In the summer of 2008, after Baron Davis signed a five year, $65 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, the thought of the prodigal son returning to his hometown seems like a happy match for both the star crossed franchise and the temperamental All Star point guard. But after two years of waiting for Baron’s mercurial brilliance to outshine his dark moods, watching newcomer Steve Blake’s steady hand in running the Clippers offense is both a soothing and painful reminder of the inconsistency of Baron’s Clippers tenure. Though there have been occasional virtuoso outbursts from Baron, as when he scored 24 points in a single quarter earlier this season, there have been longer stretches when he made careless mistakes and seems genuinely bored with the game, which makes his rare outbursts all the more disheartening. It is difficult to reconcile the dominant, passionate, and energetic Baron with his bored, and disinterested evil twin. You watch Baron on his bad days and you can’t help but think, how can someone with so much talent play so horrible a game? Though Dunleavy made the trade with Portland to mainly free up salary cap for the upcoming free agency derby, the addition of Steve Blake to the Clippers has provided a sharp contrast to Baron. You look at Steve Blake and think, how can someone who is that slow, that skinny, and that short, be so efficient in running the same team? But more than their demeanor or physical skills, the flaws and strengths of both men seem to be mirror opposite of one another, and in a curious way, their flaws have come to define their respective careers.
After Kim Hughes got his first win against Sacramento, Fox Sports’ Dain Blanton interviewed Steve Blake about Coach Nate McMillan’s appraisal of him as an extension of the coach on the floor. Steve answered very candidly that; yes, he studies the game and prepare for every opponent very thoroughly because it is the only way that someone like him can survive in the NBA. In a league filled with trash talkers and players who wear their confidence on their sleeves, such an admission of one’s own physical limitations seems a bit out of place. And though, on the surface, Blake’s comment might highlight that Rudy-like adage of heart and dedication overcoming one’s physical shortcomings, it also provided a glimpse into his confidence and ease with himself. It is difficult to imagine someone like Dan Dickau or Rick Brunson making such an admission, as applicable to them as it may be, for their confidence and place in the league was tenuous, and their insecurity often drove their decisions on the floor toward disastrous results. That Steve Blake was able to admit his weaknesses so readily shows that he is quite aware of his own limitations, but that he is also assured of his place in the league, carved out by his work ethic and dedication to the game.
When Blake runs the Clippers offense, he seems to exude a calming influence. It is different than a confidence that great players have; that they can lead a team to victory by hitting big shots at crucial junctures like Sam Cassell, or enforcing their will upon the game and demoralizing their opponents like Jordan or Kobe. Steve Blake’s confidence, on the other hand, seems to reside in his lack of ego; the knowledge that it’s not up to him to win the game, that he only needs to manage the flow of it so that superior athletes on his side can have a chance to steal a victory. Because of this, he doesn’t seem to force the issue very often; he rarely turns the ball over, and he gets the ball to the right people at the right spot at the precise time. He only seems to shoot only when he is wide open, or when a defender cheats off him, or when he senses his team’s confidence is ebbing and needs a bucket to stem the tide. Watching Steve Blake play, and you get the feeling that he’s a bit too small, too slight, and not quite fast enough to be a legitimate NBA player. But somehow, someway, the offense flows a bit easier when he’s in the game, and the players around him play with a renewed sense of purpose. Blake might not be that special player that can win the game for you, night in and night out, but he’s not likely to lose it for you either. But for a young team with a fragile identity, one that can easily get discouraged when an opponent goes on a run, Blake seems to have the ability to steady the nerves of young and inconsistent guns that currently make up the Clippers squad.
Baron Davis, on the other hand, has been anointed as one of the great young point guards when he first entered the league from UCLA. It has been said of Baron that the game of basketball comes too easily for him; that his interests range far and wide, that his ambitions and talents are too vast to be constrained by the limits of a basketball court. Growing up poor in the heart of Los Angeles, at the height of Magic Johnson’s Showtime era, Baron can glimpse the limitless bounty that the city laid at the feet of its basketball prince; how someone who is as virtuoso on the court and as charismatic off it, can become an icon, a socially responsible businessman, a philanthropist, and perhaps even mayor of the city. Perhaps he was only following the advice of his grandmother, Lela Nicholson, who drove him to pursue the game seriously and who often reminded him that there is a life outside of basketball, and that the game itself is only a vehicle through which greater ambitions may be fulfilled.
That Baron aspires to Magic Johnson’s success as a socially conscious entrepreneur is a worthwhile ambition. But Baron seems to have forgotten that Magic refocused his energy as an entrepreneur only when his playing days came to an end. While Magic led the Showtime Lakers, he was fully committed to each season. And every loss, particularly to the hated Celtics, stung him deeply. Beneath the infectious smile and genuine love of the game, Earvin Johnson was not a man who took losing lightly. And Magic would not tolerate teammates who did not feel the pain of loss as profoundly as he. After they lost to the Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, Magic sunk into a deep depression. He later admitted that he locked himself in his home and disconnected the telephone for a week, so despondent that he could not imagine talking to anyone. Years later, Magic said that loss was one of the most disappointing of his career, because it was another championship that should have been theirs, but one that they had let slipped through their fingers. It was as if they had failed to fulfill a destiny that they had worked so hard to attain, and that they had failed to honor something special within themselves.
The city of Los Angeles adopted the kid from Lansing, Michigan and the city became his town. Though there would be great sports icons after Magic — Gretzky, Kirk Gibson, De La Hoya, Shaq, and Kobe — who would lay claim to his title as prince of the city, no one can quite dislodge Magic from the hearts of LA sports fans. It wasn’t only that he won championships, or that he played the game with an infectious joy, or that he was as fierce a competitor as they come, but you also sense that Magic expended every ounce of his god-given ability on the floor, and he left very few regrets once his career came to an end. That he took the game very seriously when he could have coasted on his vast talent and superiority over lesser players, endeared him to fans. You felt that here was a man who did not cheat himself, and that he would not cheat us, and thus the covenant between an athlete and the fans they represent becomes a cherished bond that would endure long after his retirement.
In a way, Magic might be thought of as a perfect synthesis of our two imperfect point guards. Baron has some of Magic’s charisma, his ringleader ebullience, his uncanny court vision, the knack for making impossible passes look easy, and the occasional desire to make big plays at crucial junctures. And Blake has Magic’s focused dedication to the game, his probing and knowledge of every opponent’s weakness, and a selfless game management style that minimizes risks and benefits his teammates. But as invaluable as Steve Blake’s play has been to the Clippers these past few games, one has to wonder if pure competency and professionalism from a point guard is enough to lead a team to greater heights, or if the team will eventually need something more from its primary ball handler? Do you need someone who has an outsized ego, a supreme confidence to take over a game, and to hit big shots outside all rationale when the game is on the line? Baron has the contract and the ego to be that superstar point guard. But he seems to lack something more crucial; the attention span and dedication necessary to fulfill his potential. With Baron, you sense that the game of basketball remains only a child’s game, one in which he is content to play so long as it is enjoyable. But when the game stops becoming easy, when he is confronted by true adversity, when it requires that he goes deep within himself to some dark reservoir of grit and determination, he stops playing. It’s almost as if, he suddenly realizes that the game isn’t all that important, that there are greater ambitions and interests that define him, more than simple wins and losses on a basketball court.
And so, the Clippers organization and fans are torn between the two flawed alternatives. Do you choose the steady professional who is devoted to the game, who is a competent conductor of the offense, but who, in the final analysis, is unexceptional as a player and lacks that divine spark which separates mere mortals from legends? Or do you choose the temperamental star who has greatness within him but who lacks the will and desire to fulfill his once vast potential? Just as Steve Blake’s unexceptional athletic abilities drove him to become the player that he is, Baron’s natural strength, speed, agility, and charisma could have earned him Magic’s mantle as the city’s basketball prince. Perhaps Baron lacks Magic’s true love for the game, and is unwilling define his life’s success and failures solely upon his basketball career. Or perhaps Baron simply lacks Magic’s patience. With the NBA’s greatest point guard as his touchstone, Baron may have wanted everything that Magic has accomplished throughout his life right away; he wanted to be a showman on the floor, to bring the crowd to its feet with unbelievable passes instead of simple ones, to hit big shots and become the hero that the city deserves, despite lesser teammates who might be open, and to become something greater to the impoverished community from which he came. To be fair, Baron has achieved tremendous success as a basketball player, as there have been countless playground legends over the years who have never stepped foot onto a college arena and whose exploits have passed into the realm of urban myths. But in the final analysis, one cannot help but feel that Baron’s failure to fulfill his potential as one of the league’s great point guards will reflect badly upon his legacy, if there is any. To whom much is given, much is expected, after all. And if someone fails to honor what is best within themselves, do they deserve our full admiration? Or should our devotion be given to those who have made the most of their meager gifts? It is not a happy quandary for Clippers fans to have.