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Guest Post: All-Time NBA Artisan Rushmore

Ed. Note: Miles Wray writes a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called “Reviews of Self-Help Books by Professional Athletes” and is a staff writer at Ian Levy’s Hickory-High. He lives in Seattle but just moved there so no hard feelings about the Sonics.

Who’s in your NBA Mount Rushmore? Whose Rushmores are in your Rushmore of NBA Rushmores?

Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum crafted a majestic opus out in the South Dakotan wilderness, but it’s limiting for our imaginations to picture the game’s premier characters exclusively as wood-jawed 19th-century monoliths. Deepen your mind and expand your horizons by envisioning the game’s most colorful dramatis personae in more vivid and contemporary palettes:

All-Time NBA American Gothic

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As a gaunt figure who very literally rises before the sun to manage the crops, Jerry Sloan is the NBA’s foremost farmer husband, capable of turning all manner of play into work, an entire, ageless life built out of ceaselessly fighting the Midwestern elements for sustenance. The wife is a stand-in for the entire Utah Jazz franchise, willingly and gratefully taking a submissive posture, tentatively hiding behind their iron-spined man.

Under the direction of Sloan, the Jazz reaped winning records in 22 of his 23 seasons as a head coach (no farmer is totally impervious to times of drought), tilling the bitter, arid, small-market Salt Lake City soil into lush produce on the annual. It wasn’t fun, but a perpetual fight for survival against blizzards, ravaging wolves, and a multitude of teams with better nightlife and substantially more revenue is not really supposed to be fun.

Imagine if the couple in the painting, after so many years of loyal if not tender coexistence, saw their union get torn asunder, perhaps split apart by the schemes of a divisive child. The husband would be okay, yes, moving to the city and finding work, bitterly heating up cans of beans after factory shifts. But the wife, oh the wife–after so many years of propping her well-being and identity on her husband’s sinewy shoulders, she would be lost tilling the same fields that had fed her for decades, struggling gamely but still struggling mightily, working sunup to sundown and still getting pinched by unforgiving economic realities. The Jazz are 106-122 since Sloan’s sudden retirement.

All-Time NBA Picasso’s Blue Period

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Bismack Biyombo is an old, old, old 21-year-old. In-game pictures of the undersized defensive wizard find Biyombo mired in existential void, lost in pessimistic contemplation, or submissive to emotional fatigue. Compare this, now, to pictures taken of Biyombo when he is not underneath the burdensome weight of those sleeveless Bobcat pastels: he is vivacious, lively, charitable.

This disparity is not due to any disingenuousness on Biyombo’s part. We, too, would stow our pearly whites in favor of a stoneface if we were in our third year in the NBA, playing for our third different head coach, with our team compiling a combined record of 51-150. The ceiling for this year’s Bobcats team is to push their first round series against Indiana/Miami to five games (an accomplishment that would actually eclipse the franchise’s most successful season thus far), a fate hardy worth mustering false enthusiasm for.

So when Pablo Picasso painted a gaunt old man miserably ragged and barefoot on the ground–his clothes, his hair, his soul, the air around him all a deep and depressive blue–the artist was in essence anticipating Biyombo’s entry into the world of unending Charlotte Bobcat blue. The young lad next to the old, seen bitterly munching on a potato (or, conceivably, a ’Nilla Wafer) is of course Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whose 20th-and-½ birthday still lies ahead of him, whose own disposition before playing in the Association was also optimistic and gleeful. We know what 1½ years in Charlotte can do to that attitude. In no time at all Kidd-Gilchrist’s soul will be as old and grizzled and bearded as Biyombo’s, and a new prospect of yet-untainted youth will sit beside him as this bluest of portraits is reincarnated.

All-Time NBA Mark Rothko

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Thanks to NBA/art critics who came before me, this parallel has already been explored with great depth. Writing for Grantland at the season’s outset, Brian Phillips nobly hoped that Kendrick Perkins’ 2013-14 season would eventually most closely resemble one of Rothko’s lighter, sunnier works–an admirable vision that will, alas, remain unrealized.

All-Time NBA Marcel Duchamp

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Frenchman Marcel Duchamp was the world’s first and foremost ya-coulda-done-that-but-ya-didn’t artists, pulling such avant-garde stunts including displaying a signed urinal as sculpture. Another of Duchamp’s iconic works, entitled “L.H.O.O.Q.” (a name the French will evidently find titillating) consists of a print of the Mona Lisa, with a tiny mustache and goatee drawn on her face. This kind of thing actually earned Duchamp fame and fortune–he latched onto the coattails of the more talented and skilled and drafted all the way to the finish line with a minimum of effort. Which brings us to Adam Morrison.

Morrison was traded from the Bobcats to the Lakers in the middle of the 2009 season as nothing more than financial counterbalance for Vladimir Radmonivic’s (surprisingly large) contract. Sixteen months, 298 in-game minutes, and 6-of-27 three-point shots later, Morrison had two championship rings on his fingers. The rings were and are rightfully his, according to the league’s bylaws, a truth that more or less screams for an emergency meeting of the Competition Committee.

Photographs of Morrison cradling the Larry O’Brien suspiciously resemble the L.H.O.O.Q. portrait of nearly a century previous. Much like the Mona Lisa, Morrison wears a sly, barely detectable grin, its origins and reasons forever unknown. Marrying Da Vinci and Duchamp, melding the identities of the artist and the graffitist, Morrison also wears a mustache and goatee of virtually the same size and shape as Duchamp’s doodle. His gangly index finger, extended in a bold and proud “Number 1” pose, confuses the viewer in the same way that museum patrons were confused by Duchamp’s works: we are left unsure if the artist was or wasn’t cracking a joke–and if it was a joke, whether we are in on it or not.

Miles Wray