By anyone’s rules, Gerald Wallace and J.R. Smith are minor figures in today’s National Basketball Association. Wallace, whose athletic bombast is matched only by the utter inconclusiveness of his game, toils away for the woeful Charlotte Bobcats; Smith, a precocious 20-year-old drafted in 2004 by the NOLA Hornets, knows only the delirious extremes of long-range bombing and murderous dunks. As small-market outposts, neither team sees the light of televised day—the Hornets’ surprise season might have helped their cause, but getting exiled to the Dust Bowl earned them extra oblivion points. Factor in Wallace’s penchant for serious injury and Smith’s indefinite stint on the far end of the bench, and these two might as well not exist for the casual NBA observer, and only intermittently so for the honorable fanatic.
But ask me to rattle off my NBAers of choice and I’ll insist on including Wallace and Smith alongside Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Amare Stoudemire, and Kobe Bryant. Dwell on the other prize winners for a second and you’ll get a fair idea of where I stand on the reason this sport conquers all. Wallace and Smith, though, have accomplished very little of note during their (admittedly brief) tenures in the Association, and lack even a clear enough body of work to stand for something larger than themselves. I can’t say I’ve seen either play more than a handful of times, and the time both spent in the dunk-contest limelight was fleeting enough that no one wants to talk to me about it. I’d brashfully count myself among their biggest fans, but all Wallace and Smith are to me are loose agglomerations of anecdotal moments in their careers.
I suppose I could spring for an NBA League Pass and figure out who they really are at this point, and how they relate to the aboveground section of my pantheon. Doing this, though, would not only kill all the fun of harboring a nebulous cult figure—it denies the fact that to really embrace one, you’ve got to admit that it’s as much about your own hopes, dreams, and subjectivity as any facts and figures or authoritative opinions. The Association holds within it plenty of more skilled, more exciting, better exposed, more endearing, more readily available players than these two, players you could make a more plausible case for deserving a loving ticket away from obscurity. It also has a host of likably incomplete role players seemingly destined to be the lazy man’s fan favorite. Here, though, jocking an athlete isn’t a matter of being well-informed enough to find diamonds in the rough or to applaud the everyman; it’s about being able to build little, personal myths when mystery offers up an opening, and knowing you’re a better fan for having done so.
I am a “this is a league of stars” hard-liner. These stars are surrounded by planets, asteroids, debris, comets, and pieces of clay; this is the Association, and these are its components and natural order. Yet for every primary body, there is a no less powerful black hole, wormhole, or similarly kooky variant on the usual play of matter and space. As someone with an off-kilter view of the sport, though, the Wallaces and J.R.s of the league furnish every bit as much of a gravitational force for me as the game’s marquee talents. Like those unsettling things out there in the sky, they provide the greatest evidence of cosmic birth and destruction—this is a league of taste, and in these stubbornly inaccessible players, you get the chance to loudly invent your own NBA.
I’ve probably logged as much meaningful time as a music snob as I have as an honest-to-God sports fan. In this case, there’s no denying the influence; fixating on players who have little or nothing to do with the league’s competitive jumble is as defiantly lame as being drawn to a record in part because it’s not that well known. For me, though, seeking out obscure music isn’t about the largely showy task of gathering up everything under the sun and holding it close to your bosom. Instead, it’s driven by taste, the need to find more of what thrills you, even if it means having to decipher it yourself. In fact, it’s at those moments, when you can feel yourself generating meaning and defining terms, that listening becomes most powerful. This isn’t necessarily better than flouncing around in the public domain, but it’s what allows you to have a deeper personal stake in all music, no matter how obvious or well-worn it may be.
Stars belong to everyone, even if you think your way into their palace of grandeur is unique in its sparkling twists and turns. To cement your preference in great and visible objects, there has to be another moody presence in the room, an equal and opposite reaction that allows you to define them as they define you. In music, it’s realizing that you need Keak Da Sneak just as badly as you need Rakim. In the NBA, it’s synthesizing a wonder where others see only a hole in the ground.