Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

December 1, 2008

The NBA Is FAN-tastic

Free Darko's sensibilities elevate even the Association's most-mundane games into an aesthete's delight.

Jim Chairusmi

For the collective of writers who make up Free Darko, their manifesto is simple: The dissolution of the old NBA, a renewal of faith in individual players, and the celebration of a more perfect basketball union. Free Darko's FreeDarko presents The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats, and Stars in Today's Game is a beautifully illustrated, handy guide to the collection of athletes and personalities that make up the stylish NBA.

As Gilbert Arenas writes in the foreword, "When fans go to a game all they want is entertainment. They want to see somebody playing their heart out, and for the guy who's playing his heart out to have fun doing it." The site also has friends with worse jump shots. Free Darko was described by With Leather's Matt Ufford as "an incomprehensible graduate philosophy class with a head-scratching slideshow," while Deadspin founder Will Leitch says the FD guys "are smarter about every subject than I am."

Nathaniel Friedman (aka Bethlehem Shoals)
"If you want to watch basketball, you'll watch it even if the teams aren't absolutely positively busting their respective asses as if their lives depended on it."

Nathaniel Friedman (aka Bethlehem Shoals)

Nathaniel Friedman (aka Bethlehem Shoals), co-founder and primary contributor to Free Darko, recently exchanged emails with Gelf about his favorite Free Darko players, the difference between NBA and NFL players, and why Western Conference dominance has hurt the league. This interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Friedman, along with fellow Free Darko editors Jacob Weinstein (aka Big Baby Belafonte) and Jesse Einhorn (aka Silverbird5000), and sportswriters Gary Andrew Poole and Liz Robbins, at Gelf's free Varsity Letters reading series on December 4 in New York's Lower East Side. (Also, read Friedman's and Tom Zeller's Gelf article on why NBA stat-heads and scouts need to kiss and make up.)

Gelf Magazine: Is there any significance to the alias Bethlehem Shoals?

Nathaniel Friedman: Long before any of this started, I worked in a writing center at Temple University. Some days, it was slow. On one of those days, I and a friend of mine—a young African-American woman who, like me, was raised in some version of the South—had a contest to see who could come up with the best elderly church-going lady name. I can't remember what Jessica came up with, but "Bethlehem Shoals" popped into my head. She congratulated me immediately on a job well done, and went on to call me that for the rest of the time we worked there. When it came time to start the blog, it only seemed natural that I'd use the best alias I'd ever had.
Bonus section: "Bethlehem" references the jazz label, as well as sounding vaguely Semitic, and "Shoals" is, of course, all about Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. So there's some very low-grade music dork trivia in there, too.

Free Darko at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on December 4.

GM: The "Free Darko" motto (at least on your MySpace page) is "6th grade NBA opinions voiced as revolutionary manifesto." Please explain the credo.

NF: We fight a lot—with the world, with each other, and within ourselves—over just how silly, serious, nihilistic, or purposeful our final mission will be. Sometimes, when I sit around on a Friday watching this year's Warriors play just to see what Anthony Randolph will do, and get frustrated when I receive a breathless text about what Julian Wright's up to, the whole thing seems like nothing more than hipster/aesthete NBA fandom.
But we do have big theories about what the league does wrong, that, even if we overstate them, point out some important differences in management and leadership styles that only a few organizations seem to have picked up on. Or maybe they're just all lazy. Note: This is not a Simmons "I could be a GM" gauntlet, but more saying that we do theorize about basketball and why there might yet be perfectly plausible new frontiers rarely explored. Just anti-conservatism, I guess, and against worker-as-cog.
Ironically, that motto came from an early commenter of ours, Brickowski—who, like many of the OGs, has mysteriously disappeared over the years. That was when a lot of what we said bordered on absurd, didn't care much for nuance, and basically just wanted to exalt what we liked about the league, rational arguments be damned. The Manifesto that kicks off the book was actually the source of some very close collaboration between me and a couple of editors at Bloomsbury. So I guess we rely on others to distill our essence, but then reserve the right to say they've glimpsed but one facet of a mangled face.

GM: Who are your favorite Free Darko players and why?

NF: We've done an internal poll every few years, but even that ends up being a mess because the three main contributors (me, Dr. Lawyer IndianChief, and Brown Recluse, Esq.) can't agree on many specifics. Some of us have watched certain third-tier players more than others; some of us are just suffering from, say, Allen Iverson fatigue, and refuse to acknowledge the long-term in this polling.
If you took a snap poll of yours truly, right now, it would be (in no order);
Anthony Randolph, Golden State Warriors: I have never seen a player do the things he does. And what those things are varies from game-to-game. What's even weirder is that, in the run up to the draft, no one claimed he was the next Kevin Garnett, or a less skilled Kevin Durant. He was just supposed to be this tall, raw dude from LSU who couldn't play inside and would probably be a bust.
Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix Suns: His team is in shambles, but Amare's returned fully from 2005's microfracture surgery and is now a holy terror to behold. He's the rare explosive dunk-machine who can also play the game, and keeps you from feeling guilty about being such a sucker for the highlight. Also, off the court, he's crafting this bizarre, fairly intentional "serious" side that frankly just confuses the hell out of everyone.
Travis Outlaw/Rudy Fernandez, Portland Trail Blazers: I know that these two lithe, high-scoring forwards are technically in competition for minutes, but I can't separate them in my mind. Outlaw has this ghostly way of moving in which he never really seems to touch the ball, the floor, or the rim, but still impresses himself upon all with raw power. Fernandez probably has one of those corny Spanish nicknames like "He Who Brings Streamers," but there's something purely ballsy to his game that's like getting your ass kicked by someone who insists on keeping his stupid Halloween costume (complete with funny hat) into December.
Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets and/or LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: Total domination is one of life's most pure joys. For years, Kobe Bryant's fulfilled that role, but it's time for a change. Paul's started slow, though I wouldn't bet against him coming back even stronger as the season grinds on. James, on the other hand, has dropped the last bit of ethereal detachment from his game and is just flat-out doom and gloom now. I'm an Old Testament-fearing man, but I think I get what it's like to walk with (Basketball) Jesus now. At any moment, he could end the world, clothe the poor, or insist on extra mayo.

GM: You chose to lead the book off with Kobe Bryant. Do you still view him as the poster boy of the league? How long or what does LeBron James have to do to take the baton?

NF: Part of our Kobe fandom stems from the fact that—in addition to offering up a remarkable study in contrast, conflicts, and totally contorted public perception—he gets no respect. At least not proportional to how good he is.
It's weird, though: Bryant still seems to be working at matching Michael Jordan on the workmanlike categories, like rings, and proving leadership, and developing his game as he ages. But that's all pretty snore-y compared to LeBron, who has half the league held hostage with the faint possibility that he might jump teams in 2010. Not to mention his friendship with Jay-Z, which is some weird kind of symbolic insider trading that is the first kernel of a business-world revolution. Kobe's been defiled too often to ever attain the otherworldly except in small spurts. Whereas with LeBron, it barely matters that his game's still somewhat imperfect, and he may not ever get a championship. There's a religious metaphor here that I would make, were I better informed or felt more comfortable insulting other people's faiths.

GM: Gilbert Arenas is a fan of Free Darko. How did the site come to his attention? How did you get him to write the foreword for the book?

NF: We made an alarming number of Arenas-themed T-shirts, and diligently made sure he was photographed with each and every one. When we realized that having a player do the foreword would greatly increase the chances that people might notice the book, we made a shortlist, and started making some inquiries through the proper back channels. The Gil thing came together fast and first, which was really a welcome surprise; we got in touch with Dave McMenamin, who worked on Arenas's blog, and after a few chats with him and one shaky conference call with Gil, we were good to go. We actually at one point thought about having an athlete foreword and a more "analytical" intro, but Arenas managed to nail both himself.
I probably should've included him in my list of most FD players now, but come on. Everybody knows. I don't want to be redundant. He's got the lifetime achievement award. And plus, I haven't even seen him play in what seems like forever. My direct connection with the experience of his game is in limbo. Insert diagram of eye/long nerve/brain here.

eye diagram

Close enough.

GM: The NBA allowed Kobe Bryant to change his number from "8" to "24." I'd be really upset if I were a fan who invested big money on a Kobe jersey. The NFL, meanwhile, refused to allow Chad Johnson to change his jersey name to "Ocho Cinco," citing sales. What NBA personality would you say is most likely to pull an "Ocho Cinco" name change? (I assume Dennis Rodman is pissed he never thought about it.)

NF: I'm glad you asked this question. Because while NBA players aren't quite the same brand of "good soldier" as NFL guys, they also don't act out in quite the same way when they do (less disciplined, fewer firearms). I have this theory that wide receivers, and some defensive backs, are repressed NBA players. Stuff like Chad Johnson's done definitely seems like the NBA desire to define and express one's self through sports gone horribly awry.
The touchdown celebrations, the hair, the number change…if he could just break out a crossover every now and then, or improvise a no-look lateral, you wouldn't have these problems with him. About Rodman—I loved his game, but on paper, in the grand scheme of things, it was the most workmanlike thing imaginable. He just approached it like someone constantly fighting to keep his identity alive, or maybe just to say, "Hey, look, I have elevated the mundane into something unspeakably exciting. Pay attention to me." Defense and rebounding rarely get those props.

GM: Why do you think the NBA has lost some popularity in the post-Jordan era? (As mentioned in the Almanac glossary: Due to the folly of time zones, half the country now thinks the NBA sucks.)

NF: No one could match Jordan, everyone was trying to be Jordan, the world was looking for players who provided any scrap of Jordan, a lot of the rest of the league was just plain awful to watch (unless you had a personal investment in Heat/Knicks). That's the peril of a league putting all its eggs in one basket, and having so, so many eggs to spread around. That said, I think the time-zone thing is very real. The East has been abysmal for the better part of this century. That makes a lot of the season's games, even the playoffs, feel irrelevant—even if there is the slightest bit of good basketball being played there. The West, on the other hand, has had tons of teams worth watching, stars we love, and all that. When James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh came to the East in 2003, even that didn't save the day, because they still found themselves smack-dab in the middle of the East, with East teams around them, and the inability to change that overnight.
Case in point: In the first round of the 2006-07 playoffs, the Warriors were upsetting the Mavs with some of the most life-affirming, if preposterous, ball seen in years. Certainly not the style that's supposed to win games, to upset teams that had been in the Finals the year before. Everyone on the East Coast was reduced to saying things like, "I heard those games are great," while everyone West of the Mississippi was in heaven. I feel that way about a lot of series over the years, like, for instance, the Kings/Mavs showdowns of a few years earlier. And when it comes to the regular season, forget about it—I'd say I tune into an East-only game about once every two weeks.

GM: What can the NBA do to better market its players? You don't appear to have much love for Dwyane Wade. (Almanac: Boring as hell.)

NF: Label me convert or turncoat: That's all changed since the Olympics. He was all over the place, pulling rabbits out of the proverbial hat left and right, and not in the least bit boring or predictable. And he had real menace in his eyes. Not to mention a renewed commitment to harassing the ball on defense, which leads to a lot of jaw-dropping blocks and breakaway steals (LeBron, too, by the way). When I've watched the Heat this season—which I've done a lot more than I should—that all remains in evidence. So, yeah, I wish I could personally scrub that out of all unsold copies of the book.

"We rely on others to distill our essence, but then reserve the right to say they've glimpsed but one facet of a mangled face."
GM: Watching an NBA game, it does seem that teams don't play hard until the last five minutes of the game, if it is close. That has to hurt the game.

NF: The playoffs are more intense than the regular season in every sport, and yet basketball's the only one where people use this fact to claim that entire halves don't matter, or 82 games don't matter. First of all, how would you really get what was going on late if you didn't watch what came before? It's like saying arranged marriages beat dating because they save time. Second, if you want to watch basketball, you'll watch it even if the teams aren't absolutely positively busting their respective asses as if their lives depended on it. Again, no one ever says "skip everything but March Madness." And baseball fans put up with an even longer, less meaningful season. No one tries to talk them out of it.
It all comes down to this idea that basketball needs to aggressively sell itself, or recruit new fans. All that does is open it up for more criticism, since it's constantly trotting out proof that it's "fixed" itself. I don't think the sport is perfect, but that's fine. It's just not turning into the NFL overnight, and the degree to which its imperfections hurt it ebb and flow depending on the game, players, and the season.

GM: If you were the same height as Darko Milicic, could you beat him in a game of one-on-one?

NF: No. I can barely walk in public.

Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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Article by Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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