Tough All Over
Another sad entry was scratched into the chronicle of Michael Beasley last week when he was stopped by police in the early morning hours and marijuana was found in his car. I now need two hands to count the number of public incidents that involve Beasley and pot and it would be naive in the extreme to assume that these represented the entirety of his illegal indiscretions. As these incidents have piled up his performance on the court has been slowly circling the toilet bowl. His field goal percentage has declined, and his turnover percentage has increased, every season he’s been in the league. With this summer arrest coming on the heels of a thoroughly lackluster campaign in Phoenix, he seems dangerously close to playing his way out of the league.
Any description of Beasley’s struggles on the court will probably center around issues like his apathetic defense, passive rebounding, lazy offensive execution and questionable decision-making in the shot selection department. There can be no arguments about his talent, the problem has been in the implementation. I find it ironic that every piece of that description – apathy, passivity, laziness, questionable decision-making, unrealized potential – overlap perfectly with the most common stereotypes of pot-smokers. I don’t think anyone is comfortable drawing a straight line between marijuana and his inability to make a dent in the NBA, but the fact that he plays with all the awareness and intensity of Kelso from That 70′s Show makes it hard to separate the two. With that stereotype in hand it’s easy to watch him launch another contested twenty-footer and dismiss Beasley as a burnout, burning out.
But there are variations on the pot-smoking stereotype. Just contrast how Beasley’s relationship with marijuana is treated differently from someone like Joakim Noah. While his rap sheet is much shorter than Beasley’s, Noah was arrested for marijuana possession after his rookie season in 2008 and was photographed perusing the wares at a local head shop in 2010. But he is the on-court antithesis to Beasley – bubbling over with intensity and using intelligence and effort to squeeze every last bit of production out of his talent. His public intersections with marijuana are not then viewed as a lack of self-control with the potential to leak out onto the basketball court, they are quite easily and comfortably nested under the domain of his worldly, educated, hipster, renaissance-man persona.
There’s a third common fable as well, built on the career and life arcs of players like Zach Randolph and Lamar Odom. Both struggled to live up to expectations early in their careers, promoting the same brand of passive, disorganized, self-serving basketball that characterizes Beasley’s game. Alongside those disastrous early campaigns there were arrests and failed drug tests. But each ultimately found NBA success by making significant changes to their on-court approach, changes which coincided with a lack of police interaction and publicly reported drug crimes. The theory is that they grew up, stopped smoking, stopped messing around, and began to man up on the basketball court. But it also seems entirely plausible that they realized discretion was the better part of valor. When you consider the fact that Randolph has continued to be linked, indirectly, with unsavory characters and events, it seems less likely that parting a cloud of marijuana smoke in front of his eyes somehow helped him recognize what a good shot was. They’ve stopped getting in trouble and started making positive contributions and, because of the power of stereotypes, the implied absence of marijuana happily steps in to sketch out a pathway between the two.
Narrative is a powerful force of nature. Mainstream media, and other fringe outlets, constantly find themselves scrambling to interpret and frame new pieces of information. There isn’t always time to acknowledge and develop nuance, so stereotypes and generalizations provide a handy short-cut to incorporating the newest events. I don’t mean to sound high and mighty. I’ve been guilty of massaging a narrative or two to make it suit my purposes, shaving down square pegs to make them fit through round holes. But in Beasley’s case co-mingling marijuana and his on-court inadequacies obscures the real problem.
I don’t mean this as way of apology for his choices or behavior, but smoking pot is not the root of Beasley’s problems. Neither is his love affair with contested, off-the-dribble jump shots. Both are symptoms of some deeper issues. I don’t know the man well enough to make any responsible guesses about what those issues are, but I feel comfortable stating that they exist. There is some other underlying situation, organic or otherwise, in which Beasley is struggling. The feeling of danger and impending destruction that comes with Beasley’s marijuana use feels so much more tangible because he already appears to be overwhelmed by so many other pieces of his life. For Joakim Noah or Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur (who were kicked out of the NBA’s rookie problem as part of the same incident as Beasley) to be smoking pot feels more harmless because their personal situations appear to be so much more stable.
Beasley’s career now appears to be at a crossroads, a spiderweb of different paths arrayed in front of him. He could stop smoking off the court and start smoking on the court, reinventing himself as a ferociously focused small-ball power forward and establishing himself as a fundamental pillar of the Suns’ rebuild. Or, in an outrageously isolated display of principle he could refuse to change anything about himself and flame-out, Isaiah Rider-style. He could also work a happy Lamar Odom mid-range, avoiding appearances on the local news crime report and shaking just enough of the passivity from his game to become a useful contributor on a good team. But those are not choices, they’re narratives, stories that have been written so often they border on parable.
Beasley is clearly a man with problems, many of his own making, a fact which makes him entirely typical and utterly unremarkable when it comes to human civilization. His problems appear to border on the more severe end of the spectrum, but he also happens to play professional sports which means his choices are subject to the inflation and distortion of millions of retellings. But, in the end Michael Beasley has to live his actual life, outside the confines of any narratives constructed by the basketball media. With that challenge, I wish him well.