But first: black fans don't hate LeBron James.
The King Stays the King
I still don't know exactly what role race has played in the recent life and times of one LeBron James; I'm not surprised at all, though, that his Q Score held steady among African Americans.
Vincent Thomas suspects "black protectionism", which he sums up succinctly: "The more America shuns LeBron, the more Black America retreats to his corner." Henry Abbott, on the other hand, wants to figure out what exactly everyone else's problem was with LeBron's actions. The implication being, then, that race, racism, or racialized power dynamics are somehow involved in the backlash against James. Yet however singular LeBron -- and, let's face it, The Decision and the year or two that lead up to it -- may be in the annals of the National Basketball Association, these numbers reveal something far more mundane.
LeBron James didn't have to fight the power, hold the league hostage, and defy all manner of convention, for his skin color to affect the way he was seen by fans. He didn't even have to be LeBron James. When it comes to the NBA, as with other sports leagues, and many other important societal pursuits, being black was enough.
Here, let's get a few things out of the way: I'm not black, nor have I ever claimed to be. I know that no one speaks for all African Americans, and that generational and class-based fault lines are very real. Please don't leave a comment reminding me that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Charles Barkley are all black -- and all had problems with LeBron and his actions. It's insulting to suggest that everyone of a certain ethnic background thinks and wiggles in lockstep.
But in basketball, race always matters. I just don't know what to say other than that. While baseball may have Jackie Robinson, the history of organized hoops from the '50s on has consisted largely of regulating how black players, teams, or a league is at the moment -- and if necessary, hitting the panic button.
What's more, it goes both ways, The sociological import of hoops can't be underestimated; the sport has helped shape broader notions of identity and culture, both within the black community and for those looking in. Nelson George wrote an entire book about this, Elevating the Game, in case you don't believe ol' pale face over here. On the latter count, this Huffington Post piece by Casey Gane-McCalla is also especially instructive.
It doesn't take Allen Iverson to reveal a racial divide within the NBA fanbase. African Americans are likely to be more sympathetic, or at least less judgmental, of black athletes. Is it because everyone else is racist? No, but certainly the knee-jerk hostility that's become an important part of fandom today has a certain number of stereotypes and misconceptions built into it. I don't say this to traffic in generalizations. It's because I know how people talk about sports, and it ain't pretty. Thomas is wrong; no one's closing ranks, they're just staying the only course that makes any sense. (BS)
Point Like You Mean It
Chris Paul says his heart belongs to New Orleans. And I'm inclined to believe him. Even though I'm among those who, over the last few weeks, has been driven to utter cynicism by the Kevin Durant love train (and correlatively, the LeBron smear campaign). We don't know players, their public images can change directions on a dime, and hey, wasn't it only yesterday that Paul supposedly wanted to join up with a super-team?
Except, in the same way that you can always count on Kobe Bryant's ruthless will to win, Paul is a gamer. Kobe, no matter how strangulated and absurd some of his actions may have been, always wants to conquer basketball.
That's much of the anxiety over LeBron James -- we just don't know, or think we know, what he wants out of life. The "billionaire baller" sobriquet stuck because, well, it's the closest we've come to grasping what gets LBJ out of bed every morning. Durant is incandescent simply because, even if he robs a bank tomorrow, we can still count on him hiding out in a bunker with a deflated basketball and visions of shooting drills.
So while it might seem lip service, or over-obvious, for Paul to now come out and tell the world he's 100 percent with the Hornets, it's also probably true. That's not to say that he couldn't change his mind, if this season is a disaster -- that organization has made some questionable moves behind the scenes, as well as personnel moves that are by no means a slam dunk.
But this isn't Carmelo Anthony in Denver. We know that Paul, on pride and passion alone, is going to try and make it work. And if it doesn't, he'll try more. He's an elite point guard, and he's Chris Paul. The combination is a deadly one, and the rest of the league should hope that things go so wrong that, next summer, he's stirring up trade rumors again.
There are two kinds of superstars: Those who take it personally when their teams fail, and will try and carry a franchise to the gates of hell and back if given the slightest bit of support, and those who do their thing and wait for reinforcements to arrive. It has to do with position, and most certainly, temperament. I wonder if this also doesn't just drop up right into the middle of the hokey discourse on "real leaders." Part of what's so frustrating about LeBron is that he always seemed the latter type, as impressive as his 2007 Finals run was. It makes his vast range of abilities that much more untapped and frustrating, and even for supporters like me, all the more implausible that he'll become Magic 2.0 in Miami.
No need to worry about Chris Paul, though, even if the whole world collapses around him. He'll keep it up until three months later. I have a theory that some of hip-hop's best tracks involve some emcee proclaiming himself BACK. Paul is exactly the dude to make that kind of statement. LeBron jocks late-period (or post-mortem) Jay-Z; Chris Paul is just about the NBA's answer to this 2002 classic (NSFW but so good). (BS)
Last week, Michael Heisley saw the light and gave Xavier Henry a non-controversial rookie contract to sign. It only took a 10-week standoff and extended national embarrassment to get there. And we're supposed to congratulate the Grizzlies' billionaire owner? Sorry; as I wrote last week, count me out.
There's another strain of the issue left to be resolved, though: Are performance-based incentives like the ones Heisley attempted to put into the contracts of Henry and Greivis Vasquez good ideas for rookie contracts? There's no disputing that Heisley chose the wrong tact or "agent to mess with" in this case. But is the idea behind it any good? The Spurs do it, after all. Why wouldn't everyone else?
FanHouse collegeague Matt Moore (@HPbasketball) and I discussed this over the weekend, and I remain unconvinced performance-based incentives for rookies are at all useful. Studies have shown minutes have a strong, strong relationship to the spot at which a player was picked, especially in rookie seasons. The Grizzlies proposed that Henry could earn his 20-percent "bonus" be being named to the All-Rookie team or reaching a pretty fair minutes played standard.
We know that awards recognition relies on minutes, so there'd be little chance Henry would have made the All-Rookie team or been named to the Rookie Challenge game without exceeding the proposed minutes threshold (15 minutes per game over 70 games, or 1,050 minutes). So it becomes a minutes played hurdle for Henry, and I imagine that's how it'd work out for most rookies. Essentially, an incentive-based contract rewards players drafted high who aren't complete projects or complete busts.
But here's the thing: Those players are already making a lot more money than the lower drafted players. All the new performance-based system would serve to do is depress the already tiny salaries of non-lottery first-round picks, as they would have a tougher time getting enough minutes, in many cases, to reach their thresholds. Most lottery picks would hit their targets and get a small boost in salary. Most low firsts and seconds would not. And for those non-elite picks, it comes down to circumstances. You'd reward players who were picked by teams in need.
The more pressing concern is that this is really measly savings in the long-run. Those mid- to late-first round picks already have incentives to give it their all: those two team option years on their rookie scale contracts and that valuable second contract. In a very relative sort of way, instituting a performance-based incentive system for rookies is like bumping taxes on the poor to pay for a reduction in the estate tax. The amount Henry and Heisley were quibbling over amounted to $300,000, or 0.3 percent of the value of Rudy Gay's new contract, or 0.5 percent of the Grizzlies' projected 2010-11 payroll. If this is the way franchise owners are going to save money, they'd best be prepared to eat more Ramen. It just doesn't make practical sense to make this a battle line, for any team. It's not worth it.
Then what about the Spurs? As Mark Deeks of ShamSports.com has reported, the Spurs have convinced Ian Mahinmi, George Hill and now James Anderson to accept unprecedented performance-based incentives on their rookie deals. Should the Spurs continue to play this game? I have a sneaking suspicion that San Antonio will face a little more resistance next summer when they try to nickel-and-dime their draft pick. Because, of course, Heisley didn't just ruin this game for himself. I fear he has ruined it for the Spurs, too. Arn Tellem's victory over the Grizzlies will have emboldened the agents, and San Antonio might have to concede to the status quo once more attention is shone on the situation. (TZ)
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The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.