On NBA Nerds and Poseurs

I went to watch the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center and during one of the TV-timeouts they ran a brief get-to-know-one-of-the-Nets interviews on the JumboTron. Brook Lopez was the subject of this particular feature. After some boring questions and some boring answers, they asked him about the film The Dark Knight Rises. His tepid review: “I enjoyed it. There were a few inconsistencies.”

Brook Lopez cares about things like inconsistencies because Brook Lopez is really into comic books and visits a comic book shop in Manhattan regularly. This makes sense since he’s kind of a comic book character: he’s 7-feet tall and has a twin brother (Robin, who plays for the New Orleans Hornets). In addition, he even draws his own characters and attended the most recent Comic Con in Manhattan. All this interest in comics makes for a good fit in Brooklyn since the Nets’ mascot is the BrooklyKnight (get it? “Brooklynite”—it took me a while) whose costume and character were designed by Marvel Comics (even though Lopez says he’s more of a “DC guy”) and who comes with his own comic book.

Lopez’s affinity for comic books gets him labeled a “comic-book nerd,” and he charmingly tells the WSJ writer that Comic Con is “one of the few places where I blend in.” Of course, once there he quickly gets led into the VIP suite: he may be a nerd, but he’s also got a bit of clout.

Normally, though, when the term “nerd” gets applied to an NBA player, it’s in reference to his wardrobe. Recently, NBA stars have been donning large horn-rimmed glasses (often without prescription lenses), bow ties, and shawl-collared cardigans, style choices that have paved the way for oxymoronic terms like “geek chic” and “nerd swag” (and that have been chronicled here).

This nerd wave is culturally significant, too. As Wesley Morris points out, NBA nerd fashion is a manifestation of more liberated, less rigid versions of black masculinity:

They wear gingham and plaid and velvet, bow ties and sweater vests, suspenders, and thick black glasses they don’t need. Their colors conflict. Their patterns clash. Clothes that once stood as an open invitation to bullies looking for something to hang on the back of a bathroom door are what James now wears to rap alongside Lil Wayne. Clothes that once signified whiteness, squareness, suburbanness, sissyness, in the minds of some NBA players no longer do.

Which is all well and good except that no one would mistake LeBron James or Kevin Durant for an actual nerd. In no interview or statement do they actually identify with or refer to themselves as nerds. Dwyane Wade, who’s also been known to indulge in nerd fashion, is rather dismissive of the whole thing: “Trends, they come and go, and people get on board with them or they don’t. With the nerd glasses in the N.B.A., it’s just something fun to do right now. I’m sure next season it’ll be out the window.” In fact, for Wade, his style choices weren’t even his own but those of his stylist.

However refreshing this nerd appeal may be for alternative black male identities, I still have a difficult time wrapping my mind around these fashion choices: NBA superstars willfully looking like nerds. The whole crux of being a nerd, as I understand it, is that it’s an identity you embrace because of its (and your own) marginalized status, as opposed to one that you choose to become. Making millions of dollars, having six- or seven-figure product-endorsement deals, appearing on the covers of magazines and on posters that kids put up on their bedroom walls—these aren’t the typical activities of the nerd. In fact, being the object of hero worship is probably the very antithesis of being a nerd.

You could say that, like nerds, these NBA players are just engaging in fantasy and role-playing, since those activities are indeed integral components of nerd culture (Dungeons & Dragons, Renaissance fairs, video games, comic books). And Morris even says that “‘[n]erd’ is a kind of drag in which ballers are liberated to pretend to be someone else.” But those alter egos—the ones nerds create—are imaged to offer escape from reality, from the nerd. To make the nerd the object of the fantasy turns the whole thing on its head. Like Superman turning into Clark Kent not because he had to but because he wanted to. Or the debonair Stefan Urquelle wanting to become the nerdy Steve Urkel, rather than the other way around.

And so I can’t help but wonder how the nerds—the ones who aren’t just playing dress up—feel about all this. Nerd culture largely seems to define itself in opposition to jock culture, perhaps even exists by virtue of being excluded from it. So to be mocked by jocks, and in some cases bullied by them, and then to have them usurp a very stereotypical (and also antiquated) nerd look and be hailed as cool for it…well, that just seems especially cruel and karmically unfair.

As Brian, an “actual” nerd, suggests in this Portlandia sketch, perhaps we need more taxonomic integrity when it comes to using the term “nerd”:

Luckily, though, Tim Duncan exists to give the term “nerd” some stability and to help distinguish nerds from mere poseurs, at least in the world of professional basketball. Duncan is not only the Greatest Power Forward of All Time, a 4-time NBA Champion, 2-time league MVP, and 14-time All-Star, but he’s also a D&D enthusiast and a frequenter of Renaissance fairs.

When asked if he was worried that his off-court interests would lead to him being called a “nerd,” he responded,

If playing D&D and dressing up in my purple sorceror’s hat, velvet cape and magic wand is nerdy, call me a nerd. Though I’d prefer you called me Merlin.

Merlin, you see, is Duncan’s self-proclaimed alter ego as well as his D&D character, “a 13th level lawful evil sorcerer.” He even has a tattoo of Merlin on his back and one of a jester on his chest. While tattoos are nothing new for NBA players, Duncan’s represent a kind of permanent nerd identity and identification that, unlike bow ties and fake glasses, can’t be so easily discarded when the nerd trend begins to fade away and the NBA players’ stylists choose to dress their famous clients in the clothes of some other niche group.


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