Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Shaqtin' A Cyberbully


Trash talk from a competitor in any sporting arena can only end up in four possible outcomes if you are the recipient of the trash talk: you can push back with trash talk, ignore it, let it rattle you, or shut up the trash talker.  There are good ways and bad ways to shut up.  A good way is to play better.  A bad way is to shut the Jabberjaw's mouth for him with a right hook. The millennial way to do it is to run to social media, which could turn out to be good or bad.  At the end of the day, trash talk is meant to get inside the head of an exceptional player or disrespect someone with weak game. And respect in sports is earned, not given.

Enter JaVale McGee.

Since being selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft, JaVale has been viewed as the "clown prince of the NBA".  His erstwhile nickname was "Must See" McGee, which has not necessarily been the wisest choice since it invited the pilloring and ridiculing he has received from many.  When a player nicknamed "Must See" runs down the court to play defense while his team is on offense, you definitely want to wish for him to get away on the next Southwest flight smoking. With all his gaffes provoking inescapable guffaws throughout the sports universe, he was unemployed for the better part of a year and a half, partly due to injury. That was until the Golden State Warriors threw him a bone and signed him to an nonguaranteed contract...which he has parlayed into a remarkable career resurrection.  In fact, he has been so solid - especially when the starting center, Zaza Pachulia, was out due to injury - that there were rumblings about whether Zaza would get his starting center spot back from JaVale. Yes, THAT JaVale...was STARTING...at center...for the Warriors...for several games.

Despite his hardcourt resurgence, JaVale was not able to escape his unintentionally jestful past.  Shaquille O'Neal, a retired and recently inducted Hall of Famer who had his share of bloopers on the court and was lambasted for such, had made it his mission to never let JaVale live down his previous reputation.  Shaq, in his Shaqtin' A Fool segments on the NBA broadcasts on TNT, has basically made JaVale the permanent and resident foil - or should I say, fool - even dedicating an entire segment to the man Shaq designated "Doctor Strange".

JaVale didn't ask for any of this. He did not purposely invite this stigma of being a "dumb person". He didn't appreciate having his livelihood damaged and negatively affected by the perception that he is a buffoon in a NBA costume. So at last, JaVale had had enough.

He went to Twitter to blow Shaq's eyebrows back...only to find Shaq returning even more heat. But JaVale didn't back down. Others jumped into the fray. Kevin Durant. Steve Kerr. Former NBA players. All this while JaVale and Shaq are going blow-for-blow in this 7-foot cyberspace one-on-one. Until Shaq said that his mother told him to stop. It's like having your mother run on the hoop court to accost you by your collar for talking back to a referee, which no player would EVER let happen. But that's Shaq's story, and he's sticking to it.

My observations:

To put it bluntly, Shaq has the "bully gene".  Shaq has always been one of the biggest, most physically dominant players on every court upon which he has set foot. Almost every nickname he sports starts with "The Big".  As comical, fun-loving, entertaining, and self-deprecating as he can be at times, Shaq can turn heel in the blink of an eye and run that act into multiple terrestrial crusts. Look at the virutal and overt run-ins he had with Kobe while on the Lakers. Kobe didn't back down, but that didn't stop Shaq. He referred to The Sacramento Kings as "queens". He has pushed, shoved, punched, and sarcastically quipped to impose his behemoth will and ego. Oftentimes his fall-back justification is that he is just having fun and being humorous. Pretty convenient.

Shaq and JaVale...together under friendlier circumstances...

I can't recall Shaq ever being accused of owning up to his mistakes, swallowing his pride, and letting bygones be bygones of his own will...which is typical of any bully. In fact, Shaq is invariably prone to doubling down rather than doubling back, and this Twitter feud serves as Exhibit A. The fact that JaVale decided to clap back only gave Shaq recourse to go from an on-swole Bruce Banner to a humongously ego-overinflated Hulk, dropping references to JaVale as a "bum" and photoshopping his face onto a homeless person.

Yes, Shaq has the bully gene, and that cannot be ignored. The difference here is that he is no longer a bully on the hoop court, but a media and Twitterverse bully.  I mean this: adolescent teens are sadly committing suicide for less intense social spewing from classmates than Shaq is dishing out.  He actually threatened violence on JaVale. Only bullies use threats of violence as leverage to shut people up who push back on them. The fact that Shaq's own mother - who according to him is the only person who succeeded in getting him to cease and desist - blew off his physical threats and expletives as 'slang for 'Be quiet'" did not help anything. But it did, however, dish a dime to JaVale's mother, who accurately called out Shaq's exploits as cyberbullying.

America has been in anti-bully season for a while now, despite the POTUS's desire to pull a Hue Jackson and "build a bully" in his own image. Apparently Shaq did not get the memo and has been getting checked in the media since this whole issue went viral, nuclear, and universal. I don't anticipate Charles Barkley, his fellow TNT analyst and self-styled bully, being able to resist applying his co-signature to Shaq's cause. Nevertheless, the reality is that bullies are a dying breed and rightfully so, but those of Shaq's ilk will prove harder to kill than others. Even when he is throwing stones from the window of a glass mansion.

Kobe survived Shaq's venom and tactics and came out 2 rings richer.
I applaud JaVale for standing his ground. Of course, he clearly crossed the line with some inappropriate tweeting of his own. But at least he didn't allow Shaq's prime-time and online trash talk continue to gnaw at him anymore and cause him to continue to suffer in silence without a solid comeback.

So I have a piece of advice for JaVale: Stay on your grind. For good.

Don't give anyone a reason to push you back to the days of yore when you were just an automatic punch line. Be that gym rat that shows up early and leaves late. Show up on game time and let everybody know that what you bring to the table can and will neither be ridiculed nor dismissed. Redefine what "Must See" McGee is about: that players coming into the paint will meet a troubling, high-motor, disruptive force that nobody will outwork, outhustle, or outmaneuver. Heck, take a page out of Rudy Gobert's book and help redefine the center position for this era. Take your game to the next level by working on your free throw shooting, fine-tune your ability to play team defense, and develop a mid-range jumper. OK, that last one is wishful thinking. But the idea is to make yourself more of an indispensable asset and less of an indefensible liability.

You're getting respect with every appearance on the court, not because you play for the odds-on favorite to win rings in June, but because of your palpable contributions coming off the bench since November. And it's refreshing to see you reinvent yourself against the waves of hypercritical public opinion. That should be gratifying to you and provide fuel enough to carry you into and through the playoffs. And it should be enough to keep you from resting on your laurels so you can get an even better contract in the future.

So grind on, young man. And remember the words of The Main Ingredient: "Everybody plays the fool sometimes..." And this time, it's Shaq's turn to wear the harlequin suit.

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