The Dichotomy Of The NBA Player

As fans of the NBA, we’re constantly taking in the product via commercials, ads, and video games. The players and their faces are inescapable. Their faces, however are not all we see.

We also want to see ourselves in them. We want them to be like us and eat the same things eat and wear the same shoes we do. We want them to be decent people who walk the straight and narrow. Mothers and fathers allow these athletes to raise their children.

But we so often overlook the human aspect of the NBA star. Before they were omnipresent multi-millionaires, they were people just as inflicted with the human condition as the next man. Greed, anger, happiness, and depression affects them the same way as the consumer. This doesn’t excuse any level of indiscretion, it only masks it and presents it in a more palatable package.

The transgressions of NBA athletes often go unnoticed to fans because of the overwhelming suspension of disbelief. We allow ourselves to build up an unconditional affection for them and in doing so we grant them a pardon and overlook the mistakes.

Take Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba. NBA champion, MVP. The many adjectives that are used to describe Bryant do not involve charged with sexual assault. We find ourselves in awe of his 81 point performance or his perceived clutch gene. The Black Mamba was a killer on the court who saw everyone as enemy that needed to be vanquished. We applauded this and held it in reverence. We used Mamba in the same way that Bryant did: to separate real life from basketball. We refused to clutter our minds with the actions of Bryant and those of The Mamba.

USA Today

USA Today

In NBA life things may become cluttered with both sides of their respective worlds. And with this cluttering may come a diminished performance on the court. This would not stand well with the fans and God forbid that the fans are unhappy. Players feel that they have to separate the various aspects of their lives often citing the court as a “sanctuary”.  The fans only judge what they feel is appropriate. The on court performance. Anything beyond that feels taboo and invasive.

And there lies the irony. We allow them into our homes every night and we want them to know that we appreciate and care for them, yet we almost instinctively turn our eyes and interests away the minute the idol becomes one of us.

Yet, the reverence that we hold these athletes is very selective. We choose who is allowed to do what and whether we accept it or not. We want the clean cut athlete not because we want to protect the sport that we care so much about, but to insure that we don’t have to stop and defend against their actions.

The perfect example of this selective reverence exists in how we view Steph Curry and conversely J.R. Smith. It’s a classic case of winning cures all. We forget and overlook all of the bumps in the road a player may face if he holds the hardware. If Smith had been successful earlier in career maybe we see his antics differently. Curry, while well earned, has curried the favor of all who witness his success. If Curry wasn’t a champion and MVP twice over, would we see him as just a more accurate Smith? An elite walking heat check?

J.R. Smith vs. Steph Curry is a comparison that shows how we subconsciously choose who we allow to be the so called face of the league. Smith was always a supremely talented, athletic player but his choices and lack of discipline kept him from reaching his true potential. This has led us to judge J.R. as a player who you wouldn’t want on your team because he could never help a true contender. He could never contribute anything positive.

USA Today

USA Today

In 2015-16 season, Smith shot 40% from 3 in the regular season for the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers. In the NBA Finals, Smith played to his strengths, mostly shooting, and overall in the playoffs averaging 12.4 ppg.

The year earlier Smith played a pivotal role in defeating the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. After the winning in the finals, Smith, in his post-game press conference, let us inside a little bit. He showed us emotion that moved some of us to tears. In that moment he stopped being the underachieving riff raff and became someone that it’s OK to support.

Two years of Smith playing on his sports biggest stages and we came out with a different felling about him each time. Was it because of his honesty and sincerity or was it because he had just reached the pinnacle of his career with a championship?

On the other side we have Curry, a player who reached his peak potential by becoming arguably the best shooter that we have ever seen. He has built a brand that has him as a christian family man who plays the right way and doesn’t let any outside factors affect him on the court. His brand admittedly has protected him from any mass ridicule, particularly in this past NBA Finals where he didn’t play to his usual superhuman standards.

Curry has become the face of the league because we see him as relatable. We feel that we can relate to the smaller guard who lacks the superhuman athleticism if his peers. His baby-faced persona and choir boy countenance coupled with immense success makes for a perfect marketing tool.

He and Smith now have the same amount of championships, albeit they were achieved in differing ways. And obviously Smith could never be the face of the league, but do we now harp on Curry’s missteps on or off the court now that he has had his mortal NBA player moment? Probably not but that’s OK.

USA Today

USA Today

But what about the money the players make? This is a part of the game we focus on greatly. This past NBA free agency was one that was unprecedented. Not only in the enormity of the salary cap spike and the space it gave teams to pay for the players they wanted but also for the ridicule players received for the amount of money they were being paid.

National writers would rain down countering ridicule to the fans with the hackneyed analogy of a common worker getting a raise for his job. The fallacy of that argument is saying that we wouldn’t care about the fireman getting a 100% pay raise if we knew about it, when in reality we would. We would care because it be out in the open leaving it vulnerable to our judgement.

That again is a part of the plight of the NBA player and fan. We are a part of their world so much so that we know exactly how much each player makes and when they make it. We as fans then debate whether it’s too much or too little. Once again we are basing these opinions on their on-court performance and brand rather than the individual himself.

USA Today. Mike Conley's five-year $153 million dollar contract caused an uproar for the fans.

USA Today. Mike Conley’s five-year $153 million dollar contract caused an uproar in the NBA fanbase.

Most of the players didn’t grow up with very much at all. And when the time comes for the player to finally be able to quantify his worth we tell him that’s he’s overpaid. Who are we to tell someone who went from nothing to something almost overnight that he shouldn’t that much but can have this much?

Turning away from the person who is getting paid and focusing solely on the player is the very essence of Mamba VS. Kobe. There are two sides to every player. We aren’t obligated to center our attention to the “Kobe” side of things but it’s worth taking a look at from time to time.

The way we behave as fans isn’t wrong. We are the ones who pay to watch the games live on television or in the arena. We buy the products they endorse. We also buy their narrative. We accept them into our lives wearing the jersey that we love so dearly. The jersey, however, does come off. The lights do go down and all that is left is a person who we haven’t actually met, or paid any attention to.

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