Every two weeks, the gents at Free Darko will be taking a look at the deranged ecosystem that is the National Basketball Association in their own indelible fashion. Here's this week's entry, from Bethlehem Shoals.
By most yardsticks, I am kind of a fuck-up. I'm almost 30 and have only had one full-time job; I got fired after six months for taking long lunches and refusing to obey direct orders. I have a Master's, but wasn't disciplined enough to bother with a PhD. And while I've more or less supported myself through writing, you probably won't see my byline in the Times anytime soon. Yet despite my unimpressive resume and shoddy life-choices, it's been a while I've thought of myself as "immature."
According to the dictionary, biological maturity strikes between the ages of 14 and 16. American society holds that we come of age around 21, while my esteemed ethnic tradition says I've been an adult since 13. So while I don't doubt that people change with age, at some point they lose the right to plead—or be chastised with—the immortal spirit of learning, growing, caring and sharing. That's when "immaturity" reaches its deadline and becomes "flawed."
This fall, a certain kind of reporter shuddered when Amare Stoudemire and Stephen Jackson were named captains of the Suns and Warriors, respectively. On the surface, both men's capo status sizzled with irony: These were players with a history of questionable behavior and shaky attitude. If you Google "Amare Stoudemire + immature," you'll be faced with 2,070 results. Do the same for "Stephen Jackson + immature," and you'll get 2,400. In Jack McCallum's awesome "Seven Seconds or Less," Amare comes across as either a well-meaning slacker and a naive egomaniac. Jackson's antics truly need no introduction: He was the real firestarter in the Auburn Hills brawl, unabashedly reps his gang roots, and is not above firing shots over another man's moving vehicle.
However, there's an important distinction here. While Stoudemire's about to turn 25, Jackson's my age. His reign of terror began when he was almost 27 and continues to this day. One can rightfully be called "immature," while the other is just a dude with problems, who won't likely be free of them unless he freaks out and turns to the Deity. This honor could very well help along Amare's personal development. With Jackson, the Warriors are selling their soul to the devil, and I mean that in the best possible sense.
Exhibit A: Amare has shown signs of getting older and wiser—if the ability to mature isn't a sign of immaturity, I don't know what is. Since his comeback, Stoudemire has put in some serious work on his game, becoming a smarter, more responsible player. He's dealt well with going from unquestioned number one option to part of a more balanced attack. And off the court, Stoudemire enrolled in classes at Arizona State to start working toward a college degree. All this with both his mother and half-brother—pretty much the only family Amare had left—embroiled in serious legal trouble.
Stoudemire might not be completely well-adjusted or virtuous, but he's shown a capacity to change for the better. Ironically, that's why it makes sense to call him "immature." Jackson, on the other hand, spent his first few years of pro basketball toiling away in the CBA and overseas. And while it's often forgotten now, Crazy Eyes was once a member of the Spurs in good standing; he was a model teammate who deserves a lot of credit for their 2003 ring. Then, the darkness set in. Perhaps emboldened by some measure of NBA security, in Indiana the Stephen Jackson of myth and symbol became known to us all.
I happen to find Jackson fascinating, especially as he fits into the Golden State cosmology. But I'm not about to make apologies for him: At best, he's regressed emotionally and psychologically since leaving the Spurs, which is a really odd thing to say about an adult. The rhetoric of "immaturity" is unintentionally optimistic, but it's also condescending and possibly racist; let's just agree that Jackson is complex disaster of a human being and stop wondering if he'll come around.
Jackson is a special case, in that he's got a distinguished record of causing bedlam off the court. I don't know the real Stephen Jackson, but I've got a pretty good sense for how his (ahem) professional and personal lives fit together. There's nothing more galling, though, than hearing a player labeled "immature" for reasons that pertain solely to in-game conduct. Here, "immature" isn't just a misnomer, it's being thrown around with insufficient evidence.
The classic example of this is Rasheed Wallace, whose sole sin is his desire to vent, often and always. Sheed's never been a cancer or chemistry-wrecker—in fact, if anything he could stand to be more selfish—and he's widely respected in the locker room and around the league. On top of that, Wallace is a low-key family man who, unfathomably, seems to enjoy smoking pot. But try telling that to John Hollinger, who last month said of him "Youth is fleeting, but immaturity can last a lifetime."
When I think of all the shit Sheed gets, I think about the thousands of upstanding family men who occasionally lose control in their weekend game. Sports are pretty much guaranteed to make people emotional and heated; you could argue that one's true, sordid self comes out in athletic competition, but if that's the case, it's still under wraps most of the time. That's like saying that Freud wanted us to run around screwing our parents.
Freud's grandson Lucien once told me the following: "I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be." The truly immature—whether in sports, or down here on the ground with us—are products of how they happen to be. However, the Stephen Jacksons of this planet need to be seen, embraced, or rejected for who they are. You don't tell sharks to grow up, or ask Sir Elton to just get over it. Maybe there's less of a belittling zip to this, but it's more in line with how we consumers actually relate to these folks. And then, just maybe, we'll also learn the difference between a bad guy and one who plays one on the court in spite of himself.