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Monday Musings: Empathy and Fandom

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to feel connected to the players on our favorite team or those that we are “fans” of in our digital and social media age. We can follow along as Karl-Anthony Towns plays Call of Duty with Michael Phelps and Marshawn Lynch or keep up with each update on Andrew Wiggins’ hairstyle. However, there is a disconnect in terms of us, as fans, in recognizing that these players whose lives we sometimes avidly follow and root for are actualized people, with their own struggles and triumphs outside of the Basketball court.

Part of this issue is simply part of being a fan of any sort of celebrity, as the interaction is necessarily a one-way street. We project our ideas and thoughts onto them, how they are supposed to behave and act, and then have expectations that they will act accordingly. This is essentially what they are paid to do, to entertain us.

Another component is that we often see ourselves as armchair coaches and general managers, in which players are simply assets to be maximized. In the same manner, we live out these fantasies in games like NBA2K, where we can simulate years in an hour and endlessly move around players for our desired fit.

It takes the personal stories for us to take a step back and re-imagine this relationship, instead seeing players as human beings whose lives do not exist entirely for the sole purpose of playing basketball. Even though for some NBA players, like Kobe Bryant, there is only basketball, although that is also a dedicated image that has been created for the public as well.

But stories like the one on Ricky Rubio over the summer and his grief that he has been dealing with since the passing of his mother remind us that our projections are only tenuously connected to reality. It takes stories that report on the context that surrounds the players’ lives, the external circumstances that lead them down their road, such as this excellent piece last week on Justin Blackmon from The Ringer.

This context was examined in Jonathon Abrams’ recent book “Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, as he told the stories of the successes and failures of those who chose not to play college basketball and instead immediately jumped to the NBA. The singular question, which was never explicitly asked, is why there were some players who succeeded compared to those that did not? What separated Kevin Garnett from Lenny Cooke or Tyson Chandler from Eddy Curry?

There was no real answer to this divide as the myriad of complicating factors in each player’s life proved too much to fully examine and the stereotypical “foundations” of success, such as being raised by two-parent headed household, proved unconvincing as singular determining factors.

There were certainly situations, such as Kwame Brown, where the player’s personality and the context of the team which drafted him were going to always lead to problems. However, instead of revealing the variable that determined success or failure for these prep-to-pro NBA athletes, the book shaded the areas around the edge of these players’ lives and personalities. It made them three-dimensional rather than the cardboard cutouts that celebrities are often turned into.

As the season eventually comes, this will prove important to remember with our own Timberwolves. Jonathan Abrams’ book provided a reminder of just how drastically different and significant it is to be an extremely young player in the NBA and we, of course, have an extraordinarily young team. As much as we can see the young Timberwolves growing on the court, they are also growing as people, as young men, and so much of that will be happening off the court and out of our view.