Why We Watch: Brook Lopez, Mr. Big

Brooklyn's Brook Lopez is supremely talented, and super low key, but only time will tell if he can continue to be both
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The sports media is filled with intelligent people and when the unexpected happens, when a prominent athlete reveals himself to be one of them, to be an actual intelligent person with interests stretching beyond the games that provide their paychecks, they inevitably begin poking this subject like a science class specimen. They’ll dig deep and reveal surprising hobbies -- Mike Mussina does the crossword puzzle every day -- or they’ll make the prodigy prove his smarts in really silly ways -- Did you know Alex Smith graduated high school with 64 Advanced Placement credits? For Stanford man Brook Lopez, this public vetting process brought to light a fondness for, among other trivial pursuits, Sex and the City.

Which works out for the elder Lopez twin, because as we all know -- in the manliest parts of our hearts -- all NBA lineups fit the Sex and the City personality model. In the Nets’ case, nonplussed point guard Deron Williams is obviously Miranda: a bit too good for the others, always the smartest in the room, but ultimately, too boring to carry the show. Kris Humphries is Charlotte -- adorable, and carrying the weight of a shattered dream marriage that left him in emotional shambles and America waiting anxiously for him to find true love (though probably not with a sweet, bald Jewish man). Running out of options, I’m going to guess that Samantha is Mirza Teletovic.

Then there’s Lopez. The Carrie. The thinking man’s man. The one with the unpublished novels, the comic books penned with his brother, and the unusual fashion sense.

This, in itself, does not make Lopez special. Ray Allen is so Carrie, he doesn’t even know it. As is Jalen Rose. What makes Lopez lovable is that he’s Carrie Bradshaw and he knows it.

Given Lopez’s personality, it’s not surprising. Just the fact that we even know that he, as they say, “got pretty into Sex and the City in college” is essential to the type of person he is. He freely admitted to watching the show, a proclamation stripped bare of macho postulating. There was no pretending that his Stanford nights were spent rapping in underground fight club dojos. Let the less fortunate worry about image. He is a man secure in his identity, doubly impressive considering that there’s another guy in the league who looks just like him.

He’s polite to women, a weird guy and a seemingly legitimate non-conformist. In short, Lopez is the perfect Big Dude, transcending race and falling into a group of likable tall people who can only be described as Muppet-esque -- making Jason Segal the prime example of the modern Big Dude phenomenon, which is presumably how he nabbed Michelle Williams. A Big Dude is the kind of baller you want your daughter to bring home: big enough to protect her, but with a demeanor more likely to end fights than start them. He knows with bigness comes certain responsibilities.

Also part of being a Big Dude is being yourself. There’s a reason Lopez doesn’t shoehorn his quirks into interviews, have a dyed-black beard, or wear a Superman cape. He hasn’t even tweeted since 2011. His is not a cultivated weirdness.

Hell, he doesn’t even have the poofiest afro in his family. Along with his nonchalant interviews, Lopez approaches the media in general with a certain earned aloofness: cut off, a giant in the land of the small. He’s also a twin and remains at his best when he has a more outwardly confident second player to play his weirdness off. Early in his career he had fellow gold coaster Ryan Anderson to handle the most banal of interview questions and escort him on trips to Disney’s California Adventure. If only for the YouTube videos, this partnership made the Nets fun for the first time since Jason Kidd threw alley-oops to Kenyon Martin.

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But after a few years in the swamp of obscurity that was New Jersey Nets basketball, Lopez now finds himself the longest-tenured player on a team that doesn’t want a history.

In his first four seasons he had four head coaches. He played on the worst Nets team ever, then watched Jay-Z leave the lottery without John Wall’s ticket. His point guard changed midseason. The team moved from East Rutherford to Newark and, finally, to Brooklyn. This was never a stable organization. Eventually even Chris Christie got pissed at them.

On the court, life was just as dysfunctional and although it started when the Nets traded draftmate Anderson after their mutual rookie season, it went beyond than that. Lopez was good in Year 2, upping his numbers across the board. He averaged 20 points for the first time in 2010-2011, but during this time, his rebounding plummeted from 8.6 to 6.0 per game. This wouldn’t be a problem, necessarily, if Lopez wasn’t supposed to be the Nets’ best Big ever, but he is. And after playing just five games last season some say he’s now their albatross.

Lopez apologists blame the decline on Humphries. And not just that Kris’s constant hustle led to drops in Brook’s rebound rate, but because Humphries, who doesn’t talk good, is incapable of assisting Lopez in the postgame media scrum, the way Anderson did.

But at this point, these are excuses we give because we like who Lopez is, and we want the fans in Brooklyn to see what we see in him.

And for that to happen, for basketball to work in Brooklyn this year, he’ll have to be more than an ideal Big Dude. He’ll have to be a Big Man.

They are on the surface almost opposing philosophies. The essence of a Big Dude is never wanting to be the center of attention, never consciously standing out. The Big Man does the opposite, playing a position literally called center. But the great ones balance it. At his best, Shaq was a master, and though he has often displayed a pettiness unbecoming of a Big Dude, we’ll chalk that up to too much time spent with Kobe Bryant.

Last month, Shaq said Lopez was a Top 3 NBA center, sort of. He said Robin Lopez was Top 2 and that Brook was the same person. (They’re identical twins, so if we’re going way back in time, he’s kind of right.) The Big Aristotle mostly philosophized that as a shot against Dwight Howard, a big man by most measures, except a heart two sizes too small. (That can be fixed. Look at the Grinch, or Shawn Marion). It’s a fascinating reminder that while these two giants were so closely linked over the past year, aside from their heights, they couldn’t be more differently flawed.

For Lopez, being big means something, but it doesn’t define him. He’s not playing small man mind games. Leave that stuff for Howard and Napoleon. It’s why Lopez gets things half right and why, secretly, Nets fans are happier with him. Because if you win with Brook Lopez, it means more. The dream is for Lopez to stay who he is, while embracing who he can be.

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Whether or not he can stay true to who he is, or if he has to make fundamental changes to his personality in order to succeed in the NBA, will be affected by the punctuated timeline the franchise finds itself in. The Nets, and their wild-and-crazy owner, stand before a dangerous crossroads. One avenue offers an express route to relevance in the greatest basketball city in the world, the other ends with a cliff, and an ensuing freefall into the abyss of NBA mediocrity. And that’s a lot of pressure for a guy named Brook, just trying to make it in the big city without losing himself.

As Brook channeling Sarah channeling Carrie might write: I don’t like this analogy. I can’t help but think that Brooklyn isn’t Sex in the City at all. I mean, the Knicks play on Broadway. Carmelo has a famous wife. Amare is a fashionista. Maybe Brooklyn isn’t a place at all, maybe Brooklyn is a state of mind where the team is an idea, no more than a cool logo and a line in a rap song.

But Brooklyn doesn’t feel that way. It was its own city until the turn of the 20th century and still is metaphorically (and at many times of the day, practically) far from Manhattan. I’ve heard they like it that way. Yet the Nets organization finds itself fielding a team devoid of personality in a borough teeming with it.

Sure one of the owners is a billionaire Russian playboy who does sweet jet-ski tricks, and another has a hot wife, but the novelty will wear off with boring stars. Barclays will become the place you go to see LeBron, Kobe, Durant and Beyonce. The black and white jerseys are badass, but they run the risk of making the Nets look like caterers there only to host the real NBA teams.

Ignore his E! Fake Hollywood Romance and the best description of Humphries is workmanlike. Williams pretty obviously was a Big Ten point guard and a Texas state wrestling champ. Everyone knows Joe Johnson’s genericness is what keeps him from deserving that contract.

Only Lopez, in all his nerd-tastic, Disney-loving, novel-writing, fanboy glory makes Brooklyn’s team feel like Brooklyn’s Team.

It’s hip to be square in the NBA. Lebron and D-Wade can reverse Steve Urkel’s cool machine all they want, they’ll never have Lopez’s cred. He’s the perfect face for the new Brooklyn franchise. Lopez liked that nerd stuff before it was cool.

The rest of us are waiting to be Brooklyn about it. We just want to say we liked Brook Lopez before he was Brooklyn’s Lopez.


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