Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Ballad of Carmelo Anthony

Or, Race, Play and Cognitive Dissonance in the National Basketball Association

They say that the NBA is a players' game. The people who say this usually say it to mean that coaches have less influence in the association than inother sports and other leagues, but it's true in senses they may not intend. For all the spectacle of an NFL game, one can forget that the uniforms are filled with real people, and instead raise the athletes to the status of gods; one can separate a game from its context, a battle from its war. In the NBA, all these things are impossible to forget and impossible to disentangle. The history of the league is told in terms of storylines and plots, not final scores and championship rings; nothing is more important than the individual, and the fact of their humanity is never overlooked. In a league driven by a multitiered galaxy of stars and superstars, Carmelo Anthony is the rule that proves the exception.

Carmelo's story is one that should be preached and appreciated by association aficionados and casual fans alike. His is the modern rags-to-riches story, one shared in differing degrees by many professional athletes. Raised poor in Baltimore by a single mother, he played his way out to Syracuse where he single-handedly won a national championship, then left to be picked third in one of the best drafts in basketball history, behind names that already resonate in the history of the NBA. Yet as can be discerned, a player's story doesn't simply continue when he enters the league; it splits into several, and tears in places, and gets tangled with the stories of other players, and the mythos of the league itself.

And so we get all the different Carmelo Anthonys of the last four years. Good Melo, giving most of his fortune to charities in the harsh hometown he loves, alongside Bad Melo, making bad decisions and getting involved in the bad decisions of friends. Melo the brand-name heir to the legacy of Jordan, Melo the good kid doing the best he can, Melo the lazy rich athlete, Melo the sucker-puncher. Melo the player with the post moves of Larry Bird and the hairstyle of Allen Iverson. Melo is all of these – and if that wasn’t enough, he’s cursed to eternally be compared negatively with other players. Not an MVP like LeBron, no ring like D-Wade, not as much cred as Iverson, not as marketable as Jordan. The most insidious comparison and the deepest criticism, however, is the one that is never stated outright: simply, that Melo is just too black. If one doesn't look too closely, Carmelo fits the black athlete/thug stereotype perfectly. To many sportswriters and casual fans, Melo represents the worstin the NBA, the thugs and hip-hop-style that have overrun the game – the unspoken implication always that the blacker one’s act, the worse one is.

Within that seldom-taken closer look lies the cruelest irony of all this ugliness: that Carmelo’s play is, unfortunately for those who find comfort in generalization, antithetical to what his stereotype demands. The rich, lazy black athlete that relies on athleticism, keeps the ball too long, demands attention at all times and wants to make the highlight reel– the assumption that this is the way Melo plays springs solely from the way he looks. Racism, no matter how mild, unstated, or quietly ingrained, by its nature ignores the finer points of any situation. This, then, is Carmelo’s fate: to have his reality ignored in favor of the intentions of pundits and the perceptions of the unperceptive. Carmelo is known among those who pay attention not for scoring thirty points a game, which he does, or for taking a lot of shots, which he also does, or for never playing defense, which, indeed, he seldom does. Rather, this boy from Baltimore with braids and tattoos makes his money from what one would least expect – the most complex, obsessively perfected, carefully practiced arsenal of offensive moves the world has seen since the Boston Celtics of the nineteen eighties. With the footwork of a boxer and the skill only born of endless practice and experience, he dissects defenses and analyzes angles to score his thirty a night. Whether or not one understands basketball, the dichotomy is clear. This “thug” black superstar is one of the hardest working men in the NBA.

If this egregious racism is so wide-spread, why are its purveyors never called out? It is,simply, a self-propogating cycle, and those who would protest are caught in it as well. In a sports media whose design is based on the example of twenty-four hour news networks, every sports writer is asked for his opinion – no matter how little said sports writer knows about the topic at hand. Therefore the easiest course is the one most often taken, and the easiest course is usually the most negative; and in Melo’s case, the most negative course also happens to be the most racially stereotypical. Carmelo Anthony’s young career has been marred by this perception, but I have faith – as people come to realize that his personality and play are nothing like they seem they should be, his example may help remove the negative expectations of young black players, and in turn improve perception of the league. I can dream.

I applied to college with this essay. I'll let you know if it worked. Two addendums: I didn't really think Larry Bird was the best player comparison, but for an older, non-basketball audience, I figured he'd be the most recognizable of players with vaguely similar styles. And yes, the criticism of Melo is that he's a softy, not a thug, but hey - if you're reading this, you know basketball.