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.
—AP Photo/Matt Sayles