Life After Trade Rumors
We have this climate to thank for the Rise of the Trade Machine. Ever since ESPN launched its very own version of SkyNet, fans have been able to make the numbers work on trade scenarios that need only the flimsiest support from both parties. All that matters is that their team is enriched. The Trade Machine is more than a place, it's a state of mind, one that sports talk radio and the increasingly febrile world of online sports media struggle to satiate. Readers think about trades and want to talk about them; now they have the autonomy to invent them for themselves.
Here's where an important line gets crossed. Formerly, no news was biggers news than a major transaction, even one reputed to be likely. These days, though, all possible trades have already been endlessly proposed, floated, insinuated, suggested, and evaluated by a variety of fans, reporters, and pundits. There is ether around us, and it is every single conceivable LeBron James 2010 scenario.
There is nothing new under the sun, assuming we can even see the darn thing anymore -- even those who have remained conservative with announcing rumors, or conscientious when it comes to verifying sources, live in the shadow of HoopsHype and InsideHoops. When a trade does actually happen, it's horrifically anti-climactic. The fan whose team suddenly has, say, Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett is thrilled by the future that's opening up before him, not the shock of the present.
What once was the Holy Grail of news has, through our own demand for it, been reduced to a chotchke. There is probably some financial crisis analogy to be drawn here, but I'm too broke to know what it is. But if the trade rumor has been rendered meaningless, what's going to fill the void?
It's simple: stories from the players themselves. That may seem counter-intuitive, since we're now conditioned to believe that players never have interesting to say; that anyone with locker room access is a soulless professional; and that pro athletes are worried about offending teammates, coaches, sponsors, or even the same fans who complain about their lack of personality. But this might have as much to do with what they're being asked as their willingness to talk.
Players don't want to be asked incessantly about their plans for next season, or how they feel about being on the block. They also probably don't feel like giving rote soundbites about improving as a team or why their shot was falling seconds after a win. In short, ask a stupid question and you'll get a stupid answer.
Yet in this age of Twitter, Facebook, and a tacit nod from the league that it's okay for players to have a personality, there's a new trend developing. When players are given the opportunity to say something interesting, they're more than willing to. Gilbert Arenas may now be a leper to the league, but he built his brand on a willingness to interact with the media without always playing it safe, which in turn changed the way the media approached him. Of course, it depends on the mood in the locker room, travel schedule, and so on. But now is a golden age for reporters to actually try and engage players, instead of reciting cliches or cynically pursing a scoop it's insulting, and likely old-fashioned, to chase after.
The other day on FanHouse, Chris Tomasson got Chauncey Billups's thoughts on the All-Star voting process. Billups felt, justifiably so, that the injured Tracy McGrady and underwhelming Allen Iverson shouldn't start. This wasn't a player being tricked into spilling his guts; nor was it an earth-shattering revelation. But it was news, for the simple fact that we got a player on record speaking his mind. Players are all too often the silent partners in the discourse of sports, which is just weird in this situation, which affects them more than anyone else.
We've gotten used to mocking on-the-ground reporters for lacking imagination, while claiming that the Internet offered a way to the future. But rumor-mongering has gotten every bit as tired and lifeless as asking a player why it's hard to guard Kobe Bryant. If the trade rumor is dead, and treating players as commodities has lead to a total abstraction of basketball news, then the way back is to not only restore players themselves as the subject, but as subjects who get a say in the situation.