The Mercy Rule

My NBA Hipsterism Problem, And Ours

By David Roth

In terms of how it gets used—which is often and poorly and carelessly enough to have legally assaulted "meaning"—the word hipster currently means something like "youngish city-dwelling white person with interests." Though again, "meaning" is not quite the right word here. Hipster as it's used refers to a specific type of person that likes a specific type of thing, and because Our Dumbest whites can't stop giggle-shrieking the word long enough to figure out the type of person or thing in question, what we're talking about is more less a word than a sneering sound. And anyway, once a term has become a laugh track cue on a B-grade sitcom—where it is used to rip on people who wear knit caps at seasonally inappropriate times (Kid Rock) and listen to Coldplay (your aunt)—it's best to take it to the vet, say one last goodbye to the hobbling and slobbery old guy, and put it to sleep. All of which is to say that there is something faintly ridiculous about the idea that the NBA has a hipster issue.

It's faintly ridiculous because a multinational entertainment corporation with $4 billion in annual revenue, ubiquitous television presence, and a fan base comprised in sizable part of eight-year-old kids in Kobe Bryant jerseys is not the sort of semi-secret thing that the hipsters we know from caricature would seek out, stake out, overrate, and claim as their own. Times Square cannot be Bushwick. For better or worse—actually, just "for worse"—hipsterdom is understood in the media through a taxonomy of specific brands and consumer choices. That's as sad-stupid in this case as it is in one of those don't-drink-gay-beer-bro ads, and it also doesn't work because hipster-y products are generally defined by the label-affixer as "things I do not like, and dislike others for liking." Even if you accept the you-are-what-you-drink argument, though, the NBA's meticulously mainstream brand would seem to disqualify it for passionate and passionately self-aware alt-advocacy. And yet I know that NBA hipsters exist, at least in spirit. I know because I am one.

Not in terms of how I dress—I'll leave that to the experts—or what consumables I consume or whatever other dreary sitcommery. But there are components of hipsterism—aesthetic snobbery, dorkweed connoisseurship, an element of peevy contrarianism—right there in the mix with the simpler, because-I-really-like-basketball reasons for why I love the NBA. For a scrupulously mainstream thing, the NBA still manages to be awfully shaggy and interesting and strange, all of which are good reasons to love it. But the NBA is also awfully unpopular in some quarters for a thing that presumably wants to be popular in all quarters, and generally for some awfully dumb and occasionally actually ugly reasons. For anyone even remotely inclined towards defining oneself against lame things, there's a perverse and profound hatefuck-y anti-appeal to the arguments against the NBA.

You're probably familiar with these arguments against: The fast, fluent basketball played by the world's best players is somehow less authentic than the flubbier analogue played by (notionally) unpaid teenagers in college or high school; that NBA players are universally greedy thugs, which is such a creepo FoxNation formulation that it hurts just to type it and which also lets the league's far greedier and more thuggish owners off the hook. There are some decent reasons not to like the NBA, of course, but all of them converge at "because I don't enjoy watching it." But the popularity of the sketchier and more codeword-heavy arguments against the NBA, and the volume and bombast with which they're delivered—there are many sports radio yob/angry dad-types who proclaim their distaste for the NBA with the righteous fervor of a Republican congressional candidate decrying environmental regulation—suggests something less agreeable than that. All of this is spectacularly mainstream, of course, but the uglier and angrier and more stubbornly backwards America's actual mainstream gets, the easier it is to see a hyper-mainstream mega-brand like the NBA as something other than that. An alternative, if you like.

It helps a lot that the NBA's commentariat is unusually astute—there are exponentially more literate, engaged, and bullshit-free words written about the NBA than about the NFL, for instance. But it helps, too, that NBA fans get to enjoy an entertainment that features state-of-the-art talent and high-production value presentation without having to forfeit the small, silly thrill of being up on something that clueless lamestreamers just don't get. Is it ridiculous? It is maybe a little ridiculous. But, on the parodic hipster self-delusion scale, it's not worse than, say talking yourself into Salem was a couple years ago. If we're applauding ourselves a little bit when we applaud Chris Paul or Kevin Durant, so be it. At least we get to watch.

@david_j_roth

Previously - Leave Tim Tebow Alone!

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