I stumbled across this old story in the Washington Post that was written back in 1998, when Spike Lee was gearing up to release the sorta-great, kinda cringeworthy film He Got Game. It’s worth watching as a serious basketball fan, sure, especially for cameos from guys the league has forgotten: John Wallace, Walter McCarty, Travis Best, etc. There’s a specific part of the article that fascinated me, and it tied into the philosophical aspects of Bill Simmons’ recent column written after the Celtics eliminated the Cavs and the Assassination of LeBron James by the Coward Antawn Jamison/ Mo Williams/ Mike Brown that soon followed. Simmons logically deduced the motivation of NBA greats. After LeBron’s gutless showing in games 5 & 6, primarily the fourth quarter of Game 6 at home, he determined that LBJ didn’t have Jordan or Magic’s killer win-at-all-costs DNA, but rather Doctor J’s penchant for simply wowing people instead. Here’s his breakdown:
Russell, Magic, Bird, Duncan, Walton, West and Havlicek: Winning.
Oscar and Barry: Perfection.
Kareem and Elgin: Pride.
Malone and Garnett: Work.
Cousy, Stockton, Isiah, Pippen and Nash: Team.
For Doc[tor J] and LeBron, you probably need more than one word. By the rules of the game, we can use only one. So we’re forced to pick this one: Amaze. You are who you are.
You are who you are. People change, take on responsibility, and learn from experience, but at their core, there aren’t many new surprises coming down the pike. Bill Parcells used to say you are what your record says you are, a definitive reflection of your previous actions that lead up to a current assesment. Old baseball players always say you are what the back of your basball card says — if you’re a liftime .275 hitter, you might hit .400 in April or .150 in September, but in the end it all evens out. There’s no surprises. The evidence is always there.
This brings me to the Spike Lee article written twelve years ago. Apparently before Ray Allen was cast as Jesus Shuttlesworth, other young stars were considered for the role. Look at the reasons for why these guys didn’t get the job, then think about where they are today in their careers. Remember, all of this took place when these guys were 18-20 years old and straight up newborns in the league:
“Los Angeles Lakers sensation Kobe Bryant, 19, was on the list but had summer basketball commitments.”
As Simmons said in his piece, Kobe is about greatness. He is consumed with basketball. Even when he was young and succumbing to the bright lights, he turned down a chance to star in a Spike Lee movie in order to work on his game. Shaq would’ve taken the lead and worked in some goofy nickname like “Big Jesus of Nazareth” Shuttlesworth for the character.
“Eighteen-year-old Toronto Raptor Tracy McGrady, who just left high school last year and is the NBA’s youngest player, tried out but was judged too reserved for the part.”
Any correlation between McGrady’s shy personality as a rookie and the underachieving talent who never made it past the first round of the playoffs and slimed his way out of Orlando and Houston? Hmmm……
“The photogenic Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson, last year’s top rookie, wasn’t prepared when he came for auditions and seemed distracted.”
Allen Iverson unprepared for a job? Allen Iverson not caring about nuances and professionalism? As Ralph from Simpsons would say about failing English, that’s unpossible. I’d sum up Iverson’s motives in one word as this: self. After watching LeBron shrivel in the playoffs, I realized Iverson’s selfishness actually benefited the Sixers; there’s no way he wouldn’t have dropped 35-50 points against the Celtics in that situation. It would’ve taken him 25-30 shots to happen, but still. Kudos to Larry Brown for exploiting Iverson’s greatest personal and professional weakness and making it an asset for those 3-4 years.
“And then there was an unusual request by the agent for two of the league’s brightest young stars, Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury of the Minnesota Timberwolves: Guarantee one of them the lead role or neither will audition. “I was like, ‘Look man, this ain’t the NBA,’ ” recalls Lee. “There ain’t no guaranteed contracts, buddy. This is a film.”
Marbury and Garnett weren’t invited in.”
I think Garnett would’ve been a very interesting choice for the lead in He Got Game. He faced the same pressures and glare as Jesus Shuttlesworth being a high school juggernaut, first in South Carolina and finally at Farraguat Academy in Chicago. Simmons summed up Garnett as “work”, but when he was 19 years old, he was “The Kid”, a lanky stringbean who was both exuberant and humble. He excited Minnesota and all basketball fans upon arrival. His teammate back then Stephon Marbury is and was a punk. An entitled brat. Classless. Petulant. No team nor contract nor coach was ever good enough for his destructive standards. I think Garnett knew this about Steph but held him down anyway. That was Garnett’s Achilles Heel all those years in Minnesota — he was too loyal.
We finally caught an honest glimpse of this after Game 6 when KG spoke to the media about the exchange of words between he and LeBron at center court:
“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can’t get youth back. I can honestly say that if I can go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d of done it (changed teams) a little sooner.”
I can’t fathom Kevin Garnett giving Spike Lee an ultimatum. I can imagine the Vaseline chompin’, Isaih Thomas conspirator Marbury giving Spike the bird.
“[Ray] Allen, who had never even appeared in a school play, worked with an acting coach for eight weeks prior to shooting and is convincing.”
Watching Ray’s career unfold, this doesn’t surprise me. His work ethic is legendary; on the Sonics he got to the gym every night hours before the first player and inspired all the young guys to do the same. He is classy, respectful, low key, clinical. Being a lock for the Hall of Fame and one of the top 5 shooters of all time isn’t enough; he is a free agent after this year and will certainly get a multi-year deal after he busted up the Cavs and now the Magic. He is “professionalism”. Or as Jackie MacCullan said beautifully in the Boston Globe, “routine excellence” is the key to his success. And he has been nothing but routine before and after He Got Game.
Spike Lee remembers all of these things. I bet the first time each of these guys played in the Garden in 1999, he talked trash about them not walking with Jesus or whatever, and then moved on to other projects and lousy Knicks teams over the years. As a disciple of the NBA, he’s been awed by Kobe, disappointed by T-Mac, conflicted with Iverson, enlighted by Garnett, disturbed (but not shocked) by Marbury, and appreciative of Ray Allen, because Ray has been the same guy since he went one-on-one with Denzel as a baby faced millionaire athlete. The results of his choices and motives are evident.
I wonder what Spike thinks of LeBron.