Once upon a time, the NBA establishment believed that a player with lots of tattoos was a bad seed. It was a case of paranoia and prejudice, with people unfamiliar with other cultures assuming that a great deal of body art was the mark of a thug or hoodlum. Hoop Magazine once even airbrushed away Allen Iverson's ink for a cover.
Times have changed quite a bit, to the point where LeBron James and Kevin Durant can embrace tattoos and still serve as two of the league's most marketable players. It's even to the point where coaches can admire a player's particular choice of body art. Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, for instance, sees Renaldo Balkman's eyelid tats as a mark of character. From Eddie Sefko for The Dallas Morning News (via PBT):
The Mavericks’ forward, who is trying to cash in on his long-shot chance of making the final roster, has the words “hustle” and “harder” inked onto right and left eyelid, respectively. Those words embody his philosophy on basketball, not to mention speaking highly of his ability to handle pain.
Asked for his first thoughts on the dreadlocked, multi-tattooed former first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks, coach Rick Carlisle said: “My first thoughts? I like his hairdo. And I like his tattoos a lot. There’s a lot of storytelling going on there.
“You know he’s got a high pain tolerance if he’s got tattoos on his eyelids. All that stuff impresses me before we even start talking about his game. That’s why I liked [DeShawn] Stevenson.”
As Carlisle likes to say, you can’t have a whole team full of milk-drinkers. You need a few guys who live just a little closer to the edge.
We have come a long way, clearly. While it's true that most coaches are inclined to say positive things about a role player with an outside shot at making the team, it would also be quite easy to ignore Balkman's image altogether due to its past association with questionable behavior. In March, Balkman was banned from the Philippine Basketball Association for life after choking a teammate in a game, and the Mavericks could be forgiven for not wanting to remind people of that incident. But Carlisle decided there was no connection between Balkman's look and his past behavior. Thinking nothing of it is a step in the right direction.
That's not to say that Carlisle's comments are totally perfect — if tattoos mean nothing then they also shouldn't connote toughness, and it's possible that this consideration of Balkman presents him as a different sort of outsider — but it's also a much more complicated situation than prior instances of kneejerk prejudice. Carlisle argues that tattoos are now a sign of a quality that NBA observers have considered positive for a very long time. What was once distasteful has become part of our everyday experience of the league.