Hanging on the wall of my room when I was a kid was Nike’s “Ice Man” poster–San Antonio Spurs legend, George Gervin wearing a silver jumpsuit and sitting on an icy throne. There was “Chocolate Thunder,” which I could hardly bring myself to ruin by piercing the corners with pins, featuring a dazzling Darryl Dawkins standing on his native planet of “Lovetron” holding a glass backboard—presumably one he had ripped from its sockets while dunking. And then there was “Moses,” with a robed Moses Malone holding a staff majestically standing on the road to the Promised Land. In those days, basketball was flavorful, quirky and sometimes surreal. Central to the collective experience of the sport were the personalities of the players. Less so these days, when the league and its marketing machine seem dedicated to enforcing a more corporate attitude, emphasizing more generic values like excellence, competition and the holy grail-like quest to win.
Enter the FreeDarko collective, who, for four years, have been building an online community of basketball fans and troubadours of the human spirit dedicated to capturing the complex characters who drive the game. Last fall, they released a book, which we recently named the best book of the year 5769. It seemed like a good time for a little one-on-one with the mastermind behind the Web site, book and sports counterculture, Bethlehem Shoals—nÃ© Nathaniel Friedman.
For those who don’t know about FreeDarko, can you tell us how the collective came together?
The quick and dirty version of it is: A couple of friends of mine from college just started watching a lot of basketball in the summer of 2000. Then we got a fantasy league, and in the fantasy league, we started leaving these large comments on our message board. This was when people didn’t start blogs with the goal of taking over the South of Italy or whatever…There was another guy in our fantasy league who I’d known from when I was in high school and he was in college at the same time, and then another friend of mine who I’d known previously though weird online tape-trading stuff…And we just all started writing. It was only to amuse ourselves—to pretend we were starting some sort of cult or had some sort of higher calling.
When I read the book, one of the first things I thought of after I read the introduction was that Seinfeld joke (not to turn myself into a caricature by beginning with a Seinfeld reference), that when you root for a sports team you’re pretty much rooting for â€˜laundry.’ The players change teams so seamlessly, owners will move a franchise from one city to another if they get a bigger arena, the players will leave the team and sign with a rival if they pay them a nickel more, and really it’s just the uniforms that you end up rooting for. Yet for some reason, so many fans keep this fierce allegiance to their home team.
No man. You shouldn’t just root for your team because it’s in your city. You should root for a team because something that they are doing is resonating with you, and when they stop doing that, you have no reason to keep rooting for them if you don’t want to.
That used to be called jumping on a bandwagon, though, no?
I think it would be jumping on the bandwagon if I rooted for teams that were good. But I don’t think anyone is going to accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon when I religiously follow the Atlanta Hawks. You know what I mean? The bandwagon thing is based on this idea that you have no loyalty or you just like what’s popular or what’s successful. And, if all of a sudden what you’re liking isn’t at all popular or successful and your reasons for liking them are kind of oblique, then you can’t really level that same criticism. That’s why I think people say things to me like, â€˜You must have never been an actual fan, because this makes no sense.’ And I’m like, â€˜What you’re doing makes no sense to me and looks like kind of boring.’ And this sort of comes back to this whole question, â€˜Oh, are journalists supposed to be fans?’ And I think the common answer is, â€˜Well, they’re just not supposed to pull for anyone.’ But no, I think journalists have a variety of players and teams and configurations of players they end up attached to or attracted to.
Do you think basketball lends itself to this kind of analysis?
I think there is a similar sort of selective fandom that happens with basketball and people who aren’t otherwise into sports. I think that there is this way to appreciate basketball that intersects with being outside mainstream American culture, or lends itself to the snideness-slash-braininess in a way that other sports don’t.
There was a period after the ABA/NBA merger when basketball was a wild kind of carnivalesque. The culture seems a lot more corporate these days. Are there any signs that things may be changing?
I really like the new Nike Hyperize commercial just because that’s the kind of thing where I feel like if someone asked me, â€˜Do you want to make a commercial?’ I’d say, â€˜Sure, let’s just get a bunch of young players, make them rap, combine multiple strains of late â€˜80s, early â€˜90s hip-hop into one world and then make a bunch of inside jokes about those genres and then make Kevin Durant wear an Africa medallion.’ That’s why I love that commercial so much, because it seems like they were just like, â€˜OK, let’s just make the craziest commercial we can think of that only half the people who see it are going to get.’ I mean that’s what I love about that commercial—is that there’s like a sliding scale of how much of it makes any sense to anyone.
What commercial do you think typifies the antithesis: the urge to sell the players as bland symbols of â€˜the will to win’?
I think â€˜Brand Jordan’ for better or worse often falls into that trap …Like the last one I guess they did where it’s like player’s eye view. It’s like a commercial that basically shows you what it’s like to be on the floor. It’s just actually like if you were running with them, like with Chris Paul in a fast break like, this is what you would see. It’s a really cool commercial visually; it’s just all it does is basically reinforce the fact that Chris Paul, Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony and Rip Hamilton are very good basketball players.
Another one I didn’t like was the LeBron commercial where it was just him sort of reciting his accomplishments and dribbling. He dribbled. He changed uniforms, and then he was like, â€˜I’m not done yet.’ It was just sort of this very bland idea of â€˜excellence.’ (This is something we had to work on with the LeBron James essay [in the book]. We didn’t want to get this sense of him this exceptional, somewhat otherworldly and isolated figure.) It’s funny, like people talk about how LeBron is boring as a public figure, but Jordan himself was hardly the most interesting public figure…I mean the personality for Jordan was Spike Lee.
It’s funny you mention Spike Lee, because I think he’s also probably the person that’s done the best job at channeling LeBron as well. In the Kobe/ESPN doc he did this year, LeBron comes across as so funny, so quirky, so off-the-wall.
Wait, do you mean the public commercials?
No, no I mean Kobe Doin’ Work.
Oh yeah… I didn’t actually didn’t see that.
Yeah, it’s just great stuff. Like when Kobe and LeBron are in the Olympics together and they’re sharing the same locker room. Kobe’s trying to fit in and going out of his way to be one of the guys by participating in all the locker room shenanigans, but it all looks so forced. And meanwhile LeBron—it just comes natural to him.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t like that Nike puppet campaign—not only because it was weird (the LeBron puppet sounded like LeBron and the Kobe one sounded nothing like Kobe), but it was also because you could imagine a goofy puppet LeBron running around and acting silly, but the idea of Kobe walking around showing off his rings and stuff—I think people assume Kobe Bryant would just be sitting on the couch quietly reading.
Yeah, if LeBron harassed him or whatever.
Yeah, that would’ve been hilarious. It’s sort of hard for Nike to figure out how to market Kobe, because—and I think everyone realizes now—Kobe is this kind of, I don’t want to say weird guy… I mean he is a weird guy…. And if you want to get into what makes him interesting, it gets really, really weird and creepy and confusing really fast.
What element of his personality would you like to see highlighted a little bit more?
I would honestly like to highlight his dorkiness. Kobe loves graphic novels and science fiction movies. He has sort of lived in this weird bubble his entire life and lived all over the place. He’s an awkward kind of geeky guy who’s maybe a little over-analytical. I don’t know. I just feel like he’s got an ego, so he wants his commercials to be grandiose.
So, how would you do it?
Man, you’re putting me on the spot.
But it’s a fun question, though, no? Pretend you were shooting a Kobe/LeBron commercial.
It’s pretty easy with LeBron, whereas name me one Kobe campaign that was convincing. It certainly wasn’t the one where he was like sitting in a garden writing poetry in Italian. It certainly isn’t the one where he just lifts a lot of weights and jumps over a car. And, you know, you also can’t do anything about how so many people hate Kobe. He’s not Iverson. Iverson’s polarization was actually good for his image; it’s what drove his image, but that doesn’t work for Kobe. So, it’s tough to say.
I’m not backing down here. Suppose you were hired to do a branding campaign with Kobe and LeBron.
Well, this is actually funny. I think I heard a story once. I think it was in New Orleans for the All-Star game, and all of the players did Habitat For Humanity stuff through the warm-ups. Apparently, Kobe was very serious about being able to get the nails out that no one else could. Like [ESPN basketball writer] Henry Abbott couldn’t get a nail out, and like Kobe is like, â€˜Let me try that’ and makes sure he can get it out and makes sure everybody sees it. But he also really badly wanted to finish the house. OK, maybe Kobe and LeBron are in the gym and maybe it’s a reprise of the old Bird/Jordan one-on-one [McDonalds commercial], and on Kobe’s side of the court, there are all of these spots taped for him to take jumpers from and he has all these charts and stuff. Meanwhile, LeBron is bouncing the ball off the top of the gym and doing dunks and then shooting no-look three-pointers over his back, and then they meet at half-court and are like, â€˜Alright, you ready?’ Or something dumb like that.