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Wanting Brand To Stay For Sake of Idealism

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The Clippers have been on my mind way too much for the first week of July.

Earlier this week, they pushed their way into my largely vacant cranium with the news of their signing of Baron Davis.  Today, it's the incumbent Clipper of the team's so-called dream pairing: Elton Brand.

As seems to be the case with many of the basketball fans across the league, I'm finding myself rooting very hard for Brand to swiftly turn down the lucrative offer he received from the Golden State Warriors and officially return to the fold in Los Angeles.

Undoubtedly, there is a certain moral angle to the Brand issue with regard to how much he led the team to believe that he would be returning to sign with them no matter what offers he received from around the league.  There seems to be a national sense that signing with the Clippers with relative quickness would be the 'right' thing for the power forward to do.  But there were moral issues with Carlos Boozer's departure from Cleveland.  There have been moral and loyalty issues that have pervaded sports and transactions forever, especially since the dawning of the free agency era.

But I find myself caring about this one more than usual, which makes me wonder if it's the old issue of the hero complex entering the picture.

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As Meadville Tribune reporter and good friend Bill Powell loves to point out to me all the time, we enjoy categorizing our athletes in binary code.  Winner and loser.  Right and wrong.  Hero and villain.

In an age in which it often feels that we're constantly growing more and more disenchanted with the games themselves, sometimes we (or perhaps just those as occasionaly naive as I) react by clinging even more tightly to those that we see as heroes.  The concept of a hero provides an ideal, an inspiration, a figure of quasi-perfection.

Of course, when it comes to athletes, there is a delicate balance of knowledge that must be struck in order for us to be able to bestow that hero label (or something akin to it in the sports world lest we forget that there are plenty of true 'heroes' out there dispensing services quite different from putting a ball through a hoop).  Sometimes, we don't know enough to have the right level of affection to place these ball players in our 'hero' mold.  Often, we have too much information.  It isn't too much because these folks are necessarily bad guys but because they are all human, which by definition seems to mean that they all make mistakes, just like you and me.  It's easier to canonize them when all we see is on-court and PR success, which is often all we know.

I didn't know enough about Boozer before he left Cleveland to care all that much about what he did as far as his treatment of Mr. Gund and the Cavaliers.  The same goes for most of the athletes involved in odd situations when it comes to pushing their way out of town.  The business of sports has long been dominated by disloyalty and worship of the self and the almighty dollar.  More often than not, spending the time to worry about that sort of thing (especially when it's a player on someone else's team) doesnt feel as though it's worth the time as it only takes us away from enjoying all the good about sports.

So back we come to Elton Brand.  What makes rooting for him to stay in Los Angeles such a strong feeling for me is that -- to my knowledge -- Brand is one of the 'good guys.'  He is an excellent basketball player whom I (others, too?) have internally managed to turn into one of the magnanimously selfless symbols of what sports are all about.

Brand is a career 20-and-10 guy who seems to play hard every second of every game.   He works on defense and does all the hustling and the 'little things' that make us realize when we watch him that this guy really seems to care about winning basketball games.  He has a reputation for being a good teammate, and he has toiled away in Los Angeles for the vast majority of his career without ever letting much complaining slip out of his mouth.  Brand is polite and beautifully-spoken, and he has a reputation as one of the best family men and most dedicated charity-doers across the league.

The man suffered a debilitating injury and spent the season fighting back so that he could get on the court for at least a few games at the very end just because he loves the game that much.   This is the sort of guy who could be a franchise centerpiece for nearly every team in the league: Big man, excellent production and skills, work ethic, intelligence and a good citizen to boot.

So when it comes to NBA players, there aren't many I like better than Elton Brand.  That's because I know enough about him to put him on a pedestal but not enough about him to know that he's possibly just another human being who messes up his share in life like anybody else. 

Because the comfort that athlete-as-godlike image seems to bring to us as fans, the idea of Brand doing anything to change that image is quite disconcerting.  Because in a world that so often decided in hero-villain classifications, there might not be any room for the grey area that should buffer Elton Brand from simply becoming a 'villain' with relative immediacy.  Never mind that Brand and the Clippers never reached an agreement and that he hasn't done anything to breach his contract or the rules of the collective bargaining agreement.  Never mind that sometimes in life, there are unexpected developments, and the need to react to them changes our plans, even the best-laid ones.  Never mind that the previous sentence indicates that there are certainly rationalizations to be made for Elton Brand should he choose to take the $90 million offer on the table (much less fly across the country to consider it with his agent) from Golden State or a similar one that may be coming from Philadelphia.

Instead, Brand takes one flight across a couple of time zones to talk over an offer of $90 million -- something that it seems plenty of sane humans would do -- and the villainizing may already be commencing.   It doesn't seem that he'll be simply a human being who made the best decision for himself and his family no matter what happens from here.  It feels as though Brand will either be a hero for sticking by his team and showing them some loyalty when they did the same for him, or he'll be a joker who went back on his word, which was that he intended to sign with the Clips.

As Adam Sandler once remarked to Daman Wayans in "Bulletproof," it seems unfair that we are so willing to lump people into categories of black and white when an enormously vast majority of human life takes place in the grey area.

It would be nice for us to figure out how to avoid this compulsive use of superlatives and extreme classifications -- and yours truly is certainly somewhere near the front of the line for responsibility for the problem.

But while we're working on that, I can't help but hold onto the figures of sports idealism that I have left.  Please stay in LA, Elton!