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An archaeology of hurt
When we rewrite the dark parts of an athlete's history by giving them too much air, and when we're fast to forget the NBA's mistakes by not.
How do we talk about this? These people?
I don’t, but then I don’t have to.
But then, does anyone?
This is the carousel refrain my head goes through when Kristaps Porzingis, Miles Bridges, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Porter Jr., Derrick Rose, etc. get brought up in NBA analysis. Get brought up at all. In the case of mostly Porzingis, it was a refrain that started slow and has steadily sped up since August.
My stance is that aside from Billups, I can avoid these names. In stories, on the radio, on podcasts, I can consciously not mention them. They are, in the scope of the basketball I cover and respond to, not impactful. They are also not impactful, in my opinion, to their respective teams. Porzingis with one decent season in Washington, in the context of the Wizards, is not rewriting his history as a sulky, energy leech. Bridges in Charlotte, if the Hornets can even be called a team with context (see: competitive relevancy), will be the same — there’s nothing to talk about yet.
To not talk is to not give oxygen. In the cyclonic discourse cycle of the NBA, air is everything. What gets reported on, referenced and repeated is what sticks around, gains momentum and staying power. Relevancy can be made and snuffed out within the same news cycle, and whatever the big headline is usually only dies off when there’s another ballooning up behind it.
I’m not so naïve as to think these names — and all the ones to come — can be removed completely by holding our breath, like hiccups, but I do think giving so much air to them creates an inflated sense of importance through prominence. Whether subliminal influence or going with the flow of conversation, the framing goes from we’re not talking about this guy and here’s why, to, we’re talking about this guy and I’m not sure why, to, we’re talking about this guy and I can’t remember a time when we didn’t. This can happen in under a week.
The repetition works, little by little, as restoration. Think of waves bringing layers of sand up onto the beach over the imprints of the steps you just took, all traces of physical impact filled in, smoothed over.
And there’s such an urgency when this happens, such a collective sense of relief. An eye-rolling heave of the shoulders like Finally! We can talk about X again! Like a moral moratorium has been lifted or like adding a caveat of the harm someone inflicted on another person was harder, weighed heavier, than adding the caveat of their most recent plus/minus. When, too, you always could. When the only time you weren’t actively talking about that person was when the at risk people around you willed you to speak up and you didn’t, or, you never actually stopped.
I feel so relieved, a relief that makes me stop midway between the stove and the sink where the rapini’s rinsing, pause even as I pick up big handfuls of it to drop in the pan, when I hear Rob cut over someone else on a podcast to emphatically say, “The answer’s no”, at the start of a conversation about whether Bridges should be back.
It’s the same relief I felt at the end of the summer when Josh, asked by a Celtics host how he felt about the team post-Marcus Smart trade for Porzingis, said, “It is disappointing to me that they traded for a guy with a sexual assault charge from 2019 there is no public resolution to. I feel obligated to be on the record, because I feel slightly unstable because it never gets talked about.”
The relief always makes me stop whatever I’m doing, and I wish I could say it was because what’s being said is so energizing (it is) or eloquent (this is never the point when saying something, as I’ve stressed before), instead of what it is. Which is a surprise. Not from these specific people, my friends, but from hearing it in the middle of any NBA show, reading it in the middle of any NBA story, or stopping mid-scroll down the rabbit hole of NBA Twitter. It’s still such a novel occurrence that it creates a friction in the regular slipstream of talk. An interruption I tend to double-take, as if testing, did that really just happen?
TW: Descriptions of IPV.
Here’s a question: Who are the history keepers? Who is it up to to not just take accurate account of IPV in the acts, but the effects? We can’t know and shouldn’t speak for the women and children impacted, but is it important to remember how it felt to be a fan and read the Porzingis, or Terence Davis, or Rodions Kurucs allegations, their disturbing and bodily lucid details? To be a parent and learn that Bridges’ son was in the room when he choked Mychelle Johnson unconscious? To look at Lance Stephenson goofing off and playing air guitar on the court and reconcile that person with the one who pushed a woman down the stairs, grabbed her head and knocked it against the bottom step after she fell? To not really be able to name that kind of conflict because intellectually you know it isn’t really a conflict, for you, as a fan, it shouldn’t be, but there’s some kind of mental split that happens all the same. That we don’t really have the language for these rifts, since we — media, fans, everyone — don’t talk about them enough to generate it. Isn’t there a feeling of missing something, a noxious absence hanging over or trailing after like an exhaust cloud, even as the game thunders on?
Or how it felt to be a woman working in sports to witness the speed at which the NBA dropped its investigation against Luke Walton, while Walton went, uninterrupted, from a job with the Lakers to another with the Kings? Or to be in that first presser when Neil Olshey introduced Chauncey Billups and just one person asked about the rape allegations against him? Or to be in the next (or the next), when it came out that the Blazers didn’t actually contact anyone involved with the initial investigation, had only hired what seemed to be a bogus ex-cop, and no one pressed them on it? On why that felt like a fine thing to be cheap, morally and monetarily, about?
What bearing will the instances where the league’s made itself meek to please billionaires have on how we commemorate it in the grand scheme? It goes beyond IPV of course, to overt acts of racism, sexism, bigotry by franchise owners, to fear in seeing how Covid infected and impacted athletes forced to play through it. Learning and normalizing the cruel and odious concept of the NBA’s “hardship exception”, when teams couldn’t put forward intact rosters for games because so many of their players were sick so signed athletes to days-long contracts, like mercenaries, bodies to keep the basketball going.
There’s an archaeology of hurt here. While it’s no one person’s job to sift through the seasons as-is, when we forget, or are so fast to move forward, we lose the reality of how they actually were.
To be explicit: If I get asked, if it seems like there’s wide-onset amnesia for the more important, real-life impactful reasons we should be talking about these people, if ever, I lead with what is comprehensively and plainly known about them. That they have all had credible allegations — some charged, some settled (settled is not not guilty), some ongoing, some past their statute of limitations — of sexual assault and/or intimate partner violence made against them.
Beyond that, why talk?
Is that glib? I guess. But I’d like to take some glibness if I can. The same kind I need only take a cursory look around this industry to find in most men’s conversations about, most recently, how well Porzingis’ shoes fit now.
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