The Day Never Ended
Shoals here. This is the final FreeDarko post. The store will be open through the playoffs; then it too will close. My Twitter and Tumblr will go on, and I'll be blogging about the playoffs on GQ.com.
For this final post, I asked everyone who has contributed to FreeDarko to tell me what the hell "FreeDarko" (adj.) meant to them, or what the blog meant to them, or something. What follows is what happened. Appropriately, I am not really sure how exactly to put a label on it.
Shoefly: Do you ever read comments on sports articles? I make that mistake occasionally, and other things I care about too – music, film, politics. They’re all kind of disturbing, but in many cases I just think about the people who write them as Martians and it makes me feel better. The people who write and follow sports seem more familiar and vicious and cruel and racist, and provincial. “How many championships has he won?” They might say, with the sneer of a swaggering bravo.
And is that really what it’s about? Not to me. Because if you’re a person of a certain type it’s important to know that loving sports is – of course – fundamentally ridiculous, but it’s fine to love it anyway. Because there is play, narrative, life, love, and fun in there. You can touch on the genuine, and even if your impressions may not be Truth, they are honest and meaningful to you, and that is ultimately fulfilling enough to care about losing battles and defiant last stands that are, still, play.
That’s why I’m proud of FreeDarko. Sports should be about people, I think. We follow it because we care about them. It’s not just the stately march of commerce across the heartland if you’re doing it right. Which Shoals always did – and does. Not just well, but often, to my abiding admiration and awe, a fierce advocate and soldier for meaning in sports. I expect he, and all of us, will find a victory in the end.
El Huracane Andreo: Free Darko is a mantra of friendship, human analysis, and taste. The collective devoured processed journalism and left fresh. Certainly, this calls for a toast for the future of sports coverage. It occurs to me that FD's core elements are three-quarters sartorial wit topped off by testosterone-laden athletic obsession. As the original webmaster and despot who insisted on picking this name, I doubt SkitaTime (as in Nicholas Tskitishvili) would have developed such a classy cult. As Danny Glover never said, artists that built an international network of style mastery have the right stuff. Of course, this is not the end.
Peter Schrager: Back in 2005, in the Wild Wild West days of online sports writing, I had a column on FoxSports.com called “The Wednesday Buffet” One of my favorites was a look inside the sick, twisted, and brilliant minds of the guys behind FreeDarko.com.
I forget exactly how I first discovered the site, but when I did, I know I had the same jittery energy and excitement I had when I first heard The White Stripes or saw Tom Green’s old MTV show. Sometimes, the posts would be daily 1,000 word missives. Sometimes, you’d wait a week. I’d print the articles out and read them on the treadmill. On the can. On the subway. Anywhere. Everywhere.
I interviewed the guys in 2005 and the column was fantastic. Bizarre. Funny. Mentions of Vikings, the Ukraine, and Topher Grace. The interview went “viral”, and in the pre-Twitter days, kinda sorta made the online rounds. A few weeks later, I got a blue tee shirt that said FREE DARKO across the chest in the mail.
I’d wear it around the streets of New York and get catcalls from garbage men and guys in cars. 'Free Darko!' I felt like a 22-year-old girl in a tube top with that shirt. I was never cooler.
My favorite Chaps button down from Marshall’s never got quite the same reaction.
Brickoswki: I was fortunate enough to find FREEDARKO in its infancy by way of a Billups link. At the time, I didn’t really understand the site and mostly just wanted to be belligerent about the Spurs. While recognition for my team would be nice, at this point I’m more interested in the “why.” Why does a team that embodies so many of the same traits as my favorite writers – smart, humble, generous, hardworking, diverse, progressive – get so little love from those same writers? Why do we value intelligence, nuance and technical brilliance in art, music and film and yet gravitate towards the most overtly physical players in basketball? I mean, I’m sure most 3rd graders love Bron and Blake but 3rd graders have the shittiest taste!
After years of trying to reconcile how my favorite basketball site could so thoroughly loathe my favorite basketball team, I think I’ve finally found an answer. Not surprisingly, the answer came from FD godfather Woody Allen. There’s that scene in Annie Hall where Alvy sneaks away from a party to watch a Knicks game by himself (a great move that I’m sure everyone reading this has pulled, though hopefully not for the Knicks). His girlfriend finds him and asks him an important question: “What is so fascinating about a group of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop?" Alvy, naturally, provides a pretty good answer to that question: "What is fascinating is that it's physical. You know, it's one thing about intellectuals. They prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what's going on. But on the other hand, the body doesn't lie, as we now know." However, for the last 6 years FREEDARKO has provided an even more persuasive and exhaustive answer to that question, using the NBA as a prism from which to view race, culture, politics, and almost everything else that really matters. Physicality, sure. FREEDARKO has shown the other stuff is even more fascinating.
Favorite FreeDarko Moment: Being on a late night email chain trying to figure out how to respond to a cease and desist from Thurl Bailey over the Thursday With Thurl series (seriously) and getting an email from Shoals or Dr. LIC that read “This is a blog of plotting our next move against Thurl Bailey as the clock strikes midnight!”
ForEvers Burns: For nine incredibly painful years, I attended Jewish day school. By most academic standards, I would not consider myself a complete and hopeless idiot but during that span, I was unequivocally the worst Hebrew student in my grade. As we were supposedly expanding our vocabulary in class, I would routinely be called upon to use the “Word of the Day” in a sentence. That I had no idea what this new word meant, and I knew at best a handful of other words that could disguise my lack of understanding, I typically sat and stammered gibberish until my teachers felt that I had humiliated myself sufficiently that they could move on to a student with the capacity to do more than perspire.
In fourth grade, I discovered the word “Tzarich,” and it provided salvation from my stumbling. This object-requiring verb enabled me to construct a coherent sentence with virtually any noun. I used it constantly for many years and to this day I only vaguely know what it means. So it was with me and “FreeDarko.” Though my viewpoint at times seemed to deviate from that of the collective (supporting the age limit, hating LeBron from day one, etc.), I feel honored to have been a part of such a thoughtful and dynamic group that wrote for such an insightful readership. While the transition from “armchair psychiatrist” to “actual psychiatrist” proved too life-consuming to keep up with writing for more than a few years, FD was always one of the first sites I hit when I had a free moment. At least dailypuppy.com doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Eric Freeman: It's common to say that really good writing changes lives, but I've always been of the opinion that the best work clarifies and gives expression to opinions the reader already holds. My early relationship with FD worked along these lines. Since I was a young tyke, I've approached my favorite sports -- not just basketball -- as enjoyable for reasons other than the final score. At 10, I considered Roberto Clemente a personal hero for his style and personality as much as his greatness, despite his dying more than 12 years before my birth. As a lifelong Warriors fan, I was forced to appreciate small pleasures in the context of greater failure from an early age. And, while I wasn't exactly sure why, I always liked Steve Young more than Joe Montana while admitting that the latter was the far superior player. The problem was that I didn't know exactly how to express that appreciation, and my devotion to my favorite teams and athletes just registered as obsessive interest that bordered on psychosis. I felt like a different kind of sports fan but often fell in with the rowdy herd.
I came across FD late in my college years, at a time when I was pretty sure I wanted to be a professor, yet also gradually realizing that the academy wouldn't usually allow me to address the topics -- namely, sports and superficially stupid Hollywood movies -- that I really wanted to write about. The posts on FD felt like more articulate translations of thoughts I'd felt for years, and the site quickly convinced me that there was a way to write about stereotypically "unserious" topics with ferocious intelligence and enough of goofiness to let everyone know that they're still fun. The academy no longer seemed like the only way. Several weeks later, under the guise of names chosen from a "Mr. Show" sketch, my friend Nate and I started a blog that basically ripped off FD in as many ways as we could. After a few months and many turns in the comments section, Shoals sent us an email asking if we'd like to contribute to the site on a regular basis. I've considered it a home ever since and owe most every job I've gotten since to my association with it.
Still, I'm not terribly sad to see it go. Today marks the end of an era, sure. But the strength of FD has always been that it allowed a number of like-minded fans to meet in a virtual space and discuss the issues that make us love basketball. Due to the site's success, and also due to the fact that several of us write for a living, the FD ethos will live on. But, really, FD will still exist in spirit because this approach is a part of so many fans' love for the sport. At its best, FD explained why we care in a way that we weren't totally sure how to express previously. Now we know how to say it.
Nate Jones ("Carter Blanchard"): There was something about the tail-end of the '06-'07 season that just felt like it needed to be experienced communally, in a way that the budding NBA blogosphere was just beginning to make possible. Some combination of the "We Believe" Warriors, SSOL's high water mark, THE LEBRON GAME, Kobe's radio tantrums, and the looming Oden/Durant-ocalypse made the world feel wobbly enough that I was extremely grateful to have found kindred spirits in the FD community to help guide me through the chaos. As the season and my school year came to a close, I kept finding myself pulled back through the FD archives, trying to make better sense of the universes that were being simultaneously created and destroyed in front of me. Like how Odd Future makes me want to scale scaffolding or the Wire makes me want to become a social worker, reading and re-reading FreeDarko every day gave me overwhelming urge to write about the NBA with funny pictures and nonsensical titles. When Freeman and I got the call-up from Shoals to join the FD team, it would have been a dream come true if I hadn't been way too intimidated to ever imagine writing alongside my favorite writers out there, regardless of subject-matter or medium. I don't think I ever did fully overcome that sense of awe, but
I am extremely proud to have played some small part in the Great Mainstream Stat Wars of 2007, the Every Game Previews of 2008, and the Billups-starring 2008 Draft coverage.
While this is certainly the end of an era, thanks to FD I'm never going to forget that brief and glorious second when Arenas stood shoulder-to-shoulder with LeBron, when Marion was the key to unlocking everything, and when Hawks-Bobcats battles no one else was watching could make the world's axis stand still.
Joey Litman: The household in which I grew up championed individualism above almost everything else. (Marrying a Jew, never working for Donald Trump, and paying respect to Julius Erving might remain the only higher ideals.) Fierce pride in being a little different--even when that different is perhaps just one degree away from another person's similarly different--compelled my mother to coin the phrase "pro choice on the environment" (as in, she doesn't care if you want one, but she chooses otherwise) and my father to encourage his children to become notaries just in case our friends ever needed help with paperwork. It's an easy way to make some cash, he imagined.
The same resounding certainty of self pushed my sister out to San Francisco despite not knowing anyone west of Chicago, inspired my mother to attend Jon Stewart's Rally for Sanity while all of her friends were there in spirit but physically at second homes (Mom: "No one should have two until everyone else has one"), and made my father comfortable exercising in corduroy pants. If it makes sense to us, we just do it. Many people can conjure these kinds of personal idiosyncrasies, and my family is not really all that special. However, we are forever feeling ourselves (pause?), regardless of what anyone else says.
I am fortunate for this rearing, and all the ways in which it has guided my choices are too many to chronicle today. One, in particular, seems germane, though. Since forever, I have pursued my passions with a focus that can be obsessive. No matter if I stood alone for bringing in obscure college-basketball box scores to seventh-grade discussion hours, for calling women "so white" on first dates, for reading Shakespeare homework at 5 AM while in line outside of Footlocker. This life is rewarding, but at times lonely, and I have frequently sought out community that would at least celebrate, if not share, my lifestyle.
Few places have ever felt like home as much as FreeDarko, even if I never did fully come around on J.R. FreeDarko was always a place for high-functioning misfits intent on advancing ideas with conviction, and individuality was a foundational principle. That's hard to find. This site has taught me humility, challenged me to get better, and expanded my world while forever feeling like something of my own, even when I had nothing to do with it. I was grateful for it long before I really knew what it was. Through FD, I met incredible people whose work is as inspiring as it is intimidating. Steadily earning the friendships and writing opportunities I've enjoyed here not only filled out my adult life, but also validated my personal history. I can't say anything nicer than that.
Dan Steinberg: It was never about freeing Darko; it was about freeing the existential angst from our sports-loving spleens, letting it gurgle up and overflow and drip guilt and agony and joy and rancid yet liberating repression all over our keyboards and monitors and mouse pads. Well, that and freeing Darko.
Chris Sprow: FreeDarko’s motto, at the outset, could have been: “Opaque and roll.” It was hard to grasp — Is there a singular theme here, a loose web of truths that could form a religion if we could only agree on a deity, a rambling search for the hoop truth at a pace that has the scroll-makers worried? — but to try and grasp it made you the butt of the joke. So we played along. And how do you describe style, anyway? FD certainly had its own. But that’s not the most important thing.
Words are the biggest part of my job. So the premise, to me, was the passion. It was a blog. It was writing. And it was free. And it allowed people who wrote for free to at some point write for money. It wasn’t always about basketball, but basketball was just an entry point. Is there a higher calling than a paycheck? You bet. But a set style can be like a broken clock — only right on if you’re willing to wait a lot. Utilitarian writing is hard, but it also can get you a new pair of shoes, or a FreeDarko t-shirt.
It keeps the clock moving. And the lights on so you can see it.
Spencer Ryan Hall ("Pichi Campana Aguanta"): Every successful revolution has to make the transition to governance. So while it's sad to see the end of an era, I'm proud to know that the interpretation of pro basketball will be influenced by the hagiography of Bethlehem Shoals, et al. and the iconography of (the original) Big Baby for a long, long time. There's a reason the roster of nearly every major producer of pro basketball writing reads like a list of early FD acolytes. Good luck to all and thanks for five incredible years.
WV: troitc - The forthcoming cabal of Kirilenko, Prokhorov, and a miniature giraffe.
Will Leitch: Free Darko made me see athletes not as heroes, not as villains, not as humans, but as mythic, god-like creatures, comic and tragic. I don't mean God in a big man in the clouds with a beard sense; I mean in a "release the kraken!" sense. Free Darko made their struggles, their failures, their triumphs, they turned them into something that was both bigger than all of us and also painfully vital to our sports fan well-being. They made it all matter. That's what Free Darko did for me.
Like Free Darko, like the rest of us, I am invested in that famous Class of 2003, the ones who were going to take over the league, the ones who were going to change it all. I had a feeling Free Darko might not be long for this earth when I read this paragraph, in this post:
"The Class of 2003 was supposed to take over the league, and instead, the principals have confused that narrative and, at best, put their ascent in dry-dock. Carmelo Anthony, too. Amar'e in New York isn't exactly a league-changing endeavor, and Gilbert Arenas, another slightly older fellow traveler, is trying to work his way back to being worthless -- not just pitiable. These were the figures that launched FreeDarko and all of them are suffering. Except the league as we see it is healthier than ever."
That's exactly right: Like the game, Free Darko evolved, and always landed in the same place: I love this motherfucking game.
Free Darko also made me realize the power of caring this much, of thinking this hard, and investing this much ... and how the Web could harness and unleash that power. I can't believe they're going away. I wish I could do them justice. But I can't. Darko's Mood Is Currently: Legend.
Josh Spilker: Tracking the details of when or how I first came across FreeDarko would be pointless, like trying to figure out the exact day and time of when an epic fish story took place -- the little things ruin the magic of the moment.
But I do remember a few heady weeks in 2005-2007 checking the site religiously everyday in my cubicle job for some element of the NBA I had never thought of before, mostly centered on the athletic allure of Gerald Wallace and Gerald Green, and the whole site a confirmation of my desire to always build teams of small forwards when playing NBA Live. I had mostly been a collegiate fan up to the point of reading FreeDarko. Shoals, Recluse and Dr. LIC, etc. turned me from an NBA fan into an NBA thinker.
In 2007 Shoals said would answer a few questions for a little print monthly arts mag I wrote for with very little web presence. This is no indictment on him, but I'm not sure Shoals would do an interview for a little paper like that anymore, halfway across the country, but I wouldn't expect him to. The mainstream has taken up FreeDarko, for better or for worse, evidence that this moment had come, that this moment was needed, that this moment changed a lot of perceptions. That moment is apparently over, but the change it has wrought is not.
The Assimilated Negro: Maybe the most criminally slept-on thing about Freedarko is how “hip hop sexy” it is. It’s like lo-fi, high-IQ, still-sorta-undervalued De La Soul Is Dead, Ego Trip, Liquid Swords, Stretch and Bob. Freedarko. The Real Hip Hop is over here type
I remember when they dropped the Macrophenomenal style guide illustrations. now there's a post that helps define a blogging era. That post was some classic hip hop shit. Like the Nasty Nas ‘91 demo. Or like Jay-Z’s second verse on Izzo/H.O.V.A. "I do it for my culture..." that was "Wiggle from the Lavendar Grave". Izzo is even more apt because you have Big Baby playing Kanye to Shoals as Jay-Z. Kanye produced Izzo, Big Baby was the genius illustrator that in Shoals words elevated it to a symphony.
That turn-of-the-century hip hop culture seems very similar to the circa-2006 blogosphere. Much like that hip hop era had industry leader types just about to cross-over and become establishment (Hov, Em, The Roots/Soulquarians, Outkast, Luda, etc) so too you had sites like Gawker shifting in a more mainstream direction. Jezebel getting started. Deadspin was becoming Deadspin. NY Mag started poaching bloggers for their site. The New Yorker started pushing their book blog. NahRight and TwoDopeBoys, etc. It's a similar cultural maturation. And the Style-guide post was a hit song in a peak era, one of those special moments.
Henry Abbott: "FreeDarko" has long spearheaded an insipid campaign whereby Mainers attempt to brainwash real Americans with the radical theory that they're not, in fact, Canadians.
The demise of this site is proof that they have failed, and we are all safer for it.
In all seriousness, this is dreadful. (Darko's mood: Lousy.) From day one, FreeDarko has flown the flags for the ridiculously smart and fun and edgy and ponderous of the online basketball world. From the day I told the actual Darko about it (the benched young Piston was confused and exhilarated) to the thousand times since that I have laughed or nodded along with the site, it has been clear the world is a better place with this blog. So soon?
Chris Ryan ("Billups"): I recently got to witness my first basketball game from press seats. Sixers vs. Knicks, sitting behind the backboard with assorted media at the Wells Fargo Center. It was pretty revelatory, seeing everything from Carmelo Anthony repeatedly telling Toney Douglas to get the fuck out of his way to clocking the weird exchanges between the MSG and Comcast sideline reporters to the way, after calling a timeout, Mike D'Antoni would walk, quickly, to a very specific spot on the court and make a very sharp turn around to face his assistants. I've always been kind of nosy, so it's not like FreeDarko taught me to observe coach's tics or the inner life of sideline reporters (Tina Cervasio ... sad-eyed lady of the lowlands), but it did teach me to see stories and narratives everywhere, even if they were just products of my imagination. And it taught me that all those stories and narratives mattered; as much, if not more, than the one being told on the court.
Note: It has been determined that "Free Darko" was very likely lifted, if unconsciously, from this Billups classic.
Brendan K: I could never really be able to explain what “FreeDarko” means to me, even if I tried. So instead I’ll go to an opposite extreme: I’ll give you one word. It is the expression most beloved of critics of every stripe, the watchword of high-culture frontrunners and after-the-fact elitists alike. For people like you and me, FreeDarko was, “seminal.” The NBA writing renaissance, basketball hipsterdom, sports fandom as outsider art… no matter how it’s been quantified, the “FreeDarko” ethos has left its indelible mark on us all. FreeDarko is closing down in a place where it’s content with being simply what it is. But that’s the beauty of being a “seminal” work, rather than a culminating one.
Dan Shanoff: FreeDarko's essential tenet of "liberated fandom" dovetails with the essential foundation for our current media era -- the one in which sportswriting has never been better than it has been over the past few years. New platforms and new distribution have facilitated smart new voices to emerge, and it is hard to think of a greater poster-child for that than the FreeDarko collective.
Like FD acolytes given intellectual permission to pursue cheering for funky players with no position or stuck on the wrong team or otherwise bending the orthodoxies of the NBA, fans had a new choice of where to get their NBA perspective. That choice was never about "better/worse," just "more/wider." Liberated fandom extends beyond to appreciating Gilbert Arenas or "the next Julian Wright" or the 2007 Warriors -- to taking in a smarter range of NBA analysis.
Jon Bois: It was actually my associate Nick Dallamora who wrote that NBA Dugout on FD a while back; I didn't ever personally contribute to FD, but I'd figure I'd say something anyway.
Free Darko is one of the most important sports blogs we've ever had. The level of talent in sports blogging has exploded over the last couple of years. Part of the reason for that is that the industry is luring good writers, and part of it is because we learn from each other's work. We take ideas from what we read. But FD's blend of high-concept eccentricity, silliness, and genuine, passionate love of the subject matter really can't be emulated, so we're left simply to be inspired. We look at FD, we see something great that is unlike anything that came before it, and we know that it's still possible not only to stand out, but, to paraphrase Shel Silverstein, to put something in the world that ain't been there before.
Postscript: my personal favorite FD headline was "I Can't Bake Fealty," and I guess I will be left to wait eternally for its follow-up post featuring a photo of vegetarian bacon and the headline, "I Can't Fake BLT."
Mark Pike: I don't remember how I stumbled on Free Darko back in 2005, but I've devoured every post since then. As a fan of the League who grew up in an NBA geographical no-man's land, the tenets of Liberated Fandom really resonated with me. The Free Darko collective has done an expert job aestheticizing the game without turning it into a grad school paper, finding beauty outside box scores and writing narrative arcs between X's and O's. It's so hard to say goodbye, but I'm just happy this place ever existed.
Dallas Penn: I'm saddened to learn that FD.com won't be around to see the Nets bring their unique hybrid brand of hoops to my Brooklyn nabe. The Nets are currently an NBAAU team like no other. Drazen where art thou? Okay, we know the answer to that, sadly. Thank you FreeDarko for your love of the balls going hard into the rim. Keep your shorts tight and I'll see you at the post-game buffet.
Alejandro de los Rios: I never had the pleasure to write for you guys, but you kindly helped me out with at BlogofNewOrleans.com when I was trying to make something out of blogging for a small New Orleans weekly. If Free Darko has a legacy in my mind, it's that there is room for kind, hard-working and talented people to do something out of sheer passion and joy of it and somehow turn it into greater opportunities. Not to mention, you guys played a role redefining everything people thought was possible with sports writing online, which is pretty cool.
John Krolik: FreeDarko changed the way I thought about sports when I found it in high school. In college, it was where I learned to write. For me, FreeDarko wasn't one particular voice or set of values. It was a place where sportswriting could be something other than an argument. This is a beautiful and interesting game, and that was always more important to FreeDarko than trying to determine which players or teams reflected an acceptable set of values, be they moral or empirical.
FreeDarko was also where I floated out a bunch of weird theories about NBA basketball, and some of those theories turned into discussions, which remains incredible to me. I'm sure somebody else has written about this, but I don't think we'll ever see a comments section like FD's on another sports site -- nowadays it's all uninteresting people yelling at the writer or interesting people talking with each other. I can't overstate how much those commenters helped me out and made what I was doing feel worthwhile. FreeDarko came at the right time for me, and I'm extremely thankful for that.
Brian Lauvray: "And through the fog of the plague, most art withered into journalism."
And yet there it was. Brilliant, capturing and consuming art for all of us to behold. All of us to scoff at. All of us to, with damning knowledge, sit and be envious of. As a blight of too much information and too much access (thanks, ESPN) rendered that access and information into nothing but worthless sound bytes and yammering talking heads bowing to athlete's demands and corporations shills, there sat FreeDarko. FreeDarko armed with nothing more than keyboards for swords and shields forged from ideas fighting through the blustery manure to deliver truths. Truths that were wrought from the youthful exuberance all of us felt on seeing Shawn Kemp wreck another rim; truth made incarnate less from stats and box scores and more from what these scribes professed with a blistering cocktail of passion and razor intellect.
Matt Ufford: For the journalists who continue to speak ill of us bloggers, we need only one word to refute them: FreeDarko. Six years ago, the stodgy traditions of print media had no place for graduate students who wanted to compare the undeniably American art forms of pro basketball and jazz. The writers of FreeDarko could have only grown in a corner of their own creation, where their posts demanded a familiarity with everything from contemporary rap to Nietzsche to "The Wire" to Renaissance paintings to God knows what else. Most of it went over my head, but that's not FreeDarko's fault: it's mine -- for not being a more passionate fan of the NBA, for not being more cultured, for hating the Philosophy of Religion class I took (I'll say it again: fuck you, Kierkegaard).
Six years, two brilliant books, and countless better-paying freelance gigs later, we're losing FreeDarko, and it is a goddamn shame. True, given its NBA focus and demanding prose, there was no way that FD could ever get the traffic or recognition of Deadspin or countless inferior sports blogs, but within these archives is the inspiration for an entire generation of sports bloggers. FreeDarko was never meant to be the Rolling Stones; it was always Captain Beefheart. Or the Pixies. Or a rapper I should probably know about.
Brian Philips: Sportswriters of a certain vintage, if you ask them what it's all been about, will tend to reply that sportswriting is the greatest job in the world because it gives you "a window on the culture." What they mean by this is that writing about sports is also a way of writing about the stuff that intersects with sports, the big issues, which are bigger than sports and which, unlike sports, are important. Race, poverty, the American dream, celebrity, even the culture-transcending human stuff like hope and tragedy and despair--it's all wonderfully mixed up in the games people play with a ball, and writing about the games can, therefore, be a way of easing into the rest of it, voyaging into the green expanse in a sort of purpose-built golf cart.
The problem I've always had with this view is not that it's untrue but that sportswriters tend to have a phenomenally specialized idea of what culture is. Culture in sportswriting is, not coincidentally, the news as viewed from the back page of the paper: a blurry amalgalm of social-issues headlines filtered through a set of feature-writing formulas, material you can pilot straight down the middle of a mainstream magazine piece. The high-school basketball team in a racially divided small town. The linebacker struggling to keep his focus after his father goes to jail. You can write a lot of this before you read it. Whereas in my view, and I think in most people's lived experience, culture is very seldom broken up into neat snippets of significance--all those anvils that fall from the sky whenever Muhammad Ali comes around--but is a weird and alluring mix of steampunk websites, obscure soul music, motorcycle fan clubs, flavored Chapstik, Dickens novels, psychic breakdowns on Facebook, and people who keep alligators as pets. It's a mess, basically, because it's whatever people do.
It took a first-time reader, I would guess, about eleven seconds of staring at this website to realize that this was the view of culture it brought into sports, and once your neurons lined up, it was a revelation. I will always be grateful to FreeDarko for making me think I wasn't crazy to see all of this magazine-award-unfriendly flux--steampunk websites et. al.--as also having to do with sports and as liable to produce its own surprising meanings when you drew out the connections. (So, say, run a picture of somebody's Dungeons and Dragons group in the middle of a story about the Heat, or, and they really did this one, stage a mock draft for your favorite dinosaurs.) But the thing I admired most about the site was that, for all the postmodern-seeming juxtapositions you get when you take your mandate as "whatever people do," precisely because that was its mandate FreeDarko was always about people, and avoided better than anyone else the almost unavoidable trap of writing about athletes like they're fictional characters, or worse, like they're memes. The authors respected everybody's brains, even the people's they were writing about. Amid all the interstellar lunacy, it was a fundamentally compassionate place. I am seriously going to miss it.
Alana G: There are certain brands that are so strong, their names take on a meaning of their own. No one thinks of actual third world banana republics when they enter a Banana Republic retail store, and KFC no longer has anything to do with Kentucky. "Free Darko" is so much about intelligent basketball analysis that those of us who have been fans of the site forget what the name actually refers to. (Rasheed Wallace does not.) I feel honored to have been a small part of something whose legacy will be far more important than anything to do with Mr. Milicic.
Dan Filowitz: It's hard to believe FreeDarko ever existed. How did something that intelligent and unusual exist in the world of sports, or anywhere? I'm sure I wasn't the only one to feel a sense of shock and elation when I first stumbled across it. How amazing that there was something out there that spoke directly to that part of my brain, the one that wanted to think beyond sportscaster over-simplications and jock platitudes and tired truisms that weren't really true.
That they stuck around as long as they did, instead of disappearing into the void, like so many thousands of blogs created a thousand times a day? That they achieved the level of success they did, publishing books (books! more than one!) and Reebok commercials and everything? Truly incredible.
That I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the family? I can remember the day Ken and I got the email asking us to join forces. It was a similar sensation to finding out that girl you always had a crush on wanted to go to prom with you (if prom was filled with mostly hyper-intelligent like-minded jokers.) And, unlike how a lot of those stories go, this one didn't end up being disappointing. These last couple of years have been a blast.
Now FreeDarko is going away. And as time goes on, it will be harder and harder to believe that it ever existed. Who would be convinced that such a thing could be?
We're keeping the name, and Ken and I will keep doing the podcast for the foreseeable future. So we'll be a signpost, a marker, a reminder that once, something beautiful and strange lived and flourished here. And won't be easily forgotten.
Kenneth Paul Drews: When Kevin Pelton was on the DOC podcast earlier in the season, I asked him to name an easily identifiable number to indicate that a young player was due for a dramatic improvement. His immediate answer was a high rate of turnovers, which seems counterintuitive but really means that a young player who frequently gives away the ball is doing so because he is attacking the game with imagination and fearlessness. From an antectodal perspective, I suggest that you watch an unabridged Celtics game from the 1980’s on YouTube and take not of how many of Larry Bird’s passes to teammates flashing through the lane wound up bobbled or deflected; yes, the traffic in the lane and the speed of the cutter made such passes difficult, but it's kind of a good thing that that Bird was always willing to reward an aggressive cut.
I am in love with the notion that failure-with-gusto is an important element of success; it seems like the primary bit of wisdom that I should pass along to my son after we get the whole “aim your pee at the bowl” thing sorted out. When anybody on FreeDarko failed, it was never for a lack of fearlessness or imagination. They wrote strange things about strange basketball subjects and the fear of being exposed to criticism or failing to execute never seemed to throttle that strangeness. At different moments I have found articles at FreeDarko to be self-congratulatory, long-winded, needlessly complicated, over-simplified, oversimplified yet cloaked in needless complexity, boring, or just plain dopey. You may have bailed on a post or three after 200 word. The site was a salon for writing nerds and guest writing nerds to freaking go for it because, well, why the hell not?
Rafe Bartholomew: Basketball media seem to be subject to the invisible hand. It ushers reporters, columnists, commentators and bloggers towards certain themes, whether it be old-school notions of "character guys" or the recent hysteria over advanced metrics. If you want to be heard, it pays to stay within those boundaries. FreeDarko was a refuge from the market forces, a place where writers could scribble outside the lines and still be reTweeted, even if we were mostly preaching to a choir of like-minded--or is it self-styled?--hoops deviants.
Regardless, if you wanted to lay the seeds for your eventual book-length defense of Bonzi Wells's genius; or if, even better, you came up with a half-legitimate parallel between the lives of Orson Welles and Bonzi Wells (early splendor followed by bloated decline, perhaps?); or if, as in my case, you were fascinated with the culture and tradition of the sport in a Southeast Asian nation that's better known for a transcendent boxer, karaoke-rage killings and government graft than basketball, FreeDarko was home.
Jack Hamilton: FreeDarko was, for me, about that rush of finding something you’d known you’d always wanted but had never quite been able to visualize, that rare and wonderful feeling that’s really speaks to the best of the internet. It was an obsessive playground for people who care more than they should about things most others find frivolous, but also for people who care exactly as much as they should about things about which others should care more: race, cultural politics, aesthetics, shit, even just critical thinking and analysis. It gave a voice to those of us who see through baseball’s vapid sentimentalism and football’s bullying aspirations to hegemony and hold professional basketball—despite of and because of its myriad imperfections—to be the best we have to offer.
If people don’t get that then we’re sorry for them, but we also kind of think they can go fuck themselves, and it was this twisted position that FreeDarko articulated more beautifully than any of our wildest dreams. It was the smartest site about sports I’ve ever read, and often the funniest, but it’s the writing that I’ll take with me, the kind that made you copy and paste entire paragraphs into emails to send to friends and sometimes even had you typing paragraphs into emails just to feel the jealous rush of them emanating from your own fingers. My own contributions to FreeDarko rank among my favorite pieces of anything that I’ve ever written, it was a privilege to serve in every clichéd and un-clichéd sense of that word, and I’m pretty sure everyone else who ever wrote here feels the same way. All best in Slovenian farm league analysis and reporting since 1968 aside, FreeDarko is all one hell of a legacy.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: FreeDarko means carving a niche into an invisible mountain. Since it happened, anything is possible. Smart people can dream up an entire medium from scratch, and gain an audience--provided the work is good. And that notion is helping to fuel my own grandiosity, narcissism and desire to re-appropriate basketball into a camera I shove inside my guts. Oh well, all great revolutions have some nasty unintended consequences.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Shoals for prompting my Ricky Rubio article. Over the course of editing, he looked out for my interests in a way that may have preemptively saved a career. Thank you.
Gordon Gartrelle: Because winning/losing is its ultimate arbiter of value, the realm of sports often attracts the kind of black/white thinking that thinking people abhor. Generally speaking, mainstream sports discourse is as uncritical, stale, retrograde, and conformist as mainstream political discourse. Five years ago, I was consumed with the latter as a Political Science Ph.D. student feeling not quite right about my choice to pursue academia.
Part of what grounded me was writing like mad about the pernicious racialized elements of sports writing and rap criticism, subjects that interested me but that were, at best, only tangentially related to my dissertation. When I should have been reading Habermas and Bourdieu, I was spending my time seeking out writers who bashed middle-aged white guy sportswriter and rock critic clichés. My search led me to one established giant, Ralph Wiley, and one nascent cluster of genius, Freedarko. Of course, Wiley and Freedarko weren’t the only ones offering nuanced sports narratives, but more than anyone else, they spoke to me.
I marveled at Wiley’s passion and style, but I read his archived material chiefly for the content: the brilliant mix of contempt, insight, and humor that somehow slipped through the cracks and made it into a mainstream sports outlet. My attraction to Freedarko was, like the writing on the site, more nebulous. Their methodology was alien, but intriguing. Their approach was so captivating, they actually made me more sympathetic to (post)modern literary criticism, which I loathed at the time, but now merely dislike.
I grew up in a place with no pro teams and have resided in 4 major cities, so I have no regional or emotional attachment to any team. I’ve always rooted for individual players and weirdos. I still root for the athletes the mainstream sports media vilify. That a group of hyperliterate hoop savants could define my sports-watching ethos--“liberated fandom”--so perfectly was just icing on the cake.
And that style? Let me put it this way: if George Gervin’s game could be translated into written word, I’m convinced it would read like Freedarko.
Pasha Malla: Recently I met up with an author I admired but had never met to talk about soccer. Beforehand, I described myself to this person over email: "Not very tall, badly shaven, worse haircut, hooded sweatshirt probably, glasses." The guy wrote back: "I'm the same -- but aren't we all?"
I met Shoals once, in New York. We went to some famous restaurant and ate brisket or smoked meat or something. Shoals wasn't wearing glasses (maybe contacts?) but he otherwise fit the bill. It's sort of disheartening as an adult to realize that you're a type, but then once the shame fades I guess there's something nice about it too. What I'm saying is that our lunch was sort of gay, but gay in the way that the gay teenager from rural Saskatchewan runs away to San Francisco and wanders down Castro Street in a sort of daze like, "Holy fuck, there are other people like me?!"
I think any "community" is sort of bullshit, but it'd be hard to think of FD as anything else. Or at least a sort of communal hub. Or at least a sort of rec centre with NBA League Pass on the bigscreen, except everyone watches games with the sound down because they're funnier than most of the announcers and talk about players in terms that bring them to life better than points-in-the-paint graphics and corporate-sponsored replays.
Someone I know once described FD as "a bunch of semiotics majors who went to Brown." I wasn't really sure what that was supposed to mean, and when I asked Shoals he said, "You can be a semiotics major?" I don't know. But, in some way, aren't we all?
Zac Crain: At its best, and it almost always was, FreeDarko seemed to me like one of the worlds inside the world that Don DeLillo wrote about. (And while I'm here: a place where you could casually make reference to DeLillo and writers and other things much more obscure, and it made sense.) Or, I guess, a conversation inside the conversation. Or a [something] inside the [something]. I will not give up on my self-generated meme. It elevated the game by reducing it, to a team, or a player, or an idea, or some intersection. I would have loved, just once, to have seen/heard a broadcast of an NBA game as mounted by the FD team. I suppose there is still time.
Bob Bjarke: Reading FreeDarko got me through a divorce, three disastrous haircuts and the 2006-2007 NBA playoffs. Without the insight found on these pages, I would be lost in a sea of Gene Wojciechowski and also probably a Knicks fan. There's nothing quite like the time spent trying to figure out why a particular image has been selected to begin or end and particular blog post. Thank you, FD.
Rough Justice: I’m not prone to letting the first person seep into anything I write. I get too self-conscious too quickly. However, though I have no interest in trying to quantify the specific impact of FreeDarko on the basketball (and general) sports discourse, it know changed the way I let myself think about sports. I cut my informed fandom teeth on baseball, where following Bill James and his disciples down the rabbit hole of statistics was the key to slipping beyond the received wisdom of ex-athletes and vapid talking heads.
If sabermetrics shepherded me into a Mario 2-esque netherworld, where RBIs told you less than walks and OPS was a shibboleth, stumbling onto FD did nothing less than kick down the artificial walls I had constructed between my aesthetic appreciation of athletic endeavor and my broader opinions of what it meant. It had simply never occurred to me that I could approach the sports I cared about the same way I do the books, movies, and other sundry entertainments that clutter my mental life. I have never felt the need to disassociate myself from rooting for specific teams, but freeing myself from the constraints of received sporting wisdom was dizzying. If you stop taking the intentional fallacy that gets packaged with highlights on SportsCenter at face value, things really get interesting. So even though the blog is shuttering its doors. I’m not sweating it. The FD team is just taking its game elsewhere, and Internet discourse is one big balkanized playground. Plenty of people these days are more than happy to train their personal lens on whatever game and/or league moves them. You can’t unliberate fandom.
Matt Kreishner: If pro basketball, as I’ve been told, is the closest metaphor for life we can find in sport,then Free Darko is its over-dubbed narrator. With the voice of a Jewish Morgan Freeman, we are taught the inherent tragedy begetting success or the often hypocritical view of disappointment. We've learned to embrace Monta in his quiet vigor, Delonte in his tragic struggle, and Hakeem in all his glory. We, the basketball obsessed, have come to view FreeDarko as our sounding board, as well as our reality check.
The life of the basketball obsessed is a trial by disappointment. We wait for moments of transcendence we know are possible; game-winners and other feats of heroics, even juicier if produced through sacrificing of one's body, are evidence of the perfection of form and timing, athleticism and grace we so long to observe. We look to and rely upon our own insight to predict the fleeting instances when basketball ends and art begins because it is here, sports fan as Nostradamus, where the justification of our obsession lies. It is in this schism between expectation and reality where FreeDarko has found importance. After all, the beauty of life, and basketball, is seen not in its moments of aleatory perfection, but in the daily existence of hope and pain, of comedy and tragedy inherent in its daily grind. In the timeless words of Sammy Hagar- "you miss the beat, you lose the rhythm."
Corban Goble: With Free Darko, the lucid outsider lens became not only an acceptable angle through which to cover sports, it’s now the preferable way to do it. I was insantly hooked; it’s like zine culture applied to sports and blown out on the Internet, and people dug it on a really cult level. Radical shit, for sure. I will miss the site, but its spirit survives in all the weird, left-field sports blogs that Free Darko inspired. Special thanks to Shoals for keeping tabs on me, and I’ll be obviously following your flowering careers as you engage different projects.
Kevin Pelton: I was always FreeDarko; I just didn't know it. Like many NBA fans, I glorified in oddball players who failed to fit neatly into the league's bucketed roles long before there was a website devoted to them, but it was only once I realized that FreeDarko was not in fact dedicated to tracking the progress of Darko Milicic's career that I realized there were so many like-minded individuals out there. FreeDarko legitimized the combination of literary writing and sports, previously the near-exclusive province of baseball, and proved that appreciating aesthetic beauty was compatible with being aware of bottom-line statistical value. For that, I will eternally be grateful.
Plus Shoals gave me a ride back to my hotel on Saturday, so that was convenient. Thanks.
Sebastian Pruiti: As far back as I can remember, I was always someone who watched basketball with an eye towards teams as a whole and Xs and Os, instead of looking at individuals. I had my favorite players sure, but when I watched games I focused on how they interacted/worked within the philosophy of the team. When I came across FreeDarko, their fantastic writing (both online and with their first book) got me thinking about and appreciating the individual style of the players in the league. Even though I still mainly focused on the Xs and Os, I can still appreciate the individualism of the game thanks in large part to FreeDarko.
Randy Kim: As an editor who started out in this business as an aspiring writer, Free Darko makes me think of a scene from Mike Nichols' horrible-but-terrific 1994 film, "Wolf". There's one scene -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- where James Spader, playing a sleazy New York book editor, tells one of his publishing house's talented authors: "I always wanted to be a writer. Until I read your work. Then I realized I'd never be good enough." As an actor, Spader sells the line well, making his character's own personal mix of disappointment and respect feel genuine.
The line always stuck with me because at some point along the way, you will have at least one (or in my case, two or three) of those moments where, no matter how much you trust in your own abilities, you will encounter others who are so much better than you at what you had always hoped to do, that their mastery of the craft could threaten to send you into a tailspin if you let yourself dwell upon your own relative insufficiency for too long.
Free Darko was always a place I would go not just to read about hoops, but to bathe myself in the glorious, scratchy shame of inadequacy.
I'm just thankful they let me play along. I wear the wool shirt with pride, Nathaniel. Thank you.
Paul Flannery: I came late to the party, long after the theories were hashed out in the public realm, and to be honest I still don’t really know what FreeDarko actually means. I can accept that because to me FD has always worked better as a concept than a strict set of guidelines. It was a place to explore and let the mind wander and that is an infinitely more valuable thing to have created than a nebulous philosophy about weird basketball players.
Over the last few years I’ve had Dr. LIC speak at my journalism class, shared tapas with Shoals and enjoyed a mighty fine sandwich with Freeman while discussing Thomas Pynchon. That quite honestly blows my mind when I stop to think about the feeling of wonder I had when I encountered the first book in a shop in Harvard Square. I decided two things immediately. First, this was fucking brilliant and, second I had to find out more about these dudes. Now that I have, I find the whole FD experience even more amazing. There was no reason for it and yet it somehow became essential. Like Mission of Burma, or something. We were all richer for its existence and now I suspect we will be that much poorer without it. Long live FreeDarko, whatever it was.
Dan Devine: Years before I became incredibly famous, I was a scared-ass stan who looked at this place with slack-jawed wonder, staring through my monitor like it was a department store window at something I couldn't quite describe but desperately, desperately wanted. The idea that you could like things because they were awesome, independent of geography or tribalism, without being somehow less-than, was transformational to me. The prose, the stats, the Z-graphs, the pictures -- those beautiful, beautiful original ones and those curious, curious repurposed ones -- everything about this site just sang.
I feel privileged to have gotten to write something here that I'm still really proud of when I re-read it today. I feel lucky to have made a couple of friends (or at least fond acquaintances) here, and that I get to continue to work with a member of this crew every day. I feel grateful -- seriously, with-all-my-heart grateful -- that Shoals made me realize how trying to tie "Jordan was a different animal" to "G.O.A.T." and actually meaning it was tantamount to basketball-writing suicide. (That was a life-saving edit.)
I feel sorry to watch this place go, but thrilled beyond the telling of it that it ever existed, because it needed to, and I don't think the rest of us would have ever known how to create it if it didn't. Thanks for everything, guys.
Wayne Washington: It was a similar feeling to watching Adult Swim for the first time. What the hell did I just read? That was my first impression but I was instantly a fan. It was refreshing to read basketball written with different tone. The emphasis of style, creativity, and being unique gave the reader more than the usual statistics and catch phrases that comprise a majority of sports journalism. I would like to thank FreeDarko for opening the door and allowing a player/writer such as myself to contribute to the site. The intelligent humor and peculiar observations will most definitely be missed. Thanks for the memories.
Jason Johnson: When given the opportunity to share what Free Darko means to me, my first inclination was to focus on the adjective, because frankly, I geek out over shit like that. Ascribing a nebulously defined and completely subjective traits to people I’ve never met has long been a hobby of mine (for what it’s worth Allen Iverson is the only person in history to be Hip-Hop and Punk, and Free Darko). Unfortunately for me, this blog has explored Free Darko, the adjective far more thoughtfully and eloquently than I’m capable of doing at this time, or dare I say it, on my best day. That leaves with no choice other than sticking to the assignment, so here it is: FreeDarko is music criticism from a bizarro universe where basketball actually is jazz.
Yago Colás: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History provided a structuring backbone to my Cultures of Basketball course. It also served as a rich, beautiful literary text the close reading of which helped me clarify and develop my own reflections on hoops history at Go Yago! The History exemplified for me and my students a way of thinking about the game that pays thoughtful attention to its social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions without sacrificing smart analysis of what happens on the court. And Bethlehem Shoals has been a generous interlocutor and even a friend over the past several months. Among other things, he also lent his position and credibility to my own fledgling blog and in so doing sharing that premium internet commodity: the attentive reader.
William Blake says that “He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.” In relation to basketball, until late last summer, I was desiring and acting not, and I was breeding pestilence. My fiancée Claire, my playground posse in St. Louis, my students at Michigan, and Free Darko all helped me learn to act. So Free Darko.com, in some way, will always stand alongside a few others in a group of those who remind that I’m not alone in my struggle to act on my desires and who by their own example inspire me to carry on in the effort to put more, rather than less, of myself into a world that often seems inhospitable. I’ll miss Free Darko and the particular promise of possibility that it offered. But I have firmly in hand the most important thing that it provided me: the sense that I can make a home in the world for my visions and maybe, in the process, make the world more of a home for someone else as well.
I remember when we shared a vision, you and I.I'm not even sure I should be here. I'll bellow about having been a fellow traveller, but in point of fact I contributed exactly one piece to the FreeDarko oeuvre, and it came at an end-stage moment, when the site qua site could probably best have been described as "moribund" (neither dissing nor dismissing the many triumphs of Yago Colas). I know it is neither appropriate nor accurate to bemoan the shutdown frozen loss of the site: young men with free time become married men whose musings need to turn into words that can be exchanged for cash money, and I do not begrudge that (of the men, anyway: the world yet must answer for its wrongs). I do not begrudge it and yet I fear that the FreeDarko content (superstructure)--spread out into the wider world, perhaps not even tendrils anymore, perhaps just diffuse, atomized...vibes--will suffer from not having a hub (base). The smart and wise components of FreeDarko are in the world, to be sure, and sure they comprise a genre won't be lost. My fear is that without a locus and emblem, the genre'll end up more marginalized and largely forgotten power pop, rather than here-vital, there-misappropriated punk. There's no retreat or surrender.
--the Mountain Goats, "Estate Sale Sign", All Eternals Deck, 2011
--the Mountain Goats, "Estate Sale Sign", All Eternals Deck, 2011
The future will always hold a space for making a detailed and passionate case for interpretation and analysis beyond brute wins/losses, for arguing that these athletic exhibitions can mean on levels biographical and historical, for championing engagement beyond jingoism, for all the intelligence and joy, all the ferocity and levity, the in-group pandering and the friendly winking, for strident insistence and patient hints and for, maybe most of all, celebrating overlooked wonders in the face of the oppressive hegemonic dullardry that constitutes most public talking-and-thinking-about-sports. There will always, always (now) be a space for FreeDarko. But there are things only happen on the playground and never in the marketplace. That's why I'm frankly angry and sad about the closing off of the FreeDarko site as a venue for FreeDarko work. Maybe I shouldn't be here on this day, but this is a funeral, and you can't ask me to act like it isn't.
--Fat Contradiction, townsman of a stiller town
Eric Nusbaum: I'm bummed to see FreeDarko go but thrilled to have had the belated chance to contribute. When I started my own blog, it was because I wanted to write. Baseball was just a topic. FD opened me up to think a blog could be something fresh, literary, non-derivative -- and actually popular. We even made jokes about changing the name from Pitchers & Poets to FreeGarko. (I like to think we're of the same spirit, but you know, not plagiarizing.)
If the site of FD hasn't influence my prose style, it has definitely influenced my perspective and emboldened my ambitions. More than any other blog, book, entity of any kind, FD has influenced the way I think about sports. What does it mean to me? FreeDarko means liberal arts education for the sportsreading public. FD isn't about the facts you learn or the texts you read, it's about learning how to think.
David Roth: It feels odd, contributing to the particular bit of meta-history, given that these are the first words I've ever written at Free Darko. (I might've left a comment on the long-ago discussion of whether or not Elie Seckbach's I-got-to-be-semi-bullied-by-Kobe-Bryant videos were Bad For The Jews, but I'm not going to check that right now) But I think I've nonetheless written a few Free Darko words, and I've certainly tried to. What that means to me is both very clear in its generalities and a little opaque in its specifics. I know when I see it, though, and I know I'm proud when I see myself managing it -- it's a dead seriousness anti-seriousness, and a sort of manifestly engaged and passionate distance.
As someone who has to read a lot of sportswriting for (one of) my regular freelance gigs, I can attest to the fact that, as influential as the FD outlook has been to those who care about this sort of thing, it is not at all widespread in the broader discourse. Writing about sports is still dominated by hysterical overreaction and dour fake seriousness and bad, bad prose. There is a lot of witless, unself-aware grumping going on, still, and an around-the-clock outrage-manufacturing apparatus pumping reeking columns of bummer-y pollution. In a macro sense, Free Darko has not changed this, and much of what's out there to read is not appreciably more Free Darko for the work that has been done here at Free Darko. But of course that's not at all it.
Because for the people who care about this stuff -- of whom there are a lot, and who care a lot -- this site and these ideas did change a great deal. Not just about how we understand positionality or being fans or watching basketball or whatever, but about how we care about and how we feel about caring about all this BS. Because all the sour half-assery and fake huffiness and grumpy grumpiness I just mentioned has for so long defined the way we talk about sports, and because so much of the ostensible voice-of-the-fan stuff that has come along and supposedly challenged it since does not really sound like the voice of any fan I'd want to hang out with, Free Darko was that much more necessary and welcome and bracing. It's not quite as simple as Free Darko demonstrating that it was possible to write about sports in a Free Darko way, one that was intelligent and aware and amusing and liberated (I know, I know) from the strictures of the old ways, and demonstrating it in a way that was fun enough to make others want to do it. But it's not a lot more complicated than that, either. And while I'll miss Free Darko as a venue for all this, I don't imagine I'll have a chance to miss Free Darko in its adjectival sense. This style and idea and approach are not going anywhere, and long after this site is swallowed by the void -- or bobs around in it and gets embarrassing, a la the Space Jam website -- people are going to be trying to do this. I will be, at least.
Silverbird5000: It's been an honor to be part of FreeDarko since it's earliest days, though I regret my contributions have been increasingly infrequent. As a resident statistician here and in print, I suppose I conceived my role to be the mobilization of empirical data in support of FD's moral, spiritual and aesthetic agenda. When it comes to the statistical analysis of sports, the overwhelming share of man’s energy has been devoted to problems of evaluation, ranking, measurement. All are entirely worthwhile concerns, yet buried in the same data are countless other insights and mysteries in need of excavation, and that, for me, is what FreeDarko is/was about. Conceptual insights that bubbled up from blog posts and their comment threads – ideas like Liberated Fandom or The Positional Revolution – have empirical referents that need to be quantified, tabulated and visualized.
Then there are the players and teams themselves. Every television show, radio program, or debate among friends on the subject of sports almost always boils down to a single conversation topic: who’s the best and why. FreeDarko was no different, except the conversation lasted more than half a decade and instead of “best” we substituted our own eponymous superlative. And like the idea of the Positional Revolution, the question of "Who is FreeDarko and Why" had a statistical answer as well as a philosophical one. Arenas’ propensity to take unnecessarily deep 3’s, or Sheed’s singular appetite for technical fouls – these were among the qualities that made such players our own. To discover that these qualities were not simply accidental but had a statistical rationale both confirmed our affections and deepened them. Or so I like to believe.
Still, there is more work to be done. Since the blog began in 2005 and the books were published, several stats-oriented sites have been born that share a kindred spirit with our own. I believe there’s room for at least one more, and so (IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT), in the next couple months, I hope to launch a new FD spin-off stats site, in collaboration with Big Baby Belafonte/Jacob Weinstein, with the goal of continuing the statistical and visualization project that began with our blog and books. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for several years now I'm hoping to finally launch a Beta version sometime during the playoffs. So keep an eye of the FD Twitter feed for updates.
Brown Recluse, Esq.: As proud as I am of everything FreeDarko has accomplished over the past six and a half years, I still feel something like Eddie House popping my jersey at the end of a blowout victory in the NBA Finals--these aren’t really my accomplishments. But, even Kobe’s 81-point game was a team victory, so I’ll take the W and bring out the championship ring for special occasions such as this. We all know that Shoals is a gifted writer with a very specific, sometimes incomprehensible worldview, and he has written many brilliant pieces both in this space and elsewhere, but it’s the team efforts that I’ll remember most fondly--the epic Every Game Preview, the absurd game chats, psychoanalyzing each other based on our favorite players, somehow making the playoffs a battle between Asians and Jews. Personal and professional commitments (including my commitment to being lazy) have made it difficult for me to write much lately, and I’ve been effectively retired for a while now, but it’s nice to know that the blog will remain here, so I can come back to visit, stroll through the locker room, and think about how we changed the game.
Dr. LIC: In 2004, I was walking around Berkeley with a friend from college telling him about a new type of sportswriting I wanted to try, except I wasn’t making any sense to him. I didn’t know myself exactly what I meant, but I knew it was somewhere to the left of Bill Simmons (whom I read obsessively pre-2004 World Series), somewhat DFW-inspired, but with shorter words, and something that allowed me to work in references to Gravediggaz. I really couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew there was a gap to be filled in the (at the time) internet wasteland of sportswriting.
Then I started reading Chauncey Billups’ inimitable blog, and saw a world of possibilities greater than I could have ever imagined. Through the comments section on Billups’ site I reconnected with Bethlehem Shoals, someone I knew through internet exchanges since I was 16. It turned out Shoals and his college/high school friends had their own plan for a blog that was creative and new in its own right, and he invited me to join. The early crew that consisted of Shoefly, Brown Recluse, Esq, Big Baby, El Huracan Andreo, Silverbird, and Shoals had this outsider humor among them that only develops between friends if you’re like, the Beastie Boys or something. I tried to catch on and soon got my own groove going, but it was only through following Shoals’ lead. The irreverent titles, the wacky pictures, the writing like you’re driving off of a cliff, this was Shoals’ genius branding that continued through the present day and has inspired countless people to write about sports with some soul.
I can’t believe it resulted in two books, getting to watch the Recluse ask Thabo Sefolosha about South African jazz in the Bulls locker room, fanmail and shout-outs from people like JA Adande and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, helping to produce a t-shirt that just says SWAG on it in 2007, getting to write for outlets ranging from The Crier to Sports Illustrated, getting to hang out with Will Leitch, attending the best wedding ever (Shoals’), and this post, which is my favorite thing I have ever been a part of. I can’t believe how many genius people have written for this site over the years and how many opportunities it has opened up for us. Thank you Free Darko for making me a happier, less depressed, less anxious person.
April 11, 2011 — The following is a statement from Big Baby Belafonte, née Jacob Weinstein, regarding his retirement from FreeDarko and basketball
After a great deal of thought, as well as discussion with my family and friends, I have decided to retire from basketball. This is a difficult decision, and it is an emotional moment for me.
Ever since I was a small boy, I dreamed of collaborating with my friends while illustrating strange athletes at the highest level of competition. I dreamed of being part of a strange basketball blog. I dreamed of working on strange basketball books. Thanks to my teammates and the support of many other people, all of these strange dreams have come true.
My physical skills are as strong as ever. But the mental aspect is not the same—the challenge is no longer as great. I promised myself—and I have said many times publicly—that when the mental challenge began to fade, I would leave. That time is now here.
I thank all of the teammates and coaches I have been associated with throughout my career, and especially my teammates here at FreeDarko A blog such as this is first and foremost a team game. We have won championships at FreeDarko because of teamwork and team unity. I cherish those championships with FreeDarko more than anything else.
I am grateful to the FreeDarko organization for providing me with so many great opportunities. But most of all, I thank the fans. You accepted me the day I arrived as a young illustrator from New Delhi. Your support has always given me added inspiration and motivation.
In the coming months, I look forward to spending more time with my family, something that was not always possible because of the demands of FreeDarko. I also have other things I hope to accomplish, especially in the world of table tennis. I hope, too, that you will respect my privacy, and that of my family, in the days ahead.
I wish the very best to my FD teammates in all of their future endeavors. I'm sure many of us will meet again on the court, in some shape or form. I will always be a part of FreeDarko and a FreeDarko fan. My family and I have made FreeDarko our home, and we have a special place in our hearts for the blog and its people.
The basketball blogging community is the strongest professional sports blogging community in the world. The league and the game are bigger than any one blog—FreeDarko included—and they always will be. I hope that today's bloggers—especially our young bloggers—continue to recognize that simple fact. Nothing is more important than the game itself and the fans who support it.
I am privileged to have been a part of FreeDarko.
Bethlehem Shoals: When we started FreeDarko, we thought we knew everything. We had doctrine, catch-phrases, invented theories, and an extensive list of heroes and villains. There was even an uncompromising house style, one whose major influence, as far as I could tell, was Babelfish. I guess you could say we were ideologues, or fancied ourselves a movement, except we didn't. It just seemed like the only reasonable way to charge in and start making bold, possibly faulty, points about professional sports. We were wrong as often as we were right, and we knew it, but part of the fun was never letting on that we cared—or even noticed.
At some point, that started to change. Maybe it was when we took on a few new writers; realized the comments section was probably a better read than some of the posts; or first started getting approached about outside work. The pretense started to fall away, we tried to stake out some middle ground, occasionally. And when necessary, we would reverse our judgments, sometimes even acknowledging that the teams we liked the least might have something of value to offer the world. Certainty has always been an important part of the FD experience. But we were at our best when we drew it from, say, the Believe! Warriors or LeBron in Detroit. The original SSOL squad, our first heroes, didn't need us to prop them up. They were pushing us all along, and it's because of moments like these—or any number of Gilbert Arenas game-winners—that FreeDarko has reached the heights is has. It was never about us. We did it because of, maybe even for, them. Liberated or otherwise, this always was a fansite at heart.
Now, when I look back at the first year or so, or even try to make peace with an idea like Liberated Fandom or the Positional Revolution, I find myself less certain than ever. That's not to say the game no longer inspires me, or that I've run out of ideas. Nor is a commentary on the tremendous letdown—aesthetically, competitively, politically, and anything else you can think of—that the Heat's season has come to represent. I think it's more that, after six years, I'm trying harder than ever to just listen to the game, and take those scraps of truth and insight where I can. This kind of decentralization may not be as fun, but it's more honest, and certainly more durable. And really, it's taking the real point of FreeDarko and casting aside all its former egotism. Or, if you want, realizing that revolutions and movements either burn out, go underground, or fade into what's next. Whatever it is, I blame basketball.