In this “Why We Watch” series—a hagiographic taxonomy of the bizarre, the unique, and the awesome—a player like Daniel Gibson has no real place. He is, at this point in his already largely uninteresting career, barely even an NBA basketball player. This year is probably his last with the Cavaliers, his only NBA team and the be-giver to him of more than 20 million dollars. During this season he’ll play point guard a bit if both Kyrie Irving and Donald Sloan are hurt, and he’ll apply himself as an above-average-three-point-shooter/below-average-everything-else shooting guard if something slows the development of Dion Waiters.
He won’t do either of those things exceptionally well or unusually poorly, and he will almost certainly come down with a foot or toe or shoulder problem if too much is asked. He is, in his flat reliability, the anti-Delonte West, with whom he played for years. Gibson doesn’t generally create, approach the basket, or indulge any Delonte-ish outbursting. Except, perhaps, for once: something he said to Eddie House one night left Eddie House waiting outside the Cavalier locker room muttering “When that (expletive) turns the corner I'm putting my hands on him”. Gibson has played better and worse at different points in his career, but he has never played particularly uniquely or interestingly or more to the point well for an extended period of time. He is, however, notably adorable: Danny Ferry once said that he’s “got a great smile on the court." His nickname is “Boobie.” He tends towards interesting hair choices: images and logos shaved into the side of his head; periodic faux-hawks. For one year he lead the NBA in three point shooting percentage. In every other way he is more or less an average-ish nba player: competent, polite, Christian, and mute.
Except, of course, for one thing: he has his own reality show.
I’ve watched the first three episodes of BET's “Keyshia & Daniel: Family First”—I’m going with the ampersand here, although in the show logo it’s some sort of heart thing—and can safely report: Boobie Gibson is no Kris Humphries or Lamar Odom or even Doug Christie. He’s not a dope, or a fool, or a crazy person— I’m consistently at a loss trying to characterize Doug Christie, and that characterization maybe isn’t fair, but I'm stuck for anything else. The show's producers are making reality television, and so are constantly working to make his reality seem unstable, but Gibson is not married to anyone remotely chaotic as a Kardashian. Fan reactions like “What’s with Keyshia’s attitude” on the one hand, and “Boobie is a saint,” on the other, are about as far as it goes.
And so the episodes I’ve watched are shockingly unconflict-ridden. At the end of the third episode Keyshia’s birth-mother checks into rehab—she had logged a previous loud, bleak season on "Celebrity Rehab" some years ago—but before that we get almost nothing: some background on their relationship in episode one, their wedding in episodes two and three. And then Daniel sprains his ankle and needs surgery in episode three. Ankle surgery might be Gibson’s main conflict, but it’s not the show’s. In those first few episodes the conflict amounts to not much more than this: at the wedding rehearsal dinner Keyshia understandably complains about taking care of their baby when she’d rather be drinking with her family and friends. At which point Gibson suggests he should take the baby. Which he then does. End of conflict.
By contrast: the first line in the first episode of the fifth season of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" is “I’m bringing a stun-gun,” followed by a screeching woman kicking a guy in the groin. By 136 seconds in, pretty much everyone has smacked or grabbed or snatched a wig off everyone else. This is not Daniel Gibson's world.
Maybe Boobie Gibson isn’t worth consideration, and maybe—strong maybe, here—his television show isn’t worth watching. But when LeBron was still a Cavalier I thought about Boobie a lot. LeBron’s contending Cleveland team—the one that was swept by the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals—was as terrible as any contending team in history, almost improbably so in retrospect, and Gibson was integral to both that team and its secret mediocrity.
I don't imagine that it's particularly unusual for contending teams’ fans to look past their near-invincible, apparently invulnerable, and unquestionably bankable stars to the peripheries of their basketball team. The question we sweat over in October isn’t whether LeBron (or any star) can get us near the finals. It’s what will happen when he does: whether when the Spurs or Celtics or Magic somehow limit his superiority, and whether players like Boobie Gibson will come through this one time, somehow. The star will be the star will be the star: success (and ultimately failure) turns on the non-star, the human who somehow ended up playing next to the super-human, the Boobie. He's not important, until he suddenly and decisively is.
Daniel Gibson isn’t the star of "Keyshia & Daniel" either; Keyshia is. It’s her show, a follow-up to her last reality show, and its drama such as it exists at all is in her career and her mother’s addiction and the bizarrely unemotional landscape it has left her with; at one point Daniel cries at his grandmother’s grave; Keyshia responds by coolly brushing imaginary lint from his clothes. Boobie is, as one commentator said, “the rock;” he is the no-drama constant in a medium that demands drama. And so maybe Boobie is playing second banana again, just like he did for LeBron: he’s once again the regular guy in an un-regular situation, the human counterpoint to some affectless virtuoso, which is to say the stand-in for us. This is us as millionaire NBA player, yes, but closer to us than LeBron's flat brilliance or Keyshia Cole's wrung-out Keyshia Cole-ness.
Somewhere in here, then, is something to say about why we watch what we watch, and something about the NBA and reality television; about how we are all to a certain extent Boobie Gibson, about how we’re the humans expected to exist with the super-humans, about how the NBA is the reality TV of sports. But to say the NBA is the reality TV of sports maybe isn’t such a nasty thing to say. After all it’s a commonplace to say that the NBA is the major sport most oriented towards the individual athlete. Usually that refers to the marketing of its stars, who are more famous and often wealthier than other athletes; when used as a curmudgeonly pejorative—"It's just one on one, and why do they all have all those tattoos?"—it's a lazy sort of critique.
But there’s another way to look at it: Reality television is all about imagining ourselves into the drama, predicting or denying that we would act just that way in a similar situation. Usually the NBA is not that: most of why we watch is to watch the LeBrons of the league doing things we could never do. But sometimes we also watch to see ourselves, and it is impossible to see ourselves in LeBron. So we watch to see the Boobie Gibsons lurking, waiting around the perimeter with their less-than-spectacular talent. We wonder with them: if the ball somehow comes this way, whether players like Boobie Gibson might, for God's sake, this one time come through.
Illustration by Scott Henkle.