1,000 Words: Chalk

62679770
You can see a larger version of the photo here.

The are signs, scowls, a hundred guffaws, crossed arms, furrowed brows, fingers, phones, cameras, stares, a cloud of powder and a single smile. One man drowns in all of it. His outstretched arms welcome the entire scene, but make no mistake: this is more than anyone was meant to comprehend, more than any individual was ever meant to handle.

All because he didn’t understand, and they misunderstood.

His mistakes have been written and re-written a thousand times, etched in the closest thing this medium has to stone. All we have to do is trace the lines. He’s selfish. He’s immature. He’s a narcissist, enamored with his own reflection in the teleprompter and on a cable broadcast. He’s a king, a prince, a pauper, and a pariah.

But you knew all of that, even if he didn’t.

This lasting image of his outstretched arms, though, is where things seem to get misconstrued. Sometime during his stay with the Cavaliers – or perhaps during the minute-long run time of a cleverly conceived commercial – this image, this grand gesture of commencement and celebration of self, was thought to be something more. It was seen as a point of connection, a momentary interaction between him and all who adored him. If only.

Is it his fault for occasionally taking such magnetic joy in the ceremony? For performing it so emphatically that it became a necessary part of his career’s lore? Is it his fault that he made this seem like a genuine link between phenom and faithful? The trouble with rituals is that despite their constants and rigidity, they demand we read into them. Their purpose is to serve as structure for some deeper message, and in this case the text said very different things to very different people.

In retrospect, though, how did they ever think that an individual emblem could qualify as interaction? It’s not as if each Jordan slam was intended to benefit the general population, or each Iverson crossover was designed to cross the fourth wall. Or, if those in-game icons aren’t congruent: it’s not as if Garnett whispers to the world with his head against the stanchion, or Wade uses his pre-game pull-up through the basket as some kind of bridge. He just engages in the same pregame routine night after night, and because he’s oriented toward the audience it’s supposed to mean something?

The basketball court is a rectangle, not a box. There is nowhere on the hardwood for him to hide, nowhere for him to ritualize his powder but in the public view. Did he want them to see? Of course he did. He’s a showman, and he’s still selfish, a narcissist, enamored with his own reflection, and still somehow disconnected from the world he helped build.

Their enjoyment of – and in this case, connection with – his showmanship is a mere byproduct. It never brought them closer to him. Even when they joined in the act, they were just the mirror at which he could gawk. The ritual was never about you, and never about them. It’s just about him, forever and ever, amen.

I understand the more universal displays of rage, but specific anger directed at one ceremonial showing? It’s odd. Very odd. Obviously this kind of performance is more tolerable when the player in question is wearing a less abrasive uniform, but hadn’t he transcended beyond simply being a Cavalier? He was the hometown hero turned MVP turned greatest player in the league. That kind of talent has a team in the literal sense, but isn’t bound by a jersey of any color bearing any name. He doesn’t belong to Miami, just as in the last few years, he didn’t belong to Cleveland. He’s a basketball player whose skill has grown beyond one fan base and one market, and with that elevation should come some relief from this bile, but it didn’t.

The chalk met air, and it’s a wonder it could be seen at all amidst the fumes.

Some of them seemed to have the right idea, though. Their only appropriate response to his ritual is to ignore it. A perfect, complacent stare would have been ideal, but they opted for more emphatically turning their backs on the chalk toss, a decision I can’t fault under these circumstances. They feel the need to be overt. But even those who understand the self-indulgence of his pregame demonstration are drawn to it. They form a line, face away, turn over their right shoulders, and are a set of matching suits away from being immortalized as the album cover for some 60s rock group. Even with those committed to paying him no mind in this particular moment, it’s still all about him.

The cameras don’t stop with media row, and it’s interesting to see that even those jawing at him are centering the frame and putting him in focus. No matter how many insults they throw his way, they only serve to prove the point. This is an event best observed with a closing shutter between him and them. This is an instance in which they try to ignore his display, but are clearly drawn in by it. He has both feet on the hardwood, safely within the confines of the field of play, but is still distant as he covers his mitts with powder and hurls them upward.

There is no connection. They’re finally getting it, and they’re so angry that they raised their fingers and organized chants and booed and watched nonetheless, because that’s what angry people do. I don’t blame them for being angry. I blame them for never knowing.

They’re not only angry because he is who he is and did what he did. This is less than that. This is about carrying those emotions into a pettier concept, and long refusing to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, when he engaged in his ritual, it was for him and him alone.

Seth Carstens