It didn't make sense, in retrospect, that the Portland Trail Blazers—who are, after all, a NBA team—had a porcelain-skinned child-man with a Hoover High haircut sitting on the end of their bench. It was strange because the kid, whoever he was, got to wear the team's baggy warm-ups, run through the layup lines, hand out high-fives as needed, and yet didn't actually seem to be a player on the team. He was easy not to notice for that reason, but easier to forget, for the very same reason, once the basketball itself got going; this was not all that important a mystery, all told. But it was also easy enough to solve: it turns out that only NBA players can sit on the bench. It also turns out that only NBA players get to wear matching, team-issued, triple-XL gear while doing so. And it further turns out that Luke Babbitt, the spindly kid high-fiving LaMarcus Aldridge from deep within those drape-y warm-ups, is indeed working as a professional basketball player.
Back in January, Babbitt hit a garbage-time three-pointer to push the Blazers over 100 points, which also meant that all Portland fans attending the game were eligible for a free Chalupa from Taco Bell. For that achievement, he briefly ascended to Trending Topic status on Twitter, which seemed a level of fame and obscure-ish niche befitting Luke Babbitt, Actual NBA Player. Asked about his snack-winning three, Babbitt boiled it all down to the essence of Why We Play The Game: "It feels good to give the fans free Taco Bell." He got it.
And that was great. Babbitt would sit on the bench, then sit on it some more. He'd get off the bench at the end of an already-decided game against some Sacramento Kings-ian opponent, drain a meaningless three, and win the fans a notionally edible miniature sleeping bag, filled with "Mexican"-style processed meat sludge. Which is not bad work if you can get it, and which was the work Luke Babbitt had in the NBA. It was fun that someone actually fit the description of "doe-eyed, nary-used, shaggily-coiffed Chalupa savior." Luke Babbitt being in the NBA made some people happy, in other words and for reasonable reasons, and the rest didn't really care either way.
Then the Blazers fired their coach and traded away half their team, entering a state of slow-motion mutiny-unto-collapse-unto-unabashed-tanking, and Babbitt started playing more. Which was interesting, given that he was—as mentioned above—Luke Babbitt, and that he has scored 131 points in his entire career. And then April Fool's Day happened, and this video became something that exists and Luke and the rest of us suddenly found ourselves someplace very strange.
Strange, as noted. And maybe also a little sad. This video is well done. For all his latter-day comedy nerd credibility, Weird Al is and remains Weird Al, which is to say that he is, depending on personal taste, sort-of-creepily hilarious or creepy-creepy full stop. And there are the exploding tacos, the water color fx, the looped clips of Babbitt trying to do what looks like "The Dougie." All ingredients of YouTube greatness, all in the right order, but still somehow off. After the video and his recent uptick in playing time—and thanks in part to a probably rational decision to shave his head—Babbitt will no longer be merely the Taco Bell Assassin we've come to know and love. He still looks like an assistant coach's giant companion on "Take Your Son To Work Day" who has wandered, unsupervised and in greater danger than he knows, out onto the court. He will sometimes play like that kid. But the illusion of him actually being that kid, though, is gone. The mystique, if that word fits whatever it was that Babbitt was before (and it mostly doesn't), is gone.
It’s assumed that every professional athlete player wants (or should want) to be a starter-or-something-more. It’s Joe Flacco saying that he’s the best quarterback in the NFL, when he’s really just Joe Flacco, a guy with a mustache who occasionally throws footballs for a team with a great defense. But Joe Flacco says this because, the thinking goes, you need to believe you’re the best in order to be any good. Otherwise you’re doomed to forever be the player you actually are. Whether or not totally over-inflated confidence is a good thing or a bad thing, and at the risk of settling too deeply into the plush comfort of the armchair-psychoanalyst, most professional athletes inevitably and quite reasonably want to be good at what they do. One: they’re human. Two: the better you are, the better compensated you are. Three: they wouldn't have made it to where they are if they were not, at some point, within hailing distance of actually being the best, in the state or region or county or on the court at one particular moment.
Whether or not he’s embraced it—and it certainly seems like he has—Brian Scalabrine would still probably rather be “Brian Scalabrine, Starting NBA Power Forward” instead of short-shorted pasty bench-end who makes everyone laugh because games don’t matter when he’s in. Or Rony Turiaf: best bench cheerleader with the biggest smile and the only post-2003 cornrows that make sense, or starting NBA center? He seems a well-adjusted dude, but it's doubtful he's quite adjusted to which half of that binary is and will remain his. If you’re striving to be someone who gets made fun of on the Internet and never really contributes anything beyond a few over-enthusiastic chest bumps and some questionable grooming decisions, then you won’t even get to be that guy on the Internet.
So, it’s no surprise that Babbitt isn’t cool with being a well-compensated baby-man and periodically getting ragged on by Neil Everett. “I don’t pay much attention to that stuff,” Babbitt said. “I didn’t pay attention when people said, ‘This guy (stinks),’ and I’m not paying attention to whatever they’re saying right now.” That’s all been said before, but it also doesn’t match up with the happy infant/raffle-winner-with-a-bench-spot he’d become. Under new coach Kaleb Canales, Babbit’s now in the Blazers’ rotation. He’ll probably get his contract picked up for next season. If he continues to play well, he could have a shot at a spot in the team's starting lineup. Thing is, he’s not half-bad, this erstwhile punchline. Which is sort of difficult to suddenly process, after all those #CHALUPA tweets.
Babbitt's the best free-throw shooter in the NBA, for instance. His field-goal percentage is over 47 percent, and he's hitting more than half his three-pointers, which is a berserk and patently unsustainable clip but impressive all the same. At the same time, he's only taken 10 free throws, 52 threes, and 83 field goals. It's only his second year, and he was touted, as a first-round pick out of Nevada, as some kind of Keith Van Horn/Chris Mullin hybrid-lite. There's a non-zero chance that Babbitt evolves into something beyond bowl-cut-cum-Internet-fodder, and that will be great for him and for Blazers fans and for those who like their perimeter-oriented bigs gangly and pale. But he'll never just be the Chalupa Bro, the rando who gets to hang out on the bench next to Pryzbilla, ever again. That innocent mystery is gone.
It's probably the way Luke Babbitt wants it, and it will be easy to cheer for him if he manages to shed his punchline status. But it will be easy to miss the old Luke, the one who was good for a laugh and a Chalupa. Luke Babbitt, for his part as a professional athlete with professional pride and his eyes on a long and lucrative career in the league, likely won't miss it at all. It was never really his joke, anyway.
Illustration by Maddison Bond