It Takes One, Baby

by Tobias Peterson

21 February 2007


Idiots. Jackasses. Schmucks. Fools. Funny things to call your potential clients. Still, in a roundabout way, that’s exactly the kind of disrespect Adidas is handing out in its latest “It Takes Five” ad campaign. The premise is simple enough. NBA stars like Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, and Chauncey Billups are shown addressing the camera as they go through what we might imagine to be the typical routine of a pro basketballer: talking to a horde of reporters, waving to adoring fans, attending victory parades, and, of course, slam dunking over hapless opponents. All the while, the stars patiently explain to the viewer that “You were fooled” if you though that any of this sort of behavior was self promotion. Instead, we’re told, it’s about the team. “It takes five, baby,” smiles McGrady as he runs back down the court, getting a pound from a teammate.

The ad leaves off with Garnett’s pointed question, “You’re not a fool, are you?”

Well, yes. That is, anyone who has ever griped (privately or aloud) that the NBA is a hotbed full of egomaniacal ingrates—a standard and by now clichéd axe that’s ground by fans of all the major sports – has, according to the ad’s refiguring of these superstars, been duped all along. Rather than appreciating the players’ behaviors as part and parcel of a team game, critics have instead been misinterpreting their actions as conspicuous displays of individualism.

Fans in the know, then, are free to laugh at the ignorance of their cantankerous compatriots. And, actually, fans who might have previously objected to displays of NBA ego on the court are likewise free to scoff, and privately shrug off their error as something they perhaps knew all along (now that the TV has told them so). Cleverly, the ad operates around this central, subtle insult of foolishness and asks its viewers to engage in a moment of silent reflection to determine which group of fans—those who are with it, or those without a clue—they belong to.

It’s no accident that, as Adidas would have it, the cool, smart group of fans are the ones who’ve seen the team concept at work all along. What’s really at stake in this ad is the need for the company to establish trust with its consumers via a pair of ever-present and underlying values imposed upon any professional sport: team play and work ethic. By underscoring the value of self-effacing cooperation and, more importantly, by framing its spokesplayers as similarly inclined, Adidas reels in those who might otherwise be disaffected by the common perception that pro athletes are greedy, selfish bastards with little regard for the hard working fan.

Still, Adidas unintentionally presents us with another layer to consider. The ad features players that are, to a man, the dominant presence and personality on their team. None of them, for example, need an introduction; they speak directly to an audience that already knows their face because of their individual prominence in the league. Moreover, the audience knows them intimately, by their nicknames: KG, T-Mac, Timmy D, Mr. Big Shot. These guys aren’t anonymous workhorses, they’re the marquee players of today’s NBA. If Adidas really wanted to emphasize team play, they could have hired the 12th man from any team’s roster, or better yet, any of the anonymous players who toil in the NBA’s Developmental League, eking out a minor league living in the hopes of one day making it to the Association.

Instead, we get superstars trying to deny their own superstardom. The featured players, with one notable exception, are all first-round draft picks—two of which (Garnett and McGrady) came to the NBA directly from high school. They’ve made their reputations by superseding the talents and abilities of those around them, including those of their own teammates. Naturally, they can’t win single-handedly, but each, to a man, is capable of single-handedly being the deciding factor in the ebb and flow of his team’s fortunes.

Still, what of the lone exception among these players, a lowly, second-round draftee among the cream of the basketball crop? Might Adidas pin some hope of egoless teamwork on his humble jersey? To own the truth, he’s the largest personality of the bunch. Call him Agent Zero, or The Hibachi, or The East Coast Assassin, or The Black President, or, least colorfully, Gilbert Arenas; he’s the most dynamic, most talked about individual playing in the league today.

In the Adidas ad, Arenas is shown covered with tennis balls against a green screen, modeling for a video game version of himself. As he moves, he mentions his ability to “drop thirty, forty” points in a game (though it’s still just about the team). Arenas has, in fact, dropped 50 or more on three separate occasions this year (as of this writing), scoring 60 in a game against the Lakers and prompting Kobe Bryant—one of the most notorious ball hogs in the game—to call Arenas out for making bad shots and “just chucking it up there”. In fact, one of his many monikers, The Hibachi, comes from his ability to heat up on the court and scorch opposing defenses.   

But, importantly, it’s not Agent Zero’s (albeit considerable) game, it’s his gab that’s getting attention. “Hibachi”, for example, is something that he himself shouts as he lets his shots go on the court. And, unlike most players, Arenas’ displays of personality aren’t confined to trash talking. His unique individualism off the court has, by now, been documented in countless newspaper and magazine articles. He’s been known to play online poker during halftime, for example, or shower in full uniform. He’s an avid Xbox player, and sponsors a champion Halo 2 team. He recently spent a million dollars on a birthday party for himself, hosted by Diddy, and allowed in only those invitees who could produce a black “Arenas Express” card to gain admission. Team play? Agent Zero’s personality quirks are so well documented that there’s even a scientific term now for his own behavior: Gilbertology. 

Yet, in his interactions with the media, Arenas is quick to point to his own motivation in all of this. Could this be where Adidas reels in their spokesplayer as a model of cooperative sportsmanship? Is it victory at all costs that drives him to such bizarre heights? Or perhaps the love of his teammates?  Nothing of the sort.  It’s revenge. Told he wasn’t going to make his high school varsity team, Arenas has, throughout his career, been fighting an uphill battle for recognition. “Agent Zero” refers to the number he wears on his Washington Wizards jersey, which in turn refers to the number of minutes he was told he’d play of collegiate basketball. Passed over by UCLA, Arenas went to Arizona where little was expected of him. He acquitted himself well enough for an NBA career, but has publicly never forgotten that he was passed over for first round draft consideration. Still another of his nicknames, “The East Coast Assassin”, derives from being snubbed for a spot on the 2006 East Coast All Star team, making it onto the roster only when Jermaine O’Neal had to sit out with an injury.

Like some athletic version of the Count of Monte Cristo, Arenas is bent on revenging past injustices in as spectacular a fashion as possible. Most recently, he announced that he’d collectively score 100 points in the pair of games he had against two coaches he felt had slighted him. Denied a spot on the USA men’s national team, Arenas swore vengeance against Mike D’Antoni (the Phoenix Suns’ head coach) and Nate McMillan (the Portland Trailblazers’ coach), since they were assistants on the national team that failed to select him. The US team’s head coach, Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, is also a target. Arenas speculated that he’d give up a year of pro eligibility to go back to the college ranks and score “84 or 85” against Duke.

That feat has yet to happen. Amazingly enough, though, Agent Zero dropped 54 on Phoenix during his first game against the Suns, though he only managed nine against Trailblazers. But this isn’t about fulfilling promises. Even the mere prospect of Arenas’ speculation was enough to generate an unusual buzz around what would ordinarily be an unremarkable regular season game. More importantly, this kind of interest is due entirely to one player’s outlandish displays of self interest. For all the lip service paid to the concept of team by Adidas and other companies who have a financial stake in the NBA, it’s ultimately personality, not the game, that moves fans to cheer and spend money. Arenas makes such a compelling figure precisely because he frustrates the conventions of the humble, thankful player giving credit to his teammates, coaches, Jesus, and the rest of the usual suspects.

In short, Agent Zero is an entertainer who’s not conflicted about the role of athletes in modern sport. While the safer route is to emphasize teamwork and play down the role of the individual, a closer look reveals that such a stand always involves a kind of doublespeak in which the importance of the players—individuals in whom we take intense interest—must be shrugged off in the very same breath that it’s underscored. There are sports for fans who only care about team play, but they take place in school gymnasiums and on little league fields, where athletes perform in front of tens, not tens of thousands. The true dupe is suggesting otherwise. Those who believe, as Adidas suggests, that anonymity is truly the key to our investment in sports are the real fools.

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