Thanks for writing. When Grantland launched it looked like it would be the closest thing we’d have to a big league post-Darko outpost, but thanks to Bill Barnwell and Zach Lowe — two writers I respect but don’t necessarily enjoy — it ended up accelerating the decline of that type of sportswriting.
What I found most valuable about FreeDarko wasn’t that it made me rethink my experience of watching basketball so much as it reinforced or legitimized it. If I were to find Kenyon Martin or Javale McGee charming and mercurial for reasons that didn’t have to do with their being good at basketball, or find Darius Miles and Gerald Wallace heartbreaking, or at least consider sports in tandem with with other cultural phenomena, I certainly wasn’t going to hear my views reflected by Mike Breen or George Vescey. FreeDarko propounded an empathy that was lacking in sports media to that point, and it was very much a product of its time.
This was likely something of an overcompensation, and the more analytical basketball writing which followed managed to swing the pendulum back by limiting some of the focus on individual basketball personalities, which I also found valuable. Even throughout the ’80s and ’90s the NBA marketed itself as a stars-driven league, which wasn’t entirely accurate. Reading guys like Lowe often makes me consider how little individual athletes have to do with teams’ success in modern professional sports.
One more important point to consider is that FreeDarko was almost entirely pre-Twitter, which has either created or enforced a shared set of symbols and referents. It reflects well on us that nobody feels the need to write 3,000 words on the aesthetic essence of Jamal Crawford or Zach Randolph anymore. Now we say, Nick Young is a compelling goofball, here is a gif that you will not see on SportsCenter of him doing something funny, and leave it that.
I still see the influence of the FreeDarkos and Grantlands. Not only is sportswriting broader and better, but so is general sports programming, from pre-and post-game shows to documentaries. Basketball coverage in particular has eased back on the shouting heads — watch an NFL pre-game or halftime program versus an NBA pre-game or halftime program, and it’s like night and day, which wasn’t always the case. They’ve done a good job trying to cater to a younger, more intellectual audience than football and baseball’s. Sure it’s corny when Jalen Rose spouts ’90s rap lyrics, but it’s better than Tom Tolbert talking about how Tom Tolbert would address his teammates in the locker room.
I don’t think FreeDarko had to die, but like most things it just did, and that’s okay. Eventually it was going to be either that or adapt. Anyway, my few cents, great piece.