Hand Down, Man Down

Photo by fwaggle on Flickr

There’s a part of my personality I’m not proud of. As someone who’s destroyed dozens of video game controllers, who once whipped a $90 universal remote at the wall instead of my younger brother’s face, whose reaction to a long-distance break-up was to violently and absolutely dismember a defenseless phone base with the receiver, I have empathy for Amar’e Stoudemire and his altercation with a certain now-infamous fire extinguisher in an American Airlines Arena tunnel. I’m not looking to excuse what he did—I won’t excuse my own actions either—but I think I can see where he was coming from: When a situation gets out of control, it’s sometimes easier to deal with the consequences of petty destruction than with what’s at the heart of the problem.

Stoudemire has not been playing well against the Heat. And even before that, there were questions about how Anthony, Stoudemire, and Chandler could all co-exist on the Knicks. With Anthony stepping his game up the last few weeks of the season—specifically when playing the four and with Amare out with a back injury—it was looking increasingly like Stoudemire was going to be the odd man out, relegated to the bench when he was supposed to be the first big piece of the new look Knicks two seasons ago. And all this in a season when he lost his brother Hazel in a car accident.

None of those things are a good reason to punch a fire extinguisher (which, semantics about “slapping with a closed fist” aside, is more or less what Stoudemire did) because there is in fact no “good” reason to punch a fire extinguisher. In his press conference, Stoudemire didn’t even try to give one, but what he said is telling. “I just walked by,” said Stoudemire, “wanted to make some noise (emph. mine), swung my arm, hit the fire extinguisher door and didn’t even realize i was cut at all until Josh Harrellson told me I was cut.

“Some players kick over ice coolers,” he continued. “Some players tip over tables. Some players even hit a chair. My thing was to hit the wall, I caught the fire extinguisher and I sliced my hand.” As it went with Metta World Peace’s elbow-drop on James Harden, a large chunk of the discussion around the incident centered around the intentionality of the act and, again, it seems the notion of intention has come up short. Stoudemire didn’t intentionally injure himself, but he intentionally swung his arm with the intention of making noise—as he said—and he didn’t do it not wanting to hurt himself. Rather, concern for his health was simply not at the top of his priority at that moment, but what was?

I would argue it wasn’t as simple as a desire to “make some noise.” When a situation is beyond our control, or even when our emotional reaction to a situation is out of control, it makes us feel better to break things, and not because destruction is inherently satisfying. In the wake of the incident, Stoudemire was criticized for being thoughtless, for not considering the consequences of his actions, but I suspect tangible consequences were just what he was after.

It can’t be easy to have your team go down 0-2 in the playoffs and know not only that it’s at least partly your fault, but that it’s not even a matter of just you playing better. There are systemic problems with the Knicks that have made them look like a half-dozen different teams this year. And each of those teams have had some success and some failure but they haven’t been able to put all those teams—the pick and roll Lin-led team of February, the Carmelo hero-ball team of the last month, the various other hybrids and Frankensteins that have taken the court based on injuries—on the floor at the same time. Does Stoudemire need to assert himself more? Does he need to step back, take on a different role? His game going to the hoop is limited by Chandler down low and his midrange pick and pop game is limited by Anthony outside of the paint. Faced with all these thorny, somewhat abstract questions of how best to play the game, it’s just possible that breaking something was the only way to get to fix something.

When I sent that poor, innocent phone to meet its maker, I was angry, yes, but I wasn’t out of control. It’s not as if the break-up came out of nowhere; it was, rather, something whose reality I couldn’t grasp. The things I was going to have to deal with—big decisions about where my life was going, where I was going to live, what the last five and a half years had meant, what was going to happen right then and the next day and the next—were too intangible. Smashing that hard plastic into jagged splinters meant that the next day, when I woke up impossibly hungover, I told my roommate, “Hey, sorry: I’ll get you a new phone.” And I had to go to Circuit City and buy a new crappy wall-mounted phone and hang it up in the kitchen.

I suspect when Amar’e Stoudemire swung his fist—whether at the wall or the fire extinguisher—it wasn’t because he had too much to deal with, but rather too little. Athletes work in an intensely physical world, asked to leave it all on the floor, to play with visceral intensity and then react with Zen-like calm to adversity outside of the hardwood. Stoudemire’s playing time, his role on the team, his fractured belief in being the first step towards a new Knick dynasty, all the injuries and whether they were slowly sapping his ability to play from him: you can’t touch these things, can’t break them. But you can put your fist through a pane of glass and then you can deal with that.

Seth Carstens