Mar 4, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after being fouled on a made basket against the Philadelphia 76ers during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
What do you see when you look at Russell Westbrook? Do you see a point guard who is fearless attacking the basket but plays with a recklessness that limits his ability to lead a team? Do you see someone who can put up impressive but ultimately empty stats en route to all too predictable losses? Do you see the epitome of the decay of NBA Basketball, a player who exemplifies all that is wrong with the game? And not just the game but kids these days. Millenials! Those lazy, ungrateful, short-cutters who want all of the glory but never learn the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice.
How long before you realize how much of your own baggage is painting the things that you see?
Few NBA players are such a perfect Rorschach test as Westbrook. You know, those ink blotted images that are designed to allow your imagination to tell you what secret hopes and fears you have locked deep inside the recesses of your subconscious. Images that are drawn by the viewer, not by the tiny blots on the page.
Westbrook is a tough-as-nails warrior who brings everything that he has to every second of every game. He is also the antithesis of the traditional point guard. The type that jump stops when he catches the ball and shot fakes before every drive. Russell Westbrook is many things. Like all people, he is some mixture of good things, bad things and many things that don’t fit into the rigid dichotomy of good and evil. But in a world of gray, Russ’s qualities are viewed in black and white ink dots that paint an image for everyone to project their opinions onto. He becomes whatever angel or demon you can think up.
The same was true for Allen Iverson. The projections fans placed on “The Answer” went well beyond the player that we knew on the court. For a certain contingent of NBA fans, Iverson was a thug. And not just any thug. He was the face of a league that was becoming increasingly thuggish. With sagging pants and neck tattoos. Iverson’s Rorschach test seemed like it was designed to draw out that racist and classist demon that lurked, and continues to lurk, in the background of so many NBA fans across the globe.
Iverson DID have run-ins with the law. He did sag his pants and have a neck tattoo that honored a friend who was shot. But his “thuggishness” isn’t found in the shape of the ink blots. The same can be said for DeMarcus Cousins. Or conversely, about the Spurs as a whole. As remarkable as the team has been for nearly two decades, few teams receive such preferential projections as the Spurs. To be clear, the Spurs are an impressive team and organization. But what is projected onto them often goes beyond what’s on the page.
Lebron James was and still is heralded as an imposter. For many, his story is painted with splotches of arrogance and entitlement that aren’t found in the splotches of previous humble champions before him like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal. No player invokes such feelings of nostalgia and golden age thinking as that of Lebron. He’ll never be as good as my memory of my childhood! The demon is right there in the margins! Can’t everyone see it!
Players, like all of us, are complex individuals. As people, their good and evil are mixed. The person that we get to know through the media is just a raindrop in an ocean of personality and character. Their player profiles are just as difficult to analyze. We take what we see, combine it with years of our own biases and prejudices and spit out a projection and call them truths. The real truth is often what is revealed to us about ourselves.
What do you see when you look at Russell Westbrook? Or DeMarcus Cousins? Or Lebron James? Because whatever you see, it probably tells you as much about yourself as it does about them.