Rasheed Wallace Does the Work

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There’s a lasting image I have of Rasheed Wallace.

Think back to arguably the most chaotic scene in sports history, the Malice at the Palace in November of 2004, when a drunk idiot threw a beer at Metta Sandiford-Artest (then Ron Artest), hit him in the face and instigated a brawl near the end of a Pistons-Pacers game. Players and fans were fighting, drinks and other projectiles flew everywhere, a panicked Mike Breen briefly tried to focus on what was left of the game and instead instantaneously became a breaking news reporter for ESPN. Bill Walton was also calling that game, and not even the weed he’d definitely smoked before the game could keep him from getting hysterical. Some players raced into the stands to break up or join fights, and virtually everyone was looking for either cover or a safe escape route to avoid getting hit by objects — or fists — being wildly thrown throughout the arena and on the court as security lost control and fans trespassed in the paths of players, coaches, and other officials trying to exit.

Watching live, it was easy to lose track of virtually everyone in the blur. But then there was ‘Sheed, standing tall, watching everything, protecting players, breaking up altercations, surveying the turmoil, making sure people were safe. There’s a presence about Wallace that is unmistakable — a wise, serene, stillness that on the surface is in direct contrast to the often outwardly passionate and emotional way he played basketball. But those elements of his persona weren’t actually contradictory at all, they were complementary.

Basically, Wallace relentlessly gives a damn. That explains both his uncontrollable bursts of emotion that made him a true artist in the medium of collecting technical fouls, and it also fueled the deep levels of chill that made him stand out during the Palace brawl — simply, he cares. He was looking out for others.

Rasheed Wallace was in Flint again on July 17. He drove his truck with North Carolina plates here, he pulled into Evergreen Regency, and he precisely, cooly backed it into a tiny parking spot that appeared to be way too tight a fit for the sleek looking new Dodge Ram he was driving. Then he was immediately swarmed by people happy to see him as the TV news van parked next to him pulled out and found another parking spot since ‘Sheed left approximately two inches of room for that driver to open his door — again, PRECISE.

A celebrity visiting Flint in itself isn’t particularly remarkable — a who’s who of Hollywood paraded through the city for concerned photo-ops during the height of the water crisis. But when the attention on Flint waned, the celebrities stopped visiting.

The work wasn’t done. Wallace has never been about photo-ops, though. He came to Flint, and continues coming here, because he cares, because he will show up to do the work — to show people through his actions that they matter, that they’re worthy. He brings people food and water by the truckload, and he and his volunteers unload it and walk it to peoples’ doors themselves. He uses his platform to talk about Flint, and he won’t let people forget why we have to keep talking about what happened here — not because it could happen anywhere, but because it DOES happen in poor majority Black communities all over the country.

“Where are all the white people now?”

Flint, like all major cities, has had Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. Those rallies have been well-attended and had crowds of people of all races. But those rallies have been downtown.

Evergreen Regency is low income housing in southeast Flint. The residents there are predominately Black and deal with high rates of crime, drug abuse, and violence. It’s tucked away from the shiny new parts of the city, the universities and the improving downtown with new restaurants, and a handful of historic neighborhoods that are populated by middle class or above residents. There are not paved trails or bike lanes or connections to the investment and energy downtown Flint. Evergreen Regency and places like it are usually just comfortably forgotten.

Which is why Wallace and Stephen Jackson, another former NBA star, were there, to take care of people who are ignored. When they were talking with residents, a woman near Jackson said, “Where are all the white people now?”

She was right. Other than my son and I, there may have only been one or two others in the crowd of over 100. The rallies downtown were comfortable, with space in lots, proximity to college campuses and city hall. Trekking into a part of the city that white people rarely enter isn’t comfortable. Which is why I went there. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

I don’t think it’s productive to be overly critical of well-intentioned people, particularly young people, who want to be helpful allies and protest in comfortable places. But the quote from that woman is what will stay with me. The reason I’m sharing it is because I hope more white people will take this to heart: get uncomfortable. Go places you aren’t familiar, and do it in a way that isn’t trespassing or disrespectful of the people who live there. Go there to serve, to listen to, to uplift the voices of the people who live there. Go prepared to back off if your presence is intrusive, but go there to hear people, to offer help when and how it’s appropriate, to do the work of taking care of and looking out for each other, to do what Wallace was calmly doing on the court as chaos ensued around him in 2004.

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I saw that lasting figure of Wallace again today. From the moment he arrived, his magnetic presence, his power and the ease with which he uses it, was felt. People were comforted by him simply being there. Then, after spending time talking with different groups of people who surrounded him, he climbed into one of the rented moving trucks full of supplies and promptly started handing them down to people to carry door-to-door. Because it was time to do the work.

Raising a Justice-Oriented Sports Fan

I was 12-years-old the first time I fought with my dad about sports. 

He grew up in rural Michigan, rose every day at 4 a.m. to head into his maintenance job for a General Motors parts supplier, and rarely missed a day until he became too physically weak to turn a wrench. He proudly boasted about his “shop rat” credentials any chance he got. His sports rooting interests reflected his humble work ethic. Though he never went to college himself, no team better reflected his values than Bo Schembechler’s “the team, the team, the team,” University of Michigan. I was raised watching Michigan football and basketball, rooting for an endless parade of athletes who, I was constantly reminded, were never bigger than the program.  

Then, five talented freshmen arrived on Michigan’s campus in 1991, refusing to pay dues and unimpressed by the university’s manufactured mythology. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson had undeniable skill and style, mainstreaming the baggy shorts and black socks look that had been popular for years on city courts into the halls of pasty white suburban middle schools like mine. Their play was flashy, with off-the-charts athleticism paired with a gleeful willingness to celebrate every play they made. They violated everything my dad tried to teach me about sports, that stars should be humble, that showboats always get comeuppance, that basketball teams that don’t run structured offenses will never beat regimented, disciplined teams. It is too simplistic and not really accurate to say my dad hated them — they played for his favorite team, after all, and he was loyal. But he was never comfortable with their style, with their willingness to speak their minds from the moment they showed up on campus, with their blackness. He was definitely not comfortable with how much I loved them. 

In 1993, I watched every second of Michigan’s season I could, prepared for the Fab Five to win a National Championship. My dad watched with me, also hoping for a championship but never missing an opportunity to question whether Webber’s ego was getting too big, or whether he was thinking too much about leaving for the NBA, or whether Rose was too much of a “ball hog” to be an effective point guard, or whether Steve Fisher should be a more forceful disciplinarian “like Bo would be.”  

Webber played beautifully in the championship game until, in a flash, his narrative was forever changed. Webber ensnared a rebound with :20 seconds remaining and Michigan down two points, the last moment in that game that he looked like the swaggering, once-in-a-generation basketball machine he had been for two years at Michigan. First, he traveled. But he didn’t just travel. One of the most instinctive, gifted players at any level of basketball looked unsure of what to do with the ball. He looked like he was trying to pass, then changed his mind and dragged his feet. The referees didn’t call it, and Webber clumsily and frenetically began dribbling. He advanced the ball himself, but then dribbled directly into a trap by two North Carolina defenders. His basketball instincts suddenly returned, and he did something most basketball players do to save a possession under immense defensive pressure — he called timeout. Michigan didn’t have any. Referees awarded North Carolina technical foul free throws and possession of the ball. The game was over, and Webber produced an iconic sports mistake that will outlast his Hall of Fame-worthy career accomplishments. 

My dad pounced. “See, he was trying to do it all himself! He should’ve passed to Jalen! He wanted all the glory!” I’d watched Webber sullenly walk off the court, clearly near tears, his once joyful eyes blankly staring in the distance. For the first time in my life, sports made me cry. I couldn’t listen to my dad. I shouted something incomprehensible at him as I stormed to my room, closed the door, and bawled. He didn’t understand why I was mad. It was just sports. Honestly, I couldn’t even explain why I was mad. But for the first time in my life, I was seeing humanity in the people playing the sports I loved, and that humanity seemed more important to me than the result of the game. My dad couldn’t figure out why a game occupied any of my thoughts after it ended. I was angry that my dad wasn’t worried about whether or not Chris Webber was okay. 

***

Although he never would’ve articulated it this way himself, my dad’s childhood indoctrination of me into sports fandom had a central theme: playing college or professional sports is a privilege. The responsibilities that come with it include never calling unnecessary attention to yourself or seeking personal glory at the expense of the team; never showing weakness or pain; certainly never pointing to unfairness or structural inequities that are inherent in high-level sports.  

Sports gospel in my house was most easily explained through Barry Sanders – my dad was far more impressed with the emotionless way Sanders tossed the ball to an official after scoring than with the otherworldly athletic feats that propelled him to the end zone. I blindly accepted that thinking, mostly. Until my mom got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated as a gift near the end of my freshman year of high school. 

I got the first issue in June of 1995. It had a teenager on the cover — someone only a few years older than me — who I’d never seen before. He was wearing a blue and white track suit, but seated sideways in a way that made it impossible tell what brand. He was holding a worn basketball that had clearly been abused by blacktop before, and posed in a way that could’ve been a senior portrait. It was Kevin Garnett, before he’d achieved anything professionally, when his legacy was already a topic of debate in sports media before he’d even played a game.  

Garnett was attempting to become the first player since 1975 to enter the NBA straight out of high school, skipping what I had always assumed was a required step of going to college first. My dad, unsurprisingly, was skeptical. Garnett was too young, too physically immature to face fully developed grown men. Who was going to babysit this teenager? Mostly, dad was just mad at Garnett’s audacity to defy convention — how dare he skip college? Everyone went to college! Didn’t he know the value of the free education he was turning down? That particular line of reasoning was extra funny in hindsight — my dad never went to college, and likely would’ve hated it if he had gone considering he’d never had a remote interest in anything resembling academia. 

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Jack McCallum’s cover story humanized Garnett for me, a rural white kid who didn’t even have cable television and learned to shoot on a makeshift court in a barn, slipping on hay and having to adjust the arc on my shot to account for a huge beam that was only about two feet taller than the basket roughly above where the free throw line would’ve been on a real court. 

I couldn’t view athletes on TV as robotic entertainers anymore. I saw and questioned my own privilege. I grew up poor, but I still went to a good public school strictly because of where I was born. I didn’t fear violent crime in my trailer park. I didn’t fear the police. Even though college was expensive, I knew I could still go. My parents were divorced, but both were prominent, largely positive influences in my life. Many of the athletes I loved watching grew up in environments that were immensely more difficult than my own. To impose the values or standards of my family or community on them suddenly and definitively felt immoral.  

*** 

As a parent who wanted to embrace my son Oliver’s love of sports but also provide him with the tools to find balance, humanity, and context in his fandom, I also turned to Sports Illustrated. Oliver stalks our mailbox each month, obsessing over when the next issue of SI Kids is going to arrive and who will be on the cover.  

The subscription has sparked thoughtfulness in him. He’s taken an active interest in women’s sports as a result of the coverage it gets in his magazines. He was engrossed with the World Cup tournament and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. We watched and followed this year’s WNBA Playoffs together, and he learned and asked questions about the league’s top players after reading about them. His younger sister Isla recently started gymnastics, and he was ecstatic when the poster in one of his recent issues featured Symone Biles. He asked if we could frame it for Isla.

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It has also helped Oliver understand some of the hypocrisies inherent in major college sports. The concept that individual players he roots for make massive amounts of money for the universities they play for and deserve to be compensated isn’t lost on him, even at only 10-years old. He constantly asks which pro teams his favorite college stars will play for. 

*** 

My dad died in 2009 at 53 because of a confluence of health problems resulting from years of his beloved “shop rat” lifestyle — chain smoking, using alcohol to self-medicate, and chronic pain from a lifetime of backbreaking manual labor. We fought about sports all the time, and I got better at arguing my viewpoint after tearfully screaming incoherent words at him in defense of Chris Webber. 

He was barely old enough (born in 1956) to be able to say the Detroit Lions had won an NFL championship in his lifetime (they last won in 1957, the pre-Super Bowl era). He also lived long enough to see the Lions become the first-ever team to go 0-16 in a season in 2008-09. I was a sports writer for the Flint Journal at the time, and when it became apparent the Lions had a real shot at a winless season, I began a weekly column rooting for the team’s demise in each game. After all, they were a really bad team no matter what, right? Wouldn’t it be better to be immortal than just a forgettable conventionally bad team?  

“You’re an asshole for writing that,” he’d say to me, laughing and shaking his head. Our relationship had ups and downs. We were really different people. He worked with his hands, fixed things, and hated complexity. I was bookish, uninterested in working on cars in his smoky garage, and obsess over the real and imagined intricacies of why people are the way they are 

My dad lived with pain his entire life — physical pain from his job, emotional pain from tragic losses of people he loved, and depression and anxiety that he flat out refused to seek help for. Strong men don’t need help. That’s what he believed. I could never question it as a kid, and certainly not as an adult when my awareness of his struggles heightened. We couldn’t talk about it. 

But we could talk about sports. We gained new understanding of each other’s personalities, senses of humor, concepts of right and wrong, even if we rarely agreed. He wanted to hate Rasheed Wallace when the Detroit Pistons traded for him before winning the 2004 NBA Championship based solely on Wallace’s overly negative portrayal in media from his time with Portland. When I reminded him that he used to adore another Piston center who shot three-pointers and got technical fouls, Bill Laimbeer, he quickly came around and usually laughed at ‘Sheed’s penchant for theatrically arguing with referees. And, even though I always gravitate toward loudmouths with colorful personalities, he helped me appreciate the athletes who just show up and consistently do a job. Loudmouths are fun, but sports don’t work if you have only loudmouths.  

Oliver was born nearly a year to the day after my dad died, so they never met. Sports help me feel dad’s presence frequently, though. 

Those moments when Oliver’s engrossed in a game, or asking dozens of rapid fire questions because he’s obsessed with a topic in the unique way that only kids can obsess and needs you to drop everything and answer RIGHT NOW, make me remember my dad’s patience when I’d similarly bombard him. I don’t want to force Oliver to watch sports the same way that I do. But I do want sports to be a vehicle for him to obtain curiosities about the greater world around him. I’m more aware of racism, of white supremacy, of poverty, of misogyny, of environmental racism, of a myriad of other societal and cultural issues, because of sports. I want him to find those things, too. 

The greatest gift sports gave me as a kid was a way to get comfortable challenging an adult, and the greatest gift my dad gave me was the ability to argue with and challenge him in a space that was safe, that allowed me to build confidence, and speak up passionately for things I believed in without punishment or judgement, even when he thought I was a smartass. I hope sports allows me to provide those same gifts to Oliver. 

When Oliver got to pick out a basketball jersey for his eighth birthday, he picked Ben Simmons. I got it for him, but not without a few, “He’s supposed to be a guard but he can’t even shoot!” digs. Oliver quickly responded, “Daddy, not everyone has to play basketball the same way. He’s fun to watch!” 

I’m positive my dad would’ve been on my side regarding Simmons’ lack of shooting range. I also have no doubt he’d have adored his grandson pointing out my own lack of imagination.

The Most Powerful High School in America

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Draymond Green is synonymous with Saginaw, but more accurately, he’s synonymous with Saginaw High. There’s a difference.

Compared to most high-level athletes, Green looks rather pedestrian. But put him on a basketball court, with his combination of IQ, instincts, and barely controlled passion, and he makes perfect sense.

The first time I spotted Green live was 2008. He was a pudgy teenager playing in the state basketball playoffs, trying to lead the High to a second straight state championship. The team was in the regional portion of the playoffs, and playing an amped up Flint Carman-Ainsworth team. Carman-Ainsworth had four future Division I players on its roster and was playing at home. Flint players don’t back down, and made it clear they weren’t intimidated by Green.

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After Green hit a 3-pointer to open the game, C-A’s Reggie Stallings came right back down and tied the game with one of his own — and then demonstratively clapped and yelled right in Green’s face.

Green smirked, a confident look that we’d see for years to come as he matured into one of the greatest players in Michigan State basketball history and a NBA All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, and multi-time champion.

Green put Carman-Ainsworth away, using his inside-outside game to score 28 points, throwing his body around to grab 11 rebounds, and flash the defense that would later make him one of professional basketball’s most unique and versatile defenders with three blocks.

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Green is the greatest NBA player the city has ever produced, but not the only one — Darvin Ham won a championship with the Detroit Pistons (and had a memorable backboard shattering dunk as a college player), Anthony Roberson bounced around for a few seasons, and Paul Dawkins played a season.

Saginaw is a small city with an athletic history comparable to much larger ones, and the High carries itself proudly as a centerpiece of that legacy — best described by former basketball coach Lou Dawkins in a segment with reporter Ryan Slocum. Dawkins, simply, called the High, “The most powerful high school in America.”


Hoop Factories is semi-recurring ramblings about the places where basketball stars and dreamers got their start

Kofi Kingston is the Pipebomb

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Image via WWE Network.

One of my earliest memories as a kid was watching Superstars with my dad, uncle, and cousin, crowded around a 20-inch tube TV with rabbit ears that sat on top of a non-working dryer (that was for some reason in the kitchen) at my uncle’s perennially under construction house.

More accurately, wrestling was on in the background. What I was usually more intently watching was my dad and uncle throwing toothpicks in each other’s faces while doing poor Razor Ramon impersonations or standing wobbly on chairs, arms raised majestically, while doing even poorer Randy Savage impersonations.

Since, wrestling fandom has come and gone from my life in waves — a nomadic attention span in the face of the daunting investment required to actually consume all of the content produced by modern WWE is not atypical and totally understandable as fans age and add life responsibilities.

My meandering back into the sport, roughly, matched when a lot of people regained interest — the 2011 Summer of Punk. But, as much as CM Punk’s pissed off, bitter, upset at the system, chip-on-his-shoulder persona spoke to me as a mid-30s khaki wearer stuck in a boring desk job, it wasn’t CM Punk alone that renewed my interest in wrestling. It was Kofi Kingston.

Punk famously name-dropped Colt Cabana in his electric fourth-wall breaking pipebomb promo, which introduced me to Cabana’s podcast. One of the most relatable episodes I listened to was Cabana’s interview with Kingston in 2012. The whole interview is great, but Kingston discussing his post-college career dissatisfaction, working in a cubicle proofreading catalog pages for Staples spoke to my soul:

“No matter how excited you seem about it, it’s still paper clips and push pins and ergonomic chairs. I can’t do this the rest of my life.”

He even drops an Office Space reference!

I’ve watched WWE consistently again since that summer in 2011, and thanks to a powerful combination of the Network, insomnia, and an … uh … exciting personal life, gone back and filled in gaps that I missed in years prior. Kingston has been among the most consistently good performers in a variety of mid-card roles throughout that entire time. He’s done it organically, with almost nothing to work with. Consider some of the following:

  • He debuted in WWE playing a Jamaican character, with Jamaican music, gear that used Jamaican colors, and vignettes that promoted his Jamaican heritage. He’s … not Jamaican. It’s the type of classic WWE cheeseball gimmick that, in the hands of the wrong performer, would’ve been dead on arrival. It’s also the exact sort of deadend gimmick often given to performers of color. Instead of failing, Kingston’s charisma combined with his unique in-ring work got him over pretty seamlessly. Relatively quickly, Kofi Kingston was so good and so popular with the crowd, the corny WWE packaging didn’t matter and in fact quietly disappeared altogether. That’s a testament to his talent.
  • In 2014, when the New Day was formed, rinse and repeat with the lame/borderline racist WWE packaging — vignettes that didn’t make sense, that with less talented performers would’ve thoroughly ruined any chance of popularity for the individuals. But, Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods are so damn good at this that their own natural abilities to connect with a crowd, tell stories that are entertaining, and off-the-charts chemistry as a group triumphed over any poor creative they were hamstrung with. I remember the initial New Day vignettes. I remember myself — and a lot of the collective wrestling internet — groaning with worst case scenarios based on WWE’s history of presenting black performers using the worst stereotypes. Even with the undeniable talent of the three performers, I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted then that the New Day would grow into what they are today.
  • Kingston is one of the best tag team wrestlers of all-time, with eight different title runs. The New Day is clearly his most successful team, but he’s won titles with a pretty diverse set of talents — CM Punk, Evan Bourne, and R-Truth. His run with Bourne was disrupted, twice, due to Bourne’s suspensions, and Kingston still recovered. His teams with Punk and R-Truth were seemingly thrown together and made little sense, and both were entertaining.
  • He makes everyone look good. On Cabana’s podcast, he talked at length about his belief in helping other performers achieve their best, stating, “I’ve always been willing to help people out.” It is hard to find any match over the course of his career that wasn’t entertaining. He’s had seven combined runs with the U.S. and Intercontinental titles. He’s pinned Chris Jericho — arguably the greatest of all-time in terms of longevity. He’s also served as fodder for debuting talents, like Rusev and Bray Wyatt. He’s college educated, beloved by all fans but especially young ones, and a great face for modern WWE the company in the external PR appearances that they love. His career, in terms of being a talented jack-of-all-trades, is similar to Dolph Ziggler’s. Yet Ziggler has, here and there, been boosted into the main event scene and even has two world title runs (the most memorable of which, coincidentally, came when he was in a faction that included Big E). Kingston has never received those types of opportunities.
  • He’s been in seven Money in the Bank matches — tied with Kane for the most ever — and won zero. Damien Sandow and Baron Corbin have won Money in the Bank matches, by the way.
  • He’s been in 12 Royal Rumbles, tied for third all-time, and delivered arguably the most memorable spots in the history of one of WWE’s most iconic matches, yet never come close to winning one. For comparison’s sake, Cody Rhodes has been in half as many Royal Rumbles and has more than three hours of cumulative time (among the most all-time) in those appearances.

WWE accidentally realizing that Kingston is a major star — thanks in large part to a totally organic reaction by fans combined with Kingston having incredible matches when he was subbed into the WWE title picture earlier this year — is both gratifying and frustrating. Gratifying is the easy part — anyone who has watched Kingston’s career objectively is thrilled to see one of the most talented, overlooked members of the roster finally get a main event opportunity. And frustrating, because this immensely talented, popular performer has been there since 2008! What took so long?

During this recent run, I’ve thought about Kingston a lot in the context of Punk’s famous promo.

Punk played into the belief that he’d been held down, that the company didn’t want someone like him as the face of their product despite his popularity with fans, that behind the scenes mysterious power-brokers had worked nefariously to limit his opportunities. He delivered his words compellingly, and they told a great story. But were they true beyond the storyline sense?

Perhaps, at least in Punk’s mind, which helped them resonate. But, even before his record-breaking title run, Punk was featured prominently. He’d had world title runs. He’d won Money in the Bank. He was in the main event scene and had worked with major stars. He’d led factions. When he was injured, they put him on commentary. He even got a famous Royal Rumble spot with the Straight Edge Society, where he had a microphone and got to spend a significant portion of the match as the center of attention, an opportunity to add significant nuance to his character.

Were there, surely, people who didn’t want him to succeed? People who didn’t like his look or his attitude or his independent scene credentials? I’m sure that was probably the case. But, in terms of TV time and being prominently featured, there’s not really a reasonable case that Punk was overlooked.

Now apply the sentiments of his promo to Kingston, a talented performer who — despite his popularity — was never really in the main event scene. Someone who did have the ability to talk on the microphone but never got significant mic time to help add motivations to his character. Someone who was shuffled in and out of midcard stories, often working with the same performers repeatedly (hello, endless matches with Ziggler!) with little storyline explanation as to why those feuds continued endlessly. A black performer who, when you factor in WWE’s poor history with handling race, gender, sexuality, etc., would have an extremely credible argument for why seemingly less accomplished performers get more prominent spots than he does.

Kingston has already proven himself as an all-time great, something his mentality when he talked to Cabana in 2012 foreshadowed: “I’ve always been one to try to do things differently, to the point where there’s not many people out there who can do what I do the way that I do it.” He, more than anyone in recent memory, has earned this spot, and had to do more to get there than just about anyone else.

Those realities make this, perhaps accidentally, among the most compelling stories WWE has ever told. Even if it is technically part of a storyline, the history of Kingston and the believability of performers of color having a much harder path historically to main event opportunities within WWE, make the “reality era” aspects of the story resonate even stronger. Kingston’s ascension, and more importantly where they go with this story, has captured my attention as a fan differently than any wrestling storyline ever has. The New Day as performers clearly have the ability to take this story to a riveting, satisfying conclusion. Does WWE?

When You Have Nothing to Say and Still Say It

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Image source

A couple of weeks ago, Duncan Smith, editor of PistonPowered (* unofficial non-Dan Feldman editiontweeted this:

If you’re “team eye test”, which best describes your number aversion?
A: I don’t know where to find the numbers
B: I don’t care to find them

I saved it, because it reminded me of a post I’ve wanted to write for quite a while. I love the NBA. I follow it religiously. And outside of a small handful of writers, I find most of the content written about the league I love unreadable. Which is a weird statement from someone who has spent a good chunk of his adult life writing about the NBA.

Duncan’s tweet, though, illustrated a key problem I have. There’s a belief that there are two camps among NBA fans: the old school “eye test” folks who firmly believe the lens through which they view basketball is the only one that matters, and the “new wave” analytically-inclined “smart” fans who voraciously digest any overly-convoluted metric they can find to help explain what happens on the court before trusting anything their eyes tell them.

As a hobbyist NBA writer, I used to identify more firmly with the latter category. Stats are instructive. I easily fell into the habit of using advanced stats as a bludgeoning tool in my writing to make my takes seem more informed, more relevant, more differentiated than competing takes out there that relied less on numbers and more on the “eye test.” They weren’t, of course, and a big reason I stopped writing about the NBA regularly is that I sincerely worried that my voice was not adding anything relevant to an increasingly crowded, increasingly bro-ey conversation.

Not that ‘eye test’ people are saints either. Eye test writers and fans have a distinctly Trump voter aura. Probably a big crossover in the Trump/eye test Venn Diagram.

But I don’t think either “camp” really exists. Yeah, steadfastly “eye test” people can be simpletons and overvalue counting stats because its easy for them to take off their socks and tally up rebound totals. Yeah, “stats” people can be so preoccupied with justifying why certain metrics are superior that they forget to actually pay attention to otherworldly athletic abilities that make athletes fun to watch. There’s probably no right answer, and to be honest, people who devoutly identify as one or the other are REAL obnoxious.

Anyway, Duncan’s tweet jarred a random thought I’ve wanted to write out for a while. As per usual, I kinda forgot about it and didn’t write anything. Then tonight, some dude named Peter Healey responded to an innocuous tweet about Ben Wallace with this:

2 things that never come up: 1)Ben was only very good for maybe 6 years. 2)He couldn’t guard quicker 4s and 5s off the dribble

More than any other guy he’d be sunk in today’s league. Couldn’t shoot, wasn’t an elite roll guy, couldn’t switch nearly as much you think

(I should disclose up front that I have a real, emotional connection to Ben Wallace, I won’t hide from that.)

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Image source.

I mean … takes like this are about as easy to brush off as Ben Wallace stopping Shaq at the rim. Wallace’s “6-year peak” was as good defensively as any center not named Bill Russell. He switched out on and smothered point guards defensively, yet somehow couldn’t stay in front of “quicker 4s and 5s off the dribble?” Who are these quicker-than-PGs-4s and 5s we’re talking about populating the league in Ben’s era, Percy? Jerome Moiso? Keon Clark? He’d be “sunk” in today’s league? Because athleticrim-protectingdefensively-minded centers who are offensively limited aren’t, as they always have been, extremely valuable?

As I’m wont to do, I responded to Preston’s bad take on Twitter. Then, in true “I have a stupid take but then get sad/emo when people tell me my stupid take is stupid” fashion, Phillip responded. Then I responded some more. Then I noticed that Payton was giving catty responses, feebly trying to drag other smart people – including Stephen Rodrick who has written goddamned cover stories for Rolling Stone and Ben Gulker who has been writing about the Pistons longer than anyone not named Matt Watson – and I got super annoyed. To paraphrase the great Ben Gordon, humble yourself, Perry.

So his bad take brought me briefly out of my basketball writing retirement to say that basketball writing sucks because of the take economy that is propagated by people who think making purposefully statements contribute to any better understanding of the game. Oh, Ben Wallace, an extremely fun, unique, by-his-bootstraps, prideful, championship player wouldn’t excel in an era of basketball when a bunch of Ayn Rand-humping Silicon Valley tech bro venture capitalists have reduced the game to people thinking sprinting to corners to launch threes is the only valuable skill a player can possess? THANKS FOR YOUR INSIGHT, Pierre! Maybe next you can tell us why Scottie Pippen would actually suck today because he shot below 33 percent from three for his career, or why Anthony Mason wasn’t a fun-as-hell point forward because he probably couldn’t have guarded today’s wings. Seriously, please hammer us with more “well actuallys” for people who innocently enjoy watching beautiful basketball players.

Basketball is art. Who cares how people watch it? When you overvalue statistical analysis or contrarian takes to the point of killing the unique style and individuality that truly makes basketball the most creative of sports, what’s the point? Your voice is not adding anything of value. It’s noise.