Saturday, April 29, 2006

Does Character Matter?

Only a fool would argue that character matters more than talent in professional sports. You will find no such assertion here. But I would argue that character is becoming more and more critical to winning as the next-generation NBA evolves.

Part of this is due to the nature of the game itself. Of all the major team sports, basketball has the fewest participants on the field and also has the smallest playing area. It is thus more intimate and inherently subject to the influence of single players. It is also the only major team sport in which--in function and goal at least--every player is interchangeable. Any one of the five players can go anywhere on the court, shoot, pass, pick, or defend at any time. This puts a greater responsibility on each player belonging seamlessly to the whole every second they're on the court than exists in other sports. (An offensive lineman blocks but will never be called upon suddenly to pass. As long as he blocks right, he's done his work. For years the Minnesota Vikings played passable offense with Randy Moss taking every second play off even though he was on the field every down. Similarly, goalkeepers in soccer and hockey stand in one area with little chance of being involved in any offensive play.) It's simply more difficult in basketball than in any other major sport to assimilate a talented player who's not dedicated to the team and on the same page as everybody else.

In addition, the 21st-century NBA has experienced the "perfect storm" for highlighting character issues. Players have gotten younger, salaries have gotten bigger, and contracts have gotten longer and completely guaranteed, all at the same time. Both the collective bargaining agreement and current league culture practically mandate overpaying with long-term deals based on potential. What it amounts to is conveying the means to gratify every conceivable selfish desire by the time a player is 22. Money, food, house, car, girlfriends, travel, acclaim, fame, it's all there. This creates a test of character. The inevitable question becomes, "What next?" If the motivation is self-gratification alone, the answer is, "Nothing! Already got it!" Only the players who are motivated by something beyond themselves--to be the best, contributing to the team, championships, or just fulfilling what they promised--will respond.

Finally, our society as a whole has spotlighted the character issue through relentless media scrutiny. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the biggest stars the sport has seen. Yet we never would have known he slept with 20,000 women unless he bragged about it in his book. Times were different then. Nowadays if somebody even remotely famous ties their shoelaces backwards, they make the front page. There are no shortage of folks wanting to brag about their brushes with celebrities. You may expect that if you're at all interesting, your hairdresser, your landscape artist, six quackers from local newspapers and magazines, and your Uncle Jimbo will all eventually be lining up to spill all about your life on the latest edition of "Behind/Between/Underneath the Whatever". And we love it! Building up heroes and then tearing them down is our new national pastime. And the media sells us exactly what we ask for. Character, or better lack thereof, is on display with unprecedented constancy and accessibility.

For all these reasons, character is more a part of the NBA conversation now than ever before.

It's worth noting for Portland fans that both of the latter two issues are exacerbated in small markets. Because of the relative lack of publicity and attendant endorsement deals, small markets are more susceptible to paying through the nose to retain potential talent than are their bigger brethren. When's the last time you heard a superstar say, "I really want to go to Milwaukee?" (No offense Milwaukee...they don't say it about Portland anymore either, and it's a great place to live.) Also the media glare in a smaller town, especially a single-sport one, can be overwhelming. It's not that the road is different in a smaller place, just steeper.

It's no coincidence that it's been notoriously hard for small market teams to win in the huge money, media-hype, David Stern era. Nearly 80% of modern-era championships have been won by the same four big-market teams. Only two small market teams have won since 1980. Who are these exceptions? Boston won three times, San Antonio twice. That those two teams are also known as two of the best character teams in league history is no accident.

We're not talking about needing choirboys here. Whether you like it or not, late-night forays to strip clubs and occasional dalliances with drugs and/or alcohol have always been a part of the professional sports culture. I would wager a year's NBA salary that there were players on the heroic teams of yore (even in Boston and maybe SA) who did/do the exact same thing. I don't believe that's necessarily indicative of poor character. (Some would argue. That's fine.) But character does mean living for something bigger than yourself, working hard at whatever your calling is, and most of all standing tough and responding in the face of adversity instead of quitting, whining, or blaming. That is the kind of character that's intrinsic to sport, the kind sport is supposed to teach you. It's also the kind that's all too often found lacking among professional athletes.

I would argue that character matters very much if you have designs on being anything more than mediocre. Talent might possibly overcome lack of character if you could assemble enough of it, but that's getting harder and harder in today's NBA and is all but impossible for a small-market team. So if you're building one of those teams outside of LA or Chicago, you'd better take a look at a guy's character just as much as his vertical leap. It might not be the top priority, but it needs to be on the list. Now, more than ever, character matters.



Blogger ignacio said...

I can't rouse myself to feel anything negative about 22 year old athletes who screw groupies, strippers, escorts or whoever -- what would one expect them to be doing while on the road? Read "War and Peace"?

Character on the court means passing the ball, playing defense, not faking or exaggerating minor injuries, and, uh, playing "white" to some extent -- by which is meant not showing off or overcelebrating too much (as well as the other items mentioned above).

4:30 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Yah...I wanted to make sure that folks knew that the character issue is not the same as a moral issue. (Which some people have and, as I said, that's fine too...just not what I was talking about.) I hope that came through. Thanks for your faithful commenting Ignacio! It makes it seem worthwhile writing this stuff knowing someone's actually reading it.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous eli said...

I don't comment much on blogs, but I'd like to let you know, Dave, that you are one of the best writing about the Blazers.

As far as character goes, I'll take chemistry over character any day. Character is only important on a team of boyscouts. I for one don't want a team of boyscouts, I want a team that works well together regardless of how the community at large feels.

In many ways I'm sick of having the team bend over backward for a community that doesn't even come to games. We can't keep chasing players out because they don't quite fit the Portland mold.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Ahhh...interesting distinction. Can you have chemistry without character? I hadn't thought of it that way. I guess I would argue that character makes chemistry that much easier (see also: San Antonio) but you could also argue that if everybody knows and sticks to their roles, you could have it without. For instance, when Jordan told his point guards that if they ever passed the ball to Bill Cartwright in the 4th quarter again they were toast, that wasn't exactly "character" per se, but it did reinforce the pecking order that stayed in place for the better part of a decade and multiple championships. In the absence of a dominant bull in the yard (no pun intended) I think character becomes more important.

As far as players that "don't quite fit", I know people make a lot about Portland being provincial and a bit prudish, but I really don't think the acceptance of the fans has as much to do with moral character as is claimed. I think fans want good basketball first and foremost. Portland fans love hustle. They know what defense is. They admire the blue-collar guys and the underdogs. They don't like guys who stink it up on the court, especially ones who don't appear to give their best effort between the lines. Jerome Kersey was accused of a couple of really bad things and was rumored to have participated in more. (I make no claim as to whether the accusations were factual, simply that they hit the fans' ears.) Yet everybody loved him, and most still do today. Why? Because he gave it all on the court. Rasheed's behavior became a national story. Fans still chanted "Sheed!" every time he touched it in the post until the last season, when it became apparent that he didn't want to be here and his play reflected it. (Some still cheered.) I'd be willing to bet that Darius' "Bobblehead" comments and strip-club escapades wouldn't have caused a ripple if he was playing like gangbusters.

In other words, I think the moral/community aspect of the character issue has been overblown, or at least that the fans are somewhat hypocritical, because they'll take it from an all-star but they bring it to bear against the underachievers. I'd much prefer they'd say, "This guy is laying a big ol' stinkburger. Dump him!" On the other hand, I'd argue that the players that "haven't fit" truly did not fit on the floor, and thus it's good they're gone. The one exception might be Sheed, but he didn't want to be here and that, more than any character issue, is why he's gone.

Thanks for the compliment! I may cut and paste your post and my response and put it on the main page because I think the chemistry vs. character issue is a good one.


1:17 AM  
Blogger Erik Mann said...

great topic, keep up the great posts, MMA

3:05 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home