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Everybody Roots for Goliath
I too can't stop thinking about Wembymania
Reader Josh sends the following, coming off Thursday night’s Victor Wembanyama breakout game:
Now that the season has started, I would love a House of Strauss take
on Wembymania. According to the social media echo chamber, he can do
no wrong and is already in the HOF. I just wonder much of the NBA
machinery is pushing him because it is in their financial interest to
so. He is exciting for sure. But what happened to waiting and
watching his rookie season unfold. Will the NBA writers room ever
report if he has a bad game or makes a mistake?
Love the substack, love the pod!
This reminds me of a conversation I had with Nick Wright about the Michael Jordan mythology, in reference to Wright’s contention that MJ is presented like some fantastical Paul Bunyan yarn. My response, simplified: “But that dude really did own a blue ox.”
Or, as Bob Costas said of Jordan, more eloquently:
His essence is so much deeper than image. In fact, the image is, in his case, an amplification of something true and substantive.
The point is that some athletes not only live up to but exceed the hype. It should be theoretically impossible to outdo terms like “most talented” or “greatest”, but superlatives can only convey so much reality. There are greats who, when you look closer, reveal themselves as insufficiently captured by mere description.
Victor Wembanyama is already one of those guys, just visually. Though I’ve noted the decline of the NBA’s regular season product, I highly recommend that you buy a ticket to a Spurs game. I saw Wemby at NBA Summer League and was hypnotized. As discussed a bit with Sherman Alexie, the profound aspects of sports can be kind of dumb. I can try and dress up the in person Wemby experience with some ornate prose, but it’s all pretty simple: Him tall, arms long, him move, wow.
You’d think that sort of basic size advantage wouldn’t floor you, but your brain isn’t used to seeing anything like this in real life. And then this human your mind buffers at the sight of starts…moving like a highly skilled guard?
Really, you have to actually see it to fathom it, except you can’t so much fathom it, which is why you have to see it. This is why people do hallucinogens, right? To have perception buckle for awhile as a respite from life’s drudgeries? That’s what Victor Wembanyama offers the fan even when he isn’t going off for 38 points.
That he’s already doing it, at age 19, suggests that a lot more is possible beyond sheer novelty. So here comes the hype, and to what reader Josh is saying, it’s happening for reasons beyond Wembanyama. Few in NBA media are oriented to concede as much, but the league is in a precarious position as LeBron and Steph enter middle age. With its television future unsettled, it could use a savior. Whether or not it’s articulated openly, I think everyone invested in the sport can sense Victor Wembanyama’s savior potential.
If, five years ago, you were to ask me whether the NBA could be saved by a French big man, I’d find that scenario to be highly implausible. “Nobody roots for Goliath,” as Wilt Chamberlain once mournfully informed us. European superstars haven’t quite resonated with Americans on the level of home grown greats.
And yet, Wemby just is different. Most bigs are, frankly, social weirdos. Victor, though the biggest of the bigs, appears utterly at ease in his interviews. While the Eastern Euro superstars might seem at a remove from the American audience, Wemby presents as quite knowable to us. It’s almost like he’s from here.
Wembanyama just matched a Shaquille O’Neal rookie record and that’s fitting. Like Shaq, Victor is also fun and outwardly comfortable being so freakishly different. He expresses a sense of humor about himself when dressed as Slenderman for Halloween, for instance.
This is all to say that Wemby really is that guy. I don’t know how the career will shake out, or if injury will derail it all. I can just see, as so many now can, that he owns a highly specific, powerful potential. Will writers admit to his flaws as they come up? Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. But, having seen him start to thrive, I’d hazard that the way Victor Wembanyama is described will matter so much less than what he is. You can tell me a guy is unbelievable and that’s a pretty good sales pitch. It’s just not as important as having an unbelievable guy to sell me.
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