The Warriors and Masculinity

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors Practice

I wrote this earlier in the regular season for a different blog on basketball but I'm moving it here because it's still relevant, particularly in the wake of the Warriors winning the 2016-2017 NBA title. One of the chief criticisms you hear about the Golden State Warriors from basketball traditionalists like Charles Barkley is that they play "girly" basketball. Because much of why they're successful is predicated on making jump shots, ball and player movement, and a premium placed on intelligence rather than brute physical strength. Though you hear this point of view being articulated by many different people, especially older players from eras that did not feature as wide-open of offenses as we see today, Barkley is perhaps the best and most well-known representative of this line of thinking, owing to the fact that so much of what made Barkley such a great player is contrary to this style of play. This seems very foolish to me for two big reasons and I believe that both of them have to do with the persistence of traditional conceptions of masculinity. Masculinity is at the heart of most professional sports as the players are seen as being prototypical men, the epitome of what it means to be a man. Those notions of masculinity have changed in the culture at large and we've moved slightly away from those constructs that defined masculinity so rigidly and turned it into a prison or straight jacket for those who could not or did not conform. However, they have not changed within the world of professional sports and a league like the NBA. I believe that the persistence of these reductive and oversimplified notions of masculinity that persist amongst many NBA commentators and pundits, particularly those of an earlier era, colors much of how they see the Warriors and their players, particularly the newest addition, Kevin Durant.

The first of these things have to do with very practical, on the court matters. What you hear from those who rebuke the Warriors is that their style of play does not lead to intimidation of other teams the way that other teams can do. They don't strike that fear in the heart of the opposing that a team with a dominating, physical inside presence would. They lean too much on the light things-- jump shots, passing, three pointers-- to be "tough" enough to really scare an opponent. That line of thinking holds no water in my mind. While there is something to be said for the bruising, physical style of play and the mental edge it can give you over an opponent if they know that's what they're in for, that's not the only way to engage in psychological warfare on a basketball court. There's also something terrifying about an offense that can go from a small lead (or even a deficit) to a twenty point lead in the blink of an eye. The swiftness and immediacy with which Steph Curry can start making open three pointers, contested three pointers, and threes taken from just over the half court line, would put the fear into me if I were an opponent. In sports, the "thunder," the loud and booming, is appreciated far more than the "lighting," the quick strike, and I don't think that should be the case.

This is something that does relate back to our notions of masculinity, particularly in athletics. Because the court is this very masculine space, the gladiatorial arena, we assume that to be good at it you must embody these masculine characteristics (at least masculine as we've conceived of it in the pasts). Those masculine traits manifest themselves on the court as brute physicality and strength, whether a bruising post presence like the Grit 'n' Grind Memphis Grizzlies or LeBron's power from the SF position. The Warriors, because they are led by players who excel due to skill, work ethic, and practice rather than pure physical ability, don't seem as "tough" or "manly" as those other teams. Being skilled or working hard is not as closely associated with the kind of masculinity that persists in the NBA (and professional sports) as raw physical strength. Steph, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are all non-traditional in their own ways and defy our expectations what a basketball player should be and how they should play. For some who watch and talk about the game, they can't handle having their expectations and assumptions challenged and thus they feel as though they must denigrate the Warriors and what they do.

The second Kevin Durant was much maligned when he decided to come to play for the Warriors with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, as the talking heads and former players from prior eras lined up to accuse him of being soft, for taking the easy way out, for giving up by choosing to sign with the defending Western Conference champions Golden State Warriors. Durant made a point of noting how they came to meet with him in the Hamptons together, as a team, and that there was clearly a relationship, a friendship, that existed between the players. This wasn't the only time that this idea has been broached, from the Warriors' famous group text to the things that head coach Steve Kerr has emphasized in his tenure as the man in charge, but it brought it to the forefront. But in the eyes of so many, shall we call them, NBA traditionalists, KD choosing to play in an environment that emphasizes friendship and with the friends he'd made (he'd become friends with Draymond, Steph, and Andre over the past couple of years) was him being not tough. He was soft, he was taking the easy way out, and saying that you wanted to play in a different environment in a location that's appealing to you (there are many more non-basketball opportunities in the Bay Area, something that is of interest to Durant) and be with people you're friends with and become close with, none of that was an acceptable justification.

At its heart, there is this return to a more traditional way of things, especially masculinity and what men do. Saying that friendships are important, that relationships are important, that leading a fulfilling life beyond your work, these things are not done by "real" men. They shouldn't be concerned at all with being happy or having fun or feeling satisfied. This thinking is another one that's indicative of a bygone era and does not reflect how much more we understand now about life and what is important and what actually makes someone happy. Kevin Durant made a choice to do something different, to enter into something with people he really enjoys playing with on the court and being with off the court, to do what he wanted to do and what was going to make him happy. Yes he could have stayed in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and they could have won a championship or two, but there would not be the satisfaction that KD sought beyond/off of the basketball court. Also, the move made basketball sense too as the Warriors are probably the team best designed to most fully utilize KD's specific skills and talents. So Kevin Durant made a smart basketball decision and a decision that was going to make him happy and get to live the life he wanted, and yet somehow that is bad or wrong? Those who take that attitude are stuck in the past and need to, quite frankly, get with the times both in terms of how the game is played on the court as well as how the players live off the court.

I really love this current Golden State Warriors team. OK it helps that they're amongst the best teams in the league, have set numerous records, won a championship, and play an incredibly fun brand of basketball. But one thing I especially love about them is that they are bucking these more traditional notions of what's important and instead reflect what really matters.  Kerr has placed a premium on joy, on having fun (within reason) on the court, and the members of the team value the relationships they have with their teammates and seem to genuinely care about one another. In that regard, they are great role models for young men, and for all of us, regarding how to act and approach life. They're showing us that these more traditional and conservative conceptions of masculinity and what it means to be "manly" or "strong" are incredibly flawed and should be modified. They're showing us what's really important.