Where is the hate?
I’ve often considered what exactly it was that caused this league-wide mollification. Renowned tough men exchanged elbows for handshakes, fists for apologies. The large majority of confrontations culminate in little more than a pseudo-intense stare, a few choice words and, on rare occasions, a shove or two. I for one am altogether tired of it.
Firstly, resist the temptation to label me as a bloodthirsty half-fan who watches the game for those "garnish" moments, the action which diverts the focus from the game itself. Peruse any large-scale sporting event and you’ll easily be able to identify the hordes attending these contests for the hot dogs, cheerleaders, pyrotechnics and other flashy frivolities which have polluted our generation’s professional basketball. I am more than content with the game itself and can fully appreciate and enjoy the finer points of a down-pick or L-cut. It’s just that, without the occasional brawl, and by this I mean all-out mêlée, drawing in all ten men on the floor, the refs, part or all of either bench and a few of the fans from the front row, it all seems so lacking, so devoid of sentiment.
There is no moment more impassioned, more exhilarating than a fist-flying free-for-all. Many players choose to delegate responsibility (and blame) to their team in times of crisis. They can credit losses to poor coaching. In a fight, however, the reflection is solely on the individual. If you get floored, there’s nobody to whom you can accredit your own ineptitude – it’s entirely on you. The atmosphere which follows once the storm has passed is singular in its intensity; the stakes are higher for either team and each squad now has their collective pride riding on the outcome of the game. Beefs are born and grudges grow following fisticuffs and it is often years before there is an end to the antipathy. The mention of a New York/Miami match-up even today cannot fail to inspire in a fan the memories of the monumental altercations which claimed dozens of hours in game suspensions, several mouthfuls of teeth and Jeff Van Gundy’s toupee.
The league now, more than ever, harbours delicate players, guys who genuinely lack intensity on the floor and never appear entirely involved in the action. It looks as if they’re as likely to throw a baby shower as an elbow and you often wonder whether it’s rosin or moisturiser they apply to their hands before games. Then there are those who may have a little fire in their belly and look a tad more involved, but are just plain soft. Rip Hamilton has been wearing a facemask for what seems the better part of a decade and weighs 150 pounds soaking wet with rocks in his pockets, despite his horribly exaggerated playerfile listing. Fellow Piston Tayshaun Prince is another who looks as if a sneeze could break a rib or two. Even guys tagged as bona fide superstars can play with the aggression of a nine year-old girl at times. Vince Carter refuses to attack the basket for six to eight weeks following a hard foul and looks as likely to cry as to fight when confronted.
Where is the hate? I’m sick of the anaemic attitude taken by many in the world of sports today. "It’s not the winning; it’s the taking part that counts." Actually, it’s the winning that counts. Those who take such aphorisms as gospel tend to be the ones riding the pine and carrying towels, lacking the competitive spirit which makes Ron Artest the best defender in the league and left Xavier McDaniel with the onerous task of guarding Mike every time the Bulls came to town. Karl Malone has always been a technically sound player with decent skills, but what made him the force he is was his penchant for throwing ‘bows and generally roughing up anyone within an eight-foot radius. He’d have found a home on most rosters without his inclination towards roughhousing, but when you hit three guys hard enough that they need plastic surgery, crack a few racks of ribs and knock David Robinson out cold for long enough that people entertained the notion that he might never get back up, you find a few extra feet in the paint and an easier route to the basket.
The game is in an age of injured lists populated by overpaid boys nursing eight-week ankle sprains and aching joints. Gone is the time when basketball was a sport played by men who considered broken fingers a slight annoyance and strained muscles but the mildest impediment. Iron men such as Stockton are few and far between these days, a time in which it is accepted that any injury necessitates a brief spell on the I.L., far departed from the heroics of Willis Reed and Larry Bird, men who genuinely set aside their personal pain for the greater good of the team.
The spirit of toughness is virtually dead, and it is only in a select few players of the new era that we can hope to revive it. Ben Wallace, Ron Artest and Nenê are cast from the mould of the muscle-bound enforcers of days gone by and in Steve Francis and Bobby Jackson the league has two feisty guards willing to stand up to the trees and take some names if needs be. However, there is an alarming, and increasing, frequency of players accustomed to shying from contact, making their living off of their quickness, avoiding collision wherever possible and attenuating any aggressive situations. These guys are often euphemistically termed "finesse players", although "yellow-bellied" might be a more apt description.
It is unsurprising that the N.B.A. has been suffering as a business for some time. Fans expecting to see teams willing to protect one another on the floor and take matters into their own hands when the situation calls for it are left disappointed, instead resigned to watching players whose principal reason for not throwing a punch would be that it might spoil their manicure. It is not so much the fight itself, entertaining though it may be, as the absence of the accompanying mindset, one of tenacity and team unity, that has promoted this gutless approach to the game. There is little I enjoy more than a fierce rivalry between two teams, either as a result of a fight, or with a rumble at the conflict’s end, yet this seems little but a dream in today’s league, with its ridiculous fines for violent behaviour of any sort.
I am tired of the hugs and apologies, the handshakes and jocularity between teams. The pleasantries bore me and the geniality offends me. There is little less engaging than a contest without conflict, a soulless affair without the passion which characterised the game in its heyday. I have had more than my fill of the smiles and respect for the other team. Now is the time for change. Now is the time for improvement. Now is the time for the re-invention of basketbrawl.
Now is the time to hate again.