CHARLOTTE NC - FEBRUARY 11: Teammates Kris Humphries #43 and Anthony Morrow #22 of the New Jersey Nets try to stop Kwame Brown #54 of the Charlotte Bobcats during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on February 11 2011 in Charlotte North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this Photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
NBA ballplayers are public figures, so we're all entitled to our opinions about them. Dan Grunfeld is cool with that, as long as we don't forget how gifted they have to be to even make it to that level.
If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say that an NBA player sucks -- in person, on television, on the Internet, or wherever else -- I'm fairly sure that I'd have enough spare change to treat my college roommate to a lifetime supply of Jack-In-The-Box's legendary two tacos for 99 cents deal. And I would treat him, by the way, because that was his jam, and because watching him plunge those things into a creamy white pool of ranch dipping sauce will always make me feel better about myself (if I can withstand the urge to vomit, that is). Basically, what I'm trying to illustrate, aside from my buddy's worrisome approach to nutrition, is that I've heard the statement "that guy sucks!" expressed on countless occasions with regard to NBA players, in one form or another, by fans, analysts, and friends alike, and if you follow basketball, I'm sure that you have, too.
To be clear, I'm not saying that it's wrong to comment on NBA ballplayers or to criticize their play, because we can all agree that these guys are in the public eye, and sometimes they might perform in a way that evokes a passionate response or warrants some sharp scrutiny. That's fair game, but lately, I've found myself wondering about the validity of the many statements I hear that, whether intentional or not, explicitly question an NBA player's aptitude for the game of basketball. Sure, it's a hard knock life, but in the last few years, with the explosion of social media, the glare on pro athletes has become particularly harsh, especially as it relates to their skills and abilities. Obviously, many public critiques are made casually, or in comparison to other NBA players, but I'm talking about the ones that are not. I'm talking about the value judgments such as "this guy sucks," "that guy is horrible," "those guys can't play," or "these guys are all the basketball equivalent of the Ladybugs before Martha/Matthew joined the squad," that are now incredibly common types of expression. These kinds of remarks (especially that last one) are not comparisons, but are rather direct criticisms of a single player's ability, and they make a statement that rings loud and clear: you are not good at your sport, Fella.
This makes sense, I suppose, because we live in a mass-media world, a world of analysis and conjecture, of Facebook and Twitter, talk radio and blog posts, page clicks and podcasts, where opinions, both educated and otherwise, are everywhere. Voicing opinions and keeping it real about what you believe is great -- and it's awesome that we‘re able to do it when, where, and how we see fit. But what's problematic, I think, is that oftentimes the truest realities of certain situations can get buried beneath the perceived reality that is created by the endless stream of chatter. In other words, the perception that certain NBA players "suck," "are terrible," or "have the same level of skill and ability that Henry Rowengartner did on the baseball diamond before his arm injury," can become the accepted reality in such a fluid and fast-moving way that the fairest, most unadulterated version of the truth often gets smothered by the popular and provocative opinion.
So, who's an NBA player that illustrates the phenomenon of his ability being perceived in a way that might not jive with reality? To me, the best example has to be Kwame Brown, because over the years, I don't think I've heard an NBA player get ragged on for his game more than him. Kwame, of course, is a 10-year NBA veteran known (and criticized) mostly for his failure to live up to his selection as the first pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. Presumably, he's heard the phrase "Kwame sucks" a time or two, and though I'm sure that's nowhere near the most offensive insult that's been hurled in his direction, it's still an insult -- or as we say on the streets, a "diss" -- because it's a value judgment regarding his worth as a basketball player. Saying that "Kwame sucks" or "Kwame's a waste of space" or "Kwame reminds me of the hyper-allergic-snot-bubble-blowing kid from the Little Giants before Bruce Smith taught him about intimidation," is not a comparison about where he stacks up to his peers, but is instead a direct and specific statement about his basketball ability, or lack thereof.
This seems like the perfect example because, to me, the idea that Kwame Brown could actually suck at basketball is ludicrous and laughable. The reason I can say that with unequivocal certainty is because I myself play professional basketball, so I know how good these guys really are. In fact, I've played ball with Kwame Brown before, and while I'll openly admit that he never turned into the dominant center that top picks sometimes do, I'll also tell you that he does not suck. My guess is that anyone who has been hit with a down-screen by Kwame or any 6'11", 270-pound man with legitimate athleticism and legs like tree trunks would feel the same way.
Certainly, Kwame is not Dwight Howard or David Robinson. But does he suck at hoops, as so many have said? No way. He's been one of the top 400 basketball players on the planet for the last 10 years, so sucking is out of the question. But it goes further than Kwame, too, because despite the criticism, he's actually been a serviceable NBA center throughout his career. He's scored thousands of points, grabbed thousands of rebounds, and made millions along the way. There are plenty of NBA players who have had much less success than that, but the truth is that they cannot suck either. Literally, it's impossible to reach the peak of one of the most competitive and popular sports on the planet without being able to play the game at a ridiculously high level. Whether fans, analysts, or the general viewing public get to see or truly understand a player's ability for themselves is never certain, but the fact that even the most remote NBA players can play at an extraordinarily un-sucky clip is undeniable.
To think about exactly how good these guys have to be to make it to the league, let's assume that every one of the millions of young kids in America who play basketball would want to someday be in the NBA. This is a fair thing to do, I believe, because playing in the NBA seems like just about the most awesome thing ever if you like basketball. Given this assumption, I suppose that the first meaningful step is to make your high school varsity squad, which many guys who like to play are not able to do. Then, as a varsity player, you need to excel to the point where a university selects you from the pack in order to represent them as a student-athlete, something that occurs with only a small percentage of high school players (for the record, Kwame went to the NBA straight from high school, but the rules now prohibit that). Then, once in college, among the cream of the crop from all over the country, you have to again be one of the best in order to even be considered for the NBA. And then, if it all comes together, you might come out of college as an elite member of your draft class, and that might just land you in the league. Might. That's how many layers of selection you have to go through (that goes for overseas players, too), and anyone who gets there in the end, even if they've been graced with some good luck along the way, has definitely earned it.
Yes, NBA players can be disappointments. They can be underachievers. They can be lazy, undisciplined or irreverent. They can be overpaid. They can waste their talent, potential and physical gifts. They can look sorry in relation to some of their superior peers. But they cannot actually "suck," "stink," "be worse than Smalls was at baseball before Benny the Jet took him under his wing and made him throw away his erector sets," or anything of that nature. If it seems like I'm beating a dead horse regarding the ability of NBA players, which I probably am, or that I'm balancing an entire argument on flimsy semantics, which is also possible, it's because I deeply respect the journey that all players have to travel to become a pro. I've been on it myself, after all, and I've experienced the years of work that it takes to play this game at a high level. I've bled for this game. I've sweat. I've cried. I've basically dedicated my life to it, as most professionals have, and if you've been through that, and if you really understand that journey, then you know how truly difficult and remarkable it is to become an NBA player. It's a hell of an accomplishment that takes a lot of sacrifice, no matter how you slice it, and if you've fought that fight, it's impossible to say with a straight face that anyone else who has walked that same bumpy road, and made it all the way to the end, really sucks at what they do.
This commentary is definitely not meant to insinuate anything negative about people expressing their opinions and sharing their perspectives. I believe in that right 100 percent, and if you get down to it, this is my way of doing the same thing -- of providing my own point of view, that of a player who has lived the journey and who understands the position of athletes whose life's work is constantly dissected through intense scrutiny. Because I have Facebook, I have Twitter, and my fiancée occasionally lets me go out in public (if I avoid eye contact and only speak when spoken to), I know the types of vicious things that people say about ballplayers. Truly, I have no real problem with that, and I support the right to do it. I just think that sometimes we take for granted how gifted the athletes we watch really are, and as a result, the standards by which we view and judge them become impossibly high, and the criticisms we levy unrealistically skewed.
Compared to LeBron and Kobe, Hakeem and Shaq, Isiah and Magic, everyone seems like they suck, or like they can't play worth a 50-cent taco. But by looking at things through a balanced and realistic lens, it seems clear to me that no player can make it to the NBA without a substantial amount of ability. Playing in the NBA is amazing, lucrative and prestigious, and in my opinion -- based on how hard it is to get there -- there cannot possibly be anyone who sucks at basketball, or anything close to it, hoopin' in the league. Not a single one. You might disagree with that, and that's your prerogative. I'm okay with it, too, as long as you don't try to tell me that Goldberg sucked at being a goalie, or that my boy sucks for eating nasty tacos smothered in ranch. Then, we'll have a problem, because Goldberg is a legend, and my friend is quite simply the man. Accordingly, I will never say that they suck, or that any NBA player sucks, either. I think they've all earned that much.