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July 24, 2003 Columns No Comments

Basketball Superheroes?

by Michael Protos

I think we’ve created a monster.

We’ve entered into the dangerous realm of building a superhuman, recalling the madness of Dr. Frankenstein. But our creature is supposed to be a superhero. We believe we’ve given him the power to accomplish anything, to overcome all obstacles and to become a model for all of us – one who is victorious most of the time and illustrious all of the time.

Media, athletic companies and – most importantly – fans have created the modern-day basketball superhero. He is someone we venerate because he entertains us. In our culture, we are entertained by superiority, whether through individual accomplishment or through collective achievement. Our most beloved superheroes appear to have the superhuman strength that we can only dream of obtaining.

But alas, our creature is losing control and becoming a monster.

Look around us. The NBA is a breeding ground for bad behavior. Regardless of innocence or guilt, many of our superstars, our superheroes, our creations, have adopted risky lifestyles that do not befit the privileged status we gave them. It’s hard to rationalize supporting a superhero who acts badly. In the world of comics and fiction, once a superhero joins the dark side, there’s almost always no return.

And yet we continue to feed our fallen creatures. We glance over their mistakes and rationalize them as momentary lapses. We hope that the claims of criminal acts and poor conduct are merely the machinations of a villain intent on destroying our superheroes.

The troubled superheroes, unfortunately, create most of their own problems, and we bear some responsibly for their lack of correction. Basketball players at every level maintain a strong fan base as long as they excel on the court, regardless if they struggle in life off the court.

How many people really questioned the greatness of Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan despite their admitted two-timing? Would you so quickly ignore your neighbor’s infidelity, even if he was the best accountant in the business? Would you still respect your office’s most productive employees if they were repeatedly caught with marijuana or known to abuse their spouses?

The problem starts with us. Our need for a superhero has created a commercialized monster that spawns filthy rich athletes, some of whom are not content with their luxurious lives. Companies feed off our need to identify and emulate our superheroes. We want to wear the same shoes, jerseys, shorts, headbands and hats that our superheroes wear, as if somehow we can acquire their strength or speed or skills through mere association.

Superheroes do not earn their status from charity work. With the advent of the LeBron James phenomenon, superheroes apparently no longer even need to prove their worth in the more competitive systems. They just need to garner enough hype to capture our imaginations. The increasing popularity of the AND 1 basketball circus proves that many players don’t even need to have NBA-level talent – they must only possess the ability to humiliate opponents.

But is that what we really want from our creation? Do we want a superhero that will carry the ball five thousand times a game while breaking his defenders’ ankles a handful of times? And then miss an overly ambitious dunk? Do we want a superhero that becomes a role model for his athletic fortitude while living a life of excess and perhaps of criminal activity?

Fortunately, we have the power to tweak our creation before it loses total control. We can rebuild our superhero

Let’s celebrate players like Tim Duncan, who spent four years at Wake Forest before entering the NBA. He now has two NBA championships and promises to be an All-Star for the rest of his career. He does not attract negative press – in fact some critics claim he is too subdued. There’s not something you hear everyday about basketball players.

Let’s reward the schools that manage to retain their players for three or four years. Maybe the NCAA should invent an incentive program that allows an extra scholarship for keeping top rated players longer than two years.

Let’s leave the kids alone. The media are guilty are robbing the cradle to find the next superstar in LeBron James. Rather than encouraging high schoolers to seek fame and fortune at the age of 18, let’s promote the value of at least two years of education in a collegiate program. Maybe the NCAA would allow an extra scholarship to schools with players who average a certain GPA. Education also occurs outside the classroom and on the court where experienced coaches and mentors can oversee the refinement of our future superheroes.

Keeping our future stars in college will increase the competitive level of the game at all levels. Imagine the immediate impact of Jermaine O’Neal or Tracy McGrady if they had spent their developmental years playing in college.

O’Neal started his first four years on the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench averaging less than fifteen minutes and five points per game each season. McGrady fared better in Toronto, but he still was a bench player for two years. Either one of these stars could have enjoyed instant success in a major collegiate program while playing at least 30 minutes a game. The NCAA would benefit from the infusion of talent, and the NBA would receive more polished players who can accelerate their path to stardom.

In the end, we control our superheroes. They are the products of our own desires. We choose them to represent our hopes and dreams. As members of a basketball culture, we must reevaluate who we want to be.


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