Archives For race in the NBA

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.