Love Against the World Redux: White Magic

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.

Welcome to Paradise

Photo by Merwinglittle dear

You guys been enjoying the playoffs? I know we sure have. The organ-displacing defense; the painful missed opportunities; the bloody faces; the staggering disappointments: yup. What else? Al Sharpton in a Spanish-language Steve Nash jersey? Red-faced, auto-tuned coaches rapping about intensity (or whatever)? Rajon Rondo emerging from his Walkabout an unguardable willow-limbed, fully flowered man? Lebron rendered googly-eyed and bewildered? Kobe summoning spirits? Amare playing D? We are transfixed. There’s so much more to say.

Here at A Wolf Among Wolves, we follow, curse, bitterly remember the Minnesota Timberwolves. These playoffs remind us Wolves lovers of two important things. The first is that NBA basketball can be played with a thick, feverish intensity that can be pretty hard to come by on your average February Wednesday at the Target Center. We can conjure the memories–Pharaoh Garnett’s maniac stare; Chris Webber’s sickeningly close Game 7 near  buzzer-beater; the Sam Cassell testicle dance–but they’re getting fainter every day.

The second is about the narratives that we  can’t resist spinning about the teams we can’t resist loving (especially we pundits–I mean, you’ve got to write about something, right?).  These narratives are, at best, retrospective. At worst, they’re totally illusory. We thought we knew that Lebron was bound for glory; for years, we spoke about it with tones of inevitability. Remember when, some years ago, before a playoff game against the Pistons, Donyell Marshall went up to the boy King James (I mean, just look at that nickname! Seriously!) and whispered to him, “this is when you cement your legacy”? How quaint and naive does that seem today?

For us, when KG won the MVP, when Cassell and Professor Sprewell joined up, we thought that we were at the beginning of a long, lovely story.  As it turned out, the most meaningful narrative was buried deep under all the (as it turned out) misplaced hope; the whole thing was already beginning to unravel. KG won his title, but with another team. He was recognized as the genius defender of his era, but only in retrospect. The Foye/McCants/Wittman era beckoned. Turns out (shocker) that nothing is pre-destined; these are just stories we tell ourselves. The game is subject to the same nonsensical, market-driven chaos as is real life.

On that note, welcome to A Wolf Among Wolves. In many ways, we Wolves followers are lucky. This team is still so unformed, so opaquely new, that we’re largely unburdened with these back-breaking narratives. We’re faced with none of the Dallas’s or Cleveland’s painful reckoning. We’re free of the Lakers’ crushing expectations. We’re able to look on as the small stories, the various styles and personalities weave together over time to hopefully form something of consequence. We don’t want to lie to you: this is not going to be easy or always pleasant. We just might have to sit through another 40-point loss to the Warriors. But you should join us anyway. We think it’s gonna be fun.