Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Charlie Villanueva claims Kevin Garnett called him a cancer patient

Well, we touched on Kevin Garnett's unfortunate trash talk earlier in the day, but apparently, there are still voices out there determined to use their pulpits to issue a sermon on the evils of Kevin Garnett.

It's either unbelievable or entirely predictable depending on your familiarity with the media.

See, it would easier for me to stand here and call Kevin Garnett a terrible person and a malignant presence on the NBA landscape. A cancer, if you will. In 2010, people gravitate toward those messages. Issuing blame. Creating villains. Sparking deep resentment, hearkening back to simpler values of a bygone era. Election day was yesterday; look at how successful the tea party was.

So, it's tempting. It'd be very easy to make Kevin Garnett a target here. He made light of cancer, after all, and insulted a lesser player that just happens to suffer from a rare and tragic disease called alopecia. It wouldn't be hard to connect the dots and call his character into question. Pile on, and watch the hits pile up.

We could play on the emotions of readers that don't know the context of the NBA, and might read the story and say, "Look at that--another thug athlete going too far, disgracing himself." Then maybe they'd send it to a few friends, who would pass it on to friends of their own. A few of them would probably post it on Facebook, where even more people would see it. Welcome to 2010, they'd muse.

We could echo other writers, claiming "it’s stained his legacy." Warning us that "this one promises to chase him into retirement. Beyond that of an MVP and an NBA champion, Garnett has gone to inexplicable lengths to craft a parallel legacy: a vicious bully, a cold and cruel jerk."

That would be one way to go. The problem, of course, is that it completely neglects nuance. It sows fear and resentment where there's no need. It wastes your time. Wastes everyone's time. This is 2010, and there are real problems facing pro sports, America, and the fight against cancer.

And as boring as this sounds, Kevin Garnett isn't one of them.


I know you won't send this to your friends now, but at least you can take comfort in knowing the truth. If Kevin Garnett said that Charlie Villanueva looked like a "cancer patient," it was insensitive, ugly, and ignorant. So, just like the trash talk you'd hear in any sport, at any level past grade school. But it doesn't make Kevin Garnett a bad person, and it won't change how we remember him.

Rasheed Wallace once made fun of Ron Harper's stutter during an NBA game. "Shu-shu-shu-shut up" he said after Harper talked trash to him. Does that mean we forget about the coat drives Rasheed organizes for Philadelphia's homeless every winter? Gary Payton made himself infamous for a non-stop stream of filthy, intensely personal trash talk. Does that mean we forget everything that he did for the city of Seattle? That the same cockiness underpinning his trash talk was the inspiration for Confidence Counts, his children's book?

Kevin Garnett crossed a line in an arena where the lines of deceny are blurred to begin with. If you want to demonize him for it, then fine. But we can't pick and choose who's legacy is beyond reproach. This week, the basketball world has mourned the loss of Maurice Lucas, a character that resonated with us for years and years after he retired. But reading the loving tributes to Lucas, I have to wonder. In 2010, how many people could resist the temptation to call him a thug and a bully?

As David Halberstam wrote in Breaks of the Game, Lucas was no saint:

In the third quarter, with the game close, one of the refs, angry at Luke's performance, had called a technical foul on him. Luke had shouted back his disagreement and stormed towards the referee. The referee had reached for his whistle, about to call the second technical, which meant automatic ejection, just as Luke arrived. The whistle was poised there in the ref's mouth, ready for blowing. Luke's hand touched the chain. Luke shook his head, very gently. But his eyes were burning. "You don't want to do that," he said. Their eyes met. The referee was 5'10" and Luke was 6'9". Luke held the referee's eyes. The referee slowly took the whistle out of his mouth.

"Look at him there, towering over a cowering victim," we might say. "A true bully." An enforcer in 1978 is a thug today. But then, that's 2010 for you. Maybe we'll romanticize these characters tomorrow, but today, it's far more lucrative to moralize. Blame, resentment, fear--it's what sells. Put it on your Facebook wall and watch the social media engagement take hold.

But we won't do that with Kevin Garnett today. He made a mistake, and I'm sure he'll apologize within the hour. It doesn't take away from a brilliant career, and it doesn't make him any less of a loving father, devoted philanthropist, and proud torch bearer for the current NBA generation.

One day, we'll look back on Garnett and remember his trash talk lovingly. He was unique, we'll say. Cared more than any player we've ever seen. Cared too much, maybe. But that's why we loved him.

And that's the real problem with 2010. In life, it's not the heroes that we relate to, and it's not the villains that make life more enjoyable. The people in between are the ones we remember most fondly. They resonate in a more meaningful way. And turn people into villains for their mistakes, we forget: Imperfection isn't a weakness. It shouldn't ruin anyone's legacy. It's what makes us unique. Kevin Garnett's not Tim Duncan, and that's why we all rooted for him to win in Boston. He cared too much, and wasn't afraid to show it. That's what we'll remember, not some cancer quote.

It's simpler and easier to call someone a vicious bully and point fingers at an enemy we've created out of thin air, but just remember: When we look at things in black and white, it blinds us to the most colorful people in our midst. And against that landscape, if you don't look hard enough, the whole world can look black and impossible. That's how negativity wins in America.

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