Mycenae and Miami

For my mother Thetis the goddess of silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly - Homer

The narrative surrounding Lebron James is, once again, at a fever pitch. His play during the Finals thus far has been, by any measure, a disappointment. His statistical contributions have been below his Olympian standards and it is plain to see his inability to buckle down in the clutch both offensively, and in the last two games, defensively. Lebron’s play versus Chicago in the last series was reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwan versus David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals:

The overwhelming consensus on that series was that the affront to Hakeem that Robinson was named MVP led him to outscore and outrebound Robinson over the course of the entire series. This culminated in dominating him over the last two games, outscoring Robinson by 40 points. In a gratifying way to most sports fans who want the narratives that we have invested in fulfilled, Hakeem took offense to the “unworthy” MVP given to Robinson and, given the opportunity, made him pay convincingly, both statistically and by eye.

Was this not what seemed to be happening as Lebron hounded Derrick Rose into miserable 4th quarters, despite very little evidence that Lebron even cared that Rose was named MVP rather than Lebron? The lack of success of Derrick Rose versus Lebron could also be read as part of a larger trend where Derrick Rose’s shooting percentages were putrid versus any member of the Miami Heat guarding him. Lebron certainly had a role in stopping him late in the game, but Derrick Rose, at this young stage in his career, simply does not have the jump shot to force Lebron to respect him for anything but the drive. Compare that to the abject failure of Lebron against Jason Terry in these last two Dallas Mavericks victories; certainly it exposes his flaws in defending much smaller and quicker guards when one has to respect their 3 point shot as well as their teammates (the Mavericks worst 3 point shooter, Jason Kidd, has done more in this series from 3 and every other aspect of the game than Kyle Korver, the Bull’s best 3 point shooter).

The endpoint of those 1995 NBA playoffs represented an almost unthinkable apogee for Hakeem. After the climax of dismissing David Robinson from the playoffs, Hakeem came upon the force of nature that was the young Shaquille O’Neal in the playoffs and neutralized him. Shaq was outscored by Hakeem every game, but by a very small margin – the fact is that the rest of the Orlando Magic were also outplayed, by a more significant margin, and Shaq was not able to provide his usual decisive advantage to overcome their flaws (seriously, Nick Anderson?) Shaq would of course leave to L.A., and win 3 championships as the man, backed by a budding Kobe Bryant.

And now, back to Lebron; back, from our jaunt into the dusty corners of NBA history. Lebron had a chance to somewhat replicate Hakeem’s feat, by demolishing first an unworthy MVP, and then taking on another supremely talented player and turning him back from the gates of the championship (although Shaq was on the cusp of his greatness while Dirk is well on his way towards leaving his). He has, to this point, not seized that opportunity. His urgency is not what Heat fans demand – does he not want to claim his championship and etch his likeness into the blank spot in the basketball pantheon that has been waiting for him ever since he has joined the league? Wilting now has bred doubt in his supporters and supplied ever more flammable fuel for his detractors.

The debate surrounding Lebron, and the NBA in general, has always given off an air of Calvinism, given the substitution of Chosen One for the elite, to the endless litany of superstars who are the basketball disciples trailing in the wake of Michael Jordan (with all apologies to the Basketball Jesus himself, Larry Bird). The theme of redemption hangs heavily over basketball in the best of recent times by Jordan, having been denied for years, slowly carrying his cross to Golgotha, crucified by the Detroit Pistons, resurrected for an otherworldly run at multiple championships. Forgive the crude metaphor. The theme of redemption also hangs weightily over Lebron – after his lack of success in turning his statistical dominance into a championship, he seemed, at the beginning of the NBA finals, to be on the verge of taking the mantle of the champion for his own and repeating the usual journey from underachieving wunderkind to triumphant star, forged under incredible pressures and energies. Yet the Dallas Mavericks are up 3 games to 2 games in the best of 7 series of the 2011 NBA Finals. Dirk Nowitzki has beat the Miami Heat defense into submission, has fought through the flu, and is about to redeem his own repeated postseason failures, while Lebron has, in basketball terms, idly watched.

I must turn now to a very dusty historical source – Homer. The Greeks had a different set of religious illusions, and a particular affection for fate and tragedy. Everyone should recall from middle school the discussions of the tragic flaw – Lebron seems to fit far more snugly into the mold of Achilles than Jesus Christ. Achilles’ weakness was his heel – his flaw was his pride. Lebron’s weakness, is, famously, his love for his erratic jump shot, which may be tied to his proud nature and inability to adjust his game to better fit his strengths. Referencing the opening lines, it seems that Lebron is caught in a trap – having decided to join the war, he now faces the grim reality that his best may not be enough to win. Lebron now pouts in his tent, while the rest of the Greeks, led by Odysseus (an apt stand in for Dwyane Wade) attempt to overcome Dirk’s Hector. It is apparent to everyone in the basketball world that without Lebron summoning forth the kind of superhuman effort that has evaded him thus far, the Miami Heat will lose the series. Dirk has routed the Heat – will Lebron join the battle?

But I wonder more about the question of the narrative. Will those invested in either Dirk or Lebron be content to appreciate the tragedy, rather than feel cheated at the result? It is hard, in the Iliad, to avoid sympathy for the fates of both Hector and Achilles, Hector undone by a superior warrior, while Achilles loses his life far earlier than might have been to satisfy his pride and lust for glory. Should Lebron lose, will it be accepted that his game may not be well suited towards fitting into consistent systematic team-play, while he is still on a trajectory to being one of the best basketball players of all time? And will Dirk truly have gained something more meaningful by winning the championship, when his efforts to this point in carrying an inferior team have already been legendarily sublime? I fear that the answer is no in either case.

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Crafting the Perfect Game?: A History of NBA Rules Changes

I was once part of a "church league" team where my dad was the head coach, as he frequently was. We would travel around the Pittsburgh area, playing a variety of teams in suburban towns and urban neighborhoods I’d otherwise never visit. It was a great basketball and social development experience.

More vividly than any other team we played that year, I remember the Jewish Community Center of Squirrel Hill. We had a home and home series. Our first game was in their beautiful gym and we got shellacked. They basically played five guards who passed, cut, and shot our bigger team into oblivion. To keep it Old Testament, there was no more frustrating feeling than realizing you were just Goliath beaten (badly) by David. The second game, we played them at home towards the end of our regular season. Now we put on the beating. I remember one of our players dunking, their coach being thrown out of the game for claiming basket interference on the play, then realizing it was totally over. We played "our game" that night.

My dad talked about us being the “NBA style” team in our league. He elaborated to explain he meant that we played tough man-to-man half court defense in a league filled with other teams pressing and/or playing zone, as well our offense being based around low post play instead of endless backdoor cuts. We relied on athleticism and quick hands, and it wouldn’t have worked very well if we had a smaller or less talented line up. But when it worked, it was beautiful.

But what would an “NBA style” team mean now? The dawning of a new millennium also brought us a new set of NBA rules – some of the more radical changes we’ve had. About ten years in, where are we? What have the effect of these rules changes been?

Let’s first look at one part of the history of the league before the rules changes. Here's one way to conceive it:

NBA Champion Hall of Fame centers by year since Bill Russell:
1957, 1959-66, 1968-69 – Bill Russell
1958 – Bob Petit (hybrid F/C)
1967, 1972 – Wilt Chamberlain
1970 – Willis Reed
1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1974, 1976 – Dave Cowens
1977 – Bill Walton
1978 – Elvin Hayes (hybrid)
1979 – Wes Unseld (hybrid)
1983 – Moses Malone
1981, 1984, 1986 – Robert Parish
1994-95 - Hakeem Olajuwon
1999 - David Robinson
2000-2002 – Shaquille O’Neal (pending)
That’s 37 Hall of Fame center-championships in 45 years: over 80% of the teams. It might be even higher if you go back to George Mikan and earlier years, but I wanted to draw the line somewhere.

The nine exceptions were a Rick Barry underdog team, the six Jordan championships, and two Detroit bad boy teams who used three guard rotations to help mask their lack of a true center (though an aging James Edwards did become an important contributor.)

Since the 2001 rules changes the champion centers have been: Shaq (“The Big Exception”?), Ben Wallace, David Robinson, Tim Duncan (a "new model" hybrid PF/C), Kendrick Perkins, Andrew Bynum – and this year’s championship winning center will be Joel Anthony or Tyson Chandler. Still a talented group – but even if you include Duncan as a center, that’s probably three NBA Hall of Fame players out of seven guys, a big reduction from the pre-rule change era. I mean no offense to the defensive-minded Anthony or the smart and effective Tyson Chandler, but neither guy is going to be compared to Kareem any time soon. I will stipulate Chandler is a lot better than Will “Vanderbilt” Perdue ever was though.

Player Utility Has Been Affected by Rule Changes

Having a very auditory memory, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the NBA announced that it would allow zone defenses. I was listening to my car’s radio while driving in eastern Missouri, traveling from St. Louis to Hannibal (the town where everything from auto body shops to cement mixing plants were named after Mark Twain, or as Shaq might call him, “The Big Author.")

The first player to be interviewed on the radio show I was listening to was indeed Shaq. He gave a little statement that reminded me of how media savvy he was. He said - and I’m only summarizing, albeit from a vivid memory, “This is a bad idea. People don’t want to watch guys stand around the arc and shoot jump shots. They tune in to watch Steve Nash take it to the hole.”

I thought it was smart that Shaq used a legitimate (white) All Star – an “unselfish player with fundamentals” – to make his point. But I bet deep down what Shaq feared is what we are learning since then – the rules changes made it easier to quickly double team dominating centers from either the strong or weak side. Maybe Shaq has a soft spot for Steve Nash, but it's more likely he realized he’d have a harder time getting as far under the basket.

And to make matters worse for players like Shaq, the league specifically carved out one type of zone that isn’t allowed: where you can camp a center out under the basket not guarding anyone in the key, limiting his shot blocking chances under such a scheme. “Could they make it any more blatantly anti-seven-footer?” I thought.

The defensive three seconds rule almost forces teams to move to a 3-2 zone, or a modified 2-3 with much more motion than, say, Syracuse’s 2-3. The 1-3-1 would almost be impossible due to the defensive three seconds rule. Allowing limited zones has created some more diversity in defense and offensive responses to it, but not as much as we might have imagined in 2001.

But obviously this wasn’t the first rules change to impact a specific class of players negatively. Mikan and Wilt both had the lane widened to move them out. I’m sure Charles Barkley and Mark Jackson were both smart enough to realize when they had a rule named after them (I’ve heard the five second back-to-the-basket rule called “The Mark Jackson rule” and “The Charles Barkley rule”), it means someone was trying to make them less effective. Shaq must have known this, too, although it didn't stop him from remaining the best big man in the game for several more seasons. Reggie Miller was even on record saying he opposed the shortened three point line because it’d create a lot of “fake” Reggie Millers, implying it would make his longer distance sharp shooting less valuable.

And so it goes. But it is worth noting, a lot of the general direction in the entire history of the league has been to shift benefits to the smaller players, going all the way back to widening the lane to stop Mikan.

Teams Have Been Affected by Rule Changes

So who has benefited other than attacking guards? Well, I’d argue the Dallas Mavericks for one, but because of the other side of the ball.

The Mavs are the only team to make a championship series (actually two now) since 2002 at or near the top of the league in "zone usage percentage." Indeed, this year in the NBA, no team used zone on more possessions than the Mavs. I think you could make a strong case they wouldn’t even be in these finals without being allowed to play zone. Likewise, when they played “Nellyball,” could they have afforded to have Dirk play an almost unguardable 5 without the option of going to zone?

Dwight Howard, the best center in the league, has a team built around the fact that teams can so quickly collapse on him. At times, it seems the Orlando Magic’s line-up has been “Howard and four guys who shoot 3’s” – and even that didn’t work well enough for him to will them to a championship. Granted, there are always several factors at play, but teams that have at least some zone in their arsenal as a change of pace are now not an odd ball in the playoffs. What makes the Mavericks the outlier is just the percentage of time they are willing to deploy it.

Can you craft the game? Clearly yes. Should you? Well… how can you avoid it? After all, what are the “natural” rules of basketball? Hopefully not the original ones.

So if any rules change in a way creates a benefit to some players, takes away benefits from others, you’d guess that generally rules changes will be driven by what helps television-friendly players. Granted, that may be complicated since there isn’t a hard and fast rule about what singular type of player is a fan favorite.

How I Formerly Viewed the 2000-2002 Rule Changes and Why I Was Probably as Wrong as Everyone Else

I thought the NBA was pushing hard to strengthen a certain style of play that would differentiate themselves from college basketball and put the emphasis on stars. By limiting the ability of post men, they'd encourage other players to drive it to the hole for a SportsCenter-friendly finish. Or if the driving player or center is doubled, they kick it out to the three point line, which I theorized is David Stern's strategy for establishing the perfect spot for imported players from Latin America and Europe... thus ensuring the league wouldn't be entirely African-American dominated league while broadening its international appeal. I felt like they were balancing the “playground style” (in opposition to college basketball) the league had been championing for years, highlighting individual players through match-ups and mismatches with improved three point shooting. This hybrid of playground and international styles would have global appeal.

After all, scoring had dropped. From 1986-1996, the league had a ten year period in which teams averaged about 108 points per game. Shots per game still weren’t as high as they were in, say, the 1960s, but shortening the three point line hid the “problem” for a few years. By 2001 scoring was all the way down to 103 points per game and Magic Johnson running a fast break team to a title was an old memory.

For fans like my dad who grew up with a Wilt Chamberlain team that scored 125.4 points per game and gave up 122.7 (even without a three point line; they might have been able to score 140 a game if one existed), this was a new “boring” era of a lot of Detroit Bad Boy wannabes, endlessly fouling and playing tough half court defense in a slowed-down game.

But then I got confused – by allowing more formerly “illegal” defense, the league might slow the game and scoring down even more! So for years, I didn’t understand this missing part of the story: why would the NBA make the game even possibly lower scoring by dropping the illegal defense rules? I needed to look back at what people of importance were saying in 2001.

Two interviews - one with Stu Jackson, the other with Rudy Tomjanovich - disclose what I once might have considered a conspiratorial spin-doctoring in message but what I now think was more likely real naïveté. The idea was that if the rules allowed more help defense and zone, teams would be so afraid of half court offense that they would rush to get into fast break situations and this would encourage the old-school style fast-paced games that are so fun to watch. There was also a theory that going to an 8 second half court would encourage teams to full court press and thereby encourage offenses to respond with wide open play. Additionally, I think the league imagined they could balance out a tougher half court set by toughening up on hand checking, reducing the half court penalty while still encouraging a run and gun style.

An astute student of the game, Pat Riley (incorrectly) predicted in that New York Times story linked above: ''Fans like to see Vince Carter play one on one outside. That stuff is going to be history. Isolation basketball has been part of the game ever since I've been in it.'' I wonder what Riley would say about that 2001 quote now, especially after he spent significant amounts of money buying a proprietary advanced stats system for the Heat that specifically breaks down how to guard players coming off the pick and roll.

Meanwhile, according to that article's author, Mike Wise, “Other coaches like George Karl and Phil Jackson - weary of the increased focus on defense and the plodding half court sets that have led to the game's stagnation” embraced the changes.

The interesting thing is Karl, Jackson, Riley, and about everyone else made the argument that their view would be the best for offense. There's no debate about whether offensively “exciting” basketball (be it in the form of the fast break, quick passing, or isos) is the wrong goal. It was just that everyone had different views of how to get there. Professional basketball seems to lack the narrative that “I just love to watch great defense!” that sometimes frames professional football (or, at least that’s what people frequently say here in Pittsburgh).

Some other players made predictions that really made little sense in reaction. "It will mess the game up," Damon Stoudamire said to Wise. "I'm not a big advocate of zone defense. That's the reason why players leave college. You're going to put a box-and-one on Vince Carter? Fans are paying money to see these games. You can't just take away what has essentially made the N.B.A. what it is: one-on-one basketball." It's interesting how Carter was so frequently the reference point for the "pure" play ground style, even if that style was only allowed by making certain defenses illegal by definition.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a box-and-one in the NBA in these 10 years. Arguably, Vince Carter extended his career thanks to these rules changes, now that he's partially a three point specialist.

Another quote from the Times is telling:
''A typical Houston set is giving one guy the ball and sending everyone else away from him,'' Jerry Colangelo (head of the rules committee) said. ''Hardly anyone else is even involved. It's not the lack of ball movement. People wonder whatever happened to the lost art of offensive rebounding. Players are no longer in position to rebound because of some of these sets… Everyone knows we have a problem, but no one has come up with anything better. If this thing doesn't pass, then that's it. We're not going back again.''
How it Really Turned Out

If we take the league at its word for its goals, I don’t think there is evidence that we see a faster paced game with more passing and less iso’s. But the Pat Riley fears of 73-64 games and the death of isos surely didn’t happen either.

My conclusion is there was a more nuanced effect. On the big picture, teams today still rarely if ever full court press. Fast-break teams still frequently find their own pace a liability in a slowed down playoffs. Other than a few teams like the Kings, Nets, and Wizards dedicate themselves to an NBA version of the Princeton offense or other motion offenses that haven't spread widely. Basically, what the league tried to engineer didn’t really happen.

And the isolations not only remained, but flourished, now as common as ever in the ubiquitous high pick and role game. The "otherwise kind of awful player who can only shoot 3s" is now somewhat valuable with the return to the deeper three point line, and the ability of defenses to pack the paint. The 1960s style of offensive rebounding didn’t make a big comeback.

And what about that question about if the league really wanted to reduce isos, or if they’re happy it ushered in the era of the guard and half-close the book on the era of the dominant center? Now I guess the answer may be "both."

The league can claim to one group of fans that they tried to create the unselfish pass-friendly offenses that feature spacing (often college basketball fans) and claim to another group of fans that the league is still dominated by great individual finishers (like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose) who take it to the hoop one-on-one. They can have their cake and eat it too. Teams can play zone, but most of the time they don’t. And the liberated help defense is canceled out by changes to hand checking rules that encourage even more spectacular takes to the basket.

And maybe this is why we haven’t seen major rules changes the last seven years. It’s a media-friendly product and generally “balanced.” No one is “game genie-ing” the NBA by having Charles Barkley back down for 15 seconds as defenders are forced to stand around and watch because of archaic defensive rules. Most of the focus on rules now is about “flopping”, and I don’t even remember the last time I heard a commentator mention frustration with zone or hand checking rules.

As for me? How would I craft the perfect game? I think the only way I’ll see basketball at my ideal pace is if they shorten the shot clock to 12 seconds. I’m not losing any sleep over it. And I’m glad I’m not in charge of the rules committee.


A History of Zone/illegal defense related rules changes

  • Zone defenses outlawed on January 11, 1947 (Harry Truman said it would be a date that lived in infamy. Okay, not true).
  • The following language was added to the Zone Defense Rule: "After the offensive team has advanced the ball to its front court, a defensive player may not station himself in the key area longer than three seconds if it is apparent he is making no effort to play an opponent. The three second count starts when the offensive team is in clear control in the front court."
  • Zone defense rules clarified with new rules for Illegal Defensive Alignments.
a. Weak side defenders may come in the pro lane (16’), but not in the college lane (12’) for more than three seconds.
b. Defender on post player is allowed in defensive three-second area (A post player is any player adjacent to paint area).

c. Player without ball may not be double-teamed from weak side.

d. Offensive player above foul line and inside circle must be played by defender inside dotted line.

e. If offensive player is above the top of the circle, defender must come to a position above foul line.

f. Defender on cutter must follow the cutter, switch, or double-team the ball.
  • After the first illegal defense violation, the clock is reset to 24 seconds. All subsequent violations result in one free throw and possession of the ball. If any violation occurs during the last 24 seconds of each quarter or overtime period, the offended team receives one free throw.
  • No illegal defense violation may occur when the ball is in the backcourt.
  • On the strongside, any defense is legal
  • On the weakside, defenders must remain on the weakside outside the paint unless (i) they are double-teaming the ball, (ii) picking up a free cutter or (iii) closely guarding an offensive player
  • Illegal defense guidelines will be eliminated in their entirety.
  • A new defensive three-second rule will prohibit a defensive player from remaining in the lane for more than three consecutive seconds without closely guarding an offensive player.
  • The time that a team has to advance the ball past midcourt will be reduced from ten seconds to eight.
History of "freedom of movement" rules

  • Clarification added to prohibit hand-checking through “rigid enforcement” of rule allowing a defensive player to retain contact with his opponent so long as he does not impede his opponent’s progress.
  • The “no-charge area,” formerly a two-by-six foot box where an offensive foul is not called if contact is made with a secondary defensive player who has established a defensive position, will be expanded to the area consisting of a half circle with a four-foot radius measured from the middle of the goal.
  • In the backcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders. In the frontcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders except below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may only use his forearm. In the post, neither the offensive player nor the defender is allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position. Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player. Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.
  • The official(s) will visually commence a five-second count if an offensive player with the ball and not facing-up starts dribbling below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded; or if he starts dribbling outside and then penetrates below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded. The five-second count commences when the offensive player penetrates the free throw line extended. The penalty is the offensive team’s loss of possession of the ball.
  • Any defense is legal on the strong side. Defenders must remain on the weak side outside the paint unless they are double-teaming the ball, picking up a free cutter or closely guarding an offensive player.
  • No contact with either hands or forearms by defenders except in the frontcourt below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may use his forearm only.
  • Neither the offensive player nor the defender will be allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position.
  • Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to Point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player.
  • Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.
  • A five-second count will begin if an offensive player with the ball and not facing-up starts dribbling below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded or starts dribbling outside and then penetrates below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded. (The five-second count commences when the offensive player penetrates the free throw line extended). After five seconds, a violation will have occurred and the offensive team will lose possession.
  • Brief contact initiated by a defensive player will be allowed if it does not impede the progress of the player with the ball.
  • New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to “open up the game.”
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Do Athletes Dream of Electric Sheep?

The great contradiction of sports fans is how much we know about athletes, and how little we know about athletes. We know their colleges, we know their stats, we may or may not know where they live in the offseason and what they drive, but that’s it. We talk about them all the time, but really know almost nothing of their interior lives. Can you imagine ten people who you know well enough that you’d recognize them, know where they went to college, their last five moves, and recognize one of their parents, but not know what books they’d read, how they feel about politics, what they do for fun?

Maybe they have no interior lives, we all know their lives are dominated by their jobs and have been since an extremely young age. Out of the three professions that we talk about all the time as a society, but really know nothing about I’ve spent a lot of time with just one: politicians. All are driven; some are good people; some are bad people; most are a mix of the two; and there’s a third group that's essentially a hardened core of ambition, surrounded by an empty shell. I can’t imagine athletes and movie stars are any different. Why would they be?
It is probably good for the athletes in some ways, who wants any more of your life on display than you need. I’m sure the NBA itself and the teams keep a tight rein on information. The Orlando Magic appear to have changed one of Gortat’s own languages into a made up construct of a totalitarian state to avoid even implying that he was picking a side in a conflict almost no American is even aware of. If they are that afraid of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, just imagine how terrified they are of any thug culture coming through, or even a general questioning of authority. One doesn’t need to know the motivating parts of David Stern’s interior life to see he didn’t like Rasheed Wallace. It also helps the biggest athletes maintain their brands. Who wants to buy shirts and shoes from a compulsive gambler? Why would they discuss politics if, as Air Jordan put it, “Republicans buy shoes too”.
But it hurts a lot of them as well. The media filled in Russell Westbrook’s entire personality based on some decisions about whether Durant was open enough to pass to. They’re doing the same with LeBron and his fourth quarters. Selfishness -- real selfishness -- and passing are two completely different things, except in our flattened view of sports stars. What Russell has gone through though is slight compared with the ones with real difficulties and troubles, something that the league or the team couldn’t just spin away. If you know nothing about someone for any length of time and then they make a mistake (like Delonte West’s arrest, Ron Artest’s fight, or Starbury’s uStream) the mistake quickly fills in the blank space. 

But even the worst of criminals is not a criminal all the time. A good defense attorney at sentencing fills in that blank space, fights back against the definition of criminal, shows they too have a family, but a court gives a better hearing than the media’s given any of these athletes. The mistake defined them because they were otherwise blank slates. If all you know about him's that he once applied for a job at Circuit City and later fought a fan at the Palace, you get a completely different view of Ron Artest than you do if you know more about him, about the work he’s done, and what he’s trying to do. I’m sure it's the same for Delonte West, but we’ll probably never know because that’s what we’ve been told about any of his 27 years off the court. Marbury could end up going either way with what we end up learning about him.
Like much of the NBA and pro sports, the silence probably doesn’t make a huge impact on most athletes, helps those who need it the least, the superstar brands, and ends up simply exploiting the small remainder. For good or ill, as a fan I’d like to know more... and I don't mean accidental penis Tweets.  Some real stories would give us something more to root for than geographic proximity.

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