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Are These Warriors Less Manly?

The nice guys just finished first

Next time you see Jerry West’s silhouette slaloming past a phalanx of unseen defenders, in those outdated short shorts, try to imagine him in some stylishly form-fitting denim.

Because, believe it or not, there is a conversation out there about whether NBA basketball is now the domain of the “skinny jeans” sort of man.

In securing their second championship in three years, the Golden State Warriors supposedly represent the triumph of the skinny jeanification of the NBA. This is only a bad thing if you are of the knuckledragging school, preferring that the league remain a stronghold of toxic masculinity. As professional sports leagues go, it’s fair to think of the NFL as holding down the top spot in the Toxic Masculinity Power Rankings, but the NBA isn’t far behind. The telltale slang is everywhere: when a team’s play is ineffectual, coaches call players “soft.” If it’s unclear which player is a team’s emotional leader, we wonder who the “alpha” is. Having the poise and tenacity to put a game out of reach in the fourth quarter is all about “killer instinct.” Actor, podcaster, and sports gasbag Michael Rapaport used the term skinny jeanification in an April appearance on Colin Cowherd’s Fox Sports show “The Herd” as a derisive way of characterizing the league’s current climate. It seemed to be coming from a “back when men were men” nostalgia.

Going 16-1 in the NBA playoffs is a good measure of team fortitude. Maybe fortitude has a new look.

It’s telling that Rapaport and other talking heads like Cowherd use slim-fit pants as the operative metonym for the NBA’s supposed decline. Cowherd even invokes skinny jeans as something closely linked with “the ‘burbs”, the implication being that players willing to wear tight-fitting pants hail from less than hardscrabble backgrounds, and consequently hoop in a fashion that lacks the grit and toughness of previous eras. Real manhood is inflexibly conjoined with a particular style of hard-nosed play. The Golden State Warriors get dragged into it because, according to Cowherd, Rapaport, and others, to rely upon a finesse game is to play like a girl. (Given the robustness of the WNBA, it’s clear that “playing like a girl” is a nonsense expression anyway.)

The Jerry West-ish NBA logo. / Michael Tipton

Then, there’s the clumsy attempt to connect challenging upbringings with athletic virility. Some of basketball’s most ruthless competitors, including Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan,­ were reared in two-parent, middle-class homes. And let’s not overlook the regressive notion that the width of a pant leg means something. Skinny jeans, like safe spaces and participation trophies, are canards of choice, often used by Baby Boomers taking aim at a supposed lack of fortitude in their Millennial successors. It should never have mattered whether the 2017 Golden State Warriors have a reputation as decent guys. After Monday night, they have nothing to prove. Going 16-1 in the NBA playoffs is just about the sturdiest objective measure of team fortitude in league history. Fortitude has a new face.

Even Golden State’s hokey T-shirt slogan “strength in numbers” hints at something our rugged individualists might feel nervous about: an ethos of a collectivist, ball-sharing offense. The detractors, for a while, tried to pin an “out for himself” label on the Warrior’s superstar, Kevin Durant. And, Durant’s decision last year to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to go with a better team was controversial—especially in Oklahoma.

But Durant’s free-agency choice was an intuitive one, in that it paired him with his most philosophically compatible peer, Stephen Curry, an all-time scorer whose individual gifts are uniquely complementary to the similarly unselfish players around him. His virtually unparalleled three-point shooting ability gets the headlines, but Curry has led the NBA in plus-minus stats (how well the team does when he’s on the court) for three consecutive years. Durant’s calculus in joining Golden State is consistent with Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka’s famous phrase: “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” That is, the aggregate might of a team is not merely the cumulative talents of its individual players, but how those talents cohere on the court. It’s reflective of the peculiar and often illogical demands incumbent upon professional athletes that Durant has hardly been lauded for his cunning. Instead NBA pundits have generally suggested that a brutish insistence on remaining with a team less conducive to his skill set would somehow show more manliness.

Three years ago Kevin Durant spearheaded an ad campaign centered on the slogan “Strong and Kind.”

When Durant made his decision to leave Oklahoma last summer, critics dug through his ancient tweets in search of hypocrisy. Some fixated on a tweet from July 16, 2010, in which Durant muses “Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!” But KD isn’t defined by one offhand utterance from when he was twenty-one years old—and a completely different collective bargaining agreement reigned. Durant’s long-time Twitter bio, on the other hand, is probably the pithiest articulation of his operating principle: “I’m me, I do me, and I chill.” On its face, that’s not the most controversial statement, but coming from a generational talent, it’s a clue that he isn’t beholden to the iso superhero pigeonhole the basketball media imposes upon him. When juxtaposed with the maniacal competitiveness and storied work ethic of an icon like Bryant, the self-admitted inclination to chill might be seen as evidence that Durant lacks the right stuff. But KD has always been operating according to a map of his own devising. Three years ago he spearheaded an ad campaign centered on the slogan “Strong and Kind” that was specifically designed to counter the perception that nice guys finish last. When his short-lived Slim Reaper handle picked up steam, Durant supplied an alternative he found more fitting: The Servant. This is a guy who couldn’t bench press 185 pounds one time at the 2007 NBA Draft Combine, but still walked away confident he was the best player in his class. Now, as a self-actualized NBA champion at last, he could be the player who best personifies philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that “talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”

During Hall of Fame combo guard Allen Iverson’s peak years, he was credited with ushering in a new era in the culture of the NBA. With his trademark cornrows, arm sleeves, tattoos, and Napoleonic swagger, he precipitated the stylistic change that then-league Commissioner David Stern scrambled to curtail by implementing a mandatory dress code. Though Iverson is often framed as an insurgent, his was a symbolism that the American public was in many ways predisposed to fall in love with. As a six-foot-tall 160-pound guard gifted enough to neutralize the natural advantages of the league’s leviathans, Iverson’s game was a visual metaphor for the bootstraps narrative. It also didn’t hurt that Iverson is closely associated with hip hop music, a cultural phenomenon that has outgrown its urban birth place to become as quintessentially American as gun worship. Basketball is a team sport, but NBA popularity is generally driven by the charisma of individual players. In a five-on-five game there are limits to how much impact a single player can have on winning and losing, so our reverence for individual players is more often determined by that player’s aura than his quantifiable skill. Statistics might have one believe that Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan are comparably accomplished NBA legends, but Bryant’s jersey sales will outpace Duncan’s until the end of time. It’s not just that basketball fans give points for panache; the rubric by which we assign players style bonuses is deeply individualistic and puts a premium on machismo.

The regular season coronation of Durant’s former running mate Russell Westbrook is a testament to this. While the likely 2017 NBA MVP became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple double (with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game), Westbrook’s team finished the regular season as a sixth seed before being unceremoniously dismissed from the playoffs in five games. Fan narratives about the divorced All-Star duo, Durant and Westbrook, generally favored the prickly and introverted Westbrook, whose determination to “do it on his own” made him more manly and thus more admirable than the superstar teammate who abandoned him. Such narratives feminized Durant, whose shrewd departure for golder pastures was framed as a selection of flight over fight. The preponderance of #TeamWestbrook riders suggests that when you pit Americans’ obsession with winning against their obsession with the bootstrap ethos, the latter prevails in the short term. But if Golden State’s victory proves to be the beginning of a multiple championship run, those allegiances might reverse. And would it be so bad if the dominant models of masculinity start to recognize collective effort, decency, and even “niceness”? Or if the youngsters who look up to ballplayers learn that you can be you, do you, and chill your way to championships?

There’s talk that some of the Warriors have little interest in a celebratory visit to the White House. Golden State coach Steve Kerr is on record saying the occupant there is “a blowhard” who is “ill-suited to be president.” With any luck, maybe they can skinny jeanify the presidency next.