A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Book of Dimes, Choking Palimpsest

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Palimpsest of street posters in Pondicherry (P...

Palimpsest of street posters via Wikipedia

Alright, this ought to be interesting. Working on 40 hours with no sleep, and Ethan Sherwood Strauss’s fascinating piece on LeBron’s narrative is pushing me toward the abstract. My apologies if this comes out gobbledygook.

Here’s Ethan’s gist:

They leave behind a blue Twitter cloud of snickering scorn. Pundits rush to agreement: The opposing team’s best player is what LeBron isn’t and what LeBron should have been. Sportswriters light a fire beneath Erik Spoelstra’s seat before the coach even slumps into a post-series presser. It’s a disaster, much to the delight of the chattering classes.

And LeBron James will be the “choker.” That narrative already exists — last year’s exit gave us that framing device. The thinking went: James either choked because he quit or quit because he choked.

Before culminating in:

But in the imagination of many, LeBron will have “choked” because the story people want often overrides reality. To quote Maya Angelou, “people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’m on record as the amoral analyst. I cheered for LeBron to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers simply because I wanted to see what would happen. I follow narratives with enthusiasm without making a morality play of things.

At the end of 2010 when I wrote on the most interesting narrative shifts of the year, I wrote one on James the Abdicator, in which I concluded that the most potent narrative attached to LeBron was that of someone who took of his crown.

This isn’t to say I think the choker narrative isn’t real though – it certainly is – just that, well, I geek out about this stuff.

The reality of narratives like LeBron’s, or say, Kobe Bryant‘s, are so damn complicated that you have to understand the history to get to the depth of them, and to understand where they can go from here. These narratives in other words are palimpsestic in nature, with each subsequent twist being built on the subtle demands of what came before.

The LeBron choker narrative actually has its roots from the very start of his NBA career where he and Nike billed him as someone deviating from the paradigm of Michael Jordan by embracing the pass in the ad campaing the Book of Dimes.


Ah, good times. I loved those ads by the way, and was utterly pumped that LeBron appeared to be trying to emulate the jogo bonito of Magic Johnson, but right there the door was opened. When things go well, the passer becomes known as intelligent and unselfish. When things go poorly however, his narrative gets mapped into cowardice. Don’t believe me?

Contrast that with the palimpsest of Kobe Bryant. As much as their is ill will toward LeBron now, back when Kobe was considered the equal parts O.J. Simpson and Yoko Ono he faced a storm of negative Q Score at least as fierce  – but “coward” and “choker” narratives were never in the cards for Bryant. No, he was the man who wouldn’t pass – much like Jordan. Call him selfish, call him a ballhog, but just don’t call him afraid to hoist up double teamed fadeaways from beyond the arc. Such a player may be called a chucker, and he may be called a fool when times are bad, but when things go well, ain’t nothing sexier in the land of rugged individualism.

Understand the palimpsest though: No matter what success Kobe achieved, once his initial path was set, he would never be able to latch on to the kind of Magic-esque basketball agape LeBron made progress toward with a little help from the good Reverend Bernie Mac.

And so today, both LeBron & Kobe still march down these mutually exclusive narratives based on initial expectations. Kobe’s reached a point in the path where it’s mostly gravy. LeBron hasn’t –  but he can get there, and the path is straight forward: All he’s got to do is win.

Written by Matt Johnson

April 26, 2011 at 9:40 pm

4 Responses

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  1. It’s gonzo sport journalism!

    “I was deep within the third quarter when the drugs began to take hold. I was watching Kidd hoist an entry pass to Tyson Chandler when suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the arena was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around jumbotron, which was blaring inane hosannas to the glory of Chrysler. And a voice was screaming “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

    Then it was quiet again. Elgee had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the game analysis. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the floodlights with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to record Opportunities Created from this goddamn game.”

    (I’m so very sorry for that)


    April 27, 2011 at 4:53 pm

  2. […] me tell you a story, about a player who has strong overall impact, great team success, and a kickass narrative that says he always gives 110% on both ends of the court when it’s quite clear that he […]

  3. […] you know, I get a kick out of analyzing player narratives, and narrative shifts. At any point in time, a star has at least one major narrative and several minor ones. When a young […]

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