ONE: My favorite dunk of all time is Shaq posting up on Chris Dudley—a future Republican candidate for governor of Oregon—pushing him towards the rim as if he were a child, turning around, rising up, slamming the ball down as hard as possible, hanging on the rim, thrusting his crotch into Dudley’s midsection, landing on two feet having banged on Dudley so thoroughly that any shred of dignity he thought he had in this life was taken from him forever. Not content with this, Shaq then opts to embarrass Dudley even further by planting an authoritative two-handed shove right into his chest, and then simply jogging back on defense, having not received a foul call for this blatant offensive foul.
Dudley plays right into the troll, scrambling up off the court, looking around for the ball, picking it up, heaving it at O’Neal, and staring at him with his butter knife-dull eyes, all ineffectual rage and no drive to actually try to tangle with fucking prime Shaq, probably the most terrifying physical presence of the 21st century.
I never thought I would see something that disrespectful in sports, in my time, or the victim of the disrespect taking it so poorly. But, yesterday, I heard something that transmuted the feeling of seeing someone get banged on and reacting to it about as poorly as they possibly could into pure audio gold.
The victim plays for the team I root for, by the way.
TWO: Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum had Golden State Warriors virtuoso Kevin Durant on his podcast and it went VERY badly for C.J. You might have heard the money clip by now, but the depths of the irritation laced through this thing go so much deeper than that. In the beginning of the episode, Durant muses on C.J.’s ideal role which he judges, maybe not inaccurately, to be a high-scoring sixth man off the bench. It begins with them talking about the US Men’s Basketball team, and C.J. saying, “I could be the benchwarmer on the USA team if they need somebody.”
Durant replies, maybe a little condescendingly: “Man, you could play on any team.”
C.J. Hits back, quick, curt: “It was a joke man. I feel...”
Durant interrupts. “You ever feel like, you ever think you could be the sixth man?”
C.J. laughs. “At the end of my career, for sure.”
“You don’t think, in the prime of your career you’d be able to be like a 20 point scorer off the bench same way you score now?”
“I think I could do anything,” replies C.J., with all the confidence of a man sitting in front of a dude who really can do anything, “but I’m not gonna put myself in that position…”
“You wouldn’t do that on a winner?” Says Durant, a little too bluntly.
C.J. is full on irritated, now. “Define a winner! I’m on a winner right now! I’ve made the playoffs five straight years!”
Durant deadpans: “That’s a crazy mindset to have.”
THREE: Professional athletes are, by definition, maniacs who have devoted their lives to impossibly narrow goals. Later on in the podcast, McCollum talks about scoring tons of points in the NCAA tournament and knowing, FOR CERTAIN, that he was bound for the NBA if he just put on some muscle. It’s a level of confidence that is awe-inspiring to me, and it’s totally necessary to function, much less succeed, in what is probably the most competitive work environment in the world.
But in this moment, we see the limits of the constant lies an athlete must believe: that they are the best, that coming off the bench is bullshit, that they deserve everything and just have to take it for themselves. Because C.J. really has had an impressive career, the Blazers really are a good team, and he is good enough to start and take shit tons of shots for them despite having a kind of redundant skill set on a team with All-World Mind God Damian Lillard.
But Durant is… Kevin Durant. He’s a world beating physical and psychological monster-man, playing for the best team of his era, a dude who could lose his leg in a wheat threshing accident tomorrow and still make the Hall of Fame on pure performance merits. By the standards of sports, where contributing to victory is moral currency, he towers over McCollum. It’s not even close.
This verbal spar is the drama of NBA Basketball, distilled to its purest essence. Elite talents destroy while excellent talents fall short. Russell dominated West. Jordan embarrassed Ewing. Duncan bloodlessly executed everyone that got stuck in front of him. LeBron turned the Raptors into his pets. The Warriors crush the Blazers and giggle behind their backs, year after year after year.
FOUR: But there’s a way to react to all that, and C.J. just… can’t bring himself to do it. He can’t let go of the thing that drives him, that drives ALL professional athletes, the sense that you are the best and you just have to go out there and prove it.
Instead of sitting in it, seeing DeMarcus Cousins sign with the Warriors for peanuts, and just letting himself say, hey, this is gonna happen and I just have to compete through it, he gets mad, and TELLS DURANT that the signing made him mad. Durant fires back, “You know… you know you ain’t gonna win a championship”—which is almost certainly correct, especially considering how tremendously shitty the Blazers off-season was—and C.J. tries to rebuff while Durant just... laughs at him. “I like y’all two. You’re hard to stop. But… c’mon. You can’t be upset about this!”
C.J. says yes he can. Because Cousins was a free agent, and he could have come to Portland. In his irritation, after the signing was announced, C.J. apparently TEXTED COUSINS, the pettiest imaginable move, and asked him why he went to Golden State and not, apparently, Portland.
In this sputter, McCollum has apparently forgotten that the Blazers already have a pretty good center, Bosnian Thiccboy Jusuf Nurkic, and Durant tries to get him to say that he would have wanted Cousins more than the Bosnian Beast. CJ demurs, then tries to say that Nurkic and Cousins could have played together, which, if you’ve read a Basketball Prospectus any time in the last like, seven years, you know would be a terrible idea.
Durant caps it off. “I suggest you just keep playing. Don’t worry about what’s happening at the top of things.” Tremendously mean, but also really, deeply correct.
FIVE: Blazer fans, of which I am one, are trying their damnedest to spin this back on Durant. They mention burner accounts—the second level of the beef taken to Twitter—the fundamental lameness of him going to Golden State in the first place, anything they can get their hands on. I get it, sure, but this attempt to rationalize in the face of such an overwhelming defeat looks desperate, especially for a fan base whose squad got absolutely FUCKED UP in the playoffs this year. Spot Durant's lie. Spot it, please.
But they also forget about what being embarrassed in sports IS. It’s momentary. Take Shaq. He has done just… tons of lame shit in his life and career. He is in Kazaam. He’s terrible on television. He was a fake laptop cop for a hot second, there. He shills for foot powder. But when you watch him break Dudley’s spirit, turn him into a fat-ass can of Mad, Red, Republican Coke, that shit just doesn’t fucking matter. If Dudley had just been stoic about it, got up and kept playing, he would have seemed like a victim, like a silent warrior who accepts whatever comes his way. C.J could have spared DeMarcus a goofy phone call, spared listeners his irritation with the Warriors never-ending string of success, played the goddamn game, and been fine—ADMIRED, even. But he let it get to him and let Durant invade his mind, and everyone heard it and ragged on him. Honestly, he had it coming.