Thursday, January 12, 2006

Larry and Adam, and Malcolm Gladwell

This morning I read a very interesting piece by pop culture guru Chuck Klosterman on ESPN's Page 2 discussing Larry Bird and Gonzaga star Adam Morrison, who currently leads the US NCAA in scoring and is drawing comparisons to the legend because of their awkward jumpers, their wispy mustaches, and because of the fact that both of them are white.

Bird and Morrison

Aging American white people have been waiting for another Larry Bird in the same way aging hippies have been waiting for another Bob Dylan, but nobody ever gets what he or she wants: Tom Gugliotta ended up being Beck; Keith Van Horn turned out to be Conor Oberst; Mike Dunleavy is probably Ryan Adams. But Adam Morrison -- at least on the collegiate level -- is closer to Larry than Robert Zimmerman was to the Wallflowers: He moves like Bird, shoots with the same kind of range and release, and displays an identical offensive mentality. He is confident and performs well under pressure. He doesn't pass as deftly (or as often) as Bird, and he doesn't rebound as aggressively (or as often) as Bird, but he has the same body frame and an analogous mustache. Gonzaga is a small school from a second-tier conference, just like Indiana State. These men are not clones, but they share important, undeniable qualities.

Klosterman delves deeper into his comparison by talking to a couple of sources: Ryan Jones, editor-in-chief of Slam Magazine (which I read rather regularly), and New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell, most famous for his book The Tipping Point (and previously unread by me). Jones points out the laziness of media types when comparing Bird to other tallish white guys in the league, while Gladwell talks about the psychological reasons why we keep doing so:

We ignore aspects of someone's achievement that contradict the stereotype. Hence the 'White Gunner' -- a type of player we struggle with because he is white yet simultaneously embodies all the stereotypes we've reserved for blacks. Tom Chambers is the White Gunner poster child. Rex Chapman was another example.


In basketball, the 'face' we're familiar with is black. We code black players by feature, so we can make endlessly subtle distinctions between players: There is a David Thompson 'type,' which is quite unlike a Grant Hill 'type,' which, in turn, is quite unlike a Gary Payton 'type.' But I think we code white players by category. They are simply 'white,' and we don't make the same kind of sophisticated distinctions among them. So we miss the 'White Gunner.'

I was kind of surprised by how familiar Gladwell was with all these players, which is pretty cool. It led me to check out some of his stuff, and I ended up reading this very, very interesting piece from the New Yorker about Harvard (and Ivy League) admission processes. I'll probably go back to reading the rest of his old stuff.


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