University. He was drafted in the 1985 NBA draft and played for the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings as well as several other teams in the US and in Europe. If slam-dunk is mentioned, this blogger always thinks about Anthony "Spud" Webb. If this is (fair & balanced) sport trivia, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
The Politics Of Slam-Dunking
By Charles Bethea

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For more than a decade, the basketball world has bemoaned the supposed decline of the slam-dunk contest, a regular feature of February’s N.B.A. All-Star weekend, which began on Thursday, in Toronto. In 2012, a student-run group called the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective published an article concluding, “While the qualities of the dunks themselves may not be declining, the star power of the dunkers certainly has.” Julius Erving (who dunked in 2013, at age sixty-three, thirty-seven years after winning the inaugural contest) disagreed that dunks still seem spectacular, telling ESPN magazine last year, “When mascots started doing it with all the trampolines and all the crazy stuff and falling on the floor, then it became more like the X Games. The players can’t live up to that.” Corporate tie-ins, too, have been criticized for corrupting the playground pleasure of the original event: Blake Griffin, of the L.A. Clippers, won the 2011 slam-dunk contest by jumping over a car made by Kia, one of his sponsors.

Other former winners aren’t shy about criticizing the contest. Anthony (Spud) Webb, the diminutive point guard who triumphed against giants at the 1986 dunk contest, finds its modern version too complicated. “I’ll probably watch the highlights,” Webb said recently. “And if I’m sitting at home and it’s on, I might watch the competition, too. But there are too many gimmicks and props. I think it should be more pure and simple. A man—short or tall—and a ball.” His former teammate Dominique Wilkins, who won in 1985 and 1990, usually doesn’t tune in, either. “Not unless LeBron or Kevin Durant enter it,” he said recently. What about a reappearance of the Human Highlight Film himself? “ I can only dream about going back out there,” he said. “Plus, I only dunk on Fridays. I need a week to warm up.”

The Hall of Fame basketball player Charles Barkley discussed decline—of all kinds—during a recent break in his duties as a television analyst and cultural commentator for TNT. “There’s not a dunk that we haven’t seen,” he said. (Wilkins agrees, but isn’t quite so bothered: “It’s how the individual uses his personality to generate excitement with the same dunk that matters.”) Barkley briefly considered the possibility of lowering the hoop: “No, I don’t want to ever lower expectations.” Except that they’ve already been lowered. This year’s contest includes one relatively low-profile All-Star (the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond) and three other fellows—including last year’s winner, Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves—who have never been selected to play in the game. LaVine, Aaron Gordon, and Will Barton can jump really high, but that alone is not transcendent. Would we remember Dr. J if he’d only soared once a year, when the shot clock was turned off?

“LeBron and those guys,” Barkley continued, “they’re worried about losing, being embarrassed. These players today are a little bit more sensitive than guys in my days. And they just aren’t great at dunking. I don’t think there’s any guy in the N.B.A. I would call a ‘great’ dunker. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good basketball players. I’m just trying to think of guys who are great dunkers.” He considered the question for most of a minute: “I can’t think of one!”

In keeping with the theme of decline, the latest Republican Presidential debate was wrapping up over on ABC. This pleased Barkley, who has tended to vote Republican—and even considered running for governor of Alabama as a Republican—in the past. “I do not find those debates entertaining. Even less than the dunk contest. In the Republican debates you can’t get anything said. You can’t get a legitimate answer because the shot clock is always going off and people you want to hear from don’t get a chance. Like John Kasich: I really like him, but he never gets a chance to say anything. It’s just Trump and Cruz.”

After a moment, Barkley came up with a basketball analogy: “Kasich is like James Harden,” the All-Star shooting guard and leader of the Houston Rockets. “Until he got away from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook,” the stars of Harden’s former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, “he never got enough shots to be a terrific player. The floor was too crowded.”

“I also like Bernie Sanders,” he said. “I just don’t know if he can win.” (A few days later, Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic primary and Kasich came in second on the Republican side.) No comparable N.B.A. player for Sanders came to mind. “I won’t be voting for Donald Trump, though. I like him as a person, but I don’t think he should be President.” Trump running for President of the United States was like Michael Jordan trying to play professional baseball. Or, perhaps, like Charles Barkley running for governor? “I don’t have political aspirations anymore,” Barkley said. “I think it’s just a joke how these parties just fight with each other on every subject. I feel really bad for regular people.”

Nonetheless, Barkley put forth a platform: “You’ve got to get poor people economic opportunities,” he said. “Getting a bunch of rebounds or running a football or hitting three hundred or even dunking: that shouldn’t be the only way out of poverty. You should have a fair chance. You can’t put all the poor people in bad neighborhoods and say, ‘good luck.’ That’s really unfair. And that’s what we’ve created in America.” Who would be his running mate, in this fantasy scenario? “I would pick Ernie” Johnson, Jr., his “NBA on TNT” co-host. “He’s probably one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met. There’s never gonna be a nicer guy than Ernie. And being nice is underrated.” Ω

[Charles Bethea is a freelance contributor to The New Yorker. Prior to joining The New Yorker, he has written for The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times magazine, GQ, Details, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Outside, Wired, Grantland, Backpacker, and Men's Journal. Bethea received a BA (English) from Brown University.]

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