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From Players and Teams to People and Narratives: A Reflection on Meyers Leonard

NBA: Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I rooted for players on Wisconsin teams. Be they Bucks, Packers, Brewers, or Badgers, I watched them on TV and read about them in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. My awareness of the players was restricted to their on-court/field abilities, and my awareness of the teams was restricted to a general desire to seem them win (alongside a general resignation that they probably wouldn’t).

As I grew up, though, the focus of my fandom shifted. Although there is a certain sense of bean-counting ecstasy that emerges from following players and teams, most of the thrills of fandom - for better and for worse - come from following people and narratives. The Bucks are not just a sample of basketball players who play together on a team; they are a group of people whose individuals stories combine with the history of the team into a narrative. We fans build connections with these people and buy into these narratives such that when the people succeed and the narratives come to fruition - like in the 2021 NBA Championship - we feel a vicarious sense of victory.

I think this change in focus is both natural. It was much easier for middle-school me to follow players and teams than people and narratives. Following players (vs. people) may have been further heightened by playing these sports at the same time; I focused on what the players did on the court or the field in a (wildly unsuccessful) attempt to learn their moves. Anecdotally, I remember being too scared to meet a few Brewers players who came to the Sheboygan YMCA to sign autographs. I think that’s natural, but perhaps magnified by freaking out that the names I read about in the paper and the pixels I saw on the TV were actually people.

Yet, I also think this change in focus is important. With regard to players, this involves the age-old discussion of whether to separate people from their production, which has reached a new tenor in recent years. I believe that complete separation is untenable. It is dehumanizing to only care about athletes’ abilities, and you do not need to squint to see the racism that often underlies those who do. (Come on down, Laura Ingraham). Moreover, as fans, we engage in an incredible amount of labor that supports them as people, not just players. Our eyeballs and wallets provide platforms for them to use; it is tricky, if not hypocritical, to then critique their use of said platforms.

With regard to teams, teams themselves are meaningless without narratives. Teams have histories against which their current iterations are constantly evaluated against; indeed, the number of years since certain successes (championships, playoffs, etc.) is often an albatross around the current team’s neck. Teams are also comprised with people with their own stories, which coalesce into the narrative of the team.

This leads into the motivating question behind this article: where does Meyer Leonard fit into this? (Mitchell’s article is a helpful primer on his signing for the uninitiated.)

First, no matter what team signed him, it is important to treat him as a player and a person. I don’t have the interest, or frankly the intellect, to offer a compelling analysis of what he can offer on the court. As a person, I don’t want to rehash what we already know. However, I do want to nudge the general consensus I gleaned from the comments on Mitchell’s articles toward viewing his infraction a little more negatively. He was a 29-year-old adult when the incident occurred. He uttered hate speech in a public channel, which extended its reach. It was followed by another expletive that, despite (unfortunately) being commonly used, is also toxic. Finally, talented basketball players are not fated to a long career with multi-million dollar contracts. They can, and should, be held accountable due their larger than usual platforms, which is part and parcel of playing in the league. With that said, I also understand, and buy into (at least in part), the narrative that this was a one-off infraction that he has been putting into the work to atone for.

That brings us to teams and narratives. The narrative of a team is a composite of its players’ individual narratives. Thus, it is important to ask whether Leonard’s individual narrative - redemption from a mistake - fits into the narrative of the 2022-23 Milwaukee Bucks. My sense - shaped primarily by Giannis, Khris, and Jrue, but also from the team as a whole - is no. The joy of being a Bucks fan lies in watching a group of genuinely good people (both now and historically) trying to bring a title a small-market city that, through no fault of its own, has struggled to compete for championships. The Bucks have other narratives, of course, and not every player on the team fits that mold - notably Grayson Allen, perhaps Bobby Portis - but that is the general pattern. I’m not sure Leonard’s redemption fits neatly into that narrative, and I don’t want the success of his narrative to be contingent on the success of the dominant narrative.

Mitchell concluded his piece about Leonard with the following sentiment:

All in all, this is likely to be a short stint for Leonard in Milwaukee, and let me be the first to say that I wish Meyers Leonard well on his own journey towards being a better person. Just not as a Buck.

This got me thinking about whether I would feel better about his signing if it was for a different team. The counterfactual to him signing with the Bucks is him signing with a team comprised of people with similar arcs. At first glance, I’m not sure that such a team of potentially questionable folks would garner my support. But I wonder if I would be more likely to support Leonard in an environment where he is working on bettering himself alongside others who are doing the same, perhaps on a team in a city going through a similar process. Examples don’t come readily to mind, but I’m basically thinking of the opposite of the Portland Jail Blazers. I think I might be.

Thus, I’ll end in a similar manner. Let me be the second to say that I wish Meyers Leonard well on his own journey towards being a better person. Just not as a Buck.