Jay Caspian Kang recently wrote a long-overdue feature on Antawn Jamison. You should read the piece (Kang is scary talented), but the basic summary is that Jamison’s signing by the Lakers might give him the opportunity to finally cement the legacy he deserves. And while that may not happen with LA’s recent struggles, Kang essentially covered what always needed to be said, that Jamison may be the most underrated NBA player… ever.
Just let that set in for a moment, because it might be true. On this front, the Grantland article was spot on, listing Jamison’s numbers, his bad luck with teams, his unwillingness to ever make anything about himself, and just a general “less-flashy-ness” that was actually celebrated in Chapel Hill while he was making sure no one else ever wore his number again in baby blue. Jamison has secretly been one of the world’s greatest basketball players for over a decade, yet no doubt if you asked even an avid basketball fan the last four players to score back-to-back 50 point games, they’d probably guess Jordan, Iverson and Kobe long beforeAntawn.
Maybe that matters. Maybe it doesn’t.
Kang clearly thinks it does, as that is what his piece is mostly about. And, that makes sense. No one should be surprised that an interview with Antawn Jamison would focus on his legacy or lack thereof in respect to his Hall of Fame numbers. But strangely absent from Kang’s 3300 words is what seems to be the heart of the matter: the game of basketball. Isn’t the quality of the game itself what really matters at some point (in the sense that basketball matters when you’re discussing basketball players)?
Kang focused almost entirely on how a season with the Lakers’ super-squad might affect Jamison’s legacy (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but it seems blatantly obvious that the most interesting thing about all of this for ‘Twan is what this year can do for him apart from the money and awards.
Basketball fans are hyper-aware of the fact that the NBA is a job. With the advent of Twitter, this becomes more obvious daily. It’s amusing to read rookie’s tweets about having to wear suits, waking up for flights, and paying fines when they’re late to a team meeting. We are reminded non-stop that playing basketball in the NBA is a job, not a game. And no matter how much of a “game” basketball is, when you’re running on limited sleep and playing consecutive January games in Toronto and Minnesota, no doubt it seems that way.
But when you’re playing for a shot at The Finals every spring, the NBA probably doesn’t feel like the 9-to-5 grind that players often remind fans that it can be. This has to be when “the” game becomes “a” game again. For those few weeks in May and June when the best basketball in the world is being played, when the superstars are playing defense and the multi-millionaires generally give a damn, the players feel like they are simply competing like they did in school and on the playground, when winning really is what matters.
Back to Jamison, basketball has no doubt largely felt like a job for the better part of the last 13 years since he walked off the Alamo Dome court in 1998. A few token playoff runs aside, Jamison has not played meaningful or even interesting basketball since Americans were just learning that Bill Clinton had an affinity for women.
For Jamison, hopefully this season isn’t about the Nike Commercials he should have had or the ESPN articles that should have been written; hopefully it’s not about what other people think or say about him. Instead, maybe it’s about what basketball was always supposed to be about: the game.
Occasionally, we’d like to think these guys don’t do it for money, or the ladies, or even the exercise. But for the love of the game. Part of being a sports fan is hoping that the players have that same love for sports that we do, and in fleeting moments every now and then Jordan, Kobe and LeBron confirm that this might be the case (or at least just enough to keep us coming back). One would hope Jamison will finally get his chance to play on the same stage.
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