A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Posts Tagged ‘Narrative Shift

The writing of Dirk’s third act

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As 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 star like LeBron James makes a Decision he creates a storm that settles into new narratives, that people tend to think will last forever, but really they simply for the basis for later narratives to build upon.

With Dirk Nowitzki‘s career though, coming into this year it seemed like his story had already been written.

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Written by Matt Johnson

May 20, 2011 at 6:19 pm

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.

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Written by Matt Johnson

April 26, 2011 at 9:40 pm

James the Abdicator

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'The Decision' & Miami is in a Frenzy!

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In many ways, 2010 was the year of LeBron James.  Unfortunate to be in the situation where you emerge as the biggest story around and have so many of the storylines be based around things you did wrong and reasons why everyone should hate you.  So many opportunities has James given the world to hate him that’s it was hard to pick which narrative to go with.  James the Quitter?, James the Traitor?, James the Selfish?  All work.

For my part, I don’t hold LeBron in near the negative that many others do simply because of his choice to leave Cleveland for South Beach.  Certainly I’d have respected him more if he’d said he was staying Cleveland because he saw it his duty to help his city though tough economic times – but how can anyone expect that kind of maturity from a 25 year old famous because of what he can do with his body?

Of course, the way he left Cleveland, making a spectacle of himself, was ugly.  Beyond that, he’s seemed to hit every branch of hater tree on the way down since then.  Starting with his walkabout performance in the 2010 NBA playoffs, following that up with (alleged) stubbornness against his new coach in Miami, and then just recently, showing he doesn’t care about other players by advocating for contraction of weak NBA teams, and then proving to be both clueless and dishonest by claiming that he didn’t even know what “contraction” meant and that he had been talking about something else (he wasn’t).

In the end though, the most enduring narrative shift of 2010 for LeBron will be as abdicator.  As the man anointed as King James, expected to be the next Michael Jordan leading his modest supporting cast to a dynasty, and who then took off the crown not having the stomach to risk continued failure to reach the promised land with all aspects of his team’s strength reliant on him alone.

What’s so fascinating about this is that basketball is probably the only major team sport in existence where such ridiculously high expectations exist for a superstar, and those expectations are not entirely reasonable.  It is still a team sport, and no Michael Jordan didn’t do it alone either.  Jordan didn’t start winning championships until he had a supporting cast far stronger than the one James had in Cleveland.  While it is very much reasonable to expect great basketball players to play on some great teams because of the immense impact one player can have in the sport, it is irrational to expect that the best player will magically come out on top.

The other narratives surrounding James, and really those surrounding the other athletes I’ve written about, are often much less forgivable in my book, and yet they are also much more easily re-shifted.  Mayweather can kill the coward narrative by manning up, taking on Pacquiao, and coming away victorious.  Mayweather and LeBron both can grow past the various selfish and immature narratives simply by growing up.  I don’t see how LeBron ever makes the abdicator label go away.  He can make sting less by achieving great success, but his career will now always be viewed through a lens colored by The Decision.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 31, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Mayweather the Coward

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Floyd Mayweather, Jr in a WWE ring. Bradley Ce...

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I’ve got a ton of respect for the kind of rapid strategy you see in boxing that you rarely see elsewhere – but with the move of the sport to pay-per-view, and the utterly inane inability of the sport to actually book good fights, boxing has fallen off my radar.  With that said, when thinking about the biggest narrative shifts in sports for 2010, there was no question that I’d either have Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. on here.

Mayweather is the one who brought this to a head, so I’ll go with him.

For those unaware of the circumstances here, Pacquiao and Mayweather are considered the two best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, and the boxing world is dying to see them go head to head.  Things were going according to plan until Mayweather added new steroid testing requirements in at the last minute of negotiations.  Pacquiao refused, and the negotiations broke down.    Later Mayweather made news for a racial slur filled rant against Pacquiao.  Both fighters fought another match against lesser opponents, and then word came out that Pacquiao had agreed to Mayweather’s previous ultimatum…only to have Mayweather not respond.  Pacquiao went on to beat another opponents, Mayweather proceeded to get in trouble with the law and raise questions as to whether he’ll be even available to fight outside of prison any time soon.

So, obviously, Mayweather has done a number on his reputation.  If you knew nothing about him before, you now know that he’s a fool.  A variety of characteristically can reasonably be attached to him, but the one that cuts deepest is “coward”.

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Written by Matt Johnson

December 31, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Cassel the Trojan Horse

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Matt Cassel, a player on the Kansas City Chief...

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The story of the year in the NFL is clearly Michael Vick.  Big star has big comeback, hard to top that.  As much as a press magnet Vick is though, Matt Cassel is a magnet for narratives like very few guys in recent history.  And while Vick can argue to have been one of those guys back when his dog fighting habits were exposed, he can’t compare to Cassel in 2010 simply by coming back.  Quite the feat for someone with such small celebrity.

All narratives involving Cassel begin with assumptions made based on the fact that he was a back up through out his entire collegiate career.  With the powerful meme that is “the system quarterback”, any backup who has success as a starter immediately creates a narrative that diminishes both his success, and the quarterbacks who have played on the same teams he has.  Cassel kicks things up another notch by literally having far greater success at the pro level than he ever did at the college level.

This initial narrative shift crossed over in 2008 when Cassel took over for the injured Tom Brady and led the New England Patriots to a solid season.  This was used to knock Brady and his record breaking 2007 season.  What was particularly odd about this line of thinking was that the Patriots actually won 5 games less than they had the previous season, and didn’t put up anywhere near the same passing numbers.  One would think that any quarterback that could claim to have improved his team by 5 games as doing something extraordinary, but that was not the dominant narrative.

Cassel is now putting up a great year in Kansas City complete with one missed game in which the Chiefs fell apart without him.  So now, it really should be clear that he’s no system quarterback.  He’s just damn good.

Meanwhile of course, the guy who beat out Cassel for starting status, and eventual superstardom, at USC (Matt Leinart) isn’t doing anything in the pros.  Kind of begs the question of whether then USC coach Pete Carroll made the right call in favoring Leinart.  Now my opinion, I’m sure Carroll had valid reasons for his choice, and I certainly wouldn’t assert that Matt Cassell at USC would have resulted in even greater success.  Cassel’s superior NFL career is undoubtedly due to some combination of luck, perseverance and attitude – none of which was found lacking in Leinart at the college level.  However, I also have a hard time believing that we’d have seen any major fall off in USC had they been forced to rely upon Cassel’s abilities instead of Leinart’s.

Getting back to Brady, one would think that Cassel’s year would have put the last nail in the coffin of the narrative of Brady as a system quarterback, but it hasn’t.  People are still using Cassel’s success in New England as a reason for why Vick is more valuable this year.  Completely bizarre given that the drop off from success with Brady to success with Cassel is actually quite a bit greater than how much Philly has improved this year now that they have Vick as quarterback.  This goes to illustrate two points:  1) Even a good new narrative “New England discovered another diamond in the rough with Cassel”, won’t totally kill off a disprove narrative immediately and completely, and 2) People really like to think that running quarterbacks are contributing far more than standard pocket quarterbacks.  With the latter point, I don’t disagree in some cases such as Randall Cunningham on the Eagles, and quite a few college QBs like Vince Young and Cam Newton.  However in general, we still see no great trend of running quarterbacks thriving consistently in the pros.

For a bit more on the Cassel/Brady/Vick triangle, check out this solid analysis.

In the end for Brady, what this season is doing, between Cassel’s success and Brady’s own all-time great level performance, is erasing question marks that could have forever dogged him in the comparison with Peyton Manning and other great quarterbacks.  If the Mannings of the world go down in history as superior to Brady it will be because they simply accomplished more, not because of the belief that any college backup could have led the Patriots to titles.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 30, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Narrative Shifts of 2010

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The next few posts are going to be me looking back at what I consider the biggest narrative shifts of 2010.  If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase ‘narrative shift’, it’s a meme that essentially means a change to the narrative, which is a short explanation for what happened and why it happened.

Narratives can be very powerful.  Barack Obama would not be our president today if not for the incredible power of his narrative as well as the great skill with which he wielded it.  In Hollywood, a bad narrative can kill a reputation (yes, Mel Gibson really is a racist) or keep a mediocre talent in work (poor Jennifer Aniston just wants to be loved).

Because of the clear closure we get after the completion of a competition in sports, I would argue that sports are actually the best topic on which to study the narrative shift.  With the end of the year upon us, now’s a good time to reflect.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm