What You Can’t

Colin McGowan
Jan 9, 2017 · 8 min read
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FreeDarko had to die. Bethlehem Shoals was, maybe still is, a mythmaker at heart and the mythic boots itself from the party before anyone learns too much. That’s the romantic angle, anyway. FreeDarko also had to die for the peskily boring reason that it was a Blogspot, and that’s a medium all but the most maniacally committed vegan recipe compilers move on from. No matter how lovingly you chop Miike crit into your T-Mac meditation, your passion for it will run out if you can’t make it remunerative.

So FreeDarko died in the spring of 2011 — it had been winding down for a while — and as cult projects tend to, it inspired loving elegies, many of which make up the site’s final post: a compendium of writers and readers talking about what the site did for them, why it mattered, and how its influence will, years down the line, outpace its relatively brief run. The Velvet Underground analogy isn’t made, because that would be too obvious. Captain Beefheart gets a mention.

More than a half-decade later, it doesn’t seem that FreeDarko took. Its ethos — games as a vehicle for extravagant thought — is absent from nearly all contemporary sportswriting. It’s dancing somewhere in the background of the comedy pieces Alex Siquig writes for GQ, and when Dave Roth waxes ramblingly and epistemologically about What It All Means at Vice Sports.

Beyond that, there isn’t much. Brian Phillips was always to FreeDarko-core what Messi was to tiki-taka — not so much of it as hanging out in its vicinity, levitating — but he’s given up bloggily erudite Steven Gerrard essays for long culture pieces at MTV. Deadspin long ago pivoted away from weirdness. Grantland was indulgent, in its way, if often driven from the righteous path by Bill Simmons’s shitty taste, and ESPN nixed it. The Ringer rarely brooks discursiveness. SBNation’s register is ecstatically high-bro. Sports on Earth — I mention it because I gave it my best and it gave me a living wage, but no one read it.

Most of FreeDarko’s contributors stopped putting thousand-word missives about style on the internet as soon as the site shuttered. They finished up grad school, presumably, and got real lives. If you look over the ones who persevered and landed at largish outlets, even if you expand the pool to FreeDarko satellites and sympathizers, you won’t find any eccentrics. Tom Ziller does workmanlike daily columns and a newsletter for SBNation. Ethan Sherwood Strauss is more or less a well-resourced Warriors beat guy who writes the odd reported feature. Kevin Pelton has succeeded John Hollinger as ESPN’s resident number-cruncher. Eric Freeman and Dan Devine are laboring deep in the sooty content mines over at Ball Don’t Lie. They’re all excellent at what they do, but they’re not the sportswriting world’s wild, shaggy Burroughses. Hardly anyone is like that, and that is the source of my despair.

* * * * *

I think Matt Moore is right.

Well, I don’t think it’s interesting, but he’s correct insofar as in the way Nate Silver’s statistical wonkery has, if not supplanted Peggy Noonan’s supercilious spitballing, then at least become a broadly legitimate lens through which we view elections, Zach Lowe and Ben Golliver and their Synergy-subscribing ilk have changed the way we talk about basketball. Empiricism abounds. It’s the tongue NBA Reddit uses. NBA Twitter is lousy with numbers and brief video breakdowns. I’m sure more people pay attention to Skip Bayless than Rob Mahoney — you have been out there in the world; you know it to be a Costco warehouse of howling dolts — but among folks who follow the league reasonably closely, the analyst has more clout than the opinionator.

This is regularly posited as A Good Thing, which it sort of is. The internet is a richer place for having some keen basketball mind’s gif-laced examination of the Timberwolves’ defensive struggles on it while another harrumphing screed about DeMarcus Cousins’s facial tics is just pollution. But the growing popularity of the former and the slow but noticeable marginalization of the latter doesn’t buoy me. It’s high-grossing Oscar bait; it’s a Democrat in the White House.

Of course you can’t beat taste. People like what they like, and if what they like isn’t what you do, you’re shit out of luck. People don’t like sportswriting as personal essay; people don’t like when you imagine the inner lives of athletes; people don’t like when they suspect you’re using sports as an excuse to discuss music or movies, even if that’s not what you’re doing; they don’t like abstraction and they don’t like when you steal from Cabrera Infante or Barthes. Really, people want you to tell them if the Raptors are any good. They want you to make the game legible to them in a particular way, show you how it works, like a car manual, hand them some numbers they can drop into their barroom arguments. They want you to be exactly right; they want you to care about only what they care about.

I guess upsetting their expectations is an exercise of power, but it doesn’t feel like one. Who doesn’t want to be well-liked? Defiance isn’t fun, and it isn’t sustaining. Mostly, it gets you ignored.

* * * * *

Shoals left the freelance grind in 2012, a year after his daughter was born, to work at Wieden+Kennedy, because the prospect of supporting a child by stringing together small checks you have to hound editors for can separate even a true believer from his vocation, and because he was feeling burnt out. He writes about it with a moving straightforwardness in a piece titled “I Broke Up With Writing (And It Feels Okay)”: “The thrill was gone, something had died inside me, and when a job in advertising came along, I was especially receptive.” The short essay is about acceptance: knowing you are no longer the thing you thought you might be, and making peace with that.

Which would be an encouraging sentiment if Shoals didn’t seem miserable these days. Every few months, I notice him grousing about some wrong or another. Last October, he got into a Twitter tiff with Mark Titus. The fine details don’t matter. Essentially, Titus, not knowing FreeDarko existed, wrote a piece for The Ringer about Darko never having become a folk hero and Shoals spent several tweets loudly clearing his throat. As ever, there were no winners here. One party was kind of justifiably aggrieved and the other was kind of puzzled. They pecked each other for a short while, then flew apart.

Shoals didn’t break up with writing, not completely. He publishes here and there, sometimes summoning his old clever verve and sometimes boredly killing space, and he tweets primarily in half-baked theories he’s batting around but lacks the time or inclination to turn into articles. He also rages once in a while, usually against a slight — someone should know his name, but doesn’t; someone’s biting concepts he invented.

It’s bad to be Mad Online and it’s doubly bad to be a basketball writer — semi-retired or otherwise — who’s given to the odd table-flipping fit because the NBA discourse is coated in smarmy civility. That internet-famous, self-flattering no assholes rule Grantland had applies here: you can totally be an asshole, you just have to be a certain type of one. You can be superior and dismissive and pedantic and blithe, but it’s impermissible to be angry. Nevermind whether your anger is well-founded, or whether you just fucking hurt and sometimes it comes bounding out of you in unfortunate forms. You have to hide it, or suffer a hail storm of tsk-tskings.

* * * * *

Last year felt like never getting the drug combination right. On most days, the sun never rose. I took hits of whatever I thought would help. Books and movies motivated me. Podcasts and videogames gave me something to do when I didn’t want to do anything. Booze make it okay to be by myself. Food made me slightly sick, so I didn’t eat. I put on music when I needed to go somewhere. Sports were crushing and boring and great.

I wrote a lot and published less than half of it. I took a crack at adapting Álvaro Mutis’s “Ilona Comes With The Rain” into a screenplay. I wrote the first two acts of a novel based on my college years and the women I knew then. For the second year in a row, I did a thirty-part NBA season preview series that was intermittently about basketball. I’m cataloguing these efforts not to impress anyone — they’re not impressive, just products of a dictionary-paging cock shooting his laptop many long and desolate scowls — but more to confirm that I made stuff in 2016, regardless of anyone reading or liking it. I was alive and not entirely useless for some periods of time; I have the receipts.

It’s important for me to remember what I’ve done because, as I’m known to bellow a little too loudly when someone asks what I do: what I do is not a thing. Screenplays and novels scarcely exist if they’re not read and sports criticism—not journalism, not analysis, not hee-hawing takery but some blend of observation and reflection and cultural literacy and maybe some pretty prose—is not popular. It’s nigh impossible to pitch to editors. I want to dig into is not a phrase that loosens purse strings, probably even if you’re the founder of a moderately acclaimed blog. I’ve had a tough go of it. Every morning, I think about giving up. It takes a special talent to pay the rent with this shit, and I’m getting the sense I don’t have it.

* * * * *

Shoals is a sharp writer when an idea is burning through him—dense, luminous, readable paragraphs no one else could devise. It takes work ethic and courage and a mind that’s not all Elmer’s and twine to parse a sport’s schematic elements or ask Anthony Davis a better-than-stupid question in a locker room scrum but someone who thinks about the game uniquely and can transmit their understanding of it to you is a miracle.

Shoals has given me words I’ve been walking around with for years. In 2012, at FreeDarko progeny The Classical, he noted that “we apply a finite number of stories to NBA players, and when that fails, we turn them into one-dimensional symbols.” That’s a sentence I keep in mind when I’m trying to figure an athlete out. It guides me where I need to go, whether I get there or not.

He also once advised Michael Beasley that “if you’re threatening to take your own life, please limit the number of exclamation points,” which is a good joke.

That passive-aggressive tussle between Titus and Shoals animated, in my dusty corner of the internet, some shared public fondness for FreeDarko. It wasn’t any big thing: a light evening-long flurry of tweets about the site’s imagination, its tossed-off charm, its commitment to whimsy and weightiness and the mingling of the two. It felt good to reminisce, but reminiscing is for what’s been lost. While FreeDarko stays in the mouths of a subset of actual and wannabe sportswriters, its aesthetic is like a star against the city sky, gleaming only dimly, barely present.

Is this worth decrying? I don’t know. People like what they like, and they get it. That I find this a source of profound discouragement is my problem, not theirs. But that there’s no model for getting past it, for escaping the feelings of misery and anger and the fear that there isn’t a place for you in a world you want very sorely to find a home within? It makes what’s already difficult damn near hopeless.

Correction: Because I am not bright enough to correctly read an address bar, a previous version of this piece stated that FreeDarko was a Wordpress blog. It was on Blogspot. I regret the error, and a bunch of other stuff.

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