September 15, 2010
You wouldn't be wrong in thinking the NBA and the pillocks who feed this self-serving beast are the bad guys.
The summer started with the promise of another Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals, devolved into the whole free-agent mess, which turned into the LeBron James(notes) nonsense, and it hasn't really gotten any better.
Sure, Kevin Durant(notes) looked pretty good last week, but what's the point when we're a month away from wondering if three people that we're not quite fond of might lead a team that nobody likes (judging by Miami's attendance records) toward the best regular-season record in NBA history? To say nothing of the resultant dynasty?
Well, in a world of cynicism and robots, I'd like to take the focus away. Sure, your 2010-11 is likely to end up with a player once accused of a felony taking on a team full of people nobody really cares for, but that doesn't mean we can't feel good about our fandom.
For the next few weeks, I'm going to pick an NBA-related subject, A-through-Z, and tell you why it's worth your time, and why it's one of the reasons I love covering this league. Because that's why I wanted to become a scribe who's paid to cover this league. Sharing the things I know and love with those of my kind. All that stuff.
Because I'm lucky enough to have your ear for however long, I don't care that this might come off as a bit twee. A little embarrassing. A little too forthright. I'm OK with that. Hopefully you are, as well.
Not the player, and certainly not the person, but the reaction. The way he's been regarded, since entering the NBA in 1996. From national scribes calling for him to win Rookie of the Year to the way they've had high (high, apple pie-in-the-sky) hopes to his potential comeback this season.
I'm not destroying those who don't outwardly have it out for Antoine. I'm the same way. When news broke about him playing pick-up games with the Charlotte Bobcats, I immediately processed the fact that any training-camp invite cash or possible non-guaranteed contract would result in a pile of money to throw at Walker's mounting seven-figure debt. Never mind Walker's culpability in raising that debt.
And without linking to or quoting others, I wasn't alone. Not quite cheering for him, but hoping for him. Regardless of how bad he'd screwed things up. Because, make no mistake, he'd screwed things up. In every conceivable way.
Think about it. He entered this league with the ability to become the pro game's most versatile player. Handle for days, in spite of his size. A passable touch from long range, in spite of his size. A knack for the carom, in spite his perimeter-heavy ways. A good sense of when and how to dish, in spite of his look-at-me tendencies. The guy could have been great, so great, in every way a man can contribute at this level.
Instead, he coasted. Never added anything. Sure, he wasn't as rough around the edges by the time his career flamed out as compared to his rookie year, but it was nothing that couldn't be explained away by the sheer amount of NBA minutes he played. Rick Pitino, Walker's coach in Kentucky and in the pros, once sighed (at a basketball camp for the kiddies, no less) about how Antoine could scrimmage in a gym all day, all summer, and yet never get any better at the game he loved because he never took any time to individually work on specific aspects of his play. Stagnation, in spite of all the sweat.
As a result, the guy who's hoping to try out for the Bobcats this fall will be the same guy who seemed so full of promise in 1996, seemed so full of promise upon being traded to Dallas in 2003 and seemed so full of promise before his first year in Miami in 2005. It's why writers initially see so much promise if Antoine can just "get it right" in 2010. Shave some weight off, and start from the top. And I love that. It's delusional, but I understand it.
Forgetting, of course, that his game even when his edges were trimmed and burning wasn't much to behold. How the percentage of his overall shots became more and more dependent on a far below-par (32.5 percent) 3-point stroke as his years moved along. How that shot, regardless of weight or role or mindset, wasn't really ever going to get better because of that crossed-up release of his. Forgetting that the man has disappointed everyone -- everyone -- at each of his pro stops.
Also forgetting that, yeah, Antoine is kind of a slumlord. And that he blew all the money he earned as a pro, and then some, through every fault of his own (despite signing a nine-figure deal back in 1999). That he never worked on a game that most observers overrated to no end, for years, even well after League Pass or common sense or advanced metrics told a different story.
Somehow, he remains a figure worth rooting for; at least until we're reminded of the all the unsavory stuff (Antoine was pulled over on a DUI charge last year, too). We remember the legendary Photoshop exploits. We feel sorry for a man who lost all his dough despite so many chances not to. We feel sorry for a guy who overestimated his own gifts to a point that he decided not to refine or improve that gifts he'd been, eh, gifted.
It's September of 2010, the guy has been letting us down forever, and I know you were right with me in wondering (for some, an entire column, for others a scant few seconds) how good it would be for everyone if Antoine just got it right for a spell, and was able to pull in yet another NBA contract.
And that's why I love being able to cover this league. Because that hope, no matter how ridiculous, is always there. If anything, we should be rooting against Antoine Walker. Mindful of his repeated failures, unnerved at the idea that one guaranteed contract this year (signed in order to aid him in his debt relief) would send him more money in a few months than most of us will earn in a lifetime.
For whatever reason, though, we wonder. Can he pull it off, finally? If he's in shape? If he doesn't shoot too much? If he's able to replace Boris Diaw(notes)? If he can help make up for Charlotte's weaknesses in the pivot or at point guard? On and on, it goes. We're hopeless.
I hope never to lose that hopelessness. Even if it's just for a few seconds, before we dismiss the idea of someone like Antoine Walker ever helping an NBA team, or the idea that Walker is someone we should be supporting as he climbs his way out of massive, self-imposed debt.
We're supposed to start the glass half-full, before the cynicism rolls in, because ... well, I don't know why. There's no productive reason behind it. I've had a few days to think about this, and I don't have the slightest idea as to why we should ignore sound reasoning on our way toward expecting things that probably won't come true. Anachronistic, but nice, and for reasons that don't suit us as either a fan nor paid follower.
But, yes, Antoine Walker is one of the better reasons I'm lucky to have this gig, and lucky to be around as a fan, in this era. Because Antoine Walker was designed to break our heart, and sometimes we need to be reminded of the middling lengths that promise alone can take you.