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Well it’s 2012 and the . Though most of us will go through this year without the slightest trepidation that we’ll lose our lives to a giant tidal wave, earthquake, or , there are two species on this planet that will not persist much longer and may already be extinct.
The days of the dominant NBA center are numbered. So too are the days of the Rockstar. Though these figures live in two very different worlds, their declines are undoubtedly linked. Let me explain.
Traditionally, the center has been the most dominant position in professional basketball. In Bill Simmons’ , the top players of all-time were ranked 1-96. Centers took 6 of the top-13 positions and 3 of the top-6. Even though a center wasn’t at the top of the Pyramid ( ), the preponderance of them in the upper echelons is proof of their dominance, until now.
When looking across the landscape of the modern NBA, there are no truly . There are none in the top-10 in scoring. There are only 5 in the top-50. And what’s more, there isn’t a single center in the game today that is THE go-to, crunch time scorer on his team. There is no guy who demands the ball when his team is backed against the wall and needs a bucket. Of the 5 best centers of all-time (Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and Bill Russell), 3 led the NBA in scoring for at least 1 season (Shaq, Wilt, Kareem) and another (Olajuwon) would have if not for MJ. Those guys were the scorers on their team. Their skill, style AND attitude said, “Give me the ball down low. I’ll put it through the hoop, guaranteed.” That kind of player just doesn’t exist in the NBA today.
In the same way, there are no more idea. With that definition in mind, think back over the history of Rock and Roll. Starting with Elvis stealing his act from black musicians of the day and continuing all the way through Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Rock and Roll has always had, and in many ways, been defined by its Rockstars, until now. in the music industry. While the NBA center needs no definition, Rockstar, if left undefined, could start vicious arguments amongst music nuts everywhere, so let’s nip this in the bud. The definition of Rockstar for the purpose of the column is simply a member who was bigger than the band itself. Furthermore, if the Rockstar-member had been replaced by another random singer or guitarist, the band would have no doubt been much less famous. Chuck Klosterman had a great article on this
When listening to the radio today, if you can even find actual rock music, you would be hard pressed to know the name of the band you’re listening to, much less the name of its lead singer. Except to the most hardcore of their fans, individual band members are anonymous. Gone are the days of Keith Richards, Freddy Mercury, Robert Plant, and . Those guys were bigger than the music they played. Though the bands they played in, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin, and The Who respectively, were incredible acts who wrote and played some of the best rock music of the 20th century, each of these guys was just as, if not more responsible, than the music itself for the band’s fame and notoriety. Everything about these Rockstars, from their style, to their stage presence, to their general attitude said, “Worship me.” In today’s musical landscape rock musicians seem content to say, “ .”
So how did we get here? How did these figures so integral to both these worlds suddenly fade away? The answer is renaissance.
A renaissance man is someone skilled, proficient, or talented in a variety of areas. Like a poet-laureate who runs a sub-10 second 100 meter dash or a Heavyweight boxer who is also a . The modern application of this term in music and sports is not quite so lofty.
Today’s sporting renaissance man is the NBA power forward. In the past, anyone standing over 6’10” was a center and that was that. They played within 10 feet of the basket, they rebounded, and they blocked shots. Now every 7-footer is also a jump shooter. Every back-to-the-basket drop-step dunk is a face-up 15 footer off the glass. The running sky hook is now the 1-footed, high post fade away jumper. The latest generation of would-be centers (Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Pau Gasol) decided not to carry the torch passed down from Wilt to Hakeem to Shaq, but instead to become a new breed of player. Because of their size they could still grab 10 rebounds a game without working . But instead of taking a beating down low in the post shooting drop-steps, jump hooks, and put backs, they developed jump shots. Kareem had the Sky Hook. Hakeem had the Dream Shake. These were indefensible plays executed down low by centers at the absolute height of their powers. They were incredibly high-percentage shots that both guys rode to spots in the Hall of Fame and NBA championships. Their equivalent today isn’t found anywhere near the basket. It’s Dirk’s 15-18 foot fade-away from the top of the key. Duncan’s 15 foot bank-shot from the elbow. Both shots are nearly indefensible, and for these players they are high-percentage. The problem isn’t that Duncan, Dirk, and Pau made a bad decision in expanding their game away from the hoop. All three are . And because of their greatness, their styles were and are emulated. Now every huge kid wants to be a “well-rounded” player. Not content to be saddled with the center role, big men around the globe are practicing their jumper and neglecting their post game.
The problem with the view of the center position as easy or boring is that it is dead wrong. Look around the court today; there are very few great low-post scorers. Ask Kevin McHale. Ask Hakeem. There is nothing harder than mastering low-post play. Though it may seem easy because the players are so tall and so close to the basket, there is no room for error at all. It takes a career of hard work to reach the level that Hakeem, Wilt, and Kareem got to. So while it may be more glamorous to have range like Dirk, many of today’s 7-footers might find themselves and their teams better served by low post scoring than three-point shooting.
Musical renaissance has come via the replacement of Rockstars by Pop stars. This is not a revolutionary or original statement in any way. Pop stars and Rockstars, like humans and Mammoths, roamed the Earth together for a long time. While half the population rocked out in the 70’s, the other half had disco fever. The same is true today, some people listen to rock, some listen to pop, and some listen to . But now the Rock and Roll Mammoths have all died out and only Katy Perry, , and Justin Bieber are left. Today’s singers don’t play in bands. They generally don’t write their own music. They are just as concerned with becoming a global icon as they are with playing great music. They have realized there is more in developing a brand than there is in simply developing your talent. Look at Jay-Z and Beyonce, the King and Queen of modern music. Is everyone in America a fan? . Has everyone in America heard of them? Without a doubt. You wouldn’t need to have heard a track by either of them to know who they are. That’s because they are diversified brands. They aren’t just musicians and performers, they are spokespeople. Beyonce is an actress and a . Jay-Z owns a brand of Vodka, a massive clothing line, and a piece of the New Jersey Nets. This power couple is the greatest example of how name recognition means dollars. On the flip side of this discussion, do you think the Rockstars of old cared about being ? The answer is .
Whereas today’s music stars have other careers like those discussed in the previous paragraph, a Rockstar’s second career was living like a Rockstar. The phrase “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” had to come from somewhere, right? These guys behaved in a way that would make the most outlandish, brash, and crazy athlete . The Knicks’ Gold Club scandal? The Vikings Boat Party? Those would have been mundane evenings for Keith Richards and Robert Plant. These guys trashed hotel rooms, drank bars dry, and were never without the company of . If today’s Pop stars behaved even one tenth as raucously, they’d be plastered across the tabloids, lampooned on E!, and forgotten as quickly as it took the next “star” to . What the stars of today are missing is personality. Rockstars had it in spades. Maybe it was an act. Maybe Freddy Mercury and Roger Daltry knew they needed to behave a certain way to get the attention the band needed. Whether it was real or improvised, it still made them infinitely more compelling than the stars of today. Stars that live their lives in front of the camera and microphone, but about whom, we know nothing. The Rockstars of old seem to hold nothing back and bare their souls without fear. The stars of today give us . There is a prevalence of cleavage in the world but very little soul. And so they are forgettable.
The idea of well roundedness and renaissance does not fully explain the disappearance of these figures. The foundation for these declines has deep roots in society as well.
It sucks to be a . You’re bigger than everyone else. You’re uncoordinated. You frequently get into trouble for hurting your friends and siblings just by playing the way play. As you become a teenager, it gets worse. You stand out at a time when you just want to blend in. Your limbs are still awkward. Shorter kids are better at sports, and they tease you because of it. At no point do you ever really love your size. To fit in, to avoid hurting other kids, and to make friends, most extremely tall boys become “gentle giants.” They lack or suppress aggressive instincts. They avoid contact instead of relishing or initiating it. They lack the confidence necessary to be a star. This is what happens to the majority, and this is part of the reason why the NBA has a massive center drought. Don’t get me wrong, guys like Wilt and Shaq are 1 in a million or more. Those two were the rarest combination of size, strength, skill, confidence, and aggression. It was that combination that made them so great. It’s not that growing up tall has changed drastically since Wilt was a boy, but it has changed enough that it’s unlikely we’ll see that again. Instead, would-be centers become power forwards or small forwards or middle blockers on the boys’ volleyball team. And basketball moves on without them.
In the same way we’ve steered our teenage giants away from aggression, parents have always discouraged their children from the boastfulness, narcissism, and grandiose levels of self-delusion necessary to be a Rockstar. But whereas would-be rockers in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s rebelled against their parents and found refuge in music, today’s rebels head to indie music, the anti-Rockstar genre. It’s unclear if indie musicians grew up feeling bad for the drummers, bass players, rhythm guitarists, and in the rock bands they grew up with, or if they simply wanted to break away from the Rockstar- norm and pioneer new territory. Either way there are no stars in indie rock. There is only the music. So we’re left with Pop stars and bands whom we are happy to listen to but don’t care to know.
Is it a bad thing that Rockstars are no more? Is it a bad thing that indie rock is more about the music and less about the individual? It depends who you ask. Some people love music for music’s sake. Some people love music for the musicians. Throughout history, musicians have always been some of society’s most fascinating people. From Mozart to Tupac, musicians have lived lives just as or more interesting than the music they made. We may be entering a new age however. An age where the talented hide behind their music, so as not to cast a shadow over it, and the less talented stand in front of as many lights as possible in hopes that we’ll be too distracted by the brightness to see the long shadow they themselves cast over their music and personality. Will you miss Rockstars? Maybe not, so long as their music keeps on living on classic rock stations, maybe the memory of what they were will suffice. That is, until Bieber’s next single drops.
Is it a bad thing the NBA is no longer dominated by centers? Is the game somehow lessened by their absence? Most would say no, and they have a point. The NBA is as stocked with stars as it has ever been. Any NBA League Pass subscriber will tell you there is never a night without at least one must-watch game. Even terrible teams like Minnesota and Golden State are enjoyable to watch just because of the speed and frenzy they play with, a speed not conducive to elite center play. Maybe the NBA got tired of waiting for the next Shaquille and moved on to something new. Is it better? Hard to say. Is it entertaining? Without a doubt. Past the entertainment, most people don’t care, but to those who remember, the game is still missing something.
Just as with Rockstars, what dominant centers brought to the game was personality. They weren’t all media godsends like Shaq, but they were all able to inspire, simply through their size, presence, and aggressive dominance, an air of awe among fans and players alike. That is the one thing missing from the NBA today. Sure there are games where LeBron looks like a Titan among mortals or nights where Kobe’s sheer will can be felt through the screen, but no one on the floor today can dominate the way the great centers of the past did. Not even Dwight Howard.
D12 is an interesting case study. The music industry and the media consuming world at large would not tolerate a real Rockstar in all likelihood. However, there is nothing stopping Dwight Howard from harkening back to a previous era and playing like Shaq, Wilt, or Hakeem. He has the skills and the size, but he seems to lack the crucial piece; the piece that set the best apart from the rest. The aggression and the will to dominate just are not in him. He is capable of 40 points on any given night. But he isn’t capable of scoring 40 points every night. It is not because he lacks the stamina or the wherewithal to withstand a Hack-a-Shaq defense, but because he doesn’t have the ability to be that selfish. It isn’t in him to demand the necessary subservience from his teammates. It isn’t in him to put the team on his back and take responsibility for its fate in his own huge hands. Instead he is content to call himself Superman when he is really Clark Kent. Dwight Howard either doesn’t know where the phone booth is or is too afraid to throw people out of it to be Superman every night. That is why it seems, the torch passed from Russell to Kareem to Hakeem to Shaq will finally burn out and fall seven feet to the ground. Does anyone care?
Only those who remember.
I’ll leave you with some Center/Rockstar pairings I came up with while researching this column that I think show how deep the connection between these two worlds really is.
Bill Russell/Chuck BerryThey were both African-American innovators and originators in white-dominated worlds. They both cast the mold from which future generations would be shaped. They both had a style that had never been seen before and was rarely seen again.
Wilt Chamberlain/Freddy Mercury
Both had the greatest physical gifts of anyone on this list. And both men’s lives and careers ended too soon.
Kareem Abdul Jabaar/Robert Plant
Both were maybe the single most talented man at their position ever. Both had incredible achievements early and late in their careers. Kareem won MVP awards 9 seasons apart. Led Zeppelin had Billboard’s number 1 album 10 years apart.
Hakeem Olajuwon/Roger Daltry
Both are underrated/overlooked because of the quality of their competition. Both were undeniably talented and had great longevity. Both are still contributing in their respective fields today. Hakeem is the must-see guy for any NBA player looking to develop a post game. Roger Daltry and the Who still tour and play the intro to all the CSI’s.
Shaquille O’Neal/Keith Richards
Both were dominant beyond all measure in their prime. Both remain incredibly entertaining and outspoken. Both needed a counterpart to be great (Mick and Kobe/Dwyane Wade).
Dwight Howard/Kurt Cobain
Both had all the talent and tools necessary to be great. Both were reticent to play the role everyone thought they should. The age of the Rockstar may have ended with Cobain’s suicide. Dwight’s career may too be the death knell of the NBA center.
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