Q&A with Jack Hamilton: On the NBA’s narratives, marketing and image, age-restrictions, the AAU and NCAA


Jack Hamilton writes about music, sports and popular culture for Slate.com, TheAtlantic.com, NPR, Transition, and other publications. This fall he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Follow him on Twitter.

In his piece “The Darko Ages” at Slate, Jack Hamilton writes about the “Draft Bust” narrative connected to Darko Milicic and the context surrounding the 2003 NBA Draft.  In specific, Hamilton sheds light on the consensus of thought that led to the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic second-overall in what has become a legendary draft.

Hamilton explains that Darko was drafted in a “pre–YouTube moment made of wishful scouting reports from distant lands and flavored by a hint of racism.”  He goes on to explain that the lack of information NBA GMs had at their disposal created a kind of “idealized vision of the Euro Prodigy.”  Hamilton writes, “The great imagined fear of the prep-to-pro era was that (black) American teenagers would use their talent to con generous NBA benefactors out of millions, only to turn their attention to dunk contests and rap albums as they destroyed the moral fabric of basketball.”

Hamilton continues, “One of the many ironies of Darko bust is that so many saw him as a bulwark against what he actually became: a terrible investment in an unprepared kid. He just didn’t look the part.”

***

Jonah: First off, I thoroughly enjoyed the piece for Slate.  I find that too many narratives surrounding the NBA are often ill-conceived and seem to be following the group-think that 2003 NBA front offices followed.  The echo-chamber is often deafening, and it’s refreshing to read a piece that attempts to contextualize one of the bigger narratives of the last decade in the NBA.

Q. Do you get a similar sense of the echo-chamber of the sports media landscape?  Does it exhaust you as much as it exhausts me (endless twitter rumors, fruitless debating of who’s the best, fetishizing the number of championship rings, etc.)?

Jack: Thanks, glad you liked the piece! Sports discourse is certainly its own beast; there’s nothing quite like it. I do think many of the narratives people create are facile, if not worse, although they’ll always exist, and probably out of necessity. To quote Joan Didion (woefully out of context), “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and I think narratives for most of us are a pretty essential part of fandom—it’s where the emotional content comes from. That said, I also love this XKCD comic on the subject:

courtesy of xkcd.com

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Jonah: You write about the anti-AAU sentiment of some scouts.  I have mixed feelings about the AAU world.  On the one hand, I think it can emphasize a me-first, scoring mentality in players.  There are often questionable coaches with questionable intentions, and the shoe companies and agents turn it into an oily business trying to coerce young players.  On the other hand, it’s a spotlight that up-and-coming players need in order to get attention.  The lack of regulation seems to be a huge problem.  At least Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Kenny Smith are attempting to help develop and highlight young talent in the summertime.

This documentary may shed light on some of the issues:

Q. How do you think the development of AAU-basketball has impacted player development over the last fifteen years (positively and negatively), and what do you think of how NBA scouting has changed over the last decade, looking at character and player development in a new light? 

Jack: I think, perhaps ironically given its name, that the explosion of AAU over the past few decades has served to sort of professionalize young people in ways that weren’t previously the case. Sneaker sponsorships, huge amounts of travel, just generally turning high school basketball into a national big-money phenomenon. It’s pretty amazing how many guys in the NBA now have basically known each other since before they were teenagers. As for player development, I really think that’s almost a case-by-case thing; I’m sure it’s really helped some people, and it’s certainly really hurt others. I thought George Dohrmann’s book on AAU, Play Their Hearts Out, was pretty extraordinary and a really nuanced and careful look at the subject. And I definitely think NBA scouting practices have gotten better, or at least more thorough; as I noted in the Slate piece, it’s pretty difficult to imagine something like Darko happening today. Of course, there are always going to be busts! I think one of the reasons people like myself are so interested in the NBA draft is the risk and unpredictability that attends it.

 ***

Jonah: The NBA has been increasingly conscious of its image in the last ten years.  You mention the dress-code and age-restrictions (19) that the NBA has put in place in that time.  There is certainly a desire to control their brand.  The recent mild controversy over John Wall’s tattoo and how that may impact his contract negotiations are another sign that image is as important as ever in the modern NBA.

Q. How does the “fear of the other” (culture and race) play a part in the way the NBA is marketed?

Jack: It’s an extremely complicated question. I highly doubt David Stern has a racist bone in his body, and the same probably goes for most people around the league. That said, this is America, and the issues embedded in marketing a predominantly young African American league to a predominantly older white audience are trickier than they ought to be. I find the dress code pretty reprehensible and would like to see it go away, even though I actually think a lot of guys would still adhere to it, since dressing to impress on the bench and in post-game pressers has kind of become its own thing.  At the time a lot of that stuff was instituted the NBA had suffered a number of high-profile PR hits (most notably the Pistons-Pacers brawl), and I think a lot of those incidents became unfortunately racialized, as so often happens in this country. To their credit I do think that the NBA has evolved on a lot of it; just look at how eagerly their marketing machine seized on Jay-Z owning just a tiny fraction of the Nets. The tattoo controversies are unbelievably stupid to me, but the fact that so many other people seem to think so too is a decent sign of something like progress.

***

Jonah: Writing last May for Grantland, Steve Kerr made the case for why the NBA should raise its age requirement to 20 years old.  He made a strong case, pointing out the impact on 1) player maturity; 2) financial costs to the team—noting that scouting is hard when you have only one college season to go on; 3) player development;  4) marketing—again, playing up the value of having seen guys in college; 5) a sense of team-frustrations with AAU system; and 6) mentoring-growing under the tutelage of a great college coach.

My issue with Kerr’s case is that he was answering the wrong question.  In his eyes, the question of an age limit really means, “Would the NBA’s business be stronger by raising the age requirement?”  In Kerr’s assessment, he’s more interested in the end product and the big picture for the NBA’s front offices, than he is aware of the individual players that make that business possible.

Kerr’s argument doesn’t take into account the players whose careers have been lost to injury between the ages of 18 and 20 years-old.  Nerlens Noel’s knee injury brought this question to light again recently.  It also doesn’t take into account the fact that the NCAA has an out-dated hierarchical structure of indentured servitude, where players make huge sums of money for their schools and often are rarely given the support or the time to become actual “student-athletes,” while risking their careers to injury.

In my opinion, NCAA Men’s basketball should be broken down into two camps: 1) those 18 year-olds who are on the top 100 prospect lists coming into college and who have the athletic ability to be lottery picks in the NBA and 2) everyone else.  For the top tier, there needs to be a different kind of developmental league (not the current NBDL) where these 18 year-olds actually get mentored and gain discipline and an awareness of team-unity.  The ego-driven world of prep basketball and the AAU system often do not give these prospects the broad vision of what it will take to succeed as a professional leading a team, nor the level of competition to force them to work on the fundamentals they’ll need in the NBA.  I don’t know how developing a league like this is possible, but the NCAA is holding back the personal development and basketball development of many of these young prospects by placing them on college campuses for one year.  Instead of maturing, they are treated like mega stars in campus bubbles.

The most enlightening part of Kerr’s piece is the side note (Why Grantland kept it off to the side in small print tells you how uninterested they are in exposing their own bias), in which he explains his own bias:

          “I can’t begin to identify with any college freshmen whose lives would be affected with a higher age limit. I had no chance of making the NBA after my first season at Arizona, much less right out of high school. (The thought actually makes me laugh.)    As a slow 6-foot-3 white guy, I was lucky to even stick around for one NBA season, much less 15. I had the “anti–Anthony Davis experience,” spending five full years in college (redshirting one season with a knee injury) before entering the NBA at 22. And maybe this wouldn’t be true for everyone, but for me, those five years at Arizona were the most important of my life. My teammates from those Wildcat teams remain my best friends to this day. Our loss in the Final Four during my senior year in 1988 remains the single most disappointing game of my life — but one that motivated me for the rest of my career. The collective value of the experiences we   shared — every tough practice, every difficult loss, every euphoric win, even those times on the bus or the plane — created a bond between us that will live forever. And the education we received from our coach, Lute Olson, had an immeasurable effect on all of us. He was a teacher, father figure, and mentor; without his influence, the last 25 years of my life just wouldn’t have turned out the same.”

On the other hand, I see Kerr’s points about the AAU system and the mentoring that is possible under the right college coach.

Q. What do you think of the age-limit-debate?  What possible solutions do you see?  

Jack: I’m not a fan of the age limit, but if it has to exist I would like to see the NBA devote more resources to the NBDL so that that could be a viable option for top talent, as you suggest. I feel like the really morally bankrupt quantity in all this is the NCAA. They’re the multi-billion-dollar industry extracting unpaid labor from young people, and while the age limit is technically the NBA’s domain there’s absolutely a you-scratch-my-back relationship between the two. I think that AAU is terrible for a lot of the reasons you mention—it’s corrupt, exploitative, unregulated—but I think it exists as such because of the dishonest and predatory notion of “amateurism” that the NCAA uses to prop up its own exploitation. In the past several years I’ve found John Calipari to be the most admirable big-time coach in college ball, because he’s the one guy who’s up front about the fact that his goal is to get guys to the NBA as quickly as possible. I believe he’s gone on record as saying that getting five guys drafted into the first round would mean more to him than a national title, and if he’s telling the truth I think there’s something admirable about that. It’s putting kids in the best position to succeed, which is what college is supposed to do, and which the NCAA really doesn’t do.

*** 

Q. On a somewhat broader note, what are your favorite sports-related books, authors, publications, or sites? Where do you go for intelligent sports commentary that goes beyond the numbers?

Jack: I feel like all my answers to this will be pretty boring. I like Grantland a lot and think the level of writing and commentary there is remarkably high. Zach Lowe is about as good as it gets basketball-wise, and I’ll read people like Charlie Pierce and Chris Ryan write about absolutely anything. I also like Sports Illustrated for the most part, and ESPN the Magazine has done some great stuff recently; that profile of Britney Griner a few issues back was just incredible. I love the Slate “Hang Up and Listen” podcast and listen to it religiously. The Classical was started by a number of friends of mine and continues to evolve in really cool directions. In terms of books, I always cite Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights as the best sports book I’ve ever read; it’s such a complete look at a community. Like any great cultural criticism I think the best sportswriting finds a way to transcend its subject and get at something bigger.
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Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index in an attempt to broaden the conversation on the NBA, the dominant narratives surrounding sports culture, and to highlight the great work that is being done in sports journalism today.  Twitter @darkoindex.com

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