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The Bizarre Fantasy of Wanting to Be an NBA Executive

GMs are not gods. The market is not magic. Paying attention to either won't help you understand or appreciate sports.
Photo via Flickr user 451 Research

Around a decade ago, two friends of mine were playing a lot of NBA video games. One had gone extremely deep into the character creation mode to create playable versions of the "Russian Twins" the Portland Trail Blazers had just acquired: Sergei Monia (drafted 23rd) and Viktor Khryapa (drafted 22nd by the Nets and picked up for Eddie Gill and cash). Because self-expression (and because whimsy, and, yes, because Portland) that friend created them as mirror images: One had a compression sleeve on the left arm, the other had one on the right; they even had matching tattoos. (Allen Iverson was about to win his second All-Star Game MVP as the heavily tattooed face of the "post-Jordan" NBA, which was still deeply uneasy with music blacker than, say, Frank Sinatra, and one suspects that things like "officially licensed video games with tattoo options for created characters" kept David "dress code" Stern awake at night those days, as he made and executed his plans to extend the league's reach and appeal ever deeper, ever blander, ever more closely aligned with the post-human homogeneity imposed by trans-national corporate capitalism.)


Why isn't there a basketball video game that lets you play as Kenny Rogers?

As the one friend used real-life players as launching pads for his creative impulses and devotion to the high pick-and-roll, which the poor computer never could really stop, the other dove into the season modes and franchise challenges, where the player would try to shepherd a team through the long haul, controlling the action on a game-by-game basis, but also paying attention to player acquisition and the other factors that determine team success over the years. That second friend once mused that the character creation features were maybe a little beside the point, because you could only create basketball players: Wouldn't most users, he wondered, want to create coaches? The game, after all, was modeled after the experience of watching TV—there were camera cutaways to show the coach, and the canned announcers would even mention the coaches now and again.

Fans project themselves into the things they're watching. Those with more capacious imaginations, or who prefer to ignore their physically limitations, create themselves as players in these games. (They probably also watch a lot of POV porn and talk dirty to the computer while they do it.) Those who understand that they'll never run as fast or jump as high as the men on TV are more likely to fantasize about a front-office job. (When they watch porn, they suffer through the dialogue, refusing to skip to the good part.) There's no better time to watch people wallowing in this weird and otherwise inexplicable worship of dull middle-manager types in khakis than the NBA offseason.

So far, in the mostly dull period since the San Antonio Spurs took the championship home, there's been an uneasy tension between between people who rightly understand the limits of control and those who fundamentally believe that old men in suits determine the fate of teams around the league. Put one way, this tension is between people who understand the offseason as something like a scientific experiment, subject to the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior ("Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases"), where the laboratory is the job market, weird-ass salary cap rules and all, and the animal is, unfortunately for the politics of my example, the player. That's on one side. On the other is the kind of person who at some core, reptilian level, can't really tell the difference between God, their dad, and their boss: This kind of person is likely to write a lot about the world's Phil Jacksons or Mark Cubans or Daryl Moreys and think that the right executive or coach could transform shit into gold. One of the weirder shibboleths of this faith, mouthed in between hosannahs about the glories of the guy who's nominally in charge is that "we judge process, not results." It's like worshipping a helpless god, all-determinative but responsible for nothing in particular.

Any parallels to enacting panting devotion to magical, omnipotent CEOs who can come in and fix everything while simultaneously bowing to the mysteries and unknowability and volatile uncontrollability of the Market are probably really depressing.

It's not as though mental consistency in all matters forever is a virtue: It's more than reasonable to want to celebrate magnificent achievements and the people who perpetrate them, and it's also an indisputable fact that those people exist and their achievements occur in a monstrously complex context that makes cause, effect, and individual responsibility hard to judge. But when even our smartest writers seem baffled that a baseball executive isn't very bright, it's probably time for a quick step back. On one side, let's attend to and celebrate the cool shit people do on the field. Yoenis Cespedes is fun, you guys. Billy Beane? He was in a well-written book about an overextended guy with an office job. LeBron James is the most remarkable combination of size, grace, skill, and speed of his generation, and would be dominant in any era. Daryl Morey is friends with a popular TV blogger. There are, I am suggesting, inherent reasons to project our interests and our fantasies in the direction of sports: That allows us to see beautiful things, difficult things, triumphant and transcendent things, things that inject us with sadness even when there's not that much actually at stake. Sports are (like) art, that is, and if you want to read Shakespeare or be amazed by an actor, that seems preferable, all in all, to reading about Broadway producers or writing exclusively about the people who negotiated the lease on the theatre.

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