Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Sojourn into the Taboo


So yesterday, despite the fact that my beloved Spurs are down 0-2 to the New Orleans Hornets, I chose to take part in Chris Paul Blog Day. I don’t regret it, not at all. Paul is a tremendous player and deserves the attention whether he is our opponent or not. But I felt compelled to reestablish my loyalty to the Spurs by lavishing praise on the most controversial man to don the silver and black: Bruce Bowen.

In fact, the reasons I appreciate Bowen spring from the same set of values that make me appreciate Paul. If you happen to read my post on Paul, I lauded him for invoking a by-gone era in which brusque physicality was not uncommon on the court. Paul is a relatively small player, but he approaches the game with a terse abandon (and as J.A. Adande pointed out yesterday, a healthy dose of “mean”) that I admire. For other thoughts on Paul's tough style of play, check out Ryan Schwan's great piece at Hornets247 about Paul's edge.

But for people to praise Paul for his hardened style, or other Hornets for ruggedly standing by him, but to simultaneously criticize Bowen is very problematic, in my opinion. There is no doubt that Bowen’s style of play resides in an ethical gray area, but that does not make him an ineffective player or a disloyal teammate, two attributes which seem to justify rough and tumble tactics in the minds of many basketball analysts.

I would be being disingenuous if I said my style of play, however amateur it may be, resembled in anyway the backhandedness that is attributed to Bowen. I pride myself on being a clean and gracious player when on the court and deeply understand the frustration that arises when playing someone who is considered “dirty.” But I think the ethical code that surrounds the court grows thinner as you approach the professional level. Yes, basketball, even professional basketball, is just a game, and there is no respect to be gained in undermining the intrinsic dignity of men at “play.” But at a point, we all seem to implicitly accept that, somewhere amidst the large contracts, the media scrutiny, and the undyingly loyal fan bases, the scope and trajectory of the game changes.

I’ll explain it differently: In regular society, a shopping mall, the subway, even in the privacy of your own home, it is considered unacceptable and illegal to punch someone. And by punch I mean to strike with the intent to injure. And obviously that is how it should be. But there is a particular instance in which that action becomes acceptable: when one participates in what Hugh McIlvanney calls the hardest game, boxing. In that scenario, you exist in a specially defined social space in which it becomes acceptable to punch someone.

Now obviously boxing and basketball exist on two very different levels of intensity and the mutually agreed upon amount of harm one is willing to accept while participating in them is vastly different. This is by no means meant to be some closeted defense of Kermit Washington’s infamous haymaker. All I am saying is that, Bowen, instead of planting himself firmly in the realm of the unethical, does in fact live in, as I said earlier, “an ethical gray area.” The game has a culture which unintentionally manages that gray area, but there is also an actual organization that is specifically charged with that task: The National Basketball Association.

The onus falls on the league to establish the parameters of acceptable play, and if they are not going to punish Bowen for his actions, then I would argue they are acceptable. They understandably suspended Bowen for kneeing Chris Paul in the chest, as it is completely realistic to argue that the game cannot function on an orderly level if players are kneeing one another. There was no punishment when he and Paul collided while running down the floor in game 2 of the second round (not even an in game foul), even though Bowen clearly initiated the contact. Why? Because Bowen is a competitor, and that type of physical play (or intimidation even) increases the game’s intensity and intrigue.

That is why I like Bowen. That is why I like Paul. That is why I don’t criticize West for the very hard fouls he laid on Nowitzki in the first round or on Horry in game 2 (that's also why I've historically defended Horry's infamous hip-checking of Steve Nash during the 06-07 playoffs). Obviously I don’t ever want anyone to be in true danger (I think Williams’ clothesline of Rondo in game 7 of the Hawks-Celtics series definitely neared the realm of intent to injure. But he will be properly suspended). But at a professional level basketball is not a gentleman’s game. By no means am I going to disparage guys for handling themselves with dignity on the floor (certainly the sportsmanship that Duncan shows on the court is a point of pride for all Spurs fans). But I do not have a problem when guys push the level of acceptable play.

One last point before I end what is easily the most controversial article I have written for this website: I doubt few people who dislike Bowen will change their mind because of what I have written, and I imagine few Spurs fans will lighten up on West for his physical play either. The strange thing is, I think there is nothing wrong with that. One of the reasons I cited for appreciating physical play is the increased level of intrigue it provides. So let it bring out the partisan in you. Buckle down and let your animosity flow. It’s the playoffs. If there was ever a time that it’s acceptable to show morally blind devotion to your team, now is it. My disagreement is not so much with the fan that loves his team and despises his enemy. My disagreement is with a media that focuses negative attention on one player while praising others for styles of play that are, for all intents and purposes, decidedly similar.

1 comment:

Mark Fox said...

I'm a Hornets fan, and I've enjoyed your blog in the last week. I don't disagree with what you've said above about Bowen, but I think there's an added (and unresolvably controversial) wrinkle in his rough play: it frequently appears as though he is deliberately trying to injure opposing players. If that is the case, it is not appropriate for basketball at any level, and worthy of the dislike and contempt that opposing players and fans heap on him. The reason that it is controversial, and probably the reason that he hasn't been punished more by the league, is that it is really hard to determine if someone is deliberately attempting to injure someone. All you can do is watch the replays and try to imagine what is in Bowen's mind, as he puts his foot where a jumpshooting opponent is about to land, or kicks Amare Stoudamire in the leg.
It is hard for me to imagine that a team with such classy leadership (Pop, Timmy, etc) would openly condone "sweep the leg" tactics, but a whole lot of opposing players sure think that Bowen is trying to hurt them, and a whole lot of video is out there that can easily be interpreted in support of their belief.