On a recent podcast with Zach Lowe in which they discussed their Western Conference All-Stars, Bill Simmons made an interesting observations about LeBron James. About the Cavaliers All-Star, Simmons noted how he
“has done a masterful job of just not saying much and presenting a certain angle of himself [...] I don’t feel like I really know LeBron that well, I don’t really know what makes him tick. He’s done a great job of being accessible yet guarded at the same time and usually doesn’t get into trouble [...] Would basketball be more fun if he was a little more honest? Yeah.”
What Simmons observes is an essential inauthenticity with James. While the “Chosen One” is ever-present in our minds and on our television sets through commercials and his on-court play, we don’t feel like we know him like we know other figures who command an equal amount of our collective attention. That veneer, the face that James has created and puts out into the world, is an essential part of who he is and thus prevents us, the basketball-watching public, from creating any kind of real connection with him.
The bad faith of LeBron James
Authenticity is a notoriously difficult thing to define. While just about every philosopher and thinker has put forth their own concept of authenticity, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was particularly interested in this idea and his ideas are those I find to be amongst the most revealing on this subject.
One way Sartre explored this idea was through the idea of bad faith, which he uses to show what it means to act inauthentically.
Sartre uses the following example to illustrate this.
Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-ropewalker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually reestablishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms [...] He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. There is nothing there to surprise us.
To behave in bad faith, or to act inauthentically, means one does what they think they are supposed to be rather than just being themselves. This is what James is most guilty of, both on and off the basketball court, and what Simmons picked up on during that podcast. You see someone who is performing the act of being a great basketball player, playing a part that creates a shield from displaying any kind of authenticity, preventing any of us from seeing who he is or what he’s all about.
In that regard, James does follow in the footsteps of Michael Jordan. By that I mean that Jordan famously cultivated an image of himself that pleased the highest number of people. Jordan was a brand, a logo, a blank canvas, but never an individual where you felt like you knew him or what mattered to him.
But James take this a step further as he seems to “play the part” of the great NBA player, doing what he thinks the great player should do while being hyperaware of those around him. There are exceptions to this, to be certain, specifically James’ commendable willingness to speak out on political and racial matters. But the dominant trait is this act of fabrication.
From his Instagram videos of him working out this past summer after the loss in the Finals to his unfollowing of accounts on Twitter as a way of showing he’s angry or frustrated to the use of the Arthur meme, James is putting on a kind of performance. Another example of this is James’ Instagram post celebrating himself for celebrating 30,000 points even before he scored that 30,000th point.
Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King ! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness #thekidfromakron
It’s not that he’s reveling in an accomplishment, but rather that it feels so forced, so overly conscious that it can’t help but seem... fake.
This approach that James takes is not new and is, by and large, the common course of action for most elite NBA players. What distinguishes the Warriors and their great players from those of the past is the way in which they do not conform to that idea. The Warriors are a team that features players who behave in more authentic ways. By which I mean, they act freely, being and choosing who they want to be rather than playing the part of who they think they have to be.
Obviously, there is no way for me to know for sure because I can’t see a player all the time and have a view inside their head. Also, because of the nature of the NBA and that our exposure to these players comes through different forms of media, there is always some degree of performative element to it. But based on what one can see by watching and paying attention, authenticity is an idea that resonates with this team.
In many ways, the Warriors are a tough team to define— they have young players but also many veterans; they shoot a ton of three-pointers, but have an excellent mid-range and rim-attacking game; they’re one of the best offenses in league history but also one of its great defensive teams. Yet what binds this team together is this authenticity, that they are players who are true to themselves and who they are, both as players and people.
Durant— a basketball player above all
Kevin Durant makes this quality apparent in his Twitter bio, which reads as the following: “IM ME, I DO ME, AND I CHILL.” Even going back to Durant’s appearances on Simmons’ podcasts last season, what he emphasized when discussing his decision to come play for the Warriors was that he wanted to go where he could play the best basketball. Durant alludes to this in the podcast he did with Simmons after the season where they discussed the Kyrie Irving trade.
It’s hard to quiet that noise, but at the end of the day, you still gotta go play every day, so you wanna have a good environment where you wanna play as far as, you want some type of structure, you wanna learn the game at a different level, you wanna kind of challenge yourself to fit in with the team and use your skill set a different way. Kyrie reminds me of myself, just from the outside looking in.
Durant is someone who loves basketball and wants to play the best basketball possible. I’ll avoid totally re-hashing the debate about Durant coming to the Warriors but so much of the negative criticism of Durant centered around the idea of “him taking the easy way out.” What they failed to consider is that the Warriors would allow him to do the one thing he wants to do— play high-level basketball and do that alone.
Thinking back to Sartre’s definition of bad faith and the example of the waiter “playing” at the idea of being a waiter, one can see that Durant is not like this and thus one acting in “good faith” or acting freely in accordance with what matters to him. He is just going out there and playing basketball. The other things that have come in his life—monetary success, business ventures—are all the byproduct of him being authentically and wholly a basketball player.
The freedom of Stephen Curry
Authenticity is one of the big things that has made Stephen Curry such a popular and beloved player in the NBA. Whereas someone likes James can feel distant, like a symbol rather than a person, Curry is someone you feel like you know and understand even from very, very far away. Who Curry is always shines through. One need only look at Curry’s Twitter feed and his tendency towards the self-deprecating as well as the corny.
Curry does not take himself too seriously, or not as seriously as other players take themselves, and is someone who is humble enough to realize his human limitations and occasionally have a laugh at his own expense.
Often times, that laugh will also come as a way of saying something nice about an opponent. While Curry (and the rest of the Warriors) are certainly fierce and determined competitors, they also won’t pretend that they aren’t part of a very small fraternity of professional basketball players and thus should be somewhat agreeable towards their compatriots. This is not war; it’s a craft where players are plying their trade and thus these craftsmen of the court should be able to get along and share a nice moment or two. Curry doesn’t have a problem with this, but others, however, do.
Curry’s freedom and his authentic action also shows up in the love he so often exhibits for his wife, Ayesha. Men are preconditioned not to display much in the way of emotions or feelings, especially if they are involved in a hyper-masculine space like professional sports. Curry, by contrast, feels comfortable expressing these feelings, belying a goodness that exists within him that others might try to hide in the name of being “tough.”
So today we celebrate another year of life for my wife....@ayeshacurry you are one of a kind, my Rock. The way that you have grown this past year has been nothing short of amazing and so happy to be able to share life with you! Here's to another blessed 365! Love you. #mymarkhamting (Ps S/o to @getgritfit for the balloons)
More often than not, a given athlete’s social media account is mainly used to promote certain products they’ve endorsed. While Curry will promote a product or a cause, most of his posts on Instagram or Twitter focus on celebrating his family and talking about how much he loves them.
Curry’s social media accounts seem less like one used by one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but rather by someone you know from your job or your town/city, who is very proud of his wife and children. The comfort with which Curry expresses himself and these feelings provides all men, so often told to suppress or deny their emotions, with a great example. It all starts with Curry’s authenticity and the freedom with which he moves through the world.
Klay and Draymond, very different and yet very much the same
Klay Thompson exhibits his freedom through the simplicity of his life. While other great NBA players revel in the many things that their stardom can afford them, Thompson very much goes the other way. Thompson strips out all the things that he doesn’t care about from his life and just does what will make him happy. Sitting and reading the newspaper (yes, the newspaper), spending time outside with his dog Rocco; these are the things that are of great value to the Warriors’ All-Star shooting guard.
Happy New Year from me and Rocco pic.twitter.com/RrhRhrdE9U— klay thompson (@KlayThompson) January 5, 2018
Much like his fellow Splash Brother, Thompson is also someone who is willing to laugh at themselves. You see this most prominently in his response to the failed 360-degree dunk attempt during the Summer of #ChinaKlay
“Man, you’ve got to laugh at yourself sometimes. It’s whatever, it was hilarious,” Thompson told DePaula. “I got so much flak from my teammates, still am. Zaza has been killing me, challenging me to a dunk contest. That’s when you know you hit rock bottom: when Zaza thinks he’s a better dunker than you.”
“At first I was pretty embarrassed, (but) I’m like, ‘Eh I’m a champion,’” Thompson said. “If that’s the worst I do is miss a dunk… could be worse.”
Thompson is not overly concerned with having messed up and looked bad. Those who are more concerned with their image and appearing invulnerable would have cared a great deal about something like that, particularly given the viral quality of that moment. But Thompson realizes that he’s going to miss a dunk sometimes and that doesn’t really matter because he’s a champion and that’s all he cares about.
While Thompson’s laid-back demeanor is indicative of someone being true to themselves, Draymond Green is someone much more comfortable showing his emotions. Most often on the basketball court, that appears as a fiery determination and occasional lapse into anger. During a famous halftime eruption during a 2016 game in Oklahoma City, Green yelled that he was “not a robot” and that is certainly true.
While most people associate Green with those emotions, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Green’s happiness and excitement when something good is happening on the court will always be evident. Whenever he’s interviewed, Green always makes a point to talk about his teammates and how much he enjoys playing with them. Green will also not hold back with what he thinks about an opposing player or coach or... about anything, really. What Green feels is that freedom, to say what he thinks and feels and to not have those things first calibrated by considering how an outsider perceives them.
To be certain, the authenticity of the Warriors does not stop with the players mentioned here. You need only look at Andre Iguodala’s very particular sense of humor or the quirky, non-conforming behavior of Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Watching the bench celebrate after a three-pointer or a dunk, you see that they are not just looking like a team but that they are a team, individuals who have come together to do something great.
But the Warriors’ four All-Stars stand out as players who we feel like we know and understand in some way even while only witnessing them from great distances. In contrast to the other great players, both playing today and throughout the history of the NBA, these Warriors are comfortable with who they are and act freely in accordance with what they want to do. While this team has ushered in a new style of basketball on the court, perhaps they might usher in something new off of the court as well, paving the way for players to behave authentically and avoid the fronts and artifice one usually encounters.