Love Against the World Redux: White Magic

Benjamin Polk —  September 7, 2010 — 5 Comments

If the Wolf Among Wolves comments section is any guide, it seems that Kevin Love is a polarizing figure; somehow I’m not surprised. Our last few posts on Mr. Love have raised a number of deceptively tricky questions. First: just how good is he? Is he, in the words of commenter Hayden, a “future star”, or is he simply an elite role player, as I suggested (um, and anyway, what exactly does it mean to be a “role player”? More on this later). Does Love’s unselfish, blue-collar image reflect reality or is it actually a function of his racial profile? Are perceptions of race even still salient in today’s NBA? See how quickly things got heavy?

Let’s take the last part first. Commenter W rightly points to Wally Sczerbiack, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and JJ Redick, among many others, as white American players who are not typically described as “smart,” “unselfish,” or “hard-working,”–the classic “white guy” profile.  My point, when I brought this up, was not to argue that these stereotypes are still so baldly dominant in the League (the college game is a slightly different story…), but merely to point out that, on the surface, Love seems to fit the mold so perfectly and, moreover, that the media tend to articulate their fawning over Love in this ancient, coded language. Love fits perfectly into a certain vision of a lost, pre-Iversonian era in which players played the “right way”, in which effort and coachability triumphed over sheer ability (check that old SI article on Hubie Brown, or just read “The Breaks of the Game” if you don’t believe this conception exists. Or just talk to any number of a certain kind of Minnesota sports fan). He gives anachronistically workmanlike effort; he practices lost arts (the box-out, the outlet pass). Race isn’t explicit in any of this, but its just beneath the surface in all of it.

Clearly, though, the most interesting things about these narratives are the ways in which they unravel. If assists are resonantly among the stuff white people like, then what’s to be done about Magic Johnson or Chris Paul? If churlishness and trash-talk are thought to be in the classic “black guy” repertoire, then how do we deal with Larry Bird? What about indulgently flashy guard play? I give you White Chocolate himself, Jason Williams. How do we deal with these intertwinings and contradictions? Can we even identify definitive notions of “white” and “black” playing styles without giving ourselves a headache? Do the above counter-examples disprove the rule or simply reinforce it? This gets complicated pretty quickly.

What’s compelling about Love is that he both conforms and diverges from the idealized picture.  True enough, when he is at his best, Love appears to be out-hustling every other player on the floor, to be compensating for his lack of size and leaping ability with a dogged work ethic. His passing skills and patience within the offense seem to speak to a willingness to share the ball, to unselfishly and intelligently play within systems. But, contrary to mythology, these skills are not simply moral achievements, the products of a well crafted, blue-collar soul. Kevin Love is a tremendously gifted natural athlete: his hands are terrifically strong; his vision and hand-eye coordination are preternatural. Moreover, we Wolves’ fans are well aware of his shortcomings as a teammate: his willingness to publicly criticize coaches; his 30-odd game flirtation with sulky, middling effort last season.

So even if you do believe that the NBA is a fallen world, filled with selfish, disloyal ultra-athletes, Love’s particular mix of talents and attitudes don’t easily fit the narrative. The league is filled with strange, oddly shaped players like this: the cerebral, Italian-speaker with the classic mid-range game; the West Virginia white boy with the And-1 handle; the slow-footed, wild-haired, face-the-basket, seven foot German scorer; the gleefully, aggressively weird lockdown defender from Queensbridge . I could go on like this forever.

Benjamin Polk

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5 responses to Love Against the World Redux: White Magic

  1. One thing that makes Love so interesting — and you touched on it here — is that he is simultaneously a good teammate and a crappy one. When he is participating in a game of basketball, Kevin Love is a guy everyone should want to play with.

    He dominates the glass, which few people have the inclination to devote themselves to doing — and his understanding of how the game works is outstanding. He sets solid picks, he hits cutters and shooters right in their spots, and he seemingly never goes into “Get Mine” mode. The way he plays basketball is extremely unselfish and team-oriented.

    But when he’s talking, or interacting with people, the unselfishness ends. Judging by his public comments, he very clearly sees himself as better than his teammates (it’s true, and the fact that he thinks this way doesn’t necessarily have negative ramifications on the court, but still). When he’s getting a raw deal from his coach, he knows it and pisses about it.

    It’s just an interesting contradiction, and maybe an unfortunate one for Kevin — a guy who has such a good grasp of winning basketball that he never PLAYS like he wants glory… but a guy who seems to want glory as much as any selfish scorer.

  2. I think there is a line Love does not cross and that is the divider between a selfish individual and a guy who has a insanely competitive streak in him. He isn’t Kobe but with Kobe once Kobe started winning on his own the perception went from “selfish ballhawk” to “the man just wins.” Kobe Bryant is the biggest dick in the NBA from a teammate stand-point, but I don’t think there is a player in the NBA I have more respect for, the man just gets it done and there is no one like him.

    I am changing paragraphs to not insinuate I have Love and Kobe in the same cluster of words. I think Love realizes what he is, I think he understands he is not the best player on a championship team, however I also think he understands that he will win a championship in the NBA, he will. If the Wolves don’t want him do you think the Lakers, Celtics, Magic or Heat will even blink if they have the opportunity to grab him? He might be a better fit to play alongside Gasol than Bynum. and The Magic would instantly move into the upper 60’s in wins if he where power-forwarding alongside Howard. I think Love realizes how good he is and just wants to win, and he knows there is no rightful reason for the coach to sit him, he flat-out out played Al Jefferson last year and was rewarded by being benched. Kevin Love isn’t lying when he is biatching, he is telling the truth and a truth that the Wolves need to read loud and clear if they hope to keep their by-far most talented player. Love knows he isn’t a 1, but he also knows he is at worst a no. 3 on an elite team, and easily a no. 1 on his current team and he has not been treated like it.

    Rubio and Love will fit together perfectly too

  3. Phenomenal article. Well done.

  4. Maybe it’s just me… But I could listen to K-Love talk, all day. Yes, he has been saddled with a rep, because he says what is on his mind… and it isn’t always the most politically correct thing to say. But the man speaks the truth. And before people label him a “bad teammate”, take a step back and analyze what you are talking about. 1) The only teammate that I recall him openly blasting, was Rashad McCants. If anyone has a good argument for anyone NOT blasting Shaddy… I openly welcome it. I will warn you that it will be an impossible sell though. 2) He blasted his coach/gm for refusing to play him, when he was clearly the best player on the team. Dispute it, if you want… but all the proof you need is in the fact that Big Al is gone, and Kevin isn’t. Had we got an amazing compensation package for Al, you could make a point… but we didn’t. The bottom line though, is that K-Love has yet to spout off about anything that was untrue and/or unwarranted. And until he does, I refuse to hold his blatant honesty against him. He has every right to be frustrated by his NBA experience, thus far. We have to remember that these guys only have about an 8 yr window to be a force, in this league. And he hasn’t had an opportunity to do nuch, in his first two yrs… Largely by no fault of his own.

    And one last thing that I want to touch on- I keep hearing this idea that Love needs to be paired with a star, to ever get anywhere. I, quite frankly, just flat out disagree. While I don’t think he is good enough to carry a team on his own, I do think that if you put him on a team of like-minded and similarly skilled players, that I wouldn’t bet against him/them. Now, I realize that 5 such players don’t exist. That is why we are talking about Love, the way we are. He is a special kind of player. But I really don’t think he NEEDS to be second fiddle to a Kobe, LeBron, or Durant.

    It’s not going to matter soon, anyways… As soon as Rubio gets to town, he will make us forget all about any of Love’s imperfections.

  5. Really nice write-up on the coding of race into NBA analyses. Should be mandatory reading for play-by-play and… ahem… ‘color commentators’ around the league.

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