Mr. Softy

Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, and Chris Bosh challenge our conceptions of manhood and basketball.

Three years ago, Pau Gasol was the big weight in the most lopsided trade in NBA history, coming from the Grizzlies to the Lakers for his kid brother and a few no-names. He immediately turned the Lakers into a title contender. They went to the finals the year they brought him in and won the championship the next two. He was one of the best big men in the league. He made All-Star teams. He was a franchise big man, the rarest commodity in the NBA.

Now, he’s a main reason why the Mavericks swept the Lakers. He’s even made that trade look better for the Grizzlies. He was an All-Star again this season, averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds a game, but those numbers fell to 13 and eight in the playoffs—the drop being inversely proportional to the number of laser beams shot at him from Kobe Bryant’s eyes.

Why the dropoff?

Because it’s the playoffs. It’s where “real men” shine.

So Pau Gasol must be soft.


Soft. It’s such a terribly generalized term, but it’s got one purpose: to emasculate the person it’s directed at. You’re not playing how a man should play. You’re soft!

According to our records, Michael Jordan is the only basketball player who’s never been soft at some point in his career. He’s so hard. Just a rock. Dude was always just so damn solid. Starting to see how this whole thing contradicts itself?

Like LeBron calling a question retarded or Kobe calling a ref a fag, calling a player soft is another way of othering. We see something we don’t know. We see something we can’t understand. We tell ourselves we’re seeing something that’s soft.

Back in December, Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss talked about this at ESPN. They built a rubric with requirements for being soft:

  • Smile too much
  • Avoid contact
  • Be European/play “like a Euro”
  • Shoot too many jump shots
  • Scared of “the big moment”

Smile, don’t take hits, be European, shoot too many jumpers, or play poorly when the game’s on the line (because who gives a shit about the first 46 minutes anyway?), and you’re soft.

Do all of those, and you’re probably beyond soft. Maybe gay. Well, unless your team wins, then no one will care about how “manly” you’ve played.

Winning fogs our vision with a masculine hue. The soft label always hovered around Gasol, looking for a place to stick, but it was never a cause of the Lakers’ problems. Once they started to lose, though, everyone decided that their center was a huge pansy/pussy/whatever, and everyone knows you can’t have pansies on your team if you want to win an NBA title. It’s in the rules!

But look across the court on Sunday and you’ll see Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk’s one of the 20 best players to ever play the game. He’s held up the Mavericks franchise for the past decade. And then there’s this:

Every hackneyed NBA journalist has written a column about how Dirk never won a title because he’s “soft,” but now that he beat the Lakers, they’re all writing columns about how he’s not. He passed the fluffy pink robe on to Pau.

Our world is clearly only ready for one transcendentally skilled but soft European big man at a time. Anything more and Stephen A. Smith’s head would explode.

But the thing is, Dirk (or Pau) isn’t hard, soft, or any other consistency. He’s just a freaking great basketball player. He does things big men have never been able to do and probably never will be able to do. We won’t see another Dirk Nowitzki. And that scares us. So when he has an off game, it’s because he’s a big, girly, European softy. It’s not that his defender had his number, he played out of position, or he just didn’t play well. It’s “Look, I told you he was soft!”


Chris Bosh hasn’t been the player everyone expected since he’s gone to Miami. He’s not part of any Big Three. He’s just not that good. He’s good, but not on the same level as LeBron and Wade. And because of that, he’s taken a beating for being—you guessed it—soft.

You’d think that Sarah Palin is his biggest critic.

Bosh has never been a big big man. Look at him. Sure, he’s 6-foot-11, but he’s only 235 pounds. He always played with finesse, but his game is less visually aggressive. That’s how he has to play to get by; there’s no other way. Yet Bosh’s game-three stinker against the Celtics happened because he didn’t “man up.”

As Rick Bucher of ESPN tweeted during the game:

The Celtics treat Chris Bosh the same way they do Pau Gasol. Challenge his manhood every chance they get. Even Jeff Green is doing it now.

So Jeff Green stuck his hands down Bosh’s pants to check for the right parts? That’s what the Celtics do to him and Gasol? Is that what Kevin Garnett was doing to Channing Frye?

No, they just play aggressively and physically. That’s not being a man, but we still think it is. Playing a certain way doesn’t make you more of a man, but when one of ESPN’s leading NBA voices is saying that it does, it gives the idea a credibility it doesn’t deserve.

We’ve been taught that big men are supposed to be the total realization of manly basketball. Skilled big men, who tend to be European or Chris Bosh, challenge this when they take jump shots and play away from the hoop. European men (and Chris Bosh) challenge our general American-cowboy conceptions of masculinity, too.

So, these are the guys we jump to call soft the moment they fail. They don’t fit our expectations of what a big man or even just a man should be. We still think a big guy should rebound, block shots, jam the ball, and put anyone who drives to the hoop on his ass. That’s what the big man used to be, and sure, there’s still a place for it, but there’s also a place for guys like Bosh, Pau, and Dirk.

Men are changing, just like the game we watch them play. The game has evolved and diversified. Positions don’t mean much more than a place in the lineup. You can play the game and you can be successful in so many different ways—not just in the antiquated, narrow roles of the past.


Note: Beckley Mason, editor of HoopSpeak, wrote a response to Ryan’s piece. Read it here.


—AP Photo/Matt Sayles

About Ryan O'Hanlon

Ryan O'Hanlon is the managing editor of the Good Men Project. He used to play soccer and go to college. He's still trying to get over it. You can follow him on Twitter @rwohan.


  1. I’d argue that they most definitely are soft, because in the context of basketball, playing soft by definition is flopping and the shirking of physical contact and general pushover-ness. The word has been specifically appropriated by basketball-viewing folk, some of whom hate homosexuals and some who (honest to goodness) don’t, to describe this relatively new phenomenon of giant basketball players who try their best not to make contact in the post. It’s derived from common usage addressing a male who is perceived to be unable to defend himself or is deferent to his more aggressive peers. Would calling a post player a “wuss” or a “pushover” be less insulting? That’s not rhetoric; it’s genuinely a question that should be asked. Because while in a perfect world, adults would be able to rise above name-calling in every situation, trash-talking is, at this point, inextricable from the sports world at large (but especially male sports).

    I’d argue that talking smack and giving crap to your buddies is, for most guys, one of the most integral components of male bonding. I have friends who I would consider softer and others who you just wouldn’t want to meet in an alley. These are easy observations to make and they are shared by the entire peer group, but neither friend is seen as any more or less heterosexual or more or less valuable as friends or people. It’s not an attack on anyone, but an acknowledgement of observable patterns in personality types. If that particular dynamic between males is such an unassailable indicator of homophobia, then so too is endorsement of the Meyers-Briggs or similar personality tests. I know pattern recognition drives the PC crowd crazy, but hey.. I’m more interested in science and the truth than not hurting feelings.

    No, this definition of soft doesn’t show up in merriam-webster, but that’s how language works. Colloquialisms are adopted and some attain widespread acceptance over time until they are finally codified in some thousand-page tome, providing warriors around the world with an instant checkmate in idiomatic geek-wars such as this. You might be insulted by it, and there’s no reason that you can’t attempt to start a counter-trend against what you perceive as a new, insidious front on a larger wave of gay-hating, but I feel like this article is basically pissing on your audience and telling them it’s raining. That kind of patronism strikes me as being at odds with the mission statement of your website.

    Do some people use “soft” as a veil for gay-bashing? I’m sure they do. But that sure doesn’t speak for everybody, or anybody I know for that matter.

    As a side note, though, I really do like your site, analysis, and writing style, even though I disagree with you guys at least 50% of the time.

    • And let me add, that like most personality traits, “softness” or “hardness” can certainly be affected by environment, and “softer” guys can and frequently do work their way over to the “harder” side of the spectrum as time goes on. It can, but rarely does, go the other way.

      Here’s an interview with Dirk Nowitski, who’s spent 13 years in the middle of the super macho homophobic pressure-cooker that is the NBA:

      He described his rookie self as “soft”, explaining that overcoming his aversion to contact was a key facet of his evolution into the player he is today (one of the best in the league). However, I don’t think that he’s trying to subtly hint that he liked to do the no-pants dance with guys in his younger years.

  2. Woody Allen knows all about being soft, or out of focus:

  3. Frank411 says:

    Changing the subject here completely (but only momentarily).

    Did any of you guys see this?

    Apparently boys running track shirtless is now considered sexual harassment at Westwood High and a firing offense because some on the girls team were uncomfortable seeing boys without shirts on the field. WTF? No more “shirts and skins” in games?

    What’s next, men’s track teams being required to run in burqas to make women feel comfortable?

  4. The use of language is interesting in the way that it becomes a subtle put down that some people just don’t get. See the guys here who are saying that ‘soft’ is just a word that describes a style of play.

    Soft, in the context of American culture, is a derogatory term towards manhood because of the way that the word is used. Men who are idealized are called hard, tough. Men who are reviled are soft, weak. Anyone who says that soft is simply a term describing mental toughness is either lying or a little disconnected from the larger culture.

    Pau isn’t soft compared to me, or DF. He might have a softer style of play than some of the more thuggish NBA players. In and of itself, that style of play is not bad. A soft touch gets the ball in the basket. A soft landing keeps balance on a jump. But when we call someone soft, we’re saying that they are weak, inferior – and less of a man.

    You make a great point, though this short column isn’t nearly enough to elucidate a full argument on why words like soft do a disservice to men everywhere.

  5. Wild Rebel says:

    Soft has always meant a player simply isn’t aggressive and unwilling to do what it takes to win to me. You’re reading a lot into this.

  6. Todd Mauldin says:

    DF, come on, man. Setting aside the unassailable right every sports fan has to talk shit, I think you need to come to terms with how its a damn FACT that if you or me or Ryan ever met Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett or any god-like professional athlete in real life, they could beat us stupid with one hand, without breaking a sweat, at about anything except perhaps conjugating verbs. If they’re soft, what does that make us?

    • Todd: The difference is I’m not claiming to be tough. When it comes to basketball or fighting, I’m soft. Pillsbury Doughboy level soft. Like a down mattress.

      That’s why I’m not a professional athlete.

  7. Max Reisman says:

    I liked the article, though I thought the end/conclusion was a bit obvious and trite. It would have been interesting to address Odom and Bynum getting ejected for flagrant fouls in the last minute of the game. Does that make them more or less manly and why?

    I think being aggressive is manly. But I think you can do so away from the hoop, not just in the paint. Kobe’s game has become further and further from the paint and mostly jump shots, but people do not call him soft. If anything, he’s been painted in an ever increasing “manly” light. Also, his lack of emotions and “coldness,” are often correlated with manliness, which would be interesting to bring up.

    I also think that Odom and Bynum were very ugly and cowardly in their actions at the end of the game and it made me somewhat embarrassed to be a Laker fan.

  8. Yea…..soft != Maybe gay….please do not stretch to make that connection. If i call a player soft who plays well for all but the last minute when it counts then im not questioning his sexuality…im questioning his resolve.

  9. Oh c’mon…

    Now we can’t call a player soft because it offends our new view of masculinity?? Bullshit. Pau Gasol is soft. Soft. Soft. Soft. Now please don’t mistake this with untalented. Gasol is a VERY good basketball player. When he’s on, he makes a world of difference for the Lakers. So I’m not questioning his basketball abilities.

    But the man is not tough. He flops like crazy to get calls. One last night was especially egregious. Instead of playing solid defense, he acts like he’s been shot with a cannon, doesn’t get the call and ends up giving up an easy basket. That is the European style of play. And that is SOFT.

    You seem to forget that just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it doesn’t necessarily apply to our definitions of manhood either. Calling Gasol soft doesn’t mean we’re regressing as a society. It means Gasol is a Euro-flopping llama lookalike basketball player who isn’t very tough. That’s a fact, so there’s no reason not to call him out.

    Why are we so afraid of labeling people if those labels are dead accurate??

    • Ryan O'Hanlon says:


      You’re making my argument for me. Just because Gasol plays a certain way, why does he have to be soft? Why can’t we just accept it as another way of playing? You’re only calling him soft because you’ve got a certain image of what a “tough” basketball player is supposed to be, and Gasol—with his flopping, less-physical, more-skilled style of play—doesn’t fit that. You don’t like that, so you call him soft. That’s the point of this post.

      Soft is just a bullshit term that we use when we can’t think of a more nuanced, specific description. Look at Kevin Garnett, the pride of your Celtics. He was one of the “softest” players in the NBA before he came to Boston. He “choked” in the clutch and “couldn’t win big games.” But now that he’s won a title and is surrounded by two Hall of Famers and another All Star, he’s shed the label. So playing with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce suddenly makes Kevin Garnett tough? No. He wasn’t soft in the first place, and he isn’t any less soft now.

      • Garnett isn’t tough. He’s faux-tough. He’s more show than anything.

        Kendrick Perkins is tough. Less skilled than Gasol, he’s an inside presence to be reckoned with. He’s physical and makes you think twice about going to the hoop. And sure there are other types of toughness. Rajon Rondo showed it Saturday night coming back from a dislocated elbow. Hell, even though I hate him, Ron Artest showed his toughness last year by getting his arms around his mental problems and performing in the clutch to win a championship. All of those guys I mentioned are tough in their own way.

        But you can’t tell me falling down when no one touches you is a “different style of play.” That is an AWFUL way to play. It’s diving and it’s ruining the game, not adding to it. And being a pansy who falls down for no reason isn’t more skilled, it’s pathetic. Let’s call a spade a spade.

        • Exactly – Kendrick Perkins is less skilled than Pau Gasol. He’s good at one aspect of the game (aggravated assault), but Gasol is better at most of the others. As for “falling down when no one touches you”, that’s an issue for the refs and the league. If they don’t call it, nobody will do it. But as long as they reward it, it’s going to be part of the game. I’m not a fan of it, but it’s certainly good strategy if it works. (BTW, kidding about assault. Shouldn’t have to say it, but I’m sure I do…)

          • Couldn’t agree more… “soft” has become so cliched. “Soft” doesn’t really mean shit. And it does represent a dig at a player’s masculinity.

            I don’t understand why people want to see the NBA become the NFL — a celebration of big, bulky bros instead of smart athletes.

  10. Tom Matlack says:

    I will be at the celts game tonight looking for Chris’s manhood. Doubt I will find it. As for Pau do you think there is a reason that the great Phil Jackson has taken to punching him in the huddle? Because he is a pussy.


  1. Extra Reading…

    […]we like to honor other sites on the web, even if they aren’t related to us, by linking to them. Below are some sites worth checking out[…]…

  2. […] Bosh—a catchall for everyone’s complaints about the Heat, no matter what they are—has been their leading […]

  3. […] is a big topic of discussion among, ahem, NBA nerds. On this site, Ryan O’Hanlon illustrated the furtive link between this label and either Otherness, gender stereotypes, or even sexuality. […]

  4. […] On manhood and the NBA. (The Good Men Project) […]

  5. […] of ESPN’s beautiful HoopSpeak blog, wrote in a lengthy email response to Ryan’s original article. Mason was kind enough to let us use his words for a post. You’ll enjoy […]

Speak Your Mind