Back in the day, there was this sportswriting tradition where a local columnist would preview a big playoff series by writing the equivalent of a diss track directed at the opposing team. A scribe like myself would loosen up the old ivory-ticklers and lather up the home crowd with one-liners like, “Trae Young isn’t allowed to ride an escalator unattended” or “Trae Young has to jump around in the shower just to get wet” or “Trae Young is a factory outlet Curry.” And then everybody would laugh. And if they didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. Because we worked for monopolies, and they were pretty much stuck with us.
Times have changed, of course. Subtle acts of dehumanization aren’t as socially acceptable as they once were. These days, you can’t even throw a water bottle at an athlete without people calling you a criminal. Forget about dumping a beer on them. The other day I heard that the Knicks banned one of their own fans for life just for spitting on Young. Here in Philly, we used to call that cooling someone down with your mouth.
It’s a shame, too. With the Hawks coming to town to face the Sixers in the Eastern Conference semis, Young would have an opportunity to turn himself into a civic legend over the next couple of weeks. Granted, it would have come with the risk of spending the rest of his life in therapy, if therapy wasn’t also something we made fun of back then. But it would have been great entertainment!
I’m kidding, of course. The columnist wars always felt somewhat contrived, and they weren’t always the most responsible of endeavors. Besides, Young doesn’t need my help to become one of those postseason villains who carves out a place in Philadelphia lore. In fact, he’s got all of the characteristics to become one of this city’s all-time great antagonists.
He’s got the bravado. You saw it after the Hawks eliminated the Knicks, when Young celebrated the Game 5 victory by taking a dramatic bow to the crowd at Madison Square Garden. Was it Reggie Miller giving Spike Lee the choke sign? Of course not. Was it a cliche? Sure. Did it come after a game in which Young shot 10-for-28 from the field and 3-for-11 from three-point range? You bet it did. Still, it takes a certain kind of person to do that kind of thing.
You saw it with the Saints a few years ago with their ski masks and their postgame appropriation of “Dreams and Nightmares.” You’ve seen it from countless Philly heels: Matthew Barnaby jumping Garth Snow, smirking at the crowd, Warren Sapp and Jeremy Shockey running their mouths, Tie Domi spraying a water bottle at the crowd, Jared Dudley taunting Ben Simmons.
Young embraced his moment in the New York spotlight. At the Wells Fargo Center, he’ll again be center stage.
“They’re going to do whatever they can do to help their team win, and that’s what a fan base is supposed to do,” Young said Friday. “It’s going to be a fun environment. I’m looking forward to meeting some Philly fans.”
In addition to the personality, Young’s got the game. He’s just good enough to get under your skin, and just bad enough to hold it over his head. This is a key element of being a heel. A crowd needs to be able to chant expletives at you without sounding ridiculous. Barnaby, Dudley, Scott Stevens, Cody Ross, Jonathan Broxton. They were all good enough to warrant the spotlight and inspire varying levels of torment, but they all had the sorts of games that fans could mock with a straight face.
Young is very much the same. Is he difficult to contain? Sure. But so are Internet memes. Young is both a volume shooter and a volume misser. He was one of 39 players to attempt at least 375 three-pointers this season and the only one who did not make at least 140 of them. His .343 three-point percentage ranked 131st among the 155 players who qualified for the scoring title. Eight different centers shot better.
No doubt, the Sixers will have their hands full, as their head coach acknowledged Friday.
“I’ve always said about great scorers, if you could slow them down that easy, they wouldn’t be great scorers,” Doc Rivers said.
But Young will also have his hands full at the Wells Fargo Center. Not just because of his swagger and his style. The third-year guard has another critical element of your classic playoff villain. He’s got the face.
Think about it. Barnaby. Dudley. Shockey. Stevens. Jonathan Sanchez. Put Young in that lineup and he’d fit right in. There’s a Snidely Whiplash element present in each of them, a cartoonish sinister quality just begging for caricature.
Combine all of these things and you’ve got the potential for the birth of a new antihero.
“I love it,” said Dwight Howard, who has spent most of the season egging on the crowd from the bench. “I think the going back and forth with the fans, having a good time, it’s entertainment. This is why the fans are back. They want to see a good show. Him playing, him going at the crowd – but now we got the Philly crowd. And you know what time it is, Philly.”
Get your popcorn ready. Just don’t throw it.