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Sports

Swaggy P, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and a Defense of the Subversives

Nick Young can be infuriating to watch, but perhaps the reason has more to do with you than it does him. Also: drugs.
February 16, 2015, 2:32pm
Image via Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

On June 17, 1964, 14 enlightened souls boarded an elaborately painted bus and began driving in an easterly direction. They brought with them a thirst for mind-expanding drugs (along with a healthy supply) and a desire to disrupt the staid conventions and structures of American society with improvised gatherings of interested souls made more interesting by dosages of LSD. This journey, and other assorted escapades of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were documented by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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"The whole other world that LSD opened your mind to existed only in the moment itself—Now," Wolfe wrote. "And any attempt to plan, compose, orchestrate, write a script, only locked you out the moment, back to the world of conditioning and training where the brain was a reducing valve."

Read More: The Plot to Kill the Slam Dunk

On March 25, 2014, Nick Young had a chance to put the exclamation point on a 51-point third quarter for the Lakers, at home against the Knicks. As the game clock wound down, Young opted for a step-back three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Tim Hardaway Jr. The shot missed the mark. This was something that Young didn't see. He had his back to the basket already, arms up and exulting before the ball had a chance to finalize its in-or-out decision. This seemed, for a while, like the ultimate Nick Young moment, although he has continued to replace it ever since. In NBA-circus metaphor, Nick Young is inevitably the executive director of clowning.

Off the court, Young's exploits are ones any hallucinogenically motivated, freewheeling and subversive cabal could be proud of. His play on the court is seen as dangerous carelessness, hilarious buffoonery, and pretty much nothing in between. No measure of criticism ever seems to faze Young, who is after all extremely confident, young, rich, and happily soaking in blissful unawareness. He often refers to himself in third-person, using a nickname given personally to him in a dream by God. He has stated that he doesn't get tattoos on his right arm because it's "strictly for buckets." Here's Swaggy P discussing his role on the (currently) 13-38 Lakers at a recent team event:

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"What's it like to bring the Swag to the team? I think they need it. It's just me being me and it tends to wear off on my man Jeremy Lin and Wayne started hitting some threes. That's all that matters. As long as we're doing our thing and talking trash, you'll see me hitting threes and jumping up and down the court. That's cool, right?"

Image via Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For many fans, myself included, Young is half irritant and half salve, a joke that's funny enough, but told only at the worst possible moments. For fans that invest our emotional well-being in the game, basketball is serious business; our team's success and failure impacts our lives in a real way. Young has had a hand in both—with a giddy finger pushing heavily on the failure side of the scale—for the four NBA teams that have employed him. But he appears to feel none of the weight of our expectations and desperate dreams, and to be further unburdened by the seriousness that can make us miserable. He plays basketball and he has fun doing it, blithely unworried about the outcome and seemingly happy to trust that everything will take care of itself. It's easy to see why this worldview, and the basketball that results, might frustrate coaches and confuse fans—and Young, who has logged some DNP's recently for the going-nowhere Lakers, may well have pushed Byron Scott, his supremely buttoned-up coach, too far. But that Young's approach is maddening, and in some strict sense does not work, is different than saying it is irrational.

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None of this is to say that Young doesn't care about winning, or doesn't try to make winning plays. Basketball is more fun when you win, after all. But it's plenty fun even when you don't, and unlike certain teammates—Bryant, Kobe seethes atop a long list—Young seems to find ample pleasure in the simple act of running around on a basketball court. There is always the risk of writing too much intent onto anyone this opaque, but also there is something vaguely but unmistakably subversive about Young's determination to disengage from conventional basketball values and enjoy himself thoroughly.

"Sometimes we don't even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols."

?• Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Maybe Nick Young is a fool. Maybe he is wasting his talent, carelessly hunting shots he has no business taking, floating through defensive possessions, laughing off both success and failure. It is easy to fall into the trap of perceiving him in that way. However, this viewpoint relies, inherently, on the premise that Young is either naive or immature—how else could he evaluate the consequences of his basketball actions and arrive at such a different set of choices than we, devoted fans that we are, would?

Image via Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

But what if we see Young not as a man-child missing the seriousness of life and career and basketball, but as someone who has weighed his options and decided on fun. If Young had entered the league recognizing restraint as a basketball virtue, or was defined by his self-control instead of his lack thereof, chances are that he'd be no more successful. His skills are real, but limited; even a passionate love affair with efficient decision-making would only take him so far. Whatever his won-loss record, it's easy to imagine that hypothetical version of Young being a lot less famous and a lot less happy.

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For that reason, I can't help but feel that Ken Kesey and Nick Young would have gotten along famously.

Kesey's devotion to transforming the collective consciousness is perhaps more of a burden than Young would want to take on. With his every action, Swaggy makes clear that he is in this for himself, and invites us to either laugh along with him or get out of the way. But both Kesey and Young, in their seriousness and unseriousness, were working to subvert a dominant cultural narrative. Kesey rejected the idea that the measure of a man was his adherence to the banality of post-World War II patriotism and docile consumerism. Young is pushing back against the idea that the measure of a basketball man is his team's record, his shot selection, and his ability to play within the confines of a system designed by some square head coach. True shooting percentage and Offensive Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus are not measures of basketball, in this reading, so much as they are symbolic of a certain type of basketball that has been canonized as culturally correct.

In subverting that empty symbolism, Young is part of a counter-culture movement that has been simmering in the NBA for awhile. Gilbert Arenas, Young's original batshit mentor on his first NBA team, is his Jack Kerouac; Nate Robinson is his Timothy Leary. J.R. Smith is his Jerry Garcia, JaVale McGee his Allen Ginsberg. No one really likes to talk about it, but I'm pretty sure Sasha Pavlovic is Bob Dylan in this analogy; his goofy voice was his defense. There have always been players who cared openly about fun more than culturally normed measures of success. Young, simply by being himself, happens to be the current spokesman for this movement.

Kesey was, and Young is, uncomfortable to watch for members of the establishment. This is as it should be: in everything they do, a whole way of being is being challenged. Their actions and beliefs seem counterintuitive, sophomoric, half-heathen, and hedonistic. Young is just connecting with basketball in the way kids do in driveways, and in doing so reminds us of something big and buried that brought us to basketball in the first place.

Not that he is trying to do that, necessarily. He is just trying that spin-move-away-from-the-rhododendron, reverse-through-the-legs-flip-shot over and over and over again until he finally makes it, or until it's time for dinner, or until he runs out of light, as all of us have. The difference is that Young is playing out that process on a court with teammates and defenders, and in front of millions of people watching at home. He is living his dream and he's going to enjoy every goddamn moment of it. He is on the bus.