It's Monday Superlatives time, and I want to start with the man who will be front-and-center when the NBA Finals begin this Thursday.
Luckiest Sports Human of the Week — Kevin Durant
At the end of last season, Kevin Durant had a choice to make. It was highly publicized. You could even call it The Decision. At the heart of his problem was the fact that the team he currently played for was very good—like conference finals good—but not quite good enough to get over the hump and win an NBA championship. More than a few pundits thought he choked his best chances away. However, he was beloved in the city, and the most attractive alternative was also the most mercenary—joining a really, really good team complete with another superstar and two very strong almost-superstars. There's no rule against ring-chasing, but the sentimental move would be the loyal one. No matter. In the end, he chose to leave and join the all-star team.
You get the point I'm making—almost every single detail matches Lebron's capital-D Decision adventure back in 2010. But man, Kevin Durant took so much less shit for going to Golden State than LeBron did for going to Miami! Sure, there were a few yokels burning jerseys, but it was nowhere near the level of city-wide and media-wide opprobrium that hit LeBron like a tidal wave when he left Cleveland.
A lot of this boils down to PR, of course. Durant knew better than to hold a tacky press conference that treated the gutting of a city as a reality TV spectacle. And that's the rub—the disparate reactions to the two very similar situations says a lot about our misunderstanding of athletes' character. Or rather, it shows how easily we're swayed by small moments on which the edifice of public perception is built. LeBron got talked in to a stupid TV special because the network only cared about ratings and his agent wasn't smart enough to see the ticking time bomb in front of him. Overnight, he became the villain of the sports world, and it took years to shed that reputation, even though he plays basketball like a living god.
Durant, meanwhile, likes to call himself "The Servant," is quiet by nature, and is basically boring in interviews. So even though he made the exact same move as LeBron, he's always been viewed as a "good guy," and hasn't had to deal with a tenth of the hot-take-y nonsense that dogged his rival.
It's hard to say how much of this is just good timing on Durant's part—the fact that The Decision happened means it could never happen again—and how much boils down to better representation. Regardless, fans constantly over-estimate what we can learn about a highly public figure whose image is perpetually curated by other people. And all we can really conclude, after viewing the parallel paths of these two excellent players who are about to meet for an NBA championship, is that in the court of public opinion, it's better to be lucky than good.
The Saddest Reaction to a Potentially Illuminating Moment — Fred Funk
Christine Brennan, writing for USA Today about the conservative politics of professional golfers, took the Champions Tour's Fred Funk to task for a remark he made at a recent press conference. Brennan writes:
He was joking about how he gets new fairway metals every birthday to keep up with lengthening golf courses and said, “I feel like I should be on the ladies tour right now.”
Brennan called his words "sexist," and her column inspired a good deal of backlash and anger. Those who rallied to Funk's defense mounted two arguments.
Both of these points are true, and both are totally irrelevant. I've never met Fred Funk, but most people seem to like him, and it's no big secret that male professionals can hit a golf ball farther than female professionals. But neither of these things excuse Funk's sentiment, which was derogatory in an unconscious way. If we understand his comment to be self-deprecating, then the only possible conclusion is that he is lowering himself by virtue of a comparison with women. The implication is that women are lesser—this is not complicated stuff.
The point is this: In 2017, a player like Funk can do better than the equivalent of "gee, I'm playing like a girl." Unconscious sexism is still sexism.
However, none of this means that Funk is a bad person, and it's a shame that he reacted defensively by trying to demonize Brennan. If he had simply acknowledged how such a remark could be read as disparaging toward women, it could have been an instructive moment, and no reasonable person would have thought less of him. But perhaps that was never possible—we're living in a time of total polarization, when the mere act of admitting that we might be wrong, and that we might have something to learn, is such a radical act that most will never even consider it.
Worst Mom of the Week — This Russian Mom
Mother's Day was earlier this month, but it's never too late to honor a truly terrible mom. Behold, Russian MMA mom! Wait, one sec: Before you click this link, please be aware that it's the end of a Russian MMA fight in which an already-bloodied dude is getting more bloodied by the second, and the referee lets it go on way too long. Let's try that again: Behold, Russian MMA mom!
For the intelligent readers who had the self-discipline not to click (why must I always click??), here's what happened: The fighter's mom, watching her son getting beaten to a pulp, seemed very angry, and not at all concerned for her offspring's welfare. When the fight was over, she actually hopped into the octagon and hovered over him as he assumed the fetal position, slapping and screaming at him.
Yikes. That's some bad maternal instinct right there. As Woody Allen might say (in a movie set in Russia, weirdly enough): My mother, folks!
The Athlete Most Likely to be James Bond — Enes Kanter
Okay, disclaimer: None of this is to make light of Enes Kanter's political situation. Kanter, Turkish by birth, is sympathetic to an enemy of the current president, and it's led to all sorts of terrible entanglements for him. Most recently, the Turkish government put an arrest warrant out for him, according to their paper. And yet, look at these two excerpts from that ONE article, which we can only assume is the tip of the iceberg:
The warrant "refers to Kanter's alleged use of an encrypted messaging application called Bylock, Sabah said, which Turkey claims was especially created for Gulen supporters."
Kanter returned to the United States, via London, on Monday using his green card. Kanter, who claims he routinely gets death threats, said in interviews following the incident that his manager woke him up in the middle of the night in Indonesia a few days before and was told the Indonesian "secret service and army" were looking for him because he is a "dangerous man."
All I'm saying is that if you see Kanter playing baccarat at a Monte Carlo casino, just check to see if his martini is shaken or stirred.
Strangest Decision by an NCAA Athlete — Cameron Norrie, TCU
Quick background here, because I'm about to ask you to care about an obscure sport: At the NCAA tennis championships, a team competition is held first, with the Sweet 16 onward played at the same venue in the span of a week. Immediately after the team tournament, the individual singles and doubles championships are played.
Enter Cameron Norrie of TCU, the no. 1 ranked men's tennis player in the nation. A junior, Norrie had a tremendous season, losing just once, and he led TCU to the elite eight before they fell to Ohio State. Along the way, he defeated the no. 2 and no. 3 ranked players in the country, convincingly. Everything was setting up for a championship singles run—a tournament that would be the gem in the crown of an excellent career. Norrie had come close before, reaching the quarterfinals as a freshman and the semifinals a year ago. This year, he was the overwhelming favorite to take home the title. And then...
He turned pro. Rather than playing literally one more week of tennis and taking a shot at history, he just left. Now, I'm not one of those people who thinks he owes anything to his school or the NCAA, and I completely respect his right to make that decision. I just can't understand it—at all. Why not go for a title that, while it's not a grand slam, is still a pretty big f'ing deal? Is it really worth giving up that kind of prestige for an extra week in the pros?
The crazier thing is, Norrie doesn't even seem to be playing this week, even though he's apparently trying to qualify for Wimbledon. In the off chance he earns a spot in the field, he has very little chance of winning even two matches, and he also has an entire lifetime of potential Wimbledons ahead of him. But in all likelihood, based on his age and world ranking, Norrie will go an entire career without winning an ATP event, much less a grand slam. At the NCAAs, though, he had a terrific chance to write his name in the sport's history. The fact that he passed it up is totally baffling, and I suspect that the day will come when he regrets it.
The Greatest Dive in the History of Professional Sports — Steven Souza Jr., Tampa Bay Rays
There are no words to accurately convey how hilarious this is:
Take a lesson, soccer: This is the only kind of dive Americans love.