When we feel most connected to our players, fandom takes on many of the qualities of parenthood. The emotional reaction to Brandon Roy’s ups and downs of late best illustrates that bond; when Roy is injured and unable to play his best (or at all), our hearts break. When he has a moment of weakness and says something he shouldn’t, we scold him but do not villify. And at his most triumphant, as in Game 4, we celebrate for him and cry the same tears of joy that he lets loose. His victory was our victory, and his pain was our pain.
This is sports fanatacism at its best. Unfortunately, the dark side is like having Donald Sterling as a parent. For all the common, vicarious reactions, there are two things you’re likely to see at a basketball game that you’d never witness at a 2nd grade Christmas concert:*
- Shawn Kemp in attendance.
- And booing.
*The first is certainly a scheduling conflict; on any given day of the year, there’s a 14% chance Mr. Kemp is instead watching one of his daughters’ dance recitals or assisting a son in building a pinewood derby car. He can only get to so many performances. And if Mr. Sterling is present, all bets on booing are off. Expect Cindy to burst into tears at his slurs.
Why do we boo? It is, on the surface, a reaction more appropriate for a child than for adults. It conveys little meaning other than general displeasure at the current situation; no boo has ever been constructive. At its best, a boo is the concentration of complaint and criticism into a single, guttural sound conducive to a noisy environment where voicing one’s specific grievances would prove impossible.
Booing, then, is the simple extreme of a spectrum of criticism. It is the manifestation of disappointment. That disappointment comes from a unique blend of factors, however – it is not a simple emotion.
It is not enough for a player to perform poorly. After all, we often lionize the very end of the rotation, making folkheroes out of Brian Scalabrine and his ilk. Neither is the mere spoiling of immense potential occasion to jeer. After all, the capacity for greatness finds its foil in numerous ruinous endings. A bright future dimmed by the pall of injury (Yao Ming, for example) is lamented and lends itself to counterfactuals of an optimistic nature – “What If”s and “If Only”s. When promise is destroyed thusly, we are pained, but we do not boo.
Even the mediocre rarely elicit our most malicious response. They simply serve as punchlines – “Who’s the best number one overall pick ever?” “The Candy Man, of course!” – or as warnings for the future (“Hasheem Thabeet” should be stenciled in big letters on the wall of every GM’s office). If they are fortunate, they are paid well for their potential before being forgotten. It is hard to criticize that which one does not remember.
In order to truly be a disappointment worthy of our bile, a player must first have seemed worthy of our greatest accolades and of the highest pedestal – and he must willfully have turned away. It is this confluence of promise and choice that leads us to our boisterous derision.
“I’m not angry with you; I’m just disappointed in you.”
~ Every Raptors fan ever and me to Vince Carter, every day ever.
Who then, do we deride? Who disppoints us most?
We boo Vince Carter. Vince is a prime example of the type of actions we find most repulsive and the type of player we most readily criticize. He is the greatest in-game dunker in NBA history. He’s scored over 20,000 points. His resume reads like a list of all-time achievements. But he openly quit on the Raptors when it best served his interests, to force a trade out of Toronto and to a better team. Even Carmelo Anthony, Public Enemy No. 1 to the entire state of Colorado before the trade deadline, played out of his skull while planning his fugue.
We (Raptors fans especially) knew exactly what we had in Vince Carter. He was a player whose athleticism knew no bounds, whose leaps electrified crowds.
And he chose to go a different direction. He chose to not play into our expectations.
That choice is the essential ingredient to the disappointment that fosters our criticism. We have expectations – dreams, really – for our players. We want the best for them. More than anything, we want them to reach their full potential and become superstars unlike anything we’ve seen before. As fan-parents living our lives through the NBA, we hope to tell our grandchildren where we were when that nice young man threw that leathery ball into that fancy baskethoop, and we want those memories to mean something.
Your mother wanted her son to be a lawyer or a doctor; Vince’s fans wanted him to be a sure-fire Hall of Famer. He blatantly chose to go a different direction and violated our fantasy. When a player capable of building our dream willfully shatters it, he becomes our villain.
Is it fair? Conrad Kaczmarek recently questioned whether we as fans have the credentials to be disappointed in anyone who makes millions of dollars a year, plays a game for a living, and has secured the financial future of his family for generations to come. He specifically mentions Vince Carter as a player whose career is a disappointment to many and receives an unfair share of criticism as a result.
He concludes his article with an immensely compelling perspective:
This is only my opinion and I certainly understand the disdain for chronic underachievers, yet I can’t help but try to put myself in their shoes. If I were incredibly, naturally gifted at a sport, how would I use that ability? I know that I am a very competitive person, but just living the life of an NBA player and getting paid to do something I love might be enough for me. I don’t know if I would possess that insatiable thirst for victory. In our minds, we want all players to appreciate their talents and have a great work ethic. You might claim that that is how you would act if you were so supremely athletic. You’d spend countless hours in the gym and have an unyielding commitment to the game. But that’s your dream. And what is your dream, might be someone else’s nightmare.
The same could be said about the dreams of the best basketball player on the planet. No one torched the narrative more thoroughly than LeBron James did this summer. Our fantasy world needed a king, and we hoped against hope that he would deliver on his self-proclaimed moniker. James was the hometown, homegrown hero who had the god-given power to Lazarus a city that had its heart ripped out so many times that “Kali Ma Shakti De” was practically its ringtone.
LeBron didn’t give us our fantasy of that loyal savior. Worse for those outside of Cleveland, he undermined competition by joining forces with other superstars. As Bill Simmons said today, “people should live where they want without being judged … well, unless you’re copping out and joining forces with your biggest rival like LeBron did.” That’s the catalyst in the disappointment with LeBron. He held the potential to ignite a new era of rivalry and compelling basketball. An NBA where every game was jacked to 11 was the dream, and the monarch decided he preferred a Triple Entente to a free-for-all.
In the end, it really is about the decisions that LeBron and Vince made and about their happiness. Both men lead enviable existences and have used their advantages to give back in untold ways to their communities, families, and to NBA fans.
Unless and until they give us exactly what we want, though, we’ll boo them – because we all have a little Donald Sterling in us.