I recently posted a controversial article about the way we, as fans, rationalize the reprehensible behavior of players we like, in order to make it more palatable to our values. I used Stephen Jackson's turbulent past to draw a parallel between him and Metta World Peace, with nothing more in mind than to show that we judge them differently because Jack is "ours". There were some who felt the piece was nothing more than my latest attack on Stephen Jackson.
It makes sense, considering I wrote a pretty negative reaction post to the trade that brought Jax here. Included in it was a brief account of Jax's past and the apprehension I thought a Spurs fan should feel by having this "shady" character on the team. In reality, I wasn't at all worried about Stephen Jackson the person. It was Stephen Jackson the player I feared would not fit.
Why wasn't I worried about his character? Because of Diego Maradona.
Maradona, for those of you not familiar, is widely acknowledged to be one of the best football (I refuse to call it soccer when discussing Diego) players ever. He's actually the best ever. Some purists will point out Pele's World Cup titles, overall goal count (even silly things like the fact that he had a better header) to try to convince others of his superiority. But make no mistake, those people are wrong. I never saw him in person, when he was still in his prime, but even after Mexico '86, watching Diego play was just... different.
If you'll allow the cliche, it was poetry in motion. The best ever. The end.
So what does a guy like that have in common with Stephen Jackson? Jack is a good player and all, but he may not have ever been the best player on his team, much less arguably the best player in his sport. Isn't this a bit like comparing Michael Jordan to Alexi Lalas? Well, if you'll stay with me for a bit, I think it will become clear where I'm headed.
Alejandro Dolina, an Argentine writer, used to describe the difference between Pele and Maradona by pointing out that Diego adhered to what he called heroic morality and Pele to bourgeois morality. In this context, heroic doesn't mean that Diego didn't do some bad things but that he, and people like him, are driven by honor and pride while the bourgeois are all about comfort and security, even if it means compromising their convictions. A heroic individual, such as Maradona, has a set of values that don't conform with the widely spread values of conventional morality, making him inaccessible to a lot of people. In this, Stephen Jackson is the same.
LatinD mentioned something in the comments section of that other article, that I always knew to be true but I didn't always recognize as meaningful. He said, "I'll say this much for Jackson. He does not give a crap about his brand." Now, I'm not as opposed as some to players wanting to make money off their image. It's part of the game at this point. But while there's nothing reprehensible to be said about wanting to sell snickers to Republicans and Democrats alike, there is some heroism in not compromising your honor and values for the comfort of prosperity.
Maradona did a pretty bad job of hosting a TV show; Jack has an underwhelming rapping career. Are they doing that because they want money? I really doubt that. I think they do those things because they want to connect with people on their own terms, without intermediaries. They want to be in the spotlight but not to increase their status or wealth. Sure, both Jack and Diego are used to a certain lifestyle and are going to do what they can to maintain it, but that's not what I see driving them. Otherwise, would they have burned so many bridges? Both guys (and a lot of others, see Iverson, Allen) have done things that hurt their image and therefore their marketability without giving it a second thought because they had to respect their values, even if those don't match ours.
"Heroic" individuals are all bout loyalty; they'd slay dragons for the ones they love or even the ones that share their colors. That's why Maradona employs friends that end up scamming him; or goes into the stands of some Arab soccer stadium to defend his girlfriend's honor. And that's why Jack followed MWP into the stands, that night at the Palace. There's no reason for their actions other than the fact that they thought that was the right thing to do according to a set of values that puts loyalty and honor ahead of mainstream acceptance.
As a guy that reluctantly adheres to bourgeois morality while admiring those who don't, I have a hard time understanding these guys sometimes. Why would Maradona call out the former head of FIFA when he had nothing to gain from it and everything to lose? Why not play ball like Pele and be the guest of honor in every official function? It's evidently just not in his nature. Even some of his most misguided actions are surrounded by such an aura of honesty that they are unimpeachable. He simply is that guy and not only can't he hide it, he doesn't want to hide it; image be damned.
Jackson is the same. Iverson is the same. That alienates a lot of fans while drives a few to devotion. If the career of Michael Jordan gives young stars any direction, it would probably be this: if you want to fill your bank account, you shouldn't alienate anyone. Keep your off-the-court comments as sterile as you can, let your game speak for you, and let other guys build your narrative.
But guys like Maradona and Jackson can't do that. They must speak for themselves and refuse to conform to anyone's expectations.
There's a problem for people who, like me, have an almost Bovary-esque admiration for the way these men live their lives: we have to be careful not to let it affect the way we value their contributions on the pitch or on the court. There are misguided souls out there in the wastelands of ESPN's comment sections that still think Iverson is able, even today, to contribute to a team, and there are probably Argentine Spurs bloggers that won't admit discussion as to Maradona's greatness in articles about Stephen Jackson. While it's clearly too late for me to be objective about "Diego the player" I tried to do it when Maradona was being considered (unwisely so, in my opinion) for head coach of Argentina's national team a few months before the latest World Cup.
I admit that someone suggesting I don't like Jackson on PtR is a lot different that someone in Argentina suggesting I didn't like Diego, if for no other reason than distance. I was criticized by those who felt I hated Jackson; I was yelled at for not supporting Diego as the national team's coach by friends. Some people I despised actually agreed with me about Diego not being the best choice -- but for all the wrong reasons. "A guy like Maradona shouldn't be our coach.", they said. "What would people of other countries think of us, seeing this clown on the sideline?!". It was never about that to me. I didn't think Diego was the best choice because of his limited body of work running a team, and I can assure you that I originally didn't want Jack back with the Spurs only because of his on-court performance. While Diego unfortunately did about as well as I expected as the head coach of Argentina's national team, Jack is proving me wrong.
You have no idea how happy that makes me.