Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

On November 19th, 2004, my girlfriend -- visiting from San Francisco -- and I were at a party at HiLife in NYC when, on the bar's big-screen TV, ESPN showed tape of a brawl in Detroit between several Pistons players and Ron Artest, a member of the Indiana Pacers. Added into the mix a few drunk, mouthy Pistons fans -- one of which, as I mentioned in my original post herein, Artest clocked smack-dab in the nose.

Today is January 25th, 2006, and, to date, Artest -- through a combination of suspension, injury, and a complete lack of intelligence -- has, essentially, done nothing since that night in Detroit. After the suspension, he had some issues with his team and his teammates in Indiana (it was mutual) and as the 2006 NBA season commenced, he announced he wanted to be traded. The announcement, apparently, came after a "private" meeting between Artest and Pacers GM Larry Bird, during which Bird received Artest's assurance that he wanted to stay on the team and committed himself to help build a championship team. So, hearing Artest's public reversal understandably irritated Bird who advised him that Artest would soon get his wish. Within 24 hours, Artest publicly declared that he was -- essentially -- letting off steam but that he didn't actually want a trade.

As they say in porno movies, "too little, too late."

Bird, fed up and tired of catering to Artest's sine-wave personality, managed, as of yesterday morning, to arrange a swap of Artest and Peja Stojakovic with the Sacramento Kings. Except when it was announced that the trade was imminent, Artest -- through his agent -- indicated he wasn't interested in playing for Sacramento. This morning, after the media effectively and unanimously concurred that Artest manages to prove himself an even bigger moron each time his name appears in the news, Mark Stevens, Artest's agent -- hoping to spin this situation into something not akin to a complete PR disaster, tried digging his client out of a hole (quote courtesy
"Ron Artest did not want to be traded to Sacramento weeks ago, and he does not want to be traded to Sacramento now.

"Basketball is Ron Artest's passion. In order for Ron to fully demonstrate his natural skills and abilities, to the best of his abilities, he not only must be in an environment that is conducive to his growth an development as a player, he must also ensure that his family is happy and content as well. Ron does not believe that will be the case if he were in Sacramento. Period. However, as mentioned earlier, Ron is deeply committed to the sport of basketball and desperately misses playing the game he loves. If the trade is made he will play for his new team, regardless of how he may feel about it."
Perhaps it's time to get a new agent, Ron.

Over the last several months, I've expounded -- shamelessly or otherwise -- on a variety of athletes, including Artest, Terrell Owens, Marcus Vick and Barry Bonds. Aside from the fact that these are all black men playing professional sports (aside from Vick, who will be if his criminal record doesn't prevent him from doing so) at extremely high levels. I'm disappointed that each of these individuals, who are among the best in their respective fields, are all, for the most part, villified and criticized. Aside from Barry Bonds, whose suspected steroid use will -- in theory -- remain a question until (or unless) he decides to admit same -- these athletes have exemplified why mixing big money and big sports is an ever-increasing problem. As annual salaries and ticket and advertising sales inflate exponentially, athletes' egos grow and become larger than the team and, in some cases, the sport -- or so they think. But it is interesting that the first three men on my original list -- Artest, Owens and Vick -- all possess immense talent and yet all three have been or will be on the sidelines watching others play.

I'm not commenting on the obvious lack of intelligence demonstrated by these individuals; this problem goes beyond that. It is one of attitude, entitlement and politics. I am simply wondering when -- or if -- this problem will begin to be solved. Not only are athletes no longer role models -- unless Allan Iverson is, somehow, someone others should or could look up to -- but they are increasingly representing everything that is wrong with professional sports in every and any way they seemingly can. Personally, I don't even watch basketball anymore -- despite the fact I love the sport itself, it's become what Kaia's father rightfully described as "Televised Thuggery," and it's become boring. I just hope that more GMs and coaches like Larry Bird and Andy Reid get the opportunity and the authority to let players know that the team and the sport are bigger than the individual. What made athletes like Joe DiMaggio and Wayne Gretzky, among others, so great was that as talented they were at their respective sports, they each recognized their place within their sport and showed the respect for the sport and their teammates (as well as their opponents) that said institution deserved.

Today, we have athletes with their own websites, selling individually-branded merchandise without any team affiliation whatsoever. Until football, baseball and basketball become non-team sports, this problem will rapidly escalate and -- more importantly -- test fans' patience more than lockouts, strikes and ticket price increases ever could.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

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