The new NBA season is under way, and, so far, fans have had little to sink their claws into, in terms of thematic consistency. Amare Stoudemire winces silently. Kobe Bryant’s leg is slowly growing back to full strength. The Jazz are torrid. The Miami Heat are defending their title no better than the 2006 Steelers and the 2006 White Sox defended theirs. No one is really ready to believe that the Magic are that good, or that the Bulls are that bad. With Shaq injured, LeBron overexposed, Artest banished to the techno-blaring streets of Sacramento, and the league’s new best player a born-again Christian who recently outgrew braces and has been rumored to be hanging with porn stars, the league is lacking in a strong personality.
Between the new synthetic leather ball, the zero-tolerance rule against upstaging the referees, and the recent emphasis on traveling and carrying the ball, the games have never felt more disjointed. All of this at a time when athletes like J.R. Smith and Monta Ellis are flying out of the gym. One would think that now is a time to feel downtrodden, but the reason this could be the best season in recent years is that orphaned forwards—those most maligned, those left for dead, and those scandal-plagued—are experiencing a rebirth, perhaps reflecting a new era for the Association at large. For Carlos Boozer, Emeka Okafor, Carmelo Anthony, and Zach Randolph, this is Redemption Year.
Let us look at our four defendants: Boozer was he who bamboozled a blind millionaire in Cleveland, fled to the snow-capped hills of Salt Lake City, collected a monstrous paycheck, and sat out the bigger part of the past two years with a variety of mysterious injuries as the Jazz tanked. Okafor, who was to become the face of the Charlotte Bobcats, whined when he wasn’t drafted first overall amid concern over his geriatric back, and, after those concerns became a reality, seemed destined to become Charlotte’s own personal Sam Bowie (while God’s son, Dwight Howard, flourished in Orlando).
Carmelo Anthony, who has been cast as the ugly middle child between LeBron and Dwyane Wade, is consistently shat upon around All-Star time, and has shown fits of immaturity, ranging from his infamous plea, in a Baltimore drug czar’s home movie, to “stop snitching” to his tiffs with coach Larry Brown during the 2004 Olympics. Zach Randolph is he who is most maligned, and, due to attitude problems and run-ins with the law (strippers, guns, etc.), stands as the last remnant of the Jailblazer era.
This year, all has been forgotten. What made the redemption of these players so improbable was that they were all highly skilled to begin with, despite their absence from any All-Star games. Melo has gone from being a consistent 26-point scorer to being a 30-points-per-game deity. Boozer has gone from being an innocuous double-double player to being a 30-20 threat every night. Okafor has gone from being merely solid to being a franchise player. And Randolph has gone from being a malcontent stats-hogger to being the Blazers’ dominant go-to guy down the stretch.
Redemption Year, in its wonder, presents quite the theological dilemma. These circumstances are refreshing, because they again demonstrate the NBA’s capability to disprove the Bible thumpers: It is not simply hard-working, underpaid character guys who prosper. That is not to homogenize the four defendants—Okafor is practically a saint, and Randolph is the only one of the bunch who has ever really broken the law. Still, all of them have transgressed through either sloth, greed, gluttony, or even, in the case of Okafor, pride. Ethical uprightness is often touted as the life’s blood of championship teams, earning them their trophies, but the reality is more complicated. These men have both sinned and prospered.
At the same time, these case studies may provide the exact evidence that the religiously devoted need to support their cause. That is, Z-Bo, C-Booz, Melo, and EmO are the exact brand of wretches that grace is likely to have saved. Redemption has been provided to these characters, for, although they may be responsible for their respective plights, they have also been cast as the victims of misfortune as well. Melo, both on Team USA and on the Nuggets, has been wrongly singled out for contributing to a poor team attitude. Boozer was shockingly shunned for “not wanting to become LeBron’s sidekick.” (It seems that few do.) Okafor and Randolph did not ask for their injuries, although odd conditioning regimens may have contributed to their physical ailments. For the Bible thumpers, Redemption Year is proof of God’s greatness, proof that should inspire the four defendants seeking salvation.
More than likely, these higher-order questions do not resolve themselves and we are forced to simply bask in the glory of the Association’s volatility. And so, the story line of this NBA season is, again, that fashioning story lines is a futile practice—the league poses more questions about fate, justice, and reciprocity than it answers. Even Redemption Year itself has not occurred the way it ideally would: in the ideal version, Melo becomes more well-rounded, a better defender and rebounder, and Boozer becomes a key “team guy”/contributor, deferring to Deron Williams and Andre Kirilenko. No, instead, Melo has put on the fiercest display of unstoppable scoring since, dare I say, Shaq in his prime, and Boozer has become The Man. I am all for the Diaws rising from the darkest corners of the earth, and the shunned Ben Wallaces cursing the league for their undrafted status. But when the malcontent, the downtrodden, the misunderstood, and the criminal shine, it makes me all the more certain that the games are worth playing.