by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports
One fateful day a long time ago, my undistinguished high school hoops team played Rice, then a prep powerhouse in New York. They had a freshman everyone was buzzing about and we were anxious to show that we belonged on the same court. We didn’t. As the deficit swelled in the second half, you could sense a change on our team. Winning was no longer an option, so not looking stupid became the most pressing imperative. That didn’t sit well with me, so to “send a message,” I took it hard to the rack, trying to score right in the face of the ballyhooed freshman. He jumped with a quick hop like he had titanium springs in his sneakers and literally blocked me to half court. As I walked down the court, embarrassed and thinking that maybe my teammates had the right idea to take it easy, that 14-year-old put his arm around my shoulders and said with a thick accent I wasn’t expecting, “That was cool, man.” That ninth grader was Felipe Lopez, and in four years, he’d be the first incoming freshman to make the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview issue.
It’s a small story, but it speaks to why I can say that my new NBA hero is Brandon Knight. I don’t know if the young Pistons guard with the high IQ will blossom into the superstar he appeared destined to become out of Kentucky, but he’s my hero nonetheless. He’s my hero because DeAndre Jordan dunked on him as hard as anyone has ever been dunked on since Darryl Dawkins sent the glass flying on Bill Robinzine 35 years ago. It was so brutal that “Brandon Knight RIP” trended on Twitter and people thought he had actually died.
That dunk launched a thousand mockeries of Brandon Knight including from Knight himself, who tweeted, “It wasn’t in the scouting reports that the Clippers threw lobs lol.” A special statement of condemnation has to go to comedian Kevin Hart who tweeted that after the dunk, Jordan should be brought up on “charges of rape & aggravated assault…” I don’t know which part of that is worse: the rape joke or the implication that somehow Knight should be deeply shamed and humiliated—like a rape victim, get it?—by standing up and attempting to stop Jordan’s historic leap to the hoop.
But the ritual humiliation of Knight, a 21-year-old with a work ethic that would impress MJ, obscures the greater point. The real story here is that Knight, a guard, jumped in front of a center eight inches taller and 80 pounds heavier and challenged his dunk. In a league where everyone seems scared to be posterized, Knight offered up his body to make a play with his team down 19 points.
When people criticize the NBA, they invariably say that it’s a me-first league where no one really tries until Playoff time. Here is Brandon Knight representing everything good in the game and yet the response is that he somehow made a mistake by trying to defend his basket. The announcer even said after the dunk, “Brandon Knight is thinking, Why did I even try to jump for that one?” Maybe he tried to “jump for that one” because he’s a warrior and has a set of attributes we should value instead of scorn. Sometimes it seems like everyone is so afraid to stand out, to look stupid, that it becomes expected to not even try. But when you try and fail, you can be part of a moment that matters, even if you end up flat on your back.
The part of getting blocked so hellaciously by Felipe Lopez that sticks with me the most isn’t the initial flush or the catcalls from the stands, but his hand on my shoulder saying, “That was cool.” I don’t think he was talking about my drive or his block. I think he was talking about the moment. It certainly was, in retrospect, cool for me, and I’m the one who got stuffed. I hope on some level, Brandon Knight looks at a replay of his 180-pound frame challenging a 260-pound 7-footer, sees the courage and not the dunk, smiles to himself and says, “That was cool.”