The Book on FreeDarko

November, 13, 2008
11/13/08
1:49
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

There's a fantastic moment toward the end of the third quarter of Monday night's Boston-Toronto game. The Celtics have trailed by as many as 15 in the period, and now they're mounting a run. Kevin Garnett nails a jumper from about 18 feet to cut it to six. The building, which has been hushed most of the night, erupts. Garnett is now wired. He begins to clap emphatically, which stokes the crowd ever more. Garnett then decides, unilaterally, that he wants to guard the ball. Rajon Rondo drops back deferentially, allowing Garnett to cover Jose Calderon as the Toronto point guard brings the ball up-court. Garnett towers over Calderon, clapping in his face and pointing at him all the way up the floor. Somehow, though, Garnett's antics aren't offensive. They're more theatrical than combative. Or, more precisely, it's combat through theater.

That's precisely the kind of distinction Free Darko concerns itself with in The Marcrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. While the Toronto broadcasting team was calling for a technical foul on Garnett, FreeDarko would probably deny that Garnett was guilty of poor sportsmanship. At the same time, FD wouldn't be so reductive as to dismiss the episode as just 'KG being KG.' Garnett's performance here is an expression of something larger. "Garnett embodies the ideal that a man can become bigger than the battles he fights," writes FreeDarko in its chapter on Garnett. It's that idealism that guides both Garnett and FreeDarko on matters of basketball.

FreeDarko's almanac revels in these kinds of nuances. The book is an academic survey that elevates pro basketball's pop to poetry. The prose is intentionally esoteric and will be a deal breaker for some -- but a revelation for others. For junkies who revel in taxonomies, the mythical classifications are a thing of beauty. Those who embrace the more cerebral elements of the pro game, the symbol-rich FreeDark Style Guide will delight. And for those who love the transmission of big ideas through graphic art, the illustrations are eye candy.

The book opens with a foreword by Gilbert Arenas (with requisite Gilbertish whimsy), followed by "The Free Darko Manifesto." Like much of what FreeDarko does, the manifesto conveys self-importance with a wink. The basketball polis is asked to "discount mere wins and losses" because the true life of the game resides in a less binary narrative; we should "embrace the primacy of the individual," because the most compelling subjects are the game's personalities -- not the teams, which are mere constructs of ownership, GMs, and coaches. It's this Pentecostal view of the NBA that makes FreeDarko's work so infectious. In their world, NBA Superstars reveal themselves to you without any filters.FreeDarko book

And in Macrophenomenal, they reveal themselves as creatures of myth. The book's primary core is a series of short biographies bundled in chapters, each with an archetypal header. Chapter One is "Master Builders" (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett); Chapter Two is "Uncanny Peacocks" (Gilbert Arenas, Gerald Wallace & Josh Smith, Leandro Barbosa); The almanac also leaves room for "Lost Souls" like Tracy McGrady and "Phenomenal Tumors" like Stephon Marbury. Each player is assigned a spirit animal and has their skill set animated through the Style Guide.

These profiles -- some less formulaic than others -- are really just vehicles for Macrophenomenal's best features: An intoxicating collection of cool charts and graphs, rich illustrations, and ingenious sub-features. Inside Macrophenomenal, you'll find a paper trail of faux job applications and visa requests from the likes of Isaiah Rider and Robert "Tractor" Traylor. You'll also be drawn to an illustrated analysis of Lamar Odom's Facial Action Coding. How about Stephen Jackson's mayoral campaign platform? Or the lunar cycles of Ron Artest? Or "Marbury Parcheesi"?

Macrophenomenal is a beautiful collision of the textual and the visual, and an array of stimuli this wild demands repeat viewing. When I first cracked Macrophenomenal, I was reminded of the first time I opened up a copy of Might Magazine in 1995. I knew there was absolutely no way I'd digest everything I'd want from the magazine in one sitting. It was too conceptual. But that was its beauty -- just as it is for Macrophenomenal. You know there will be something new to absorb the hundredth time you read the thing.

Macrophenomenal is fraught with irony and an academic's self-deprecation (We're Geeks!), so it's hard to offer sincere critiques, but there are a couple. The manifesto maintains that "the appeal of the individual Players transcends the boundaries between Teams," and implies that people who root for teams are engaged in some crude brand of tribalism. But this is wrong. If you apply enough mental dexterity as a fan, you can be both a partisan and a FreeDarkoite. It isn't easy, but a fan's home or chosen team can offer a firm basis from which to view the Association. The stickier dilemma is how FreeDarko ascribes supernatural attributes and a hyper-complexity to these guys as if they were comic book heroes. I realize it's an artistic exercise, but to endow them with this level of soulfulness can seem dishonest on occasion. FreeDarko's hagiography can get a little creepy at times. But I suppose that's the measure of good myth -- it defies the earthly in favor of something much more improbable. Just like an NBA Superstar.

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