If there’s a central theme of Eating the Dinosaur, it’s this: public opinion is a motherfucker. Once people decide who you are, what you are, what your brand represents, it’s almost impossible to get out from under your assigned narrative. (Unless of course you can write yourself a second-act redemption, à la Drew Barrymore or Robert Downey, Jr.) And as we’ve seen from the tragic examples of David Koresh and Kurt Cobain, defying your public image can actually be deadly.
As much as we deride the idea of “branding” and being “brand-conscious,” our relationship with our culture is symbolically mediated via branding to an extent most people — or at least people who like to think of themselves as objective judges of things and/or people — would hate to admit.
The classic example, of course, is wine. Every so often there’s a story about how the “so-called wine experts” can’t actually tell the difference, in blind tastings, between red and white wine, or cheap wine from the expensive stuff. 1 These stories reveal that the experience of wine is primarily subjective and symbol-driven. “Red wine” and “white wine” each represent an array of qualities and associations that may or may not have anything to do with the actual liquid sitting in front of you. A wine presented to you as a Bordeaux will prime your expectations in a different way from one billed as Australian. 2
I’ve always thought it would be interesting if music critics were required to evaluate new music without knowing the names of either the artists or the albums. At least a third of any given album review will consist of an appraisal of a band’s career to date. The last five R.E.M. albums, for example, could never be anything but uniformly mediocre, because drummer Bill Berry retired to become a hay farmer, thus crippling the band creatively. No review of any post-Berry R.E.M. album failed to view the album’s music through the “declining years of a once-great band” filter.
Any of those albums, presented as the premiere release of a shiny new band, might be praised as a “promising debut” (albeit one that was highly derivative of R.E.M.) Rock album reviews are never objective, because the sound is never (and possibly cannot be) judged strictly on its own merits. The music is never not measured according to the artist’s previous output and overall career arc, which, along with whatever narratives accrete onto their personal life, comprise that artist’s identity. 3
Ralph Sampson was the worst thing an athlete can be: Ralph Sampson was a bust. And though I know why that happened and I know why it’s true, I struggle with what that means. It seems to exemplify the saddest thing about sports and culture.
Let me state up front that I have minimal interest in any form of sports as a spectator activity. I can and have enjoyed attending sporting events in person, but, much like fishing, it’s not so much for the featured activity itself as for the accompanying food and alcoholic beverage. I feel that watching sports — and not only watching sports, but memorizing sports statistics, and tracking and discussing the histories and attributes of individual sports teams and athletes — is fundamentally a waste of time. (I say this in full recognition of the fact that most of the things I enjoy and spend time on would probably be considered a waste of time by most sports fans.)
This goes for football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and pretty much anything else you see discussed emphatically on TV in garish high-def by unhealthy-looking middle-aged men, to the strains of ostentatious music played on brass instruments or Top 40 country songs sung with exaggerated rural accents.
For this reason, I find the two sports-based essays in this collection (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Ralph Sampson” and the comparatively concisely-titled “Football”) a bit of a slog. That’s all right, though, because Klosterman, a man of the people, usually finds some way to make this material palatable to someone like myself.
I’ve never heard of Ralph Sampson, but he seems to have been an extremely talented, promising young basketball star. Here is Klosterman’s description:
Sampson was better designed for basketball than any human who has ever lived: He possessed the maximum amount of dexterity within the longest possible skeletal structure. In my imagination, he still seems unstoppable — an elegant extension of Darwinian engineering. He is more unstoppable than Michael Jordan; he’s Jordanesque, but constructed like Jabbar. He’s Jordan with a skyhook.
That’s pretty impressive-sounding, and I don’t even know what a “skyhook” is.
So, what happened to Ralph Sampson? According to Klosterman, he was destroyed, effectively, by a lethal combination of high — and inaccurate — expectations, and an unwillingness by the basketball world to accept Sampson for the player he was, rather than the player they wanted.
In Klosterman’s view, Sampson became, in the world of televised sport, “a tall, emotive, representational nonhuman slave,” which I take to mean that, despite Sampson’s amazing gifts as a basketball player — gifts that made him extraordinary among ordinary human beings — once he entered professional sports, he was reduced to a product. Whatever wonderful abilities he had to offer didn’t matter. Whoever he was as a human being didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was what the basketball industry wanted from him, and what the fans wanted from him.
His options were to either appease those desires, or be damned. Whatever he wanted or whomever he wanted to be — the pursuit of which is normally extended to human beings in a free society — was obliterated by outside interests. When Sampson failed in that purpose, he was promptly and casually discarded.
Klosterman uses the example of Britney Spears (and Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton) to expand his point:
Every day, random people use Britney’s existence as currency; they talk about her public failures and her lack of talent as a way to fill the emptiness of their own normalcy…. They allow Americans to understand who they are and who they are not; they allow Americans to unilaterally agree on something they never needed to consciously consider. A person like Britney Spears surrenders her privacy and her integrity and the rights to her own persona, and in exchange we give her huge sums of money.
The assigning of identity to public figures via gossip is a game the people play, in order to fill the void of their lives and to create a sense of community. I can see the truth in this, given the popularity of celebrity gossip sites, and the vast amounts of time people spend commenting on them. My awareness of Lindsay Lohan’s personal problems is one of a handful of things I can say I have in common with at least half a billion people on the planet Earth.
The point of this aside is, I think, twofold. One, Klosterman establishes that there is such a thing as global consensus in the first place — why it exists, its cultural function. Two, he points out that people are fundamentally irrational, unhappy, and psychologically fucked up. The people, that is, who hold the fates of human beings like Kurt Cobain and Ralph Sampson in their hands.
So this is the first part of the two-pronged explanation as to why Ralph Sampson busted: It was because other people were wrong about him. And this happens to athletes (and nonathletes) all the time. But it’s the second part that’s more complicated; the second part has to do with why certain minor athletic failures are totally unacceptable, even while other athletic failures are mildly desirable.
Hell is other people.
So, moving into Why Ralph Sampson Busted, Prong #2, here’s a sports story that can intrigue even a sports non-fan:
In the unwritten Wikipedia of world basketball history, Benny Anders is little more than a footnote.
Benny Anders? I have no idea. He was, like Sampson, a promising young basketball star in the 1980s, whose career flamed out, and who subsequently disappeared completely, an amazing feat (assuming he’s not dead, or really, even if he is dead) in the Google Era.
Unlike Sampson, Benny apparently was not a nice guy, but an “outlaw”:
On his first day as a Houston Cougar freshman in 1982, Anders showed up at the gym wearing a T-shirt that said outlaw. He claimed this was his high school nickname in Louisiana, and he said he got it because he killed people. His era with the Cougars would end less than four years later, partially because he brought a handgun to practice.
Besides being a bit of a character, Anders was a classic underachiever — he obviously had talent, but didn’t appear to give a shit about doing anything with that talent. He did just enough to suggest that he could do a lot more. His technique never progressed beyond raw potential. And then he bailed.
So what’s notable about Anders, and why he’s remembered, is that vague hint of promise, which, after his abrupt disappearance, ballooned into the stuff of sports legend. Whatever he might have actually accomplished if he’d held onto his career is eclipsed by what he potentially could have accomplished.
Benny Anders is not coming back. But he doesn’t need to. When you have unlimited potential and an unwillingness to pursue that potential, greatness doesn’t need to be achieved; as fans, we only require glimpses of a theoretical reality that’s more interesting than the one we’re in.
Unlike Sampson, Anders didn’t stick around long enough to fail anyone’s expectations. As a basketball player, Anders failed completely — he abandoned the game and, apparently, the planet. By any objective measure, Sampson was much more successful than Anders.
Yet, in the public eye, Anders is remembered fondly where Sampson was forsaken and forgotten, not in spite of his failure but because of it. People were in love with his potential, and by disappearing, Anders ensured that his potential would last forever.
Some claimed he was last seen in South America. Others said Chicago. Still others insisted he continues to play ball on the streets of Louisiana, eating glass as a three-hundred-pound not-so-small forward.
While visiting my hometown many years ago, I met up with a friend of mine from high school. This friend was surprised to hear from me, not just because I’d called him out of the blue, but also because there had apparently been a rumor circulating among my former classmates that I was living in Alaska as a cod fisherman.
Since in reality I was working as a minimum-wage temp at a cell phone company in Seattle, I thought this was pretty fucking cool. In terms of your high school legacy, the only legend that endures forever, unchanging, is the guy people expected to become successful and/or famous, but instead mysteriously vanished in a swirl of rumors.
When people barely remember their high school class valedictorian, and the school sports hero ends up as a paunchy middle-aged car salesman, they’ll all still talk about that one guy that nobody knows what happened to. So to even mildly resemble someone like that felt totally rock & roll. 4
I’ll stop here, even though the essay continues for something like twenty paragraphs. Suffice it to say that Klosterman really hates what happened to Ralph Sampson.