a his & hers weblog of worlds apart
As many of you know, I love my sports. But with that undying affection comes frequent frustration with the lack of creativity in the sporting world. The coverage and communications are all too often spectacularly predictable. So when I first heard about Free Darko’s Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats and Stars in Today’s Game, I thought it was too good to be true. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy yet, but in the spirit of Creative Recreation I asked a friend who has – leaping penman Mark Burgess – to offer up a review on this fan-fresh portrayal of the NBA. I really hope this book is a sign of things to come; inspiring a new breed of imaginative superfans, and even the occasional sports marketer, to consider the unconventional.
The Aesthete’s Guide to the NBA
Growing up I was often given a hard time for my fickle devotion to sports teams. Allegiances were meant to be tribal and unwavering; to suggest that favourite players could trump proximity, or loyalty to a logo, was heresy. How could I suddenly become a Suns fan after they acquired Charles Barkley, or abandon the Bulls once MJ, Pip and Phil left Chicago? This was classless bandwagoning, evidence of moral bankruptcy.
It’s a relief to discover I was only ahead of my time, or at least in good company. The Macrophenomal Pro Basketball Almanac, the culmination of FreeDarko’s blogging, begins with a manifesto abandoning team loyalty to “provincials and fascists” and ushering in the era of liberated fandom whose guiding principal is allegiance to the individual player.
The book features 19 current NBA stars, divided into six categories: Josh Smith is an “Uncanny Peacock,” Lebron James is one of “Destiny’s Kids” and Ron Artest leads the “Phenomenal Tumors.” Players are analyzed through essays, quirky stats, spirit animals and illustrated deconstructions of a signature move. The latter employs FreeDarko’s Periodic Table of Style, inserting one of its “elements” in place of the player’s head in the accompanying diagram. For example, Lamar Odom’s mid-air adjustment is a snowflake: “Singular in design and melts on impact.”
The player sections are separated by quirky filler. “When They Were Mayors” identifies bonds between players and their hometowns through mock mayoral campaign packages. “Myth of the Next” parodies sport media’s compulsion to make hasty, hyperbolic scouting analogies. “The 2000 NBA Draft” gives brief bios of “the most useless, vile, and dastardly group of ballplayers ever selected in a single year” and “Jerseys For Every Occasion” offers wardrobe advice: Jason Kapono’s Raptors jersey, the embodiment of “the Caucasian backpacker who won’t shut up about the latest Rawkus compilation” should be worn to the 1998 Smoking Grooves Concert.
The book presents a new ethos for the fan but also for the sports journalist. Lead writer Nathaniel Friedman– pen name Bethlehem Shoals – is the ideal globalized sports reporter. For starters he lives in Seattle, the most disenfranchised NBA city that just had its Sonics turn to Thunder in Oklahoma City. But he proves there’s nothing counterintuitive about being a basketball writer in a city without a team. Shoals and his FreeDarko cohorts are the anti-beat writers – relentless couch potato aesthetes, flies on the digital age’s wall, gloriously unconfined by any standard method of reporting. One imagines their research consisting primarily of group machinations over NBA League Pass. Their findings are filtered through a system of a priori psychoanalysis, oddball taxonomy, idiosyncratic simile and, most often, sympathy. While their denigration of the 2000 NBA draft is savagely unforgiving, the depictions of Kobe Bryant as a lonely perfectionist and Vince Carter as a super-freak who never asked for his ability promote understanding for these oft-loathed, or at least polarizing, stars.
Above all, the book is an aesthetic guide to the NBA, a fitting method for tackling the professional sports league most defined by its style. Ignoring both the game’s business and its X’s and O’s, the Almanac is defined by Big Baby Belafonte’s imaginative illustrations and the rest of the cast’s trademark overindulgent prose. Shoals told Seattle Weekly he was “majorly influenced by imperfect translations of Russian literature. They contributed to (his) sense that overwritten prose can be both moving and hilarious.” He proves this over and over again throughout the book. Observe:
Somehow, the high-flying, tensile McGrady never seems wholly invested in the catharsis of raw action. He’s been called lazy, in part because of his vaguely preternatural walleye, baritone Florida drawl, and loose-limbed gait, and even at his most ferocious gives the impression of semislumber.
The Almanac is silly at times, such as when calculating how long it would have taken a team of Leandro Barbosas to build the pyramids or circumnavigate the globe, but it’s always entertaining. The beat journalists who haunt their teams’ hotels and locker rooms for gruelling, 82-game seasons, may object to a group of pseudonymous upstarts making bold assertions from their living rooms. Indeed, the players themselves might object. But the Almanac is so full of pathos, its conclusions so thoughtful and plausible if not invariably accurate, that it seems wiser to applaud the effort than to condemn the liberties taken. For many like me, it is the basketball book we’ve always wanted though never even dared to hope for.