AI has taken me on a roller coaster ride throughout his career. When he won MVP, he was my idol. I was amazed at the idea of a 6’2 guard lording it over a league of 7″ behemoths. Here was the perfect anti-hero of the hiphop generation. A cornrow sporting, tattooed example of the youth rising up from nowhere to hold up the highest individual honor of all of basketball. A kid from the streets doing it right. What’s a more romantic scenario than that?
As he made news later re his transfer to other teams, I had nothing but high hopes. The Championship eluded him even as he came close several times in Philadelphia, so a transfer to the then rising Nuggets seemed a great move.
A while later and.. ok so it wasn’t. But maybe the Pistons though, whom had just won one, would surely do the trick, right? Didn’t it seem like an upgrade of Billups their PG to a better player? Nuggets get a ‘shoot first’ PG for a qualified All-Star and ‘future Hall of Famer’! How could that move not work?
Fast forward a year and well, ok that didn’t pan out either, and the Nuggets proved they got the better of the deal. But I still had high hopes! Next stop, the ..uhhmm.. Grizzlies?? Ok waitaminit, maybe something’s wrong here.
Before I go on though, let’s stop here and flashback a year or so from today:
At the time of the Grizzlies trade I read my AI book I wrote about here, and I found out why. Bought off a whim to read something new more than anything else, ‘Only The Strong Survive‘ explained his upbringing as well as introduced me to the world which fostered this ‘me first’ mentality that seemed to prevail not only AI but the whole generation I thought he represented.
I had always been aware of the ‘I gotta get mine’ philosophy pervasive amongst the hiphop generation coming from America, constantly justifying in their songs and the way they act and dress how important it was to make as much money as possible and live it up like you had it. It wasn’t so much as a wish to ‘rise – from – the – slums’ as it was a ‘drive – a – bigger – car’, ‘own – a – bigger – house – than – your – neigbor’ thing. A general ‘rub your riches in your everyone’s face’ way of life that justified itself by appearing to come from the ghetto dwelling poor, but just as quickly lends itself to excess in the form of gawdy gold chains, gold teeth, flashy cars, loose women and high living. All the while maintaining how they’re ‘keeping it real’, as proven by continuing friendly relations with the local gangsters and drug pushers aka ‘real people’ back in the old ‘hood.
For this generation of people, the houses and lifestyles featured in MTV Cribs was how you rise up from poverty. For me however, an Asian living in a third world country, rising up from poverty was a regular job that paid the bills, and a moderate, realistic lifestyle that keeps you from over extending those bills.
Obviously this wasn’t enough for this generation of kids in America. It seemed to me that anyone can get a job in the Land of Plenty, except that just getting one wasn’t enough, and that if you did you were a loser of some sort. According to their rules you shouldn’t just get a job, you should be the boss. You don’t just earn a monthly income, you gotta get your millions. And you don’t work ‘normal jobs’ for God’s sake. You get your mountain of money somehow; by playing ball, rapping, selling drugs or hooking up your trailer to someone who does those things.
After reading more about him AI became to me the epitome of that generation, a phenom from the gutter who took the ‘playing ball’ route to fame and riches, and how. A fantastic talent whose ability burned brightest amongst the rest and was easily the poster boy for getting out the ‘hood via hoops.
Alas while the money and fame came pouring in as expected, he could never really get as far away from the gutter. Too often the arguments he had with team owners and coaches stemmed from his ‘me first’ mentality, a strong opinion justified by his poor upbringing that ‘he should get his’, that anything less was an insult. That getting a ‘mere job’ (ie. coming off the bench) wasn’t enough. He has to be Numero Uno, The Man, A-Number-One. The fact he has enough talent to back it up actually works against him in this case. While most Coaches would’ve ignored him as just another self – engrossed player, it was hard to ignore his career 27ppg. The crowd loves him, making owners automatically love him too. They’d give in to his outbursts and freaky behaviour and would probably over rule Coaches in his favor just to get him to stay.
End flashback, to current day.
At the time of his peak, AI was ‘The Answer’ both literally and figuratively. But even then, two forces work against him. For one, even a phenom such as he would eventually age. Coaches want his production while owners want him to draw crowds. If he can’t bring both or either, he’d be recognized as the liability on and off the court he really is.
And second is the Basketball part. The game, if you haven’t noticed, consists of 5 guys on the court and a bunch of others on the bench, rotating with them. These, along with a myriad other people ie. the Coaching Staff, the Owner, and the army of trainers and other people working around them, constitute the ‘team’, all of whom play a role, all of them presumably accepting this role and doing what they can to do it as best they can. Herewith, he became The Problem.
On the first front, AI is on the losing side. He doesn’t do those spectacular high wire things he used to do when he was younger, and while he’s still an incredible offensive threat, he’s not as exciting. Team owners realize that, and so are forced to appraise him appropriately, warts and all.
On the basketball front, AI’s not the Answer either. A basketball team will always need guys coming off the bench. To put ego or some conceited sense of self worth before the benefit of the team goes against the very tenets of the game. And as much as you might argue, right or wrong, against Coaches and Owners, you sure as hell can’t argue against the game. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it again. Basketball doesn’t care if you came from the ghettos or some mansion somewhere. It doesn’t care if you’ve got cornrows or long flowing blond hair. It only cares about the teams that shoot the ball more often than the other. If you are not contributing to that, you are working against it. If you are working against it, you are better off doing something else on your own.
But AI’s just looking out for himself, right? In his mind and in the minds of those of his ‘me’ generation, he is doing the right thing! What’s wrong with that?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. In doing such a good job of looking after himself, AI has lost focus of the fact that if he helps others, he is in essence helping himself too. Leaving a team because you don’t want to come off the bench is the height of conceit, the very pinnacle of a selfish sense of entitlement. Just like the gold chains and the excessive bling, he is taking the sense that he is owed something, a lesson learned from the hard knocks of life, to greater heights.
Here is the man gifted with so much talent he has turned blind to the concept of being part of something bigger than he is. Here is a man who’d rather give up the game he loves than accept a lesser, albeit still quite important, role. And as such, here is yet another great player, barring a minor miracle (he might sign again, I don’t really believe he’ll completely retire), will never achieve a Championship.
Pics from http://citypaper.net/ and http://crime.about.com