Sunday, January 29, 2012

I'm Learning, Man. That's My Horse Tutor.

Dear Shaq,

When I first heard you'd signed with TNT, I was happy for you, happy you wouldn't end up in the purgatory that is ESPN's NBA coverage, and excited for the basketball-and-humor-loving public that you'd be joining the already glorious Inside the NBA crew. Then, over the holidays at my folks' house, my brother and I watched a few episodes of a show on NBA TV called Open Court, where a bunch of TNT-affiliated former NBA guys--you, Chuck, Kenny, Reggie, Kerr, Steve Smith, C-Webb—just sit in a room and tell stories. The show was great, but you were by far the least entertaining person in the room. Even though Reggie Miller was at one time my favorite non-Houston basketball player, I only find Reggie-the-analyst entertaining when he's announcing a game and uses the term "a long deuce." But even he was more interesting than you. Suddenly I worried that you might ruin Inside the NBA. Then the season started: I caught a few minutes here and there of you at halftime, and what I saw was pretty bad, Shaq. Your voice was often so low as to be nearly inaudible, you made too many sound effects, laughed at your own jokes without making your co-hosts laugh, and when called upon to talk about the games, you seemed stuck in athlete-trying-not-to-say-anything-interesting mode. Admittedly, I only had a small sample size of your performances, but people were hammering you on Twitter, too: Shaq is boring! Shaq makes Kevin McHale seem entertaining! Shaq just said Rudy Gay could be as good as Lebron and Wade! Shaq just called Ricky Rubio the Italian Pete Maravich! Suddenly I couldn't remember: Were you ever that interesting? Or was the pressure making you uninteresting? I hoped it was the latter. It was like someone had brought you to a great party and said, "Hey, everybody, listen up. This is my friend Shaq. He's really hilarious," and because of this introduction you froze up and every prosaic thing you said disappointed the attendees and the vibe of the party was ruined.

Being someone who has frozen under pressure in many different pursuits, I felt like I could explain the problem: You hadn't found your freedom. I don't know if you ever listen to NPR, Shaq, but here's Philip Roth from an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air a few years back, talking about his novel The Human Stain and its narrator:

Gross: What narrative problems do you solve by having Zuckerman be the narrator?

Roth: Well, the biggest problem I solve is nothing stands between me and my spontaneous reaction to the material. That is, it’s not such a cunning, strategic process. What you’re trying to do is find your freedom as a writer . . . maximally deploy your powers, and I just feel that this is a way I can maximally deploy my powers.

See, the unfunny, boring Shaq we witnessed was not spontaneously reacting to the material, and thus wasn’t maximally deploying his powers. We wanted Shaq-in-the-lane, a man who'd certainly found his freedom, but instead we were getting Shaq-at-the-line. You were trying too hard, you were constricted. And if I've learned anything in life, it's that once you start trying too hard at something, that's exactly when you start sucking. I'm a teacher, Shaq, and the difference in quality between my teaching on a normal day--when I've found my freedom--and my teaching when I'm being observed by a superior and trying to do extremely well, is enormous. If you're trying too hard, you lose your freedom. This is true for writing, sports, public-speaking, wooing, drawing, singing, dancing at weddings, throwing crumpled-up paper into trash cans from long distances, and everything else. You gotta find a way to be focused but loose. That's what Philip Roth was talking about. Think about Chuck: He's great every night on TNT without even trying. He's an artist. The other night he inadvertently called the Wizards the Bullets, and when you guys called him out for it, he said, "I call em the Bullets...because I wanna shoot em." That same night, after the Grizzlies/Clippers game finished, Inside the NBA showed the highlights and Chuck said, "They just watched the game. Why we gotta show the highlights?" That's a man who's found his freedom. (Or recall Chuck at the slam dunk contest last year, when the camera panned to one of the judges, Darryl Dawkins, in a truly terrible suit and after a few seconds of stunned silence from the other broadcasters, Chuck said, "Hey Mama, I found out what happened to your curtains.") But when Chuck went on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago, he tried to be funny and the result was, to use one of his favorite words, terrible. I couldn't bear to watch much of it--SNL at its worst has always made me vicariously embarrassed--but from the few skits I saw, he froze up, kept staring at the teleprompter in the middle of the skit, and acted stiffer than I'd ever seen him act before. Stop me if Phil Jackson already told you this, but it's like what the famous Zen archer Awa Kenzo once told his young pupil: "Thinking about hitting the target is heresy. Do not aim at it." On SNL Chuck committed that heresy. On TNT Chuck never aims. And after watching you early in the season, I decided that you--like myself--needed to figure out a way to stop aiming, too, even when people are watching, even when you really care about hitting the target.

But over the last couple of weeks, after I’d already made this judgment, I watched the latest episodes of Inside the NBA in their entirety, and I realized something: the later it gets, the better you get. Early in the night, say at halftime of the first game, you're still taking aim, acting wooden, trying to be professional and thereby saying nothing of interest. At these times your low voice gets even lower, especially when you're trying to do serious analysis. But as the night goes on, especially after all the games are over and Inside the NBA actually begins, you find your freedom. After midnight, you stop being "strategic," to use Philip Roth's term; you're just yourself. And, honestly, you're damn good. You get into sincere, passionate, entertaining arguments with Chuck about Kevin Love vs. Blake Griffin, or where Marc Gasol ranks among current centers, and you hold your own. Unlike ESPN's boring-ass roundtable discussions, these are real disagreements, the same kind of who's-better debates I used to have with my friends in middle school:

Shaq: I'm revoking your big man license. You can't talk about big men no more. You don't have G14 classification to talk about big men. Better than Bynum? Stop it.

Chuck: I didn't say he was!

Shaq: You just said it!

Chuck: No, he asked me and I--

Shaq: And you said yes. That means you said it.

Chuck: Because I'm not sure. I wanna think about it.

This type of thing is great, especially when you make Chuck back down in a hilariously illogical way. See, in my evaluation of your broadcasting skills, Shaq, I made the classic NBA mistake of thinking a contest was over before the final buzzer goes off. This is the same thing I did a few times last year in the playoffs, turning off the TV because Dallas was down 17 or something and then reading a text from someone in the morning about the overtime and thinking, "Overtime? In what game?" And that's the same thing I would've done last week when the Celtics were down by 27 to the Magic and came back to win, except that I’d already decided I'll never again watch the Orlando Magic play basketball during the regular season (except for special circumstances, i.e. Rockets or Rubio). Metaphorically, Shaq, you get down by 27 at the beginning of each TNT broadcast, but I'm here to tell you that--at least lately--you've come back to win every time. I couldn't imagine saying this a few weeks ago, but you're the perfect addition to Inside the NBA, the perfect adversary for Chuck and the rest of the guys. The segment a couple weeks back when you discussed your newly purchased horse--Diesel--was truly one of best things I've seen on TV over the last year or so. As TNT played footage of you being pulled around on your horse, the following discussion ensued:

Chuck: What kinda grown man have, uh, somebody pullin—

Shaq: Hey, man. I’m retired.

Chuck: You got a man pulling your horse around.

Shaq: I don’t know how to ride a horse.

Chuck: Are you serious, dog?

Shaq: I don’t know how to ride a horse.

Ernie [perplexed]: Why did you buy it?

Shaq: So I can learn how to ride it.

Kenny: You…you use some…another horse to learn. You don’t just buy it.

Shaq: First of all, have you ever ridden a horse, cowboy?

Kenny: Yes I have.

Shaq: Well, I have. I don’t know--

Kenny: I don’t know how to ride well, but I wouldn’t—

Shaq: I went to the horse place. They teach a man how to ride a horse.

[Too many people speaking at once during more video of Shaq getting pulled on his horse by a diminutive Hispanic man]

Shaq: Andres! What’s up, baby! [unintelligible faux-Spanish]

[multiple people speaking]

Chuck: Dude, who’s pulling your horse?

Shaq: Listen, man. I’m learning how to ride the horse.

Kenny: Yo, lemme think, he put an ad in the paper. I need somebody who can pull my horse...He’d pay a guy a hundred thousand dollars for that, probably. That’s a good job.

Chuck: Does he come to your house every day and pull it for you?

[laughter in the studio from behind the cameras]

Shaq: Whoa…that was a good one. That was a good one.

[more laughter, unintelligible talk]

Chuck: My man, my man get up at…My man say, I’m going to work. Whatchyou doing today? I'ma pull Shaquille O'Neal around on a horse all day. Are you kidding me? Wow...

Kenny: How much you get paid? Hundred thousand dollars.

Chuck: Let me and Kenny do that. I’ll do it for a hundred grand.

Shaq [defiant]: I’ll bring my horse right here.

Kenny: I’m not pulling it for any price, Ernie.

Shaq: My horse gonna be right here.

Kenny: Ernie, I’m not pulling it for any price.

See? That's fantastic, Shaq. You’re being yourself and it's as good as a Coen Brothers script, in my opinion. And I don’t mean Ladykillers, either. I'm talking Raising Arizona or Big Lebowski Coen Brothers. You're the John Goodman of Inside the NBA. Chuck and Kenny may hammer you ("That horse need a chiropractor." "Ain't there a weight limit on a horse?"), but you only respond with absolute sincerity. It's beautiful. It's a comedic bulls-eye. And the best part is, it seems effortless. Your performance in that segment is an inspiration for any of us who've ever tried too hard, a reminder that we too can find our freedom. So thanks for not aiming, Shaq. Keep up the good work. I plan to use the above transcript as exhibit A, if necessary, in any debates about whether you've made Inside the NBA better or worse. You're an interesting dude and a truly entertaining addition to the TNT crew. Anyone who says otherwise must've turned the game off before the final buzzer.



P.S. Why are you still upset about Dwight Howard calling himself Superman? He's just a mixed-up kid, Shaq. Let it go. You're not the original Superman, either. Superman is the original Superman. You sulked about it on the air after the Orlando game, muttering, "If all you gotta do is win a dunk contest to be called Superman..." Come on. It's not like any reasonable basketball fan thinks Dwight Howard is better than you were, not by a long shot. Be graceful, big fella. I've read enough of The Last Season while loitering in Barnes and Noble to know that you and Kobe fought over and motivated yourself with extremely petty crap all the time, and Thomas Lake's great recent Sports Illustrated article about MJ reminded us again that the greatest basketball player of all time was also one of the pettiest--and used his pettiness as fuel for years and years of great basketball. But once you retire, pettiness is just pettiness. Let it go, man.