What We Talk About When We Talk About Vince Carter
In the last 24 hours, two events transpired that will forever change the course of the way I see sports. First, I had a conversation with a friend over fickle, even choke-tastic, players who are criticized for not playing their best every night. Then, I read this piece by Rashad Mobley on Hoops Addict which expressed, basically, Vince Carter will drive you nuts.
Let's lay down some basic ground rules here: Yes, Vince Carter is an absolutely maddening creature to behold. He's not one of these "flashes of brilliance" teases who we count on like a twinkle off in the sky. Carter is one of the better swingmen of the last decade, but from night-to-night, his play ranges from game-changing to seemingly disengaged.
Outright intensity is an issue, if only superficially. Carter may not be the most lionhearted of athletes -- he isn't trying to loose teeth and limbs on every single night of the regular season -- but does anyone doubt that Vince tries to win games when it matters? What the widespread dislike for Vince Carter seems to follow from is his inability to be perfect, and his willingness to be fine with that.
(Note: This is the part where all Raptors fans, who to varying degrees of correct consider Carter a dishonorable, scurrilous, quitter-warrior, raise up in arms. And really, I can't blame you for the way he left.)
I know the retort here: We don't expect athletes to be perfect, just give it their all, all the time. But that's such a simplistic, even presumptuous, construct.
It's the same kind of thinking that has people calling Jeff Green a bum after seeing him in one series ("he couldn't hack it in the playoffs"), or already cutting the invisible wire off of George Hill's rising star because Goran Dragic is a wonderful thing. Hope you enjoyed the ride, King George. It's difficult when a player fails, or fails to deliver his absolute best game, when things matter most. Hence the "choker", who if you look closely, has generally played pretty darn well to get to that point. We want athletes to be all the time, and never subject to variance or influence.
I suppose this is okay. These dudes get millions of dollars, fast cars, fast women. They have it in them to surpass any comers on the court. Some, like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant, do seem completely impervious to the outside world, or inhuman enough so as to be perfectly consistent. They don't rise and fall like normal people. They are gods and we expect no less of them.
That leaves the likes of Carter, or Tracy McGrady, or Baron Davis (to name a few favorites), in a strange spot, where they are punished for being so good sometimes, very good other times, and crappy or ineffectual at others. McGrady played some amazing basketball, twice almost pulling off ridiculous upsets in the playoffs. But he blew it, and now would be better off without the 2-0 lead the Rockets had on favored Dallas in 2005, or the 3-1 over Detroit squandered in 2003.
Redeeming some of these guys -- especially Vince, who is far from blameless, and elicits such a nasty reaction from so many -- can be tough. And there's something to be said for not closing the deal. It does indicate a certain weakness, or inadequacy. Except it's never only one players' fault, there are extenuating circumstances involved, and rarely do we see someone just fail to show up when thus far, he's been the driving force behind his team. If he did, often he got d'ed up hard and it worked. Unfortunate, but mostly mortal.
Here's the real question? Why exactly can't athletes be faultless professionals who do their job with zeal? By all means let us celebrate those who are, to varying degree. Pau Gasol, you are a wonderful person. Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard, keep it going. At the same time, let's call a Hawk a Hawk, or a Nugget a Nugget. These teams flirt with disaster on a regular basis, and seemingly proceed from the premise that bad stuff will happen.
That leaves, though, plenty of guys who make a good faith effort, or at least play well enough that we can't call them lazy or stupid. That they can't always channel their utmost basketball abilities when we need them stinks, but it doesn't make them bad people. In fact, it makes them that much more like you and me.
We love to identify with athletes. The underpinnings of so much fandom, even sports media, is a jock posture that presumes we share their value, trials and tribulation. Guess what -- you don't. The cult of macho within fan-dom is embarrassing, when you take into account how few fans actually embody powerful throbbing maleness the way pro athletes do. It's a vicarious fantasy where, somehow, we get to hurl epithets and criticism at those we wish we were: "if I were Vince Carter, I would never take a day off. He doesn't know how lucky he is, right?"
(I wonder exactly what the difference is between the humanizing slump, and an overpaid punk who can't score 40 every night.)
Actually, it's more like we all want to be managers or coaches who were players back when values were values and players weren't so pampered. Or do we all want to be athletes? No one wants to be an old dude sitting down and yelling. We scream at players, hold them to a higher standard, because we need them to be perfect so our fantasies make sense. We're both players and our own imaginary superiors on the bench. That's the lingua franca of addressing sports.
At the same time, we apply the cliches of sports in our own lives in a way that acknowledges that greatness ebbs and flows. Not that I've ever had a real job, but I know some days are better than others in what I do. When I'm feeling it, I'm happy; I don't automatically chastise myself for being an inconsistent fake. If I'm "on fire" at the keyboard, or "tough it out" at the gym, I thank heaven for it. It's not a half-empty, "why aren't you like this all the time?" cross to bear.
I'm not a professional athlete, but I've been conditioned to think like one. Sort of. It serves to make my life more exciting and animated, rather than place a greater burden on me. It congratulates me for the good times, instead of warning me of what I'm risking by showing what I can do.
We talk about sports like we do because we, the outsiders, embody (or at least understand) their core values better than the men and women who play them. We do this, though, because we need a certain version of them to exist to make our lives more exciting. And yet in practice, these are aspirational goals, not benchmarks we torture ourselves over. They are incentives to do our best, ways to congratulate ourselves for a job well done. We have been athletes, just for one day.
What if, though, Vince Carter says the same thing to himself? Then who, exactly, are we yelling at or emulating? If you want to pattern your course in life after LeBron James, go ahead. Except I'm not really sure how a player capable of perfect on such a regular basis has the slightest thing to do with you and your mortgage. As a fan of basketball, I would love to see Vince Carter play his absolute best every night.
But it's not personal. It's more personal when I accept that he's a mixed bag.