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Be Careful What You Ask For…Empathy and the NBA

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Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been linked together a lot lately since a video of the two of them talking in a hallway of the Spectrum Center before last month’s All-Star game in Charlotte went viral.

When asked about the video by reporters in Milwaukee before the Celtics’ Feb 21st game at Milwaukee, Kyrie responded “It’s a video of me and one of my best friends talking.”

These two “best friends” have a lot in common:

• They both wanted to leave the teams that drafted them
• They both seemingly wanted to be free from their fellow All-Star teammates
• Kyrie had a championship and wanted his “own” team
• Durant had his “own” team and wanted a championship
• They both got exactly what they wanted
• They both are really unhappy

Speculation began to spiral out of control that the the two of them were conspiring to be the next two superstars to join forces in free agency this summer to take their talents and superpowers to Gotham City. The rumor mill ran amuck and sports news, talk radio and debate show circuit looked at this from every conceivable angle possible, while their video coordinators worked overtime to Photoshop Knick uniforms over their current ones.

This red hot take was brought up to each of the dynamic duo in interviews after the all-star break drawing the ire of both. Each of them have been very critical of the media recently. The constant attention that comes along with being a superstar in the NBA seems to be taking a toll on the the two of them.

After the comment above to the media Irving went on a rant about why the video was even a valid topic of discussion. “It’s my life, right?” he said. “It’s two people talking, having a conversation. If this was the real world, would it be anybody else’s business? It’s a video of somebody assuming what we’re talking about, making an opinion about it, right? So, why would I care about it? Why does it have an impact on my life? Why are you asking me those type of questions?”

After leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State and proceeding to win back-to-back NBA titles and Finals MVP trophies, Kevin Durant has come to the realization that achieving at the pinnacle of his profession may not be the be all to end all.

In an interview on March 1st with Kerith Burke of NBC Sports Bay Area, Duran said, “I don’t need anything in this basketball world to fulfill anything in me. The NBA is never going to fulfill me. It’s going to make me feel good about all of the work that I’ve put in, but I think those days of me wanting to prove something to anybody or walk around with a huge chip on my shoulder is not my thing.”

Since the All-Star break both the Celtics and Warriors have struggled with records below .500. Out of frustration with his individual and team struggles coupled with the constant media attention thereof, Irving recently told reporters, “I didn’t really come into this game to be cameras in my face, you know, be famous, be a celebrity, whatever embodies that, so it’s a little hard for me,” “I wanted those things when I was younger but now at this point in my career I just want to play basketball at a very, very high level and the distractions that come within the team sometimes can get overwhelming so, I’m human.”

The intersection of these two superstars in many ways is a microcosm of the NBA and life in general for their generation in the age of the 24/7 new cycle, celebrity culture and the Digital Surveillance State created by social media.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in a very honest and transparent interview with Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference spoke out about the unhappiness and mental health issues that are facing players like Durant and Irving in the NBA.

“I think we live a bit in the age of anxiety. I’ve read studies on this,” he said. I think part of it is that they’re a product of social media. When I meet with [some players], what strikes me is that they are truly unhappy. This is not some show that they are putting on for the media.”

“…to the outside world they see the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it. They’re the best in the world at what they do. [Many ask] how is it possible that they could even be complaining?”

That is a question that many of us ask when we hear people who have material wealth and fame complain. But maybe the question we should ask ourselves instead is – does money power and fame somehow make us less human. No matter what our position or station in life as human beings we all have to live and interact with the world around us. We all experience emotions and feelings of happiness, contentment, joy, despair, frustration, anxiety, depression and sadness.

While what we have, may or may not, contribute to those emotions and feelings, the presence or the absence of money, power of fame does not preclude us from certain emotions or conversely entitle us to others.

In a recent comment, Irving alluded to Silver’s comments “It makes players very unhappy. Very unhappy,” Irving said about media bombardment. “Adam Silver was talking the other day about how unhappy NBA players are nowadays because just the scrutiny, the exploitation of everything being judged or someone being a very high stature and people are still throwing stones at him trying to break him, and break him, and break him, and break him, and words are very powerful.”

Many people refuse to empathize with comments like that from a superstar player, especially one that asked for and got everything that he is complaining about.

Do Irving, Durant and others deserve our empathy?

Should we care about their happiness?

Should they just shut up and dribble?

It’s interesting how these players and their teams contribute to the wide gamut of emotions of us fans from elation to depression. We even allocate both credit and blame to them for those emotions accordingly. If we hold them responsible in some small way for our emotional wellbeing as a fan then doesn’t it stand to reason that we should show some level of empathy for them in return? Or is it because they have so much money, some of it directly from us, that they don’t deserve it.

The lives of these players become fodder for sports news and debate shows that have replaced the soap operas on daytime televisions. The personal sagas of these athletes are the storylines that lead into the commercials that bring big money into the coffers of these networks and their shows. Their misery is being used to make people love those companies.

Are their talents as well as their personal lives fair game for our entertainment?

When you become a professional athlete is nothing out of bounds?

I’m quite sure that the answer to those questions change depending upon whether the jersey you are wearing actually has your name on the back. But no matter whose name is on the back of that jersey, invariably we all pretty much want the same thing out of life.

Later on in the interview with Burke, Durant went on to describe what truly brings him happiness. “Being around family. Being around friends,” he said. “The people who actually love you deep down to your core, who won’t judge you, who will let you grow mentally, physically, you know? Just let you be who you are. I like those environments.”

Isn’t it good to know that what really makes a multi-millionaire reigning two time NBA Finals MVP happy is actually readily available to you and any other humans on the planet and you don’t have to pay for it or even compete against others to get it.

About the author

Andre Kimo Stone Guess
Andre Kimo Stone Guess

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He now runs GuessWorks, Inc. with his wife Cheryl.

Educated Guesses A Blog Full of Guesses