For Clippers fans, watching Eric Gordon’s performance in this summer’s FIBA World Championships has been a rare bright spot in an off-season tinged with free-agency disappointment. USA Basketball’s “B-Team” successfully brought home the championship trophy that had eluded their more illustrious predecessors during the last two tournaments. With the exception of Kevin Durant, this was a USA Basketball team without much star power, but filled with guards who understood their roles and somehow found a way to complement one another on the court. In a way, Eric Gordon has been a perfect embodiment of this Team USA; someone who entered the tryouts with very little fanfare, but who slowly emerged as the team’s best outside shooter and one of it’s toughest perimeter defender. It is a testament to coach Krzyzewski that he chose Gordon over higher profile young guns like OJ Mayo, despite the media bias toward their gaudier numbers and flashier game.
It has also been revealing to follow the speculations of ESPN and NBA TV analysts during the long weeks of Team USA tryouts, because their preferences seem to reflect a deeper bias of our age. Perhaps due his quiet demeanor and lack of histrionics on the court, Gordon was consistently mentioned as the likeliest to be cut. And when the final roster position came down to Eric and Stephen Curry, the overwhelming consensus of ESPN and NBA TV pundits was that Curry would make the team over Gordon. In a sense, this was understandable. Stephen Curry’s game had exploded in the latter half of last season. His scoring outbursts were often punctuated by an outward exuberance that high definition cameras adored, and SportsCenter anchors can froth over in 30 seconds. Curry’s game and his baby-faced smiling-assassin persona seem perfectly tailored for the modern echo chamber of 24-hour news cycle, and the vast hype machine this is forever ready to anoint the next big star. Eric Gordon, by contrast, is almost a stoic in his demeanor and personality. He rarely shows emotion, either on a big basket or a miss. He plays quietly and efficiently, and when he is at his best, one is barely aware that he has amassed over 20 points during the course of a game. In a sense, Gordon’s game and temperament is almost a throwback to a bygone era.
Watching Stephen Curry danced and exulted on the podium during the medal ceremony, while Eric Gordon stood clapping with a slight smile on his face reminded me of an old Esquire article that the late David Halberstam wrote about Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball. There is a passage that seems to capture the essence of the Hoosier-born Gordon perfectly. Halberstam wrote:
[Bobby Knight] and I are fascinated by the degree to which [basketball] has become the connecting tissue of [Indiana]. The feeling of the state, the nuance of it, [Knight] says, remains rural even now, although Indiana is a great deal less rural than it was twenty-five or thirty years ago, and the small towns are drying up. But, he notes, if people do not live exactly as they did thirty years ago, they still think as they did then. Even the city kids at Indiana University, he says, are not like city kids from other states. They are different—simpler, less spoiled, probably less sophisticated. There is no brittleness to them. It is as if they are closer to their past…
Indiana is not the only place where basketball has such a powerful hold: there is an area that runs like a belt through parts of Appalachia and into the South…This is a section of the country that the American industrial surge never reached, and the small towns, villages often, neither grew nor died; they just stayed there suspended between life and death. In an atmosphere like that, where so little meant so much, there was only one thing that children did, and they did it every day and every night, and that was play basketball. It was a sport for the lonely. A kid did not need five or six other friends; he did not need even one. There was nothing else to do, and because this was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone even wanted to do. Their fathers nailed backboards and rims to the sides of the garages or to nearby trees. The nets were waxed to make them last longer, and the kids spent their days shooting baskets in all kinds of weather. This was the land of great pure shooters, and the mark of an Indiana high school basketball player was hitting the open shot.
Sports are not a perfect mirror of society, but sometimes, one can get a faint reflection of a country by its heroes and the pastime it reveres. The technological evolution of mass media also elevates certain sports over others, and perhaps over time, sports influences a community’s values as much as they are shaped by a community’s collective aspirations. During the golden age of radio, when America was still primarily a pastoral country, the slow rhythm of a baseball game—the quintessential duel between a pitcher and hitter—was vividly conveyed by the sonorous cadence of that era’s radio announcers. The postwar years and the rise of television elevated the visual violence of the NFL to national prominence, and professional football’s martial themes seem to resonate with veterans settling into the languid comfort of suburbia. The rise of cable television, ESPN, and Nike’s potent marketing machine coincided with the resurgence of the NBA and it’s brightest star, Michael Jordan. What corporate America discovered with Jordan was that superstars in the NBA could dominate the game in a way that was electrifying, particularly on highlight reels. Unobstructed by helmets or pads, Jordan’s grace, intensity, and cold-blooded performances in crucial games elevated him from a mere star athlete into a global brand. But Jordan was also that rare athlete who exceeded the enormous hype around him, whose performances on the court seem to reveal something deeper about his unquenchable inner spirit. And hence, even casual fans were drawn to his game, for they sensed something unique in his performances, which transcended the sport, and hinted at something more primal in the human heart.
In the years since Jordan’s retirement, the NBA and its partners on Madison Ave, have long searched for a worthy heir to his throne. It was as if Jim Riswold and the marketing wizards at Nike had perfected the ideal public persona of a star athlete as a corporate pitchman, but they could not find the right player to fill Jordan’s void. This was not from a lack of trying. The 24-hour sports networks hunger for stars that can rivet the attention of casual fans and young basketball players who were reared on the creative fiction of Jordan’s sparring session with Mars Blackmon had groomed themselves to follow in his footsteps. But as the advertising campaigns became more sophisticated and players became more adept at managing their public image, there seem to be something lacking in all of Jordan’s heirs, as if some spontaneity or authenticity has been lost in the careful construction of their brand. Even second tier players like Lamar Odom recently admitted to SI’s Jack McCallum that, “part of the deal of international play is increasing your brand…you have to understand that the power of networking and meeting the right people is very important. There’s no limit on how far you can take that thing.”
As professional athletes saw themselves as brands to be nurtured and leveraged, and their partners in the corporate world searched desperately for athletes with the most telegenic game to celebrate, quieter, more reserved stars like Tim Duncan becomes rarer; his excellence often ignored by sponsors and advertisers. Network executives usually cringe when the Duncan led Spurs forced their way into another Finals, for it means another year of dismal television ratings. Is it any wonder then, that Eric Gordon’s star was considerably dimmer than his more flashy contemporaries—the O.J. Mayos & Stephen Curries—before these World Championships? Perhaps sports such as the X-Games; the celebration of audacious jumps and mid-air stunts, pure aerial displays of singular athleticism without the veneer of teamwork, is more emblematic of our age. After all, in a country where the assembly lines are gone and the factories are shuttered, perhaps concepts of sacrifice, modesty, and sublimating one ego’s for the good of the team are no longer as crucial as they once were. Our values and ambitions are different now, and perhaps what we celebrate in our athletes should be different as well.
There was a terrific article last month by Joe Posananski in Sports Illustrated about Stan Musial, the under-appreciated St Louis Cardinals first baseman and outfielder. Musial’s greatness, wrote Posananski, was not the stuff of legends nor the record books, it resided in his consistency, his small kindnesses, and quiet dignity. He was a man who never took his good fortune as being a professional athlete for granted. He signed every autograph, no matter how tired he was, no matter how long it took. Bob Costas was quoted as saying about Musial, “He didn’t hit .400 for a season. He didn’t get 4000 hits. He didn’t hit 500 home runs. He didn’t hit a home run in his last at bat, just a single. He didn’t marry Marilyn Monroe; he married high school sweetheart. His excellence was a quiet excellence.” When Major League Baseball held a fan vote for its All Century team a few years ago, a special committee had to add Musial’s name to the team because fans had neglected to vote for him. Posananksi wrote, “There is, perhaps, even a bit of desperation about it all. Stan Musial will turn 90 in November. He appears in public less and less often. And there’s a feeling here in St. Louis, an unmistakable feeling, that when we lose Stan the Man Musial, we will lose something precious and wordless and irreplaceable. There’s a feeling here, an unmistakable feeling, that as a nation we already may have lost it.”