Summer jumped on me, like a floppy-eared golden retriever elated upon its owner’s arrival home, licking blankly at a face, black eyes widely pitched towards its aim of affection. It was unexpected, but an inevitable fact of life. The warm lick of summer, at least here in Boston, has also been accompanied with the typical humidity, but also the strong scent of unliberated, bandwagon fanhood, as a couple of weeks ago, this oft-maligned city lived up to its century-old “Hub!” moniker by becoming the hub of remembering that pro hockey exists in metropolitan areas not beset by 1. brain drain, 2. Marcellus shale “fracking” issues, and 3. scrapple (other than Canadian cities, which remain gloriously cosmopolitan, as all foreign cities in the Western world are). I grew up playing hockey, and by that I mean skating around poorly with my brother, and until a few weeks ago I had no idea that Joe Thornton wasn’t on the Bruins anymore. I watched a lot of those games, but I am not even going to try to convince you I am even a casual fan.
A lot of people assuredly, quietly, felt the same way going into the NBA Finals a few weeks ago, with the same lack of awareness that allowed ordinary, well-meaning people to remark on noted former congressional shithead Anthony Weiner’s transgressions without noting his own previous life as a defender of the socially downtrodden. It’s all ignorance, and I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative way, just that it would be difficult to give much a shit about his proposal for single-payer health care before if you weren’t genuinely interested in progressive politics or health care reform, the same way nearly all normal people aren’t interested in Chris Paul’s PER during the playoffs. All things are the same in how they are parsed by profit-driven media organizations: as crappily as possible, even if they want to assure you of their continued quality/relevance by hiring Brian Phillips to write about Wimbledon.
For this year’s Finals and the consequent NBA Draft last week, it could not have gone worse in terms of typical narrative devises living up to those interests' expectations. As a fan, I can appreciate this because it has led me to feel unexpected emotions about prospectively banal subjects, but as a person who writes about basketball and culture as a hobby, it must have been horrible to be a hacky sports journalist recently (besides the lockout, which is thankfully going completely according to plan).
In all likelihood, the most unexpected emotion that I felt between the entirety of the Finals and the Draft came from a fleetingly short floor-angle camera shot of LeBron with about three minutes left in Game 6. Faced with his own certain defeat at the hands of these old dorks, James looked like his brain just became aware of his own purposelessness, hubris and callous misunderstanding of what just happened to lead him to this point. He looked positively bummed, which is why at least temporarily, I felt empathetic for those dudes. It is not every season that Simmons can refer, even half-seriously, to Shawn Marion as “the LeBron killer,” but we also live in a country where “fracking” the Marcellus shale of the Rust Belt is considered an acceptable way of producing natural gas. In that loss, they all had a right to feel miserable, just as we all should given our own personal circumstances (especially if we live in the Rust Belt).
With regards to the Big Three of last season’s Heat team, what has changed through the season the most is how their varying levels of typical gender performativity has claimed, more than anything, the way that the generally unaware “fan” perceives them as human beings. ESPN and whatever agencies usually come next (sports radio, outmoded newspaper reporters, etc.) have advocated and largely been complicit in illustrating these players through these shallow gender characterizations, which ultimately has affected the way that the aforementioned fans perceive them, simplifying and debasing their personalities to the point of harmfully reinforcing stereotypes about what masculinity is.
The rivetingly simple spectacle of watching these three very large grown men play with an orange rubber ball becomes even more unfortunately debased when hegemonic gender politics assert themselves as dominantly as they always do. We have associated professional sporting with the most stringent, abusive and aggressive forms of masculinity for so long that when an even slightly ideologically cumbersome player like Chris Bosh peers through the veil of stardom, the standing judgment has become to mock him mercilessly for expressing his emotions towards defeat and struggle like an actual human being.
And even if he struggles (as he often did in his new home) and our natural tendency for schadenfreude comes across as a result, why should we mock him with more venom than fellow Toronto Raptors expatriate Vince Carter, whose divorce from his team was much more disrespectful than Bosh, who we all assumed would leave? Why should we mock him in a different way than LeBron? It’s simple: his feeble humanity got the best of him, over and over, in a way that was unacceptable for our dominant tropes telling the story of the masculine gender.
A few months ago, David Hill wrote a fine article for this website where he analogized the upbringing and unconventional career of eventual second round NBA Draft pick Jeremy Tyler with a cultural namesake coming from a similar socioeconomic and educational background, buzz rapper Tyler the Creator. Where the latter Tyler has evoked his masculinity through vacant, uncouth references to sexual violence, one of his Odd Future cohorts, Frank Ocean (who sings the hook on Tyler’s song, “She”) is more apt for an unusual, delicate character examination that reflects a psychological break with his crewmates, and ultimately, nearly all contemporary hip-hop and R&B music.
Ocean is still tied to the overall boundaries of heteronormativity, in that (amongst things) he makes face-value references to vapid, meaningless sex and shitty relationships, but he is willing to contribute to his own complexities by willingly exposing himself as miserable, heartbroken, etc. in his lyrics in a way that points to knowledge of his own futility in early 21th century America. Although he explicitly talks about sex, he is additionally often interested in relating situations to his own compassion and empathy for those around him. Is this weird? I don’t know, but it reminds me of Chris Bosh. Either way, the most interesting point of Ocean’s spring-borne LP Nostalgia Ultra takes place in a very familiar point in hip-hop records.
As album midway point “Lovecrimes” slowly grinds to a halt, a sample of an early, heated exchange between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s derided Eyes Wide Shut gradually appears to the listener through a VCR somewhere. While Cruise calmly mumbles through a series of very awkward opinions about sexual desire, Nicole Kidman’s desires for parity ring louder and with more effectiveness than the cold-hearted technique that Ocean sang his own song. Which, I think, is the point.
First, there are Kidman’s bitingly sarcastic words, which the listener first understands towards the end of the track, as Ocean’s vocals gradually fade out: “Millions of years of evolution, right? Right? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women... women, it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else!” This conversation essentially sums up the differences between the two characters which causes their relationship to, at least temporarily, fracture; after Kidman’s character exposes any sort of individual agency through “selfish” sexual desire, Cruise’s character, rooted in traditional gender mores, becomes obsessed with realizing his own fantasy, with only a stinging regard for his partner.
Ocean is aware of this, and of how this story ends up, so this sample seemingly becomes the point in which the artist asks other members of his own gender, of his own listeners, “What are we defined by?”
Both Bosh and Frank Ocean are utilizing their own perspectives, based in their own individual social backgrounds, which encompass more than what contemporary gender mores expect from men, especially men who perform as R&B singers or professional athletes. The performance aspect of this is what is most important in our discussion. Is it Bosh's black and red uniform, representing not only himself but also such supreme examples of masculinity as James and Wade, which peeves some of our peers into mockery and comparison with stereotypical feminine positions? His formerly gaiety stature and height, upon which he stands with his red right ankles? That one time when he legendarily asked his fellow players to not play so hard so he doesn’t get hurt? Could it be his apparently bookish nature and quiet marriage? Was it Like a Bosh?
I don’t know. At least for this author, what Bosh’s apparent lapses into humanity indicate is a kind of levity that is lost quickly beyond Twittered pictures of Paul Pierce dressed up like a frog to match his daughter’s Halloween costume, or Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas planking through the streets of Orlando. But the difference in levity here involves the type of emotion provoked: as Pierce dressed up like a goofball for his daughter shows that he cares about making her happy, does the same emotional bluntness from Bosh (and many, many college basketball players of the past) not prove that he does care for what he does and is understanding of its significance in the world?
In order for ourselves to survive the next century with our senses intact, we are going to have to accept that empathy and compassion for other people can be a facet of masculinity. And believe it or not, this is going to have to apply to our professional athletes as well.
[Editor's note: As an addendum to this piece, here is a short list of specifically gender-related tweets from the fake Twitter account of legitimately great NBA commentator, Bill Walton, @TheBillWalton. Unsurprisingly, they all mock Chris Bosh. While with most NBA related fake (or real) accounts, I considered the account clever at first, as willing to attempt a Waltonesque tone on current NBA topics is pretty brave and literate. At first, they accomplished this goal, and then it went horribly wrong; finally, it ended up pretty much only posting things like this. So like I said, here's a short list of the many horrible things @TheBillWalton has said in Bill Walton's name.]
- “... Chris Bosh's lipstick canister.” http://bit.ly/kSnDEf
- “As for Chris Bosh's great shooting so far, maybe its Maybelline!” http://bit.ly/mIZZgM
- “The evening gown portion of the Miss USA pageant! Chris Bosh is watching intently and taking meticulous notes on how enhance his wardrobe.” http://bit.ly/lptrQj
- “How many fashion tips did Chris Bosh pull from the Miss USA pageant?” http://bit.ly/lKjcfu
- “Chris Bosh removes the lipstick and throws on the red, white, & blue tights and he grabs his golden lasso! Wonder Woman is back, folks!” http://bit.ly/jfJSX6
- “The Vancouver riot squad has lost total control of this situation in the same vein that Chris Bosh lost control of his emotions & manhood.” http://bit.ly/iCLUQy
- “This just in: Chris Bosh called the Canucks locker room & sang Rosey Grier's rendition of 'It's Alright To Cry' in a high pitched falsetto.” http://bit.ly/l57fJ9
- “In this series Lebron lost his clutch & Chris Bosh found it. Unfortunately for Miami fans he filled it with perfume and mascara cases.” http://bit.ly/j4LgUK
- “Secret. Strong enough for a man, but made for Chris Bosh.” http://bit.ly/lAVMba
[I'm sure there's more, but what's the point? -ed.]