Scribes All Their Days: Unraveling the 10 Profoundest NBA Tattoos
Unless your outlook on life is relentlessly optimistic, it can be easy to watch basketball and dwell exclusively on the transient, impermanent nature of the professional game. Cautionary tales like the now-bankrupt Antoine Walker get the point across with haunting efficiency: even if you are the rare talent who can wrangle your own seven, eight, nine figures out of the game, the elevated ground you stand on will never be earthquake-proof. There is safety in having the sort of patient temperament that’s a job requirement for becoming a coaching type; otherwise the game will spit you out into middle-age as just another ol’ civilian, maybe or maybe not with a tall stack coolly sitting in your bank account.
Maybe it’s a subconscious attempt to undo the slow, inevitable defeat that Father Time delivers to each and every member of the NBA, or maybe it’s a mad dash after a no-longer-radical trend, but large swaths of the NBA population are generously covered in tattoos. In twenty years none of the players we watch daily, agog at their Newton-defying abilities to leave the Earth’s surface, will be playing professional basketball. Their ink, however, will remain with them. Twenty years from now we will have so many memories, fond or no, about their forays through the Association, and we’ll be able to thought-command our government-issue Google Glasses to pull up their stats on Basketball Reference. But these things are not tangible, they exist in a world half-virtual; they cannot be touched or felt like a winged, helmeted demon-spawn sprawled across your back can. As a grandfather merrily watching his grandchildren open Christmas presents in an icy Russian winter, Andrei Kirilenko will only care about basketball inasmuch as it is a portal to fond memories of his youthful days. Yet the demon-spawn will remain on his person well after he is, one day, lowered into his resting place. It only seems like basketball never stops–that many gallons of ink will truly never go away.
Some, like Earl Smith III, treat their bodies like a collagist’s canvas, 150 tattoos crowded, by the limits of bodily real estate, into a single, many-faced, multidimensional tattoo. While the practical implications of attaining so much body artwork boggles the outsider’s mind, tattoos like these don’t carry any deeper meaning beyond their wearer’s desire to lift two middle fingers up in the face of the world (and future employers) now and forever. A Biblical reference or an homage to friend or family surely carry layered significance for their owners, but for the third party viewer, tattoos of this category are rendered valueless by their rampant overinflation.
Fortunately there exists a quixotic middle ground, a class of players who have inked themselves sparingly but boldly. Players who oscillate between regret and mania upon acquiring a new piece. Somewhere in the middle of their vast, toned, constantly televised epidermis, these players have installed images, mantras that are too engrossing, awe-inspiring, and/or head-scratching to possibly ignore. As is required of their jobs, these players will, if the media would ever get interested in talking to them, spout out only the tritest of sporty cliches. But you can assuredly know that the authentic mentality of these persons is as rich and complex and beautiful as the most insightful of Shambhalan monks–they have indicated as much by the sheer headiness of what they have chosen to transcribe on their bodies for all days.
Here are the ten deepest tattoos currently inked into NBA bodies, ranked by least to most vexing for philosophers to confidently interpret. (Be warned: as you near the bottom of this list, there are tattoos that may escape reliable interpretation entirely.)
10. Drew Gooden, Free Agent – Dadaist Clock
The symbolism here should be readily apparent: with this tattoo, Gooden soundly posits that the passage of time should not be visualized as an even, unbroken circle, cycling through uninterrupted out to eternity. Rather, our time–and may basketball stand in here as an apt metaphor for all of life–is actively decaying; not flying out a window borne by little wings as often cartoonishly represented, but garishly and horribly melting into a useless puddle, never to be reconstructed. After being amnestied last summer by last-place Milwaukee, it’s all but guaranteed that all of Gooden’s time on the professional basketball court has finally dripped away into nothingness. What will remain forever unknown (save for public release of a transcription of Gooden’s therapy sessions [if he's into that sort of thing]) is if Gooden feels that his career was fortunate enough to outpace time’s perpetual melt–or if it was subsumed too early by that puddle that eventually catches us all.
9. C.J. Miles, Cleveland Cavaliers – The Serenity Prayer
Religion and tattoos are, by virtue of their shared permanence, inseparably married, and here we must give credit to the sort of player who doesn’t just get Biblical chapter-and-verse numbers inked in and then call it a day. Miles has gone and dipped into the written teachings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and reprinted an entire paragraph, the most iconic from Niebuhr’s archives, up and down his forearm. Seeing as Miles was an inefficient volume shooter when he joined the league at age 18, and remains one up to present day at age 26 (career 5.5 attempts from deep per 36 minutes, at a 34.3% success rate), this boldly visible reminder to adopt a gentle attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance adds a wonderfully zen dimension to one of history’s least-hyped high school phenoms.
8. Jameer Nelson, Orlando Magic – “All Eyes On Me“
Whenever this tattoo–which spreads across Nelson’s back from shoulder to shoulder–is visible, Nelson would have to have taken his jersey off–a time when all eyes are definitely not on him. So this tattoo is factually untrue. But let’s say that Nelson acquired this tattoo for its motivational tendencies, a constant reminder that his actions, on and off the court, are widely watched (maybe not by “all” eyes, but by quite a few) by family members, friends, and easily influenced youths out in the Orlando stands. But if Nelson got the tattoo as a reminder of his responsibilities as a public figure, why did he put it on his back?
7. Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City Thunder – “The Game Chose Me“
At first blush, Sefolosha’s ink seems entirely innocuous, another humdrum entry amongst the tritest of NBA tattoo cliches. But please note that, lurking just beneath the surface, this tattoo promotes the most mystical of worldviews. Giving credit to neither “the basketball gods” nor “God” Himself, Sefolosha envisions “The Game” as an entity (far broader than the mere “NBA”) with vision, volition, and tactile influence on our world. As the first-ever NBA player from Switzerland, Thabo’s unlikely and never-before-traveled geographical route from idyllic Vevey to the elite basketballing brotherhood in Oklahoma City must feel less like coincidence and more like providence delivered from elsewhere in the cosmos. What’s more, Sefolosha’s ink may give implicit head-nod to the rigorous and, as it often feels to us more earth-bound peoples, unfair genetic requirements that are necessary for potential NBA players. Sefolosha’s talents had nothing to do with him sprouting into an agile 6’7″ with the necessary wingspan to become an elite wing defender. Even within the womb, The Game seems to leave evidence of its influence.
6. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz – Jesus Has Possession
Favors presents a similarly theologically advanced (and/or problematic) tattoo: Jesus Christ cradling a basketball with two hands (as all the best rebounders do). Devoid of additional context, this tattoo could represent many scenarios, none more affirming than seeing this image as Jesus Christ, breaking through the clouds, bestowing the gift of basketball to all assembled below. Long after Favors leaves the professional hardwood, he will still see the game–not his rangy stature and his own participation in basketball, but the very existence of the game–as a gift.
5. Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves – Ostrog Monastery
While Pekovic has (understandably) achieved fame/infamy for the absolutely terrifying work on his left arm, I’ve moved on and now I’m more intrigued by a back piece that, for the life of me, I can’t find anywhere across these Internets, save for a brief, tantalizing, non-photographed mention in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Evidently, a representation of Montenegro’s astounding Ostrog Monastery can be found stretched across Pekovic’s back if he were to ever publicly disrobe. You can’t just stop by the monastery from Pekovic’s hometown of Bijelo Polje–a miniature pilgrimage is required (as to weed out the faithful from the merely curious). One can’t help but wonder about the frequency, length, and spiritual intensity and/or awakenings involved in Pekovic’s treks to Ostrog; but alas, if even a picture of the tattoo remains elusive, these factoids will probably never be available for the public record. At the same time, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a foggy shade of mystery to surround this mighty pilgrim.
4. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls - Poohdini
Evidently Derrick Rose‘s nickname, as a child, was Pooh. Which, even though we have seen Pooh Richardson, Pooh Jeter, and Boobie Gibson come through the league, is still totally insane. Rose’s tattoo increases the insanity exponentially: Harry Houdini was a dapper gent from the turn of the 20th century who used swallowed keys and a large lung capacity–not black magic, voodoo, or any other strain of wizardry or witchcraft–to accomplish his tremendous feats of escape. Poohdini looks like the exact opposite of Houdini, sharing no traits except for being male humans. Poohdini is haggard, gaunt, does not maintain basic hygienic upkeep, and his eyes blaze with an unholy fire not of this world. Since Harry Houdini is clearly not the inspiration for Poohdini, shown levitating a basketball between his crooked fingers, there remains a single explanation for why Poohdini looks as he does: this is how Derrick Rose envisions himself.
3. Kevin Seraphin, Washington Wizards – Seraph In Repose
Seraphin’s last name is derived from a creature described in Old Testament prophecies. But having a noun for a name is another thing entirely from getting that noun tattooed across your back. (You’ll have to blindly trust that there is not a giant “5280 FEET” in lime-green across your author’s own back.) Of significance: the anatomy of Seraphin’s seraph varies significantly from the anatomy of the seraphs of Scripture: “Above him were two seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” This opens the possibility that Seraphin’s tattoo is also in fact a self-portrait, a metaphorical one, suddenly imbibing the tattoo with rich meaning. Seraphin-as-seraph is isolated, elegant, mournful, levitating, damaged by the turns of this world’s harsh events but still primed, wings unfolded, to face the next day. Oh, but how little we still know about this player who came from a country that consists of not cities but settlements.
2. Amar’e Stoudemire, New York Knicks – Teardrop
Amar’e is not a wayward Chris Andersen, willfully throwing away any chance for a civil post-basketball life by inking all sorts of skin that no high collar could hide. Amar’e has a children’s book series, sponsorships; a future in media, if he wants it. His face is a marketable asset–not that anybody should ever lightly go about a facial tattoo, but Amar’e’s present and future are reasons enough for him to never let the needle venture towards visible flesh. But he did it, and, if this short clip is any indication, he is far from regretting the decision. From now ’till Amar’e is called home, at his kids’ birthday parties, at friends’ weddings, across the desk from a still-guffawing Ernie, Chuck, Kenny, and Shaq in 2025, across the table for a candlelit Valentine’s Day dinner…throughout all of these events and all of his life’s happiest moments, Amar’e will be brandishing this tattoo front and center to remind you that, at its core, his life is a tragedy, regardless of what may transpire on the basketball court. Not that things are going so great there, either.
1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs – The Jester
It’s long been public knowledge that Duncan indulges in the nerdier sides of life. As if a penchant for a certain role-playing board game were enough to explain the jagged, wild-eyed monster that populates the back of Duncan’s right shoulder. Is this the slightest of hints that all these years of straight-faced politeness and restraint have just been an advanced piece of performance art; the joke is on us? Or, most ghastly possibility of all, is this a tattoo in the vein of Rose/Poohdini, and this grim Jester is a representation of how Duncan observes his true self?