When Thucydides first uttered the phrase, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, I’m almost certain that he had the NBA in mind.
The NBA, like any sports endeavor, is capitalistic by nature. Sports are essentially predicated on the same values as our economic system: that hard work will always be rewarded, that we’re all subject to an equal playing field, and that competitiveness begets competitiveness. Of course, we know that’s not exactly true on either front. And as the wealth disparity increases across the globe, the league follows its cue: now, more than ever, we’re witnessing the NBA as a win-or-die league. If you’re not trying to be as good or as bad as possible, you’re simply doing it wrong. The days of appreciating the plight of a team like the Atlanta Hawks were already scarce, and now, instead of being considered a solid playoff team that finds themselves in the mix year after year, they’re a cautionary tale about overpaying middling stars and settling for purgatory.
That same disparity, in both luck and skill, is apparent at summer league. Case in point, Jerome Randle, forever doomed by a Lemony Snickets-esque series of unfortunate events and circumstances that resulted in him being about four inches shorter than the ideal height for his position.
As a player, Randle has maximized his potential in nearly every facet of the game. His passing game is as electrifying as it is effective and alert. His athleticism is reminiscent of Damian Lillard — absent of the otherworldly quickness possessed by the Russell Westbrook’s of the world, but more than enough to make him a transition terror at the Cox Pavilion. Defensively, Randle is a menace. He stays in front of his man, but his smaller frame burdens him with fractures that prevent his defensive play from being rock solid.
Take a play from the end of the first half of yesterday’s game between the Clippers and the NBA’s D-League Select Team, for example: Randle guarded Stefhon Hannah of the D-League Select Team to a T for 21 seconds. He hounded him on both sides of the floor, relegating him to the right wing, 18 feet away from the basket. For any other guard, this would have been a perfect defensive possession. And though, in a way, it still was, all Hannah had to do to overpower Randle’s defense was pull up. Height, in basketball, is a blessing, bestowing upon a player added ammunition to intimidate their opponent. A lack of vertical length, meanwhile, is a curse, inhibiting the afflicted player’s capacity to get into the head of their opponent. “The fear of being blocked is far worse than being blocked, itself” or so it goes.
Jerome Randle is great at everything except for being tall. In a way, Randle shares the same plight as 85 percent of the players at Summer League. He makes bona fide NBA-worthy plays that would translate on both sides of the floor if not for his ill-fated size. Some players are a step too slow, some athletically frail or, in Randle’s case, too short.
In a different, taller, life, Randle would be destructive. The phrase, “it’s a game of inches”, may resonate more with football and Al Pacino than it does with basketball, but this seemingly minuscule issue prevents Randle from becoming another NBA-level point guard, cut from the same prototypical, revolutionary cloth popularized by Derrick Rose. Instead, he’s playing on the Clippers’ summer league team, scrounging for a roster spot come November.
Randle’s dedicated himself to reaching his potential in every aspect of the game over which he has control. Ironically, it’s the one factor he can’t control that seals his fate. Consequentially, that same ill-fortune compels players of Randle’s nature (and stature) to master their craft the way that they do. And it’s a masterpiece produced with considerable care and infectious levels of faith. Watching the 10th man on the Bucks’ summer league team, who has almost no hope of landing on an NBA roster, crash the boards and hustle for loose balls with such diligence — and at times, a complete disregard for brevity — is both endearing and depressing. Randle’s height has probably shut the coffin on his chances at making an impact at the next level, but it’s also the culprit that makes him as tantalizing as he is. The sheer impossibility of his dream, shared by hundreds of other players at summer league, is what makes it so captivating.
In the unfriendly, polarizing world of the NBA, the gap between good and bad teams, small and large markets is, by some means, not as alarming as the disparity in talent between players. Even during the warm-ups, it’s not hard to tell who seems to belongs and who doesn’t. And even then, some summer league standouts don’t sniff more than 20 minutes of floor-time during the regular season because, in more or less words, they simply aren’t good enough.
Regardless of the fact that these games are more comparable with performance exhibition art than professional basketball, there’s something to be said of the dedication and, for lack of a better word… heart, displayed during summer league. In it’s own idiosyncratic way, the constant and incessant effort we witness over this period places the stories of these players into a unique intersection of both inspiring and deflating. It’s what makes these two weeks completely unimportant and consequentially, important.