A celebration of the NBA’s most infuriating players, past and present.
By Albert Burneko
When I was but a wee, thoroughly mediocre player on a youth-league basketball team in the long ago, I had occasion to wish grisly death upon another human being—another child. And, hey, I was a fucked-up kid with anger issues: I wished grisly death upon plenty of people back then, many of whom, as peers of mine, were children. Made mealy mouth-noises behind me during a quiz? Grisly death! Got dates with all the cute girls? Grisly death! Appeared to notice the Rhode Island-sized ketchup stain on the ill-fitting windbreaker pants I’d borrowed from my mom? Oh, such grisly death. What makes this particular grisly-death-wishing notable is that now, 18 years or so later, hindsight has not rendered it a wistful memory of the volatility and pettiness of my youth. That is to say, I think I was goddamn right. This particular child deserved it. Deserved grisly death.
We were losing. We tended to do that, not least because I was on the team. In this case, our opponents were led by one of those freakishly skillful kids who, at the youth-league level, could probably coast to victory in a good two-thirds of his games without any teammates at all. For reasons now lost to the swirling mists of retrospective embarrassment, at some point late in the game, after the outcome—them winning, us losing—had long since been made evident, some bickering and posturing broke out during a timeout. I don’t remember what the score was; I don’t remember how many minutes were left; I don’t remember my coach’s face or name or what shoes I was wearing—what I remember, with gem-grade, diamond-edged crystal clarity, is some irrelevant scrub-ass non-factor sack-of-crap piss-ant wallflower from the other team, with the most disgusting smirk you ever saw smeared across his face like a fucking oil spill, nodding at my team’s het-up players and muttering, “Scoreboard,” over and over and over again.
As if the scoreboard had anything to say about him. As if his contributions were reflected on it. As if, given the dynamics of his team, he was very much more than an observer who’d happened to sneak onto the court and score a free jersey. As if the victory belonged in any meaningful way to him, and not to other people who happened to be wearing the same laundry as he. If the sun had turned into a giant Pac-Man at that exact moment and swallowed the entire Earth, gulp, darkness, death, I’d have gone smilingly into its boiling guts just knowing that little sonofabitch was coming with me.
And what was worst about it was the knowledge that I, as a volunteer participant in the game, had signed away my right to make any legitimate objection to this. That’s sports, I could only shrug. Victory and defeat are unambiguous, whatever movies, moms, and thoroughly hypothetical Charlotte Bobcats fans might like you to believe. There are no moral victories, nor Pyrrhic ones: you win, or you lose. Everyone who wears the winning side’s uniform is a winner; everyone on the losing side, a loser. This irrelevant scrub-ass non-factor sack-of-crap piss-ant wallflower had won exactly as many games as his teammates who’d done the actual, y’know, outscoring of their opponents. He’d won exactly as many games as I’d lost.
What made it infuriating, then, was his complete and total lack of humility or perspective, of any competitive pride. His team had won, so he had won; his team was better than ours, so he, individually, was better than we were, and so he had the right to gloat, to talk shit, to make a nauseating fake smile and say “Scoreboard” over and over and over again, as though the difference between the two numbers recorded there described the difference between him, personally, and us, personally, and not just that he’d happened through dumb luck and no contribution of his own to wind up as the shitstained underwear of a good team instead of a bad one.
This, friends, is Eddie House. (Um, not literally. I do not know Eddie House. Stay with me here.) An odious, nigh-useless little basketball cockroach, skittering around in the deep shadows cast by his superstar teammates, collecting the garbage—and championship rings—they create. And then (our cockroach analogy is going to shake a little loose here, hold on), after the work of his superiors has delivered him an opportunity to make a big shot, strutting and arm-pumping and big-balls-dancing like he did shit, like he’s anything more than the stiff surface off of which LeBron James or Kevin Garnett ricocheted the ball on its way to the hoop, the funnel through which they momentarily poured their excellence.
Who knows when this ludicrously inflated sense of his own basketball worth began, but it first came to wide notice in Eddie’s first tenure with the Miami Heat, who drafted him in 2000. Depending on who’s telling the story, Eddie either created or merely (obnoxiously) embraced a public “Free Eddie House” campaign—T-shirts, signs, and so forth—as though what this dumpy, stumpy, unathletic, unskilled dunce of a jackass, who could not handle the ball or pass it or play defense or run or get to the basket, needed was to be liberated from the bench, rather than from his contract. In the years since, Eddie has gotten dumpier, slower, more leadenly earthbound; he has become even less a basketball player than he was before. He can still shoot three-pointers. He still evidently thinks this makes him something other than a carnival geek in knee-socks.
This would not bother me if Eddie House had toiled his career away in some basketball Siberia like Sacramento or Charlotte. Hell, there might be something charming about his swaggering, utterly psychotic self-regard on a perennially dead-on-arrival last-place team; if nothing else, it’d make for a good show, the wackadoo little chucker who would not be cowed by the observable reality of his own putrescence. But Eddie House has two goddamned NBA championship rings. [Correction: The Heat waived him last year on Christmas Eve, because he sucks. It doesn’t appear he got a ring for his “efforts.”] Eddie House’s entire career is that little shithead from 1994 saying “Scoreboard” over and over again: a plainly atrocious basketball player, freed by the work of others from ever being forced to reckon with the gap between his idea of himself and shambling, clumsy, one-dimensional, can’t-fucking-dribble-from-here-to-there-even-though-you’re-nominally-a-point-guard-you-fucking-doofus fact.
Those championship rings are unbreakable (figuratively—although, encrusted as the 2012 version is in diamonds, it’s probably as close to literal invulnerability as a piece of jewelry gets). Neither forced retirement nor banishment to Golden State to toil away the fringes of his career in total obscurity and cellar-dwelling failure could retract the imprimatur of highest basketball excellence from his résumé. His shittiness has been falsely sanctified, twice over, as success, now and forever. Those rings, in combination with the horrible, nightmarish night in May 2009, when he caught fire in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, scored 31 points, and buried the airheaded, butter-soft Orlando Magic on behalf of the hateful Boston Celtics, indemnify him against reality for all time.
What infuriates me about Eddie House is that he demonstrates that, in a team sport, the quality of an individual player is entirely contextual, can never be cut out and pinned down on its own. Eddie House can do exactly one thing competently on a basketball court: He can shoot threes. He is rotten at the broader sport of basketball; he is a front-running little clown; he looks ridiculous in his stupid headband and knee-socks and with his dumpy pear-shaped body; he is a blight on a game otherwise played by astonishing paragons of athleticism and skill. But in the right situation, he is a good player because a well-constructed team can be good with him on it, by limiting what he is asked to do and shuffling him the hell off the court whenever he can’t get away with being lousy at literally everything else. He is best when hardly used at all. He is the sweep kick in Street Fighter. He is a twice-crowned NBA champion who is 95 percent incompetent at the sport he plays. He is a bum—everywhere but the scoreboard.
Albert Burneko writes a food column for Deadspin. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org.