David Roth is a tremendously fine writer and a good friend of this blog (I promise, this is not a joke about David Lee or his spandexed namesake–sometimes real life is more complicated and Paul Auster-y than I want to think about). Though he lives in New York, he grew up in idyllic suburban New Jersey and loves the Nets with a resigned nausea that we Wolves fans can’t even begin to imagine (give us another 20 years of this, though…). Like me, he appreciates the Summer League for its combination of unstructured, all-star game fabulosity, absurdly disjointed amateurishness (it takes 10 fouls to foul out!), and feverish, livelihood-on-the-line competition.
He’s also tuned in to the sad way that athletes who were once iconized for their physical talents can be sloughed off once the league and fans and the pundits agree that their lives as commodities have been used up. (As you may know, this is something that bothers me too; I was recently made awfully uneasy by the chilly, corporate way in which the Wolves cast off Ryan Gomes). As a Nets fan, Mr. Roth has carefully considered the sadly illustrative case of Shawne Williams, a basketball savant who is not very good at making decisions that do not involve dunking.
The piece is terrific and you should read the whole thing because it discusses not just Williams’s significant role in his own demise but also the rather thoughtless, machine-like way that we create narratives for elite athletes (although I think I’m supposed to warn you that its got some swears). Also: the basketball card business, Darius Miles, Omar from the Wire and, of course, Ndudi Ebi :
The sort of sports fans who wonder what happens to athletes once they stop being the most special people in the room know how this goes. Which is to say that we were about to hear the last from Shawne Williams. When the promise is dispelled, the narrative trail goes dead. There are exceptions to that, if the failure to deliver on past promise is dramatic enough — here, for instance, is what Ed O’Bannon is up to these days — but, for the most part, ‘Where Are They Now’ is a rhetorical question.
Of course, the person who is also the player goes on doing whatever it was he did before the world started and stopped caring. He goes to jail for associating with the sort of visionaries who see a way to get high in a bottle of Triaminic or he goes to Europe and makes a bunch of money and learns a foreign language. Maybe he signs with a pro team in Iran, makes some money, writes a blog, and grows up into an interesting man or maybe he opens a barber shop or coaches or finds God or loses God or looks back and laughs or ferments in all that curdled narcissism into the meanest and most righteous sort of depressive. But all that happens off-camera, and to a certain extent the moral to Shawne Williams’ story, and that story’s ending, are already written, regardless of how the middle chapters fill in. The ending is yours to pick, not his: he’s another knucklehead not ready for the spotlight or unready for failure or an incautiously pampered kid who has never previously been required not to be lazy or a nice kid surrounded by bad influences or a helpless/hapless product of a rotten environment or whatever you choose.