The off-season gives a basketball fan’s mind plenty of room to wander. There are no games, there is no structure, and the overlying principles are theory and speculation. Some of speculation is fueled by necessity (i.e. If I read one more Lamar Odom-related article, I’m going to drive my car off a bridge), some by want (All-Stars are shiny), and hopefully, some from a desire to better understand the dynamics of the NBA.
Fanhood in itself is a practice of otherization; the necessary construction is an Us vs. Them dynamic, with the defining group characteristic being a particular shade of laundry. There are no real nationalistic ties to the enterprise of pro basketball, although the argument could be made that a localized, city-inspired pride has shaped the destinies of more than a few teams. It’s our team versus your team, with little room in between. Whoo-hoo.
But because most fan bases are more concerned with the color of a player’s uniform than all else, lines become blurred and allegiances change quickly. That’s just the nature of an industry where workers are swapped for ballers or dollars. The emotions attached to an outgoing player range from that of long lost lovers, like the fanfare that Steve Nash still receives in Dallas, to misguided feelings of betrayal, such as the inexplicable boos and taunts heaved at Michael Finley. Breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes deciphering the emotions left over is even harder.
Two newly acquired Mavs, Shawn Marion and Tim Thomas, definitely qualified as part of them. Specifically, they were both members of the franchise rival Phoenix Suns, but each also provided a specific and unique nuisance to Mavs teams past. Marion was a hellish defender and freak athlete who terrorized the Mavs with his leak-out speed, Flubber-infused sneaks (yes, I went there), and long arms. He was an irritant and an enemy because he was wearing the wrong uniform. Thomas, on the other hand, made his name in Dallas by taunting the resident superstar. He made some big plays against the Mavs in ’06, but the reason why Tim Thomas made a splash was because he chose to cannonball rather than swan dive. Thomas is brash, he’s cocky, and he directly challenged the Mavs’ best player. And yet Thomas is now a Maverick, and his first three-pointer will be met with a chorus of cheers.
I’m always curious — and this is where you guys come in — as to when those cheers stop. If not for Thomas, the man who smooched in the face of Maverick pride, then for whom?
Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are two top-level talents that come to mind, but their skills are gaudy enough to turn haters into true believers with a mere change of zip code. The desire to field an incredible basketball team would supercede any hurt feelings MFFLs might still harbor, and Kobe or Wade would be welcomed with open arms. Hugs and kisses, fruit baskets and Jell-O casseroles.
But there is a player out there on the free agent market that would truly test the limits of fan commitment. He’s one of the league’s universal villains, the fruit of the loins of a conference rival, and a personal thorn in the side of Mavs’ fans in particular. In this world, he goes by the name of Bruce Bowen, although many are convinced that his on-court persona is in congress with The Dark Lord himself.
There’s no speculation that the Mavs are interested in Bowen, and I’m not even suggesting that they should be. But I am floating out this scenario to muck things up a bit. Which players, despite their contributions either real or theoretical (Bowen, model citizen though he may be, is hardly the defender he once was), are beyond the pale?
Personally, I’m not so sure the pale exists. In the good ol’ days, teams were a hallowed thing. Rivalry was a team’s life blood and wearing a jersey meant something. That, or a comparatively shallow perspective on teams and the league at large turned local scenes into a propaganda machine. The availability of more and more information through television and the interwebs has made it that much more difficult to demonize players and franchises. Bruce Bowen isn’t just a player with questionable tactics on the court, but also a stand-up guy and that nut from those HEB commercials. Media expansion has turned players into people, which doesn’t bode well for the die-hard separatists.
The lines have been drawn, but they’ve dulled far beyond relevance. But all of this sparks a different debate entirely: if a player’s prior employers matters less than ever, does that make us, as fans of the game, members of a greater enlightenment or simply advocates of an empire of mercenaries?