That’s one of the interesting frames in Jon Wertheim’s feature on Baron Davis in this month’s SI:
When you’ve been involved in a successful presidential campaign, produced an Oscar-worthy documentary and include among your goals for 2009 brokering a truce among Bloods, Crips and Latino gangs, it’s easy to see how tossing a ball into a basket against, say, the Milwaukee Bucks could seem somewhat trifling. And while Davis won’t cop to it, there is a sense in some corners that his extracurricular activities have exacted a price on his basketball.
…Predictably, the Clippers’ pricey point guard has been saddled with blame for the team’s failures. Davis and coach Mike Dunleavy have already feuded about the play-calling, and while Davis’s 17.9-point and 8.2-assist averages exceed his career marks, his joie de hoops has seldom been in evidence. Typical Davis snapshot: On one series he’ll break down a defender and attack the basket, soaring so high his bulky body almost appears Photoshopped in midair. On a subsequent series he’ll throw the ball away, frustration apparent on his face.
Davis is finding out that the line between being perceived as a Renaissance man or a dilettante can be a fine one. Asked about Davis’s competitive resolve, Hornets coach Byron Scott says tepidly, “My take on him is that he’s a very talented point guard, and I’ll leave it at that.” Recently, Roper, the Crossroads coach who now works for Davis’s foundation, had a heart-to-heart with his former player. “I told him we all get distracted by what’s attainable and obtainable, but first and foremost, you’re a basketball player. Focus on what made you what you are. I want to see you be an All-Star for the next four or five years and turn the Clippers around. Movies and whatnot can wait.”
Davis has heard the concern that he’s spread too thin, but he is convinced that, at age 29, his passion for basketball burns as fiercely as ever. “Basketball saved my life, it really did,” he says. “I owe everything to this game. I could never be one of those players who signs a big contract and then doesn’t want to play. People look at all the things I have going on and say it’s a distraction. But, you know, they’re hobbies. Basketball is my stage, and the failing just makes you hungrier.”
He does agree with a visitor that it makes for an interesting theoretical discussion. Is an athlete’s chief obligation to his talent or to his community? And if his performance happens to suffer slightly in service of the latter, is that really such a bad thing?
Fans have a tendency to look at their teams as public utilities, and to regard their favorite athletes as public servants. Implicit in that construct is the idea that a well-paid pro athlete should rank the fans’ interest in winning as his foremost obligation. Fans will accept an athlete who leverages his celebrity to do things that he couldn’t otherwise do if he were an average civilian, so long as they sense winning is that athlete’s first priority. I’ve never been completely comfortable with that equation.
Here’s a question: Would you take umbrage — both as a parent and as a taxpayer — if you learned that your kid’s fifth grade public school teacher was coming into the classroom a little less prepared this semester because she’s been serving as the chair of a cancer research walk-a-thon, which requires as much as 15 hours a week of her free time, time she’d otherwise spend composing lesson plans? What if her side project wasn’t a charity? What if she were spending those hours starting a business that indulged one of her many passions outside the classroom?