Pause and Think

Roy Hibbert said a wrong, dumb thing after Game Six. He also said it in the wrong place.
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There’s a moment in the movie Manhattan when Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, is arguing with his TV show co-workers about a bit that isn’t working. I'll leave the hems and haws and um's and eh's in there for enhanced Woody Allen flavor.

IKE: What…what has the-what has the censor got to do with it? It's empty. There's not, uh, there's not, uh, uh, any substance to the comedy.

PAUL: No, no, you don't find this insightful here?

IKE: Well, it's worse than not insightful. It's not funny. There's not-there's not a legitimate laugh in that.

DICK: (Pointing to the monitor) Oh, it's- That's funny. That's funny! Funny.

IKE: Why do you think that it's funny?

PAUL(Gesturing) Look at the audience.

IKE: There's not a-

DICK(Interrupts, pointing to the audience below the control booth)  Look at-look at the audience there.

IKE: (Listening to the audience laughter coming from the monitor) You're going by the-you're going by audience reaction to this? I mean, this is an audience that's raised on television. Their-their standards have been systematically lowered over the years. You know, these guys sit in front of their sets and the-the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out. Uh, you know, um, ya, I'm- I quit.

I couldn’t help but flash to that scene Saturday night at the moment when Roy Hibbert—who has been nigh-unstoppable in the series and Bart Scott-ishly intense in interviews—decided to go off script at the post-game press conference. At times, what he said was pointed and insightful; at others it was revealing, though probably not remotely in the manner intended. But like the joke that Woody was railing against, it also was not at all funny.

Hibbert began by railing against his perceived failures on the part of the national sporting press to recognize his achievements on defense, which—extreme compound profanity included—actually qualifies as safer ground than where he would go.

You know what, ’cause y’all motherfuckers don’t watch us play throughout the year, to tell you the truth. All right? So, that’s fine. Ya know. I’mma be real with you. And I don’t care if I get fined. All right? Because, you know what, we play, we’re not on TV all the time, and reporters are the ones that are voting. And, it is what it is. If I don’t make it, that’s fine.”

All well and good and, colorful choice of language notwithstanding, he’s not entirely wrong. If this postseason has proven anything, it’s that Hibbert uses every inch of his 7-2 frame to great effect as a deterrent at the rim and that his skills merited a spot higher than tenth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. His evisceration of Carmelo Anthony was the defining moment of Indiana’s dispatching of the Knicks; the degree to which he’s compelled the unstoppable force known as LeBron James into launching Chris Paul-esque floaters is nothing if not impressive. The Pacers indeed were not on national TV a lot, and awards tend to lag behind reality. The narrative that Hibbert is a dominant defender will certainly result in some shiny prizes this time next year.

If he’d stopped there, we’d probably be having a lovely conversation about the inherent biases players from small-market teams face. Unfortunately, he didn’t. So now we're talking about what came next.

The moment of offhand idiocy that cost Hibbert $75,000 and incalculable respect came in another fairly insightful bit of basketball talk, this time on the impressive synergy between the Pacers bigs and wings in throttling James and the rest of his South Beach cohorts. And then:

“I really felt that I let Paul down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting to the paint, because they stretched me out so much — no homo.”

So.

***

The gist of the "no homo" thing—and its less outwardly objectionable cousin "pause"—is an acknowledgement and disclaimer of innuendo. You take a rather innocuous comment not intended to have a sexual/homoerotic context, such as Hibbert’s “stretched out,” then drop in the "no homo" or "pause" to 1) acknowledge the unintended double-entendre and 2) highlight the unimpeachable heterosexuality of the teller, who is so hetero that he could never have considered the sexual connotation he just acknowledged dropping into the sentence.

On Sunday, Hibbert apologized—actually apologized, not the usual “I misspoke”/"if anyone was offended" falderal, both for his Agnew-style railing against the nattering nabobs in the media and the casual anti-gay bit. The NBA still came down with a $75,000 fine, a number in line with the six-figure penalties that Joakim Noah and Kobe Bryant incurred for similarly offensive statements.

What Hibbert said wasn’t funny or even clever; it was offensive and ignorant, and it was without a doubt the sort of thing worth apologizing for. But the strangest part may be that he said it at a press conference, a setting that, in sports and pretty much every other corner of society in which it appears, is defined by canned, pre-planned pointlessness and a détente grounded in mutual disdain—one shared by the question-askers and question-answerers for the whole corny routine, as well as the usual distaste on each side for the other. And yet this, which everyone involves acknowledges is a desert where insight or import is concerned, is still a thing we do: endless slices of processed meat, meaningless answers to formulaic questions, over and over. The various zombie-eyed incantations of “Both Teams played hard,” the idiot surges of “Coach, coach, tell us about…/How does it feel to…” is all white noise, but it is constant.

If it's easy to bemoan how fatuous and un-illuminating all this is, it's also worth remembering that they're scripted and predictable for a reason. The lesson to speak always and only in cliché that Crash Davis gave to Nuke LaLoosh exists precisely to avoid the clusterfuck Hibbert made for himself by straying from the script.

Implicit in this dim routine is the assumption that fans do not want to know or understand our athletes (or politicians, or anyone choosing to hold a press conference) any better than this. The canned statements and the meaningless pabulum and the finely honed merchandising/marketing pitches crafted by agents, PR flacks and team officials are a defensive maneuver—you'll notice the word "homo" does not appear at all in the phrase "one game at a time"—but also part of a bigger brand gambit that redefines these players as hypoallergenic and pre-sanitized consumable economic units. You don’t buy the jersey of a human being with flaws and quirks, or at least quirks that wouldn't work when slapped onto a plastic 36-ounce Burger King glass. You buy the jersey of an übermensch. If said hero “Isn’t a role model” as Charles Barkley famously opined, that's part of his particular brand strategy. Barkley was right, but he was right in the context of an awfully clever Wieden & Kennedy Nike spot. They were selling the idea that he can’t or shouldn’t be marketed and sold—an anti-ad ad. For a sneaker.

What these superhumans are actually like—what sort of human beings they actually are, how they might behave outside of work—is something fans want to know. The urge to befriend or bully famous people we'll never meet is grounded in the (false) sense that we know what they're about, what they're like. So here's what Roy Hibbert is really like—a big jock who sometimes makes homophobic, unfunny jokes, and laughs at them. This doesn't mean Hibbert is a homophobe—I don’t know the guy, and I’m not going to use an off-color remark to slap a scarlet H on his chest. We’ve all made dumb jokes that we’ve later regretted. Luckily, we did all this off-camera. Luckily, the perception of you or I as a human being isn’t going to be based on extensive media scrutiny directed at our gaffes. No one really cares what we think enough to record it. Roy Hibbert is not so lucky.

***

The thing is, Hibbert is the kind of player who some smart ad exec would surely attempt to shoehorn into a different model. He pondered wearing monocle to a press conference during the series against the Knicks because he thought it would be funny. He did a (funny) three-episode run on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" as himself, because he’s a fan. He reportedly harangued Lorne Michaels himself to lobby for the part.

Maybe that’s where Hibbert went wrong. "Parks and Rec" is a scripted show that has the feel of an improvised one; this is because the professionals involved in it are funny, and good at their jobs. Hibbert seems to fancy himself a man of comedy, for better or worse, and there was in his ill-conceived, ill-excuted, ill-everything press conference performance a sort of curdled attempt at a riff. He tried to improvise in the least free-form setting imaginable, a place where humor and individuality and the unexpected are the last thing anyone wants to see.

You can see this in the clip. He chortles to himself afterwards, happy with what he thinks is a real hoot of a line; “in the moment,” as the saying goes. But that’s how improv comedy works. You can’t plan a joke, because it’ll bomb every time. It’s a quick twitch muscle, and developing it is why improv classes exist. When it works, it works. If it doesn’t… well, "Parks and Recreation" employs editors whose job it is to leave the clunkers on the cutting room floor. Press conferences don't have those. The reason press events are so dull and rote is that everyone involved is responding to that reality by editing themselves. Everyone except Roy Hibbert, apparently.

None of this should minimize what Hibbert said, which was scorchingly dumb and gratuitous. And there are real-world consequences to the casual bigotry he expressed, beyond the tempest-prone Sports Twitter teapot. If you harbor the delusion that all this is so much PC hand-wringing, head over to the nativist idiot farm and faux-outrage manufacturing facility Breitbart Sports and check the comments on their ‘reporting’ of the story. Actually, don’t, they don’t deserve the clickzzz. But here are some examples:

This entire alleged "controversy" is so gay!

Lets abolish the Department of HOMOsexuality? This PC crap has gone too far. Take me to the damn Lions before I accept your deviancy!!

Black men are no going out like white liberal homos The imaginary world of homosexuals being embraced that the liberals have created doesnt exist. outside of their heads.
They tried to go after children in schools to force instill them with homo logic while their young and susceptible. That never works. They tried it with drugs, smoking and booze, ..their efforts just increased the usage.

Of course, this is worse. But these are anonymous commenters on a website that exists as a safe space for the worst people in the nation to be awful together and punctuate poorly. No one is listening to them, no matter how loud they yell.

Fining Hibbert is an absolutely appropriate response; his apology seemed sincere, and this isn't a mistake he'll likely make again. It will take time for our society to evolve to a point where “No Homo” seems as dated, unfunny and backwards as 19th Century depictions of African Americans; with some fits and starts, it seems as if we may be moving in that direction, which is good.

The NBA’s fine won’t hasten that, naturally. When the change comes, we surely won't learn about it at a press conference. We're not supposed to learn anything from those. That's not what they're for. If Hibbert and his peers learned anything from this, it's probably that.


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